What might have been: Geary

Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.

MAKING A “B-LINE” TO DOWNTOWN — Muni “Iron Monster” Car 87 crosses Van Ness Avenue eastbound on the B-Geary line in 1956, passing the famous Tommy’s Joynt Hofbrau, which is offering “stuffed boneless squab chicken” inside, according to the banner. The top floors of the rickety Victorian structure would later be decapitated for safety reasons. Next door, the 1891 brick St. Mary’s Cathedral would burn in 1962 and be resurrected as a modernist concrete cathedral two blocks west. It was replaced by the television studios of KRON4, which in turn was torn down and replaced by a housing development in 2020. MSR Archive.

Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least downtown, yet every attempt at a subway in the Geary corridor has fallen short. It’s a story of initial success for America’s first publicly owned transit system, a tale of betrayal by a mayor, tantalizing possibilities, and half-a-loaf solutions.

This is the story of Muni on Geary.

Muni’s roots were firmly planted on Geary. Its first ten streetcars headed west from the foot of Geary at 12:00 Noon, December 28, 1912, penetrating the Richmond District to reach its less-developed western section. Muni started with two lines on Geary: the A, which turned south at Tenth Avenue and ran to Golden Gate Park, and the B, which continued west to 33rd Avenue, and within a few months reached Ocean Beach by jogging south on 33rd, then running along Balboa, 45th, and Cabrillo. Muni’s tracks also reached the Ferry Building in 1913, making the B-line a true “Bay to Breakers” route.

FIRST RUN — Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph personally pilots the first streetcar on Geary Street, preserved Car 1, headed west crossing Jones Street, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public Library.

But Muni didn’t stop there. Using its new tracks on Market and Geary, they created the C-line on California Street in 1915, branching off Geary at Second Avenue, running two blocks north, and then west to reach Lincoln Park at 33rd Avenue, taking over an expired United Railroads franchise. Muni had already opened its D-line a year earlier, turning north from Geary onto Van Ness Avenue, then west on Chestnut to reach the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the fair, the D-line was rerouted to run on west from Van Ness on Union Street, with a couple of jogs to reach the Presidio.

Not only Muni’s first lines were on Geary; it’s nerve center was, too. Geary Car House, with Muni headquarters space later added on top, sat just about halfway between the Ferries and the Beach, at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The car house served more than just the four Geary lines. The cute “dinkies” of the E-Union line were tucked away downstairs on Presidio Avenue. A fleet of “battleships” or “boxcars” or “iron monsters”, as Muni’s original bulky streetcars were variously called over their lifespan, were housed under cover along the Geary frontage, also serving other lines as they opened, including the F-Stockton, J-Church, and N-Judah. Though a trolley coach division was added behind the car house in 1949, Muni’s top executives still worked, literally, right on top of streetcars.

NERVE CENTER – Geary car house in the early 1950s. “Iron monster” Car 53 has just pulled out for its day on the N-Judah line. MSR Archive.

The Richmond District was saturated with streetcar service. Besides Muni’s A, B, and C lines, its private competitor (known as Market Street Railway from 1921-1944) operated three lines that ran from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean: the 5 on Fulton, and the 1 and 2 mostly on Clement. (Later in 1932, it built yet another line, the 31, on Balboa, the same year Muni killed off its little used A-line on 10th Avenue, which it had hoped to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Sunset District before being blocked by parks czar John McLaren.)

Despite all this competition, the centrality of Geary in the Richmond District, and its extra width from Geary Car House west, made the B Muni’s premier line. Geary was the Richmond’s prime shopping street, attracting customers from all over the city and beyond. East of the car house, Geary was narrow, making for a slower ride downtown.

As detailed below, two 1930s proposals to put the Geary streetcars in a subway downtown came to nothing, so the Geary lines kept operating as before with frequent and crowded service, riders boarding the big boxy streetcars at the rear, the conductor taking their five cent fare, the motorman concentrating on the safely operating the car.

ROOM TO RUN — Widening Geary in 1948 between Divisadero and Masonic. We’re looking west from Lyon Street at the new tracks and eastbound traffic lanes, while C-line Car 609 (ex-Market Street Railway 209) heads towards us on the old tracks. The big Sears store would later rise top left. SFMTA Archive.

Geary riders got a possible taste of the future in 1948, when the City widened Geary on the hill between Divisadero and Masonic, taking much of the land from the former Calvary Cemetery. Concrete boarding islands at stops were an upgrade from dodging autos to board streetcars at these stops. There was talk at the time of widening Geary farther east, but this would require tearing down or moving homes and dislocating people.

MODERN MEDIAN—Passengers wait at a new boarding island on the widened Geary median at Baker Street. This faster operation that could have easily been extended to the subsequent Geary Expressway, later built through the Western Addition. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Financial squeeze

Meanwhile, by 1951, the City Charter requirement that all streetcars operate with crews of two was putting big financial pressure on Muni’s remaining car lines. Buses only required one operator, and Muni had already converted all the streetcar lines it inherited from our namesake, Market Street Railway Company. Four of Muni’s own streetcar lines, the D, E, F, and H, had also been newly “busified.” And by 1952, buses had even replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel section of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt they had no choice.

WHICH LINE IS IT ANYWAY?—Muni scheduled a few odd runs on Geary. Above, preserved Car 130 (still in Muni’s vintage fleet today!) is signed for the J-Church, and is turning around at 33rd and Geary to head inbound, one of a few J runs that followed this practice. Since they always used double-end cars, these runs could have headed straight downtown from the car barn. Judging from the sun, it’s midafternoon, and the J car’s extra trip on the B may have been as a “school tripper” for students from George Washington High, just off to the right. Below, a few N-Judah runs went all the way to Playland-at-the-Beach when they pulled out, switching back on the spur track to avoid waiting at the loop, then heading inbound all the way to East Bay Terminal before actually heading out the N, providing extra service to meet the big demand on Geary. Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. Muni was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, it had. But more and more lines were slipping into operating deficits. In the 1952-53 fiscal year, for example, Muni figures showed that the streetcar lines collectively lost almost half a million dollars, while the new trolley bus routes (all of which supplanted streetcars) made an operating profit of almost two million dollars. Of the seven streetcar lines, only the B and C made an operating profit. (The K and L, on the other hand, were the biggest losers in the entire Muni system.) And the B-bus, which operated nights and Sundays, made a significantly higher profit per operating hour than the B and C streetcars it replaced.

PCCs on the B—briefly

TORPEDO TEASE—For a brief time, Muni ran some of its double-end modern cars in regular service on the B-Geary, but only on Saturdays. Here’s “torpedo” PCC 1006 on 33rd Avenue bound for Playland-at-the-Beach around 1952. Philip Hoffman photo, MSR Archive.

Muni had only fifteen modern streetcars at this point, all double-ended: five so-called “Magic Carpet” streamliners bought in 1939, which looked like PCCs but with different technology, and ten true double-end PCCs bought in 1948, using some of the 1947 bond issue proceeds. The Geary lines required 75 streetcars for service, and the fast-accelerating modern cars didn’t mesh well with the traditional ones, though for a time, the modern cars were dispatched to the B on Saturdays, providing a tease of what might someday happen.

MAGIC CARPET RIDE—Along with “torpedos” 1006-1015, Muni sometimes dispatched its five 1939 PCC-look-alike “Magic Carpet” cars on the B-Geary on Saturdays. Here’s No. 1005 ready to depart East Bay Terminal, signed for the B, but wait… the paint scheme shows that the car has been single-ended, which happened after modern cars were pulled from Geary Saturday service. So this is probably a fantrip. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

But using the last of the 1947 bond issue funds, Muni was able to buy 25 more PCCs, single-ended and numbered 1016-1040. (These turned out to be the last PCCs ever built in North America. Thanks in part to MSR’s advocacy, Car 1040 has been fully restored and is a star of Muni’s heritage streetcar fleet. Six more “Baby Tens”, as the class was known, were purchased by Market Street Railway from museums and private owners over the last quarter-century and returned to Muni, where they are stored for future restoration as needed.)

Muni hoped to run these “Baby Tens” with a single operator, but voters said no in late 1951, so they were set up as two–operator cars. At first these cars were assigned to Geary Division, but not to the B-Geary line. Rather, they worked the K, L, and N lines.

As Muni’s first single–end streetcars, though, the “Baby Tens” had no way to turn around at Geary Car House. A track wye at Masonic and Geary that would have enabled that had been ripped out just three years earlier when Masonic Avenue was extended north from Geary to Euclid. So before going into service on one of the Market Street lines, these “Baby Tens” had to go all the way out to Ocean Beach on the B, take the terminal loop, and make a full trip inbound, signed “B-Geary/Bridge.” This gave some riders the belief that these fast, quiet cars were on their line to stay. A similar impression came from the double–ended PCCs that were occasionally assigned to Saturday runs on the B.

PEEKABOO — A “Baby Ten” PCC mixes in with the “Iron Monsters” at Geary Car House, January 1952, with holiday wreaths still in place. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

Not for long. By 1953, all 40 of Muni’s modern streetcars (35 PCCs and five “Magic Carpets”) were ensconced at Geneva Division, completely divorced from operation on Geary. Some speculate that this was part of a conscious plan to drive streetcars from Geary. But after the defeat of a bond issue in 1953 that might have resulted in more PCCs, Muni officials may have just concluded there was no near–term prospect of completely modernizing Geary streetcar service—the B and C required 75 cars between them. Besides, Muni’s existing modern cars were far more comfortable to ride through the tunnels than the drafty “Iron Monsters”, and faster too.

So Geary Car House was again home only to the old–style streetcars. Some of these cars were “only” 25 years old, and all had been kept in good shape. Muni installed doors on the formerly open ends of some of the old cars and upgraded them cosmetically as well. Muni management still hoped to win voter approval to operate its entire streetcar fleet with single–person crews, significantly cutting labor costs. But the carmen’s union was staunchly opposed to changing the status quo for the old cars. A compromise, finally approved by voters in 1954, allowed only newer–type streetcars to have single operators.

The PCCs were quickly converted to one–operator, and Muni began thinking about additional PCCs. But thinking didn’t translate into doing, as Muni did not have the capital to purchase any more modern streetcars at the time —or for that matter, new motor coaches either.

“Auto mania”

The early 1950s also saw “auto mania” reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one–way, including the pair that flanked Geary, Post and O’Farrell (dooming the inner end of the wonderful O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable car line in the process). Big automobile garages were built for shoppers and commuters. Numerous proposed freeways slashed across planners’ maps. In this context, many thought the old–fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.

“GREAT WIDE WAY” — Point Lobos Avenue was built as a wide boulevard west from Masonic Avenue and had its name changed to Geary Boulevard in 1911, as it was a direct extension of downtown’s Geary Street. Merchants on this part of Geary — we’re at 18th Avenue here — wanted the street widened further east as well in the 1950s — not to help the streetcars, which many of them undervalued, but to make a higher-capacity automobile connection with downtown. MSR Archive.

Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard—the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a “Great Wide Way,” replacing streetcars with buses—and more parking for automobiles.

Planners who were eyeing the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro–auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated mainly by Japanese–Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African–American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place in the neighborhood. By the mid–1950s, momentum was building to widen two-lane Geary between Gough and Divisadero, tearing down the old Victorians to gouge out a broad expressway that would get automobiles downtown more quickly.

But the streetcars were in the way. Certainly the tracks could be rebuilt—as they were in 1948 when Geary was widened between Masonic
and Divisadero. But, said the critics, it would be expensive, and why keep running those clunky old “trolley cars” anyway. (In the San Francisco of those days, “streetcar” had been the universally used term for the vehicles. Opponents began using “trolley cars” as an epithet to conjure up the slow and inefficient “Toonerville Trolley” of cartoon fame.)

HOLLOWED GROUND—The Geary Expressway included a two-block long underpass to separate automobiles from traffic on Fillmore Street. The ramp starts just to the left of this 1956 photo, looking east on the old Geary Street at Webster Street. The buildings on the left were all demolished for the Expressway, replaced in 1968 by Japan Center, as shown below in a 2019 Google StreetView shot. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Subway dreams

One last factor in the mix: rapid transit. Rider demand was very high: except for Market Street, Geary was the busiest transit corridor in the City. While the western half of Geary was wide, the eastern half was narrow and congested. Muni’s first 43 streetcars were built narrower than usual, specifically for operation on Geary (though most were quickly switched to the original F-line on equally narrow Stockton Street when it opened).

The passenger volumes on the Geary lines were such that in 1931 City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy proposed putting the streetcars in a subway under O’Farrell at least to Larkin Street. A consultant’s report in 1935 was even more ambitious, calling for a streetcar subway under Geary from Market all the way to Steiner Street. Both failed to gain approval. The second proposal, which included a Market Street subway as well, was resoundingly defeated by voters. Had the Geary subway been built—at a then–projected cost of $13 million—it might have forestalled the automobile expressway. But it was the depths of the Depression, and voters didn’t have the appetite for it.

THE BIG SQUEEZE—When Geary Street was two-way downtown, it was a squeeze for Muni’s full-width “Iron Monsters”. This problem was recognized as soon as the line opened in 1912, and repeated proposals for a subway beneath Geary followed. Here, C-line car 212 growls up the hill from Van Ness Avenue to Franklin Street in 1956. John Harder collection, MSR Archive.

By the mid–1950s, planning for what became the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) included a heavy–rail subway under Geary carrying regional trains from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. This raised the possibility of real rapid transit under Geary as far west as Park-Presidio Boulevard. But that initial proposal was a long way from reality.

The future of transit on Geary became an issue in the mayoral election of 1955. The winner, George Christopher, had pledged to keep streetcars on Geary at least until rapid transit could be built. About this time, a civic committee led by hotelier Ben Swig came up with a creative financing idea for Muni—lease vehicles instead of buying them. After a struggle, they found one bus builder (Mack) willing to go that route. But streetcars were something else. Many properties around the country were converting to buses, and there were PCCs in great condition available for sale in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other places—though not (at that time) for lease.

Goodbye, B

The combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two–operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addi-tion, and the promise of a subway—changed Christopher’s mind after he took office. Muni’s oldest streetcar corridor was doomed. Just before 1956 ended, so did the B and C lines. Railfans and many residents mourned to no avail. Geary was now served by the 38-line, operated by the new, leased, Mack diesel buses.

RAILS TO RUBBER — One of the sturdy Mack motor coaches that took over from streetcars on Geary in 1956, shown here westbound at Arguello Boulevard around 1968. Tom Gray photo, Cameron Beach Collection, MSR Archive.

Too little, too late

At just this juncture, Muni finally found some PCC streetcars it could afford. St. Louis Public Service, which was undergoing its own bus conversion, agreed to lease Muni 66 (ultimately 70) 1946–vintage PCCs. This gave Muni (barely) enough one–operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two–operator “boxcars” on the remaining five lines by 1958. But it wasn’t enough to save streetcars on Geary.

Soon after, “auto mania” subsided in San Francisco. Outraged by the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which started going up just as the B was disappearing, and by proposals to cut freeways through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s “freeway revolt,” the first of its kind in the nation, lashed back at the “asphalt jungle”. However, with the increasingly powerful Redevelopment Agency as the spearhead, the Geary Expressway did get built in the early 1960s, at a cost of hundreds of homes and thousands of disrupted lives.

LAST FANTRIP—Above, the last PCC ever built in North America, Car 1040 carries a group of railfans onto Geary from Market for one last run on the B-line, December 30, 1956, one day after passenger service ended. Forty-four years and two days earlier, Car 1 inaugurated the very first Muni line just 100 feet west of this spot. Below, Car 1040 reaches the end of the line at Playland. If one-operator cars like Car 1040 could have been acquired in sufficient numbers and assigned to Geary in the early 1950s, the B-line might have been saved. But it wasn’t to be… Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Perhaps if the freeway revolt had occurred a few years sooner, perhaps if one–operator streetcars had been approved a few years sooner, perhaps if leased PCCs had been available a few years sooner… perhaps if these things had happened, the B might have survived as a streetcar line. But they didn’t happen. The view of the powerful interests that ruled San Francisco at the time was that streetcars were out of step with modern times. And so streetcars only survived where it was too difficult to replace them with buses: the tunnel lines (K, L, M, and N), and the J-Church, where neighbors rallied in defense of their preferred transit mode.

FAREWELL — the last regular passenger run of the B-Geary prepares to leave Playland, December 29, 1956. Jack Tillmany photo, MSR Archive.

What might yet be

Still, many hoped the 38-line bus would prove to be an interim operation. That original BART-proposed subway under Geary to reach and cross the Golden Gate Bridge died when Marin County pulled out of the district, but Muni then proposed its own heavy-rail subway under Post and Geary as far west as 40th Avenue as part of a rapid transit package put to San Francisco voters in 1966. Yet again, though, the voters said “no.”

VOTERS SAID NO — Muni’s 1966 proposal for a heavy-rail subway under Geary. MSR Archive.

Muni seriously proposed a Geary subway and light–rail line again in 1989 as part of a sales tax increase ballot measure. The measure (which also funded construction of the permanent F-line) called for detailed evaluation of two potential rail corridors — Geary and Third Street — but funding to build only one. Voters approved the measure, and the Muni planners of the day were counting on Geary being chosen to go forward, because the demand was so much greater.

But while Third Street businesses and residents lobbied hard for rail along the city’s east side, the reception by Geary businesses and residents was tepid at best, with significant opposition from the same Geary merchants who had lobbied decades earlier for the “Great Wide Way”. Third Street won out, and the Geary subway dream was deferred again.

Most recently, in 2003, possible rail service on Geary was again dangled before voters — sort of — in the form of Proposition K, a renewal of the earlier sales tax measure. It called for creation of “fast, frequent, and reliable bus rapid transit service, with exclusive transit lanes and dedicated stations, on Geary Boulevard (designed and built to rail-ready standards)”. But to planners, that didn’t mean installing tracks while the street was torn up (as Seattle did when it built a subway initially operated by trolley buses), or even installing underground conduit for future electrification. Without those things, converting to streetcar use would require ripping out all the pavement, sending the “rapid” buses back to the curb lane for the duration of the conversion process, which as we have learned on the current Van Ness BRT project, is anything but “rapid”.

Geary BRT –Approved design for Geary Bus Rapid Transit, looking west at 16th Avenue. San Francisco County Transportation Authority graphic.

On top of that, increasing cost estimates have forced numerous compromises and cutbacks in the Geary BRT project, such that the separated center-lane area is less than half of what was envisioned, stretching only from Stanyan Street to 27th Avenue, a distance of 1.75 miles, or about one-third of the 38-line’s route along the “Great Wide Way” of Geary Boulevard between 48th Avenue and Gough Street. The remainder of the route will operate in curb lanes, as now, though with some operating improvements for the buses. This seems to some knowledgeable observers like “half a loaf”, far less than should be warranted by the daily ridership on Geary, which at more than 50,000 people remains far and away Muni’s busiest line.

When you add the future funding and patronage uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to this compromised BRT project, resumed rail service on Geary might seem completely out of reach. But wait: BART is now studying a second Transbay Tube to meet what was fast-increasing demand. On the San Francisco side, support has been growing to run the BART line under — Geary!

Hope springs eternal.

No Comments on What might have been: Geary

When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

Hundreds of demonstrators surround cable car No. 51 on May 16, 1954, trying to stop it from completing the final run on the O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line. MSR historian Phil Hoffman is in the middle on the roof. For the rest of his long life, Phil carried a scar on his hand from where the clapper on the roof bell whacked him as he held on.
Protestors surround cable car No. 51 on May 16, 1954, trying to stop it from completing the final run on the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line. MSR historian Phil Hoffman is in the middle on the roof. For the rest of his long life, Phil carried a scar on his hand from where the clapper on the roof bell whacked him as he held on.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars.

Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs. Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.

Seminal year: 1954

Downtown-bound O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car No. 57 swings 'wrong-way' from Hyde into the oncoming traffic of Pine Street, (1954). The overhead neon sign warns motorists that an eastbound cable car is invading the one-way westbound street for two blocks, before it turns south on Jones Street. This mechanism was set up when the City made Pine one-way. Downtown interests longed to do the same with O'Farrell Street where two automobile garages were being built. The pressure for a one-way downtown street grid helped doom this fabled cable car line, which shut down two weeks after Walt Vielbaum took this great photo.
Downtown-bound O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car No. 57 swings from Hyde into oncoming traffic on Pine Street in 1954. The overhead neon sign warns motorists that an eastbound cable car is invading the one-way westbound street for two blocks, before it turns south on Jones Street. This mechanism was set up when the City made Pine one-way in 1943. Downtown interests longed to do the same with O’Farrell Street where two automobile garages were being built. The pressure for a one-way downtown street grid helped doom this fabled cable car line, which shut down two weeks after Walt Vielbaum took this great photo.

The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.

In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market.

The old California line terminal at Presidio Avenue. Walt Vielbaum photo.
The old California line terminal at Presidio Avenue. Walt Vielbaum photo.

Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann.

In Pacific Heights, on California Street near Buchanan (note the ornate Victorian firehouse, now gone). Walt Vielbaum photo.
In Pacific Heights, on California Street near Buchanan (note the ornate Victorian firehouse, now gone). Walt Vielbaum photo.

In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, Mrs. Klussmann, supported mostly by other woman, galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)

Cal Cable collapses

Buoyed by the saving of the Powell cars, Mrs. Klussmann and her allies followed up with a ballot measure to buy the private Cal Cable system in 1948. It received 58 percent support, but fell short of the two-thirds required. But in November 1949, a revised measure that required a simple majority passed with 52 percent of the vote, allocating up to $150,000 in taxpayer money to buy the Cal Cable system.

Car 57 at the Market Street terminal of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, about 1948. The line served shoppers on Russian Hill coming to Union Square shops and food markets like the Grant Market on the right, across Market Street, where the author worked in his parents’ delicatessen as a boy. Opensfhistory.org, wnp14.10427

While the City’s representatives and the company’s leaders were trying to come to agreement on a fair price, the company’s financial situation was rapidly deteriorating. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.

In January 1952, the City finally acquired Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.

By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).

Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though.
In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).

Approaching Van Ness Avenue (the current California line terminal) from Franklin Street. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Approaching Van Ness Avenue (the current California line terminal) from Franklin Street. Walt Vielbaum photo.

In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. It was clear that the most vulnerable stretch of trackage was the inner section of the O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line, which carried cable cars through the Tenderloin District, considered dangerous and tawdry by many, to reach Union Square and Market Street. Downtown interests wanted O’Farrell to become an auto thoroughfare, one-way eastbound, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s.

In drafting options for future cable car operation, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, relied heavily on a consultant named Marmion D. Mills, a former transit bus salesman, who had led the implementation of its conversion of two dozen streetcar lines to buses over the preceding four years. Mills’ preferred “Plan A” for cable car consolidation called for retaining the Powell-Mason line and combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. The Washington-Jackson line, which at the time extended past Hyde Street, through the mansions of Pacific Heights, and past Fillmore to Steiner Street and Alta Plaza park, was protected by the City Charter, but Mill’s Plan A called for its scrapping anyway, though that would presumably require a public vote, plus formal abandonment approval from the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Mills’s Plan A was openly pitched as the most effective arrangement to draw more tourist ridership, keeping them out of the Tenderloin, while downplaying the usefulness of cable cars to actual San Francisco residents. Eliminating all cable service that crossed Van Ness Avenue would also benefit that heavy automobile corridor, then as now US 101.

City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner disagreed with Mills’ Plan A, calling the conversion work to create a California-Hyde line too expensive and instead proposing to abandon all three Cal Cable lines completely, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines.

Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, initially supported the proposed California-Hyde line. McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.

Cars vs. cables

This map clearly shows how the actions of 1954 cut the cable car system in half, sacrificing historic lines and neighborhood service for a tourist-oriented route structure.

As arguments raged, attorney Morris Lowenthal began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge a opposition movement to save all the cable car trackage. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947.

The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussmann and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing.

At the last minute, though, McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan (Mills’s “Plan B”) to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.

Fighting one-way traffic at Pine and Hyde Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Fighting one-way traffic at Pine and Hyde Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.

Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.

Dirty tricks

Notice of service discontinuation painted along the cable car tracks. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Notice of service discontinuation painted along the cable car tracks. Walt Vielbaum photo.

The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the city payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces.

Misleading poster appearing on Muni vehicles, urging a “Yes” vote to cut the cable system in half, put together by city-paid consultant David Jones, in violation of the law. The “Cable Car Festival Committee” was a phony grass-roots (today called “Astroturf” organization organized by Jones with taxpayer money. Harre Demoro photo reproduced from the book The People’s Railway by Anthony Perles.)

Jones issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E–Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”–another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.

Swinging from Jones Street onto O'Farrell. The Jones shuttle track continues straight. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Swinging from Jones Street onto O’Farrell. The Jones shuttle track continues straight. Walt Vielbaum photo.

When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, longtime historian for our nonprofit) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.

San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoon by Bob Bastian after a judge found the Public Utilities Commission improperly influenced the 1954 ballot measures that cut the cable car system in half. (Reproduced from the book The People’s Railway by Anthony Perles.)

This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost, and the city had already torn up the tracks on O’Farrell. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. But the ballot measure results stood, and half of the city’s cable car system was gone forever.

Washington-Jackson ends, 1956

Washington-Jackson cable car 524 in 1948 at its westernmost point, on Steiner Street looping back toward Fillmore, where it will layover. Bob McVay took this photo from Alta Plaza Park. Opensfhistory.org image wnp32.2875

While Muni shut town all of the former Cal Cable trackage in 1954 (except California from Van Ness to Market), they kept the Washington-Jackson line running all the way to Steiner Street through September 2, 1956. Many residents of Pacific Heights, which supported the Washington-Jackson line, didn’t even know it was threatened, because it was never mentioned in the voter handbook and the Jones-led disinformation campaign claimed “every cable car on the streets today is here to stay”, but failing to mention that those assigned to the Washington-Jackson line would be shifted to the new Powell-Hyde line.

Car 523 passes the imposing Spreckels Mansion on Washington Street between Octavia and Gough in the mid-1950s. The photo is taken from Lafayette Park, another block of greenery along the Washington-Jackson line. The cable cars disappeared from this scene in 1956, and later, the mansion did too, after a fashion. Novelist Danielle Steel bought it and grew tall hedges that hid the house from the street. opensfhistory.org image wnp5.51027

Even though voters had approved rescinding the City Charter protection for the Washington-Jackson line achieved several years earlier by Mrs. Klussmann and her allies, the city kept that line (and the shortened California line) running while designing new track curves to connect Washington and Jackson Streets to the remaining trackage on Hyde, as well as changes needed to consolidate California Street operations into the Muni carbarn at Washington and Mason Streets.

They left the track on Hyde between Washington and California and installed a pull-curve from California onto Hyde (something PUC GM Turner claimed would be too expensive to do) to enable the California Street cable cars to get to and from Washington-Mason. When the design was finished, they abruptly pulled the plug on the Washington-Jackson line September 2, 1956, and almost immediately hired a contractor to rip out the tracks west of Hyde (tracks which had been relaid only a few years before). This blunted last ditch-attempts by Pacific Heights supporters of the line to save it.

In fact, in yet another shady act by the city government, Muni leaders never took the abandonment of the Washington-Jackson line to their own Public Utilities Commission, nor to the Board of Supervisors, as required. When this was found out and publicized, the tracks were already gone.

What might have been

Looking at the available evidence, it appears clear to this writer that if the city hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the activities of consultant Jones, voters would have retained all the cable lines, or at least most of them. The Chronicle had run a poll in February 1954 which showed public support running at a ratio of 13 to 1 to retain all five cable car lines. The strongest negative influence was downtown interests who wanted cable cars off O’Farrell Street. If Mrs. Klussmann had accepted the compromise proposal that would have run the Hyde line straight down Jones Street to Market (over the shuttle route), it quite possibly would have been adopted. Tourists drawn to that scenic route might have transformed the troubled area around Jones and Market and invigorated the stretch of Market between Powell and Jones.

The Jones Street cable car shuttle in 1896, backed by the Hibernia Bank building, still impressive today. If the Hyde line had been routed straight down Jones to terminate here, this building, which has struggled to find a use even after a recent renovation, would have been a prime visitor attraction, as would the surrounding stretch of Market Street. Opensfhistory.org, photo wnp5.50847

Alternatively, if the California-Hyde compromise had been adopted, the foot of California Street, then a dreary collection of hotels and bars, might have been revitalized sooner, and the California line cars would be packed on the trip between the Ferry Building and Aquatic Park. As it turned out, the California line, while traversing beautiful sights through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, really doesn’t have a destination. Efforts to reverse that mistake, by extending it to Japantown on California or to City Hall on Polk, have come to nothing, and today’s environmental process and extreme costs of new construction make future extensions unlikely.

Either of those alternatives would have saved the Washington-Jackson line, which would likely have transformed the surrounding blocks of Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park to visitor destinations, a mixed blessing to nearby residents to be sure.

As it turned out, of course, the 1888 Powell-Mason line was joined by the “new” Powell-Hyde line in 1957, each connecting one part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area to Union Square and Market Street, clearly enhancing retail businesses at the ends of the lines. The California line still struggles to find significant ridership, especially after Muni through-routed the 1-California trolley coach via Sacramento and Clay Streets parallel to and immediately north of California, and started charging more than twice as much for locals to ride the cable car instead of the bus.

Still with us

One vanishing institution passes another on May 2, 1954. Two weeks away from the end of the O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, Cable Car No. 57 rumbles west on O'Farrell Street past the Art Deco NBC Radio building. (That hole in the ground beyond is the site of the huge Downtown Center Garage, a big reason for pressure to make O'Farrell one-way.) NBC had been the dominant US radio network in the 1930s and 40s (actually two networks, the Red and the Blue, which was spun off to become ABC). In that era, station call letters were important marks of prestige. NBC's two powerful stations here were originally called KPO and KGO, but the company redesignated KPO with the company initials, sending the message that NBC considered San Francisco the most important city west of the Mississippi (where stations' first call letter was almost always 'K'. WNBC was in New York City, then as now corporate headquarters). The building at 420 Taylor Street housed state-of-the-art NBC studios, with an artistic tribute to a goddess of the airwaves over the front door (still there today). But network radio was on the wane by 1954 as television took over America's living rooms. Local personalities were coming to the fore in radio, including San Francisco, where the hottest was Don Sherwood, who had recently joined KSFO. NBC later assigned the prestigious 'KNBC' designation to its television station in...Los Angeles, renaming its once-dominant San Francisco radio station 'KNBR'. The radio game in San Francisco has changed repeatedly since this picture was taken, but Car No. 57 still rolls on every day...on the California Cable line, right past the site of Sherwood's KSFO studio in the Fairmont Hotel. Walt Vielbaum photo.
One vanishing institution passes another on May 2, 1954. Two weeks away from the end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, Cable Car 57 rumbles west on O’Farrell Street past the Art Deco NBC Radio building. (That hole in the ground beyond is the site of the huge Downtown Center Garage, a big reason for pressure to make O’Farrell one-way.) NBC had been the dominant US radio network in the 1930s and 40s (actually two networks, the Red and the Blue, which was spun off to become ABC). In that era, station call letters were important marks of prestige. NBC’s two powerful stations here were originally called KPO and KGO, but the company redesignated KPO with the company initials, sending the message that NBC considered San Francisco the most important city west of the Mississippi (where stations’ first call letter was almost always ‘K’. WNBC was in New York City). The building at 420 Taylor Street housed state-of-the-art NBC studios, with an artistic tribute to a goddess of the airwaves over the front door (still there today). But network radio was on the wane by 1954 as television took over America’s living rooms. Local personalities were coming to the fore in radio, including San Francisco, where the hottest was Don Sherwood, who had recently joined KSFO. NBC later assigned the prestigious ‘KNBC’ designation to its television station in…Los Angeles, renaming its once-dominant San Francisco radio station ‘KNBR’. Broadcast radio has withered since this picture was taken, but Car 57 still rolls on every day…on the California cable line, right past the site of Sherwood’s KSFO studio in the Fairmont Hotel. Walt Vielbaum photo.

While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.

When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus. (Author Paul Bignardi tracked down the fate of all of them in his fleet history of all Muni vehicles, available at our museum or online store.)

In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now again part of Muni’s fleet — the only one wearing the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde livery — serving as Muni’s ceremonial cable car and carrying the public every year during Muni Heritage Weekend.

O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line cable car 42 returns to the Hyde Street Hill after our nonprofit reacquired and helped restore it. Frank Zepeda photo, 2014.

While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines–California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde–to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.

O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 41 on O’Farrell Street, 1909. Val Lupiz collection.

Written by Rick Laubscher. Photos by Walter Vielbaum, except where noted..

This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member magazine, Inside Track, in 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the cable car massacre of 1954. Inside Track always contains exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else (at least until much later). We depend on your support to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate.  Thank you.

3 Comments on When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

One “L” of a Streetcar Line

The first L-line streetcars to reach the Beach were the “dinkies” bought for the E-Union line across town, shuttling only between West Portal and the sand dunes of outer Taraval. MSR Archive

On April 12, 1919, the first L-Taraval streetcar hit the rails, overcoming obstacles to begin a century of service that continues today.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel had opened fourteen months before, bringing fast streetcar service from downtown to the nearly empty southwestern quadrant of the city. Initially, there was just one line, the K, but property owners in the areas above and west of the tunnel, who had paid for its construction, expected – and demanded – more. So, Muni negotiated with the private United Railroads to share the tracks of URR’s little used Parkside line on Taraval Street between 20thand 33rdAvenues. URR wanted the city to share the Twin Peaks Tunnel in return for sharing this track and Ocean Avenue track for the K, line but the city refused and paid cash for the rights instead. Muni then laid tracks from West Portal via Ulloa Street, 15thAvenue, and Taraval to connect to the Parkside line tracks, allowing the L to open as far west as 33rd Avenue.

There was little development west of Twin Peaks in April 1919. United Railroads, by far the dominant transit company compared to the 6-year old Muni, did run downtown from the area, but by slow surface streets (Ocean Avenue and Mission to the south, 20th Avenue and Haight to the north), making it faster for downtown workers to take ferries from Oakland than to take the long way around Twin Peaks by streetcar. At first, the L streetcars stopped at West Portal, where riders had to transfer to K-line streetcars to . go through the tunnel and along Market Street. Muni used its full-sized streetcars for the L-line shuttles at first, but as soon as smaller “dinky” single-truck cars were delivered for Muni’s hill-climbing Union Street line in 1922, a few of them were dispatched to the L, where they were big enough to handle the still-sparse ridership.

By early 1923, the L-line tracks reached Ocean Beach across the sand dunes and by the end of that year, the shuttle was replaced by service through the tunnel to the Ferry Loop, using full-size streetcars. The Twin Peaks Tunnel service significantly accelerated the development of blocks along the new, fast streetcar lines, while blocks deeper in the central Sunset District languished as sand dunes, with only the odd house here or there. In 1928, the Muni matched the L-line on the northern edge of the Sunset by building the Sunset Tunnel under Buena Vista Park and opening the N-Judah line.

In 1937, Muni took advantage of federal funding through the Works Progress Administration to extend the L line south from 46thAvenue and Taraval to Wawona Street, very close to the popular zoo and Fleishhacker swimming pool, heightening competition with the competitor’s 12-line on Sloat Boulevard.

When Muni got its first five modern streetcars in 1939, they often dispatched them on the L-line (shown here at 22nd Avenue and Taraval on April 24, 1940). These cars, known as “Magic Carpets” because of their smooth ride, were the precursors of the PCC streetcars that later took over all Muni service and still run on the E and F lines today. SFTMA Archive
By 1938, the L-line (yellow line near bottom) had brought full development to Taraval Street and surrounding blocks between 21st and 29th Avenues, as shown in this aerial photograph, while blocks to the north, further removed from the fast streetcar service, were slower to develop. Harrison Ryker photograph, David Rumsey Collection.

Muni took over its competitor (renamed Market Street Railway in 1921) during World War II. The 12-line on Sloat Boulevard was included in the purchase. It featured a private right-of-way in the middle of that broad roadway, and could have been used as a tool to spur higher-density residential development on that corridor, if only the Sloat tracks had been connected at St. Francis Circle to use the Twin Peaks Tunnel. (The giant Parkmerced development at the south end of 19th Avenue, and the nearby Stonestown shopping center, which both arose after the war, benefitted from Muni’s adjacent M-Ocean View line, which used the tunnel, but had been little used after it opened in 1925 and had even been shut down for a time for lack of ridership.)

“Magic Carpet” Car 1001 has just turned from Ulloa Street into the Twin Peaks Tunnel on its L-line run around 1950, meeting an old-fashioned “Iron Monster” on the M-line. Both streetcars required two operators at that time by city ordinance, although the Magic Carpets were designed to be operable by a single operator, and were converted when voters allowed one-operator streetcars in 1954, likely saving the remaining streetcar lines. Robert McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

One factor that weighed against Muni keeping more streetcar lines in that period was rising labor costs. San Francisco voters had mandated two operators for each streetcar, although only one for a bus. This caused Muni to substitute buses for the outer ends of the K and L lines on nights and Sundays in the early 1950s, and studies were done to see if it was feasible to convert the Twin Peaks Tunnel to bus operation. (It wasn’t: too narrow.) Approval of single-operator streetcars in 1954 ended this existential threat to the L-line, and it has been an enduring part of Muni’s streetcar network ever since, converting to light rail vehicles in the early 1980s when the Twin Peaks Tunnel was connected to the new Muni Metro subway under Market Street.

PCC Streetcar 1039 leaves the L-line zoo terminal at 46th Avenue and Wawona Street shortly before modern LRVs took over the L-line in the early 1980s. The delay in opening the Market Street Subway meant the PCCs had to soldier on longer than intended, getting quite beat up. This particular car is one that Market Street Railway bought back from a museum, returning it to Muni, where it is stored for future restoration. George Locke photo, MSR Archive

More recently, Muni has moved to improve safety on Taraval Street by building boarding islands for L-line trains, and has shortened L-line trips by reducing the number of stops on Taraval.

Today, the Parkside District is a vibrant, diverse neighborhood made possible, and still kept moving, by the L-Taraval. Muni is planning various centennial events, which we will keep you informed of here. SFMTA’s Jeremy Menzies has dug into the archives for a great story, and the Examiner has a nice tribute to the L-line here.

No Comments on One “L” of a Streetcar Line

Tunnel Vision

The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel February 3, 1918, brought mobs of San Franciscans way out west to St. Francis Circle, which was as far as the Muni K-line went then. (The crowd is listening to Mayor Rolph speak, out of frame to the right.) Soon, an agreement would be reached with United Railroads to extend the K over its Ocean Avenue tracks. SFMTA Archive

Though it sits on the western edge of North America, San Francisco had always looked eastward – to its bay, rather than the vast Pacific. Its magnificent protected harbor had driven the City’s economy, and its population, since the Gold Rush of 1849. Residential neighborhoods gradually fanned out from the downtown core in the decades that followed. With the jobs clustered around the waterfront, residential growth followed the early transit lines that connected homes to those jobs.

Improvements in transit technology helped. Horse-drawn streetcars were eclipsed by cable cars, twice as fast. By the end of the 1880s, cable cars ran from the Ferry Building halfway to the Pacific, even to the end of Market Street and then over the Castro hill into Noe Valley.

Then came the electric streetcar, twice as fast as the cables. By 1903, these high-technology vehicles ran all the way south to San Mateo, 20 miles from downtown. The 1906 earthquake and fire decimated most of the City’s remaining cable system along with much of its housing stock and business property. Still blessed by its harbor, the City quickly began rebuilding. But many San Franciscans had been forced to Oakland and other close-in East Bay cities by the shaking and flames. They found their new surroundings attractive, and fast and frequent ferry service coupled with streetcars and interurban trains that met the ferries on the Oakland side made their daily commute to the City faster than even some San Franciscans enjoyed—and at the same price: just a nickel!

Envisioning Speed

While the northeastern quarter of San Francisco was densely packed with residents by 1910, the western half of the city was still sparsely settled. Except for the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at Land’s End, the city’s seven-mile Pacific shoreline seemed deserted. An exception: a collection of discarded cable cars and horsecars festooned among the dunes along the beach south of Golden Gate Park. Pioneers turned them into modest homes and dubbed it Carville.

Streetcars had reached the beach by this time, but only where they could skirt the giant pair of hills that bisected the city – Twin Peaks. The 5 and 7 lines of United Railroads framed Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, and the 12-line ran down Mission from the Ferry, then out Ocean Avenue and Sloat Boulevard to the ocean. But commuting from the ends of those lines, especially the 12, often took longer than taking a ferry from Oakland, where the weather was better anyway.

But what if you could go under Twin Peaks with fast streetcars? An area of 16 square miles would then be within reasonable commute distance of downtown.

Construction of the eastern end of the tunnel, starting at Castro Street, was cut-and-cover for several blocks. Early 1915. SFMTA Archive

The idea was attracting public debate at least as early as 1908, even before the bond issue that created Muni. When Muni opened its first lines, on Geary Street at the end of 1912, excitement about a Twin Peaks Tunnel grew, and the idea was at the core of a city transit plan prepared by famed consultant Bion J. Arnold in 1914 and strongly endorsed by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and powerful city engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy. What cinched the tunnel was the willingness of large property owners who would be served by the tunnel to pay for it. It ended up costing $4 million.

While several locations were initially considered for the east portal of the tunnel, the obvious choice was the end of Market Street, a wide boulevard that already had streetcar service by United Railroads as far as Castro Street, where the ground started climbing up to Twin Peaks. The City paid for the tunnel by assessing property owners who wanted it and would benefit from it. That included those looking to develop residential neighborhoods that came to be known as Forest Hill, West Portal, and St. Francis Wood.

Construction on the tunnel started at the end of 1914, clawing through the very soft ground near Castro, which caused the eastern end of the tunnel to be built with a “cut-and-cover” method. A small station was built at Eureka Street, just inside the Castro portal, even though there was a surface stop at Castro. O’Shaughnessy wanted to make it easy to connect the tunnel to a future streetcar subway under Market Street, which he was confident would have to be built soon. As this part of the tunnel was completed, with each track in its own concrete box, new streets were created above, including an extension of Market Street and a short street, Storrie, which the tunnel’s contractor named after himself.

Forms for the concrete façade of the West Portal are already being erected on March 12, 1915, even though the digging of the tunnel had barely begun. Mule-drawn wagons hauled away the dirt; the sign promotes a real estate development. SFMTA Archive
Real estate developers heavily promoted the new tunnel and its Forest Hill Station. Not surprising, especially since assessments on their land paid for the tunnel and station. MSR Archive

The bulk of the construction was deeper tunneling, with a single bore spanning both streetcar tracks. Just east of the tunnel’s midway point, a second station, named for the nearby lake, Laguna Honda, was installed at the deepest part of the tunnel. Elevators, manned by Muni operators, took riders to and from the platforms. Soon after the tunnel opened, a new neighborhood, Forest Hill, sprang up, and the station eventually took the neighborhood’s name.

The tunnel itself was completed in July 1917, though tracks and wires had not yet been installed. At a dedication ceremony on July 25, 1917, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph rather grandiloquently stated, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” (though streetcar service through the tunnel was still seven months away).

The Board of Supervisors fought about whether the private United Railroads, which already reached the West of Twin Peaks area by roundabout routes, would be allowed to share the tunnel with the Municipal Railway. Answer: no. Instead, Muni built its own set of tracks along Market Street from the Ferry to Castro Street, flanking the private company’s “inside tracks.” The sound of competing streetcars rumbling along Market side by side on the quartet of tracks became known as “the roar of the four”.

Automobiles have made it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel on rare occasions (usually with an inebriated driver), but only once did autos parade through the tunnel legally. On June 15, 1917, an authorized motorcade climbed over Twin Peaks and entered the West Portal for a bumpy underground ride on a bed of temporary ties to reach Castro Street. Arthur Spaulding photo, SFMTA Archive

The 12,000-foot Twin Peaks Tunnel was the longest streetcar tunnel in North America until eclipsed in 1998 by the Robertson Tunnel in Portland. The original West Portal of the tunnel was monumental, dominating the new neighborhood shopping street named for it. That imposing façade was demolished in the 1970s to build a station inside, when the long-wished-for subway under Market Street was finally built and connected to the tunnel at Castro. (That connection wiped out the Eureka Street Station, whose ghostly platforms can still be seen by riders traversing the tunnel.)

San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. pilots the first streetcar through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. Ten years had elapsed since the idea of a streetcar tunnel to open up the southwest quadrant of the city had started to gain traction. The tunnel itself took three years to build. SFMTA Archive

The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened for service February 3, 1918, with Mayor Rolph personally piloting the first Muni streetcar, No. 117, all the way through. A huge crowd turned out. The first line to serve it, the K-Ingleside, originally ran just a few blocks from West Portal to St. Francis Circle until an agreement was reached with United Railroads to share that company’s trackage on Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

The following year, the L-Taraval line opened as a shuttle from West Portal to 33rd Avenue. It reached Ocean Beach by 1923 and fostered growth for blocks in each direction through what became known as the Parkside neighborhood.

In 1925, another shuttle, the M-Ocean View, opened from West Portal to Broad and Plymouth Streets, running through open country in a narrow right-of-way bounded by empty residential lots, then following the alignment of 19th Avenue before turning east.

The East Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel at Castro Street, August 19, 1935. The middle tracks that turn left onto Castro are for the 8-line of Muni’s competitor, Market Street Railway. SFMTA Archive

These same three lines run through the tunnel today, transitioning underground to the Market Street subway under Castro Street, but oh, how their surroundings have changed, especially the M’s.

While new homes sprang up along the routes of the K and L in a steady progression, the M saw much higher density growth – but not for decades. In fact, the M was so poorly patronized that streetcar service was suspended for five years starting in 1939.

Forest Hill Station in the middle of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was austere to say the least, and always had a distinctive musty smell. Here, on February 26, 1948, “Magic Carpet” Car 1001, built in 1939 and outbound on the L-Taraval, passes vintage-1914 “Iron Monster” 129, inbound on the K-Ingleside. SFMTA Archive

The end of World War II brought many returning soldiers and sailors home to San Francisco and attracted many more who had passed through on their way to and from the war and liked the city they saw. The GI Bill gave benefits to these veterans including help buying homes and attending college. San Francisco State College mushroomed in size, growing a large campus on empty land along 19th Avenue at Holloway. Just south, a massive apartment complex named Parkmerced sprang up, and to the north, the City’s first large suburban-style shopping center, named Stonestown. The M-line served all these developments, and ridership steadily grew.

M-Ocean view “Iron Monster” Car 150, built in 1914, meets L-Taraval “Magic Carpet” Car 1001 at West Portal, June 1, 1951. MSR Archive

Coulda, Shoulda

There have been thoughts about altering or extending the Twin Peaks Tunnel several times, going back to the earliest planning stages, when one proposal called for a branch heading northwest from a point between the Eureka Valley and Forest Hill stations, to serve the central Sunset District, perhaps along Noriega Street. The Sunset Tunnel, completed farther north under Buena Vista Park in 1928, addressed this need instead, with the N-Judah line.

A later proposal came much closer to reality. The 1962 BART bound issue included money to extend the Twin Peaks Tunnel under West Portal Avenue to St. Francis Circle. When building the tunnel, the City could have made West Portal Avenue as wide as it wanted, since there was nothing but sand where the tunnel daylighted. As the shopping district developed outside the tunnel’s western entrance, drivers parking their automobiles slowed down the streetcars along the street. But the merchants on West Portal Avenue wanted that easy automobile access and opposed the disruption to their businesses the underground subway construction would pose. Muni ended up “trading in” the money set aside for a West Portal Avenue extension of the tunnel to help finance an additional Muni Metro/BART station at Embarcadero.

As part of the Market Street Subway project, the monumental West Portal was demolished to make way for a new station. In this August 21, 1978 view, PCC 1158 threads its way across the newly replaced switches for the L-Taraval line at Ulloa Street. MSR Archive
The conversion of the Twin Peaks Tunnel into an extension of the Market Street Subway required work at both ends. While the new Castro Station was being built underground, Muni PCC streetcars had to access the tunnel via scary temporary trestles and tracks that wags dubbed the “Collingwood Elevated,” named for the adjacent street. August 22, 1973. SFMTA Archive

Second Century: More Important

If anything, the Twin Peaks Tunnel will become even more important in its second century. The connectivity provided by the M-line was a key factor in the city approving increased density for Parkmerced, where 5700 additional housing units are planned. Muni expects enough ridership growth there to be actively planning projects to speed up the M-line, including undergrounding the tracks under West Portal Avenue. The tab could reach $3 billion if all of the M-line from West Portal to Parkmerced were undergrounded. This, in turn, would allow a true subway-style operation of the M, with trains of up to four cars.

West Portal Station, July 14, 2015. SFMTA Archive

The passage of time has proven the value of the vision its boosters had for the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

We thank the wonderful SFMTA Archive for the use of most photos in this story, and we invite you to visit their great gallery of Twin Peaks Tunnel photos.

No Comments on Tunnel Vision

Third Street Memories

When Muni’s T-Third light rail line opened in 2007, we asked Market Street Railway’s historian, Phil Hoffman, to share his childhood memories of the old Third Street streetcar operation, along with some history of the lines that ran there. By Philip Hoffman (1930-2011) Far from busy Third Street and its two streetcar lines, my childhood was spent in a quiet section of Cow Hollow which was “Dinky territory”, with center-door Municipal Railway E-line cars and the Market Street Railway Co.… — Read More

4 Comments on Third Street Memories

What Might Have Been

In our last post, we looked back on the last days of streetcar service on the B-Geary line. In this post — an updated version of a story that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track — we take a broader look back at the demise of streetcars in San Francisco in general, including the original F-line. Van Ness Avenue hosted Muni streetcars until 1950. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice collection. It was all a… — Read More

13 Comments on What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been: Geary

A recent post over at the Transbay Blog on the old B-Geary streetcar line inspired us to republish and update the following story from our Fall 2002 member newsletter, Inside Track. In a previous issue, we had looked at the decisions made — and not made — that doomed streetcar service on the original F-line (today’s 30-Stockton bus) and the old H-line (on Van Ness and Potrero Avenues). Their demise at the beginning of the 1950s left San Francisco with… — Read More

13 Comments on What Might Have Been: Geary

How the F-Market & Wharves Line Came to Be

June 27, 1983, then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein had just finished running car No. 1 from Castro to the Transbay Terminal, officially opening the first San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival. The Mayor is pictured with Muni’s Reno Bini, Chamber of Commerce Chairman Gordon Swanson and Festival Project Manager Rick Laubscher. If you’re of a certain age, it was like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie. Or, if you’re of a certain younger age, it was like Disney’s High School Musical.… — Read More

7 Comments on How the F-Market & Wharves Line Came to Be