Happy 108th Birthday, Muni!

December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line.

Mayor James Rolph, Jr. personally pilots Car No. 1 past Jones Street on Geary, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public LIbrary photo.

But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly owned streetcars in any major American city. San Franciscans turned out because they were proud of what their government had done.

In those days, private companies owned transit lines, which made a profit, even with a five-cent fare. They were awarded franchises from cities for the right to use the streets, lay down their tracks, and string their overhead wires. In San Francisco, this arrangement had led to significant corruption and the public was sick of it. So they approved a bond issue to purchase the obsolete Geary Street Cable Railroad and convert it to streetcars.

When Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph boarded Car No. 1, paid his fare (using one of the first 40 nickels produced by the San Francisco Mint less than three blocks away on Fifth Street), and personally took the controls for the ride out Geary, the crowd roared.

Now, 108 years later, Muni faces perhaps the most critical moment in its existence. Travel patterns that date back to the 19th century, focusing on connecting downtown employment and shopping with outlying neighborhoods, have been shattered by the pandemic, with no clear picture of how widespread and permanent the change to working and shopping from home will be.

We do believe that when the pandemic ebbs, tourism will return and help rejuvenate businesses from the Wharf to the Castro District, and we are advocating hard for the F-line to be reinstated to serve those businesses as well as the growing number of residents in new developments along Market Street. We would very much appreciate your support for our advocacy with a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership.

In whatever form Muni emerges from this cataclysmic event, its history as America’s first publicly owned big city transit system will endure — as will that very streetcar Mayor Rolph operated, Car No. 1 (above), which our advocacy helped get fully restored as Muni’s 100th birthday gift to itself in 1912. We can’t wait to see it carrying passengers on the street again — to celebrate the future reopening of the F-line!

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Keeping the streetcars ready

“Bumblebee” Car 1057, painted in tribute to Cincinnati, with Cable Car 13 on display at the Powell turntable behind it. Matt Lee photo.

They’re not back yet. At least not for passengers. But the streetcars in Muni’s historic fleet are at least more visible these days where they belong: on the streets of San Francisco.

1928 Milan Tram 1815 on San Jose Avenue near Dolores Street. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

Muni’s F-line and E-line streetcars have been sidelined for nine months now, victims of the Covid-19-related collapse of Muni ridership. But electric vehicles need exercise to stay in good condition. Streetcars just back from outside contractors or inside maintenance have to be tested. And operators have to be trained or retrained for the day passenger service resumes. (No date set for that yet; Muni still has to install protective plexiglass shields between the operator’s cab and the passenger area. Boston and Philadelphia are already doing this; we have asked Muni leadership again to make this a priority.)

PCC Car 1071 (in its original 1946 Minneapolis-St. Paul livery) at Pier 39. Robert Parks photo.

In the meantime, we can at least get a look some of the colorful cars back on the street during the past 30 days, thanks to sharp-eyed photographers who’ve posted to our Facebook group.

Philadelphia Car 1055, in its original livery, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1059, in its tribute livery honoring Boston Elevated Railway, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1051, painted in Muni’s 1960s simplified livery and dedicated to Harvey Milk, at the Ferry Building. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
1934 Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228 at 30th and Church Streets. Michael Strauch photo.
Original 1948 Muni double-end PCC 1006 at 20th and Church. Matt Lee photo.
Another shot of “Bumblebee” Cincinnati Car 1057. turning onto Noe from Market. Lane Bourn photo.
1928 Melbourne tram 496 at Market and Drumm. Daniel Catalan photo.
Philadelphia PCC 1060, wearing that city’s 1938 “Philly Cream Cheese” livery, on the J-line at 18th and Church Streets. Matt Lee photo.
Training new trainers on San Francisco’s oldest streetcar, 1896 “Dinky” 578, on 30th Street at Church. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
Double-end PCC 1015, in Illinois Terminal Railway tribute livery, takes the crossover at Day and Church Streets during burn-in following its return from rebuilding at Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

While you can’t ride these streetcars again just yet, you can have them with you every day. Our online store offers all of these cars’ images — and the others in Muni’s historic fleet as well — on magnets or enamel pins. You can see all of them together on our streetcar fleet poster and placemat. And of course, there are 13 full color 10×14″ images of historic streetcars and cable cars in our 2021 “Museums in Motion” calendar.

All purchases at our online store support our nonprofit’s efforts to get the streetcars carrying passengers again as soon as possible.

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F-line’s 25th anniversary

On September 1, 1995, a parade of vintage streetcars rumbled westward on Market Street, led by the wildly popular Boat Tram 228, to officially inaugurate the permanent F-Market streetcar line (extended in 2000 to become the F-Market & Wharves). 

Right from that opening day, the F-line, inspired by the success of the summer Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, opened, it was overwhelmed with riders, far outstripping Muni’s predictions. Many Upper Market residents preferred the clean, upholstered vintage PCC streetcars, with windows that opened to let in fresh air, to the stuffy subway beneath the street. Shoppers and workers found it not only more pleasant, but easier to transfer to from crossing Muni routes. And visitors by the thousands used it to truly enjoy getting around the city, especially after it reached the Ferry Building, Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf.

With more than seven million riders a year, the F became America’s most popular traditional streetcar line, even more than long-time champ, the St. Charles line in New Orleans. Muni, encouraged and helped by our nonprofit, tripled the size of the original vintage streetcar fleet, and still had trouble meeting demand.

Until Covid-19.

Now, on its 25th anniversary, the F-line’s future is uncertain. Shut down since March, Muni has set no reopening date, or even a time frame. Indeed, SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin has hinted the F’s reopening might be contingent on voters passing new funding sources for Muni. That kind of measure couldn’t be on the ballot until June 2022 at the earliest.

Beyond its day-to-day popularity, the F-line has been a lifeline for stranded subway riders during “meltdowns” of the underground service, including this one in 2019.

We at Market Street Railway believe that the F is too important to the revival of the city’s economy to wait that long. Small businesses and visitor attractions from Castro to Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf are suffering mightily right now; some have already closed forever. Many more cannot withstand such an extended denial of attractive public transit service.

And the vintage streetcars can help in more locations than just the F-Market & Wharves line or the also-suspended E-Embarcadero line. Most people don’t know that one month after the F-line opened, the PCCs provided regular service on the J-Church line late nights for three years, while the subway shut down early to install a new train control system. The other subway lines riders were stuck with substitute buses, but J-Church riders could ride the vintage PCC streetcars straight downtown from Noe Valley via Church and Market Streets, with no transfers. They could do that again now if Muni chooses to, instead of forcing J-line riders to get off LRVs at Market and walk into the subway, as Muni now plans to do when they’re able to re-restart the subway after the first aborted attempt last week.

PCCs using the J-line can turn right onto Market from Church. Kevin Mueller photo.

The next issue of our member magazine, Inside Track, will be out later this month, with a full exploration of the challenges — and opportunities — ahead for the F-line, along with a history of the perpetually frustrating Market Street Subway, which has its own anniversary (the 40th!) this year. Sign up here to join Market Street Railway and get this great quarterly publication, not available otherwise.

With your support, we can strengthen our advocacy, which helped turn the F-line from vision to reality a quarter-century ago, to help get the vintage streetcars back in service as soon as its safe to do so.

For the rest of 2020, part of that advocacy will be a celebration of the first 25 years of the F-line with virtual events, including displays of the best F-line photos and a contest to choose people’s favorite streetcars from the fleet. All to remind San Franciscans what a gift the F-line has been to the city, so that we can open that gift again, soon.

For those who want a deeper dive into the history of the F-line, the magazine Railfan & Railroad has an extensive article, with great photos, in its September 2020 issue, authored by Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher. And the definitive reference work on the F-line, including great stories, photos, and inside information, is available in our online store: San Francisco’s F-line, by transit historian and former F-line operator Peter Ehrlich.

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Unhappy 147th birthday, cable cars

In the wee hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie gripped the first street cable car in history over a precipice on Clay Street. Hallidie, a Scots immigrant who had extensive expertise in “wire rope” technology to move buckets of ore above ground in the state’s mining district, had applied his knowledge to pull people in little cars up hills that horses couldn’t climb. His franchise for the line had technically expired at midnight on August 1, but there were delays, including the refusal of the gripman he hired to operate the car after taking a look down the hill. So Hallidie did it himself. Apparently, no one noticed that he missed his franchise deadline and even today, the anniversary date is commonly given as August 1. (That first operation, incidentally, was a test. Paying passenger service didn’t start until September 1.)

Hallidie’s invention soon swept the world because even with high capital costs, cable cars were twice as fast as horse-drawn streetcars even on level ground, meaning you could carry more passengers per day. Also, operating costs were lower (horses were very expensive to maintain). But the cable revolution only lasted 15 years until Frank Sprague’s development of the electric streetcar in 1888, significantly faster than cable cars and cheaper to build and run. Cable systems around the world were quickly converted, leaving only those serving steep hills. Buses ultimately took over almost all of those as well. By 1957, San Francisco’s was the only traditional street cable system left in the world. (Check out differences between cable cars and streetcars.)

Today, there’s no special bell serenade or even the clicking of the cable to mark the 147th birthday, because the cable cars are silent, shut down since March because of Covid-19. Muni officials have ruled out a comeback anytime soon, probably until an effective vaccine is deployed, because there is no way to shield the operators from passengers, as is being done on buses and light rail vehicles (and we hope soon on the shut-down historic streetcars as well). Indeed, it is possible that the silenced bells and cables could last longer than any previous shutdown.

In their entire 147-year history, there have only been two extended cable car shutdowns: one, following the 1906 earthquake and fire, which decimated cable car machinery and incinerated many cars, lasted about a year; the other, the complete rebuilding of the system from the dirt up in 1982-84, lasted about 18 months. Given the resurgence and persistence of the virus, the little cars could be off the street longer than that.

We hope not; instead we hope the 148th birthday can be celebrated on the cars themselves, climbing ‘halfway to the stars’! Meanwhile, we will be celebrating cable car history here, with a series of posts on little-known aspects of the little cars.

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Our 2021 Calendar is Here!

We’d advise ordering this beauty quickly, including any gifts you want to give; we produced fewer than last year because of the uncertainty of when our San Francisco Railway Museum will reopen, so for now it’s only available online. Here’s the link to our store, if you don’t need any convincing (and why would you, with 13 eye-popping color photos of Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars in action on the streets of San Francisco!) (Tip: you can get it… — Read More

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Art Curtis, 1940-2020

Art Curtis passed away on June 20, 2020 at 11:11am. He fought a coura- geous fight with brain cancer, diagnosed in 2018. Art was given three months to live, but willed himself to reach his 80th birthday, and did on June 8! His niece, Kathleen Morelock, informed Art’s many friends of his passing, and shared a dream Art’s sister Kathie had the night before: “Uncle Art came to the bedroom door…took her hand, and they flew together throughout our beautiful… — Read More

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A familiar (if brief) clang

Wes Valaris says it warmed his heart. Wes is the cable car superintendent, and in our eyes he’s been doing a fantastic job burnishing the historic aspects of this most historic transit operation. But the test ride he took last Friday (April 17) was unlike anything in his career. With the cables silent and the cars in the barn for more than a month now, the great maintenance crew has been catching up on a long backlog of restoration and… — Read More

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Muni Heritage Weekend Sept. 7-8

The premier vintage transit event of the year, Muni Heritage Weekend, happens September 7-8 this year. Rides will be offered each day from 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. For the first time, this popular event, co-sponsored by SFMTA and Market Street Railway, will kick off San Francisco Transit Week, an event co-sponsored by SFMTA and the San Francisco Transit Riders organization (SFTR). Details are still being finalized, but for Heritage Weekend at least, you can expect, at a minimum, several… — Read More

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Decorate Streetcars and Cable Cars Nov. 24

Our historic streetcars are back at the Beach Yard (formerly Geneva) and this Saturday is decorating day! Both locations are covered facilities, so we will do our magic, rain or shine. We also have been invited to help decorate the Cable Cars at the Cable Car Barn that same afternoon. To join in the fun, you need to sign up at the link below. Here are the details: Beach Yard Saturday, November 24 from 10am-12:00pm. We will meet at 10am… — Read More

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Smoke Stops Cable Cars

UPDATE: The cable cars will remain out of service at least through Sunday, November 18. The deteriorating air quality around San Francisco Bay due to the smoke from the Camp Fire to the north has claimed another victim: the city’s cable cars. Muni pulled all the cable cars into the barn this afternoon (November 15) and replaced them with buses until air quality improves. Forecasters say that could be another week. In a sign of how serious Bay Area residents… — Read More

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Heritage Weekend Has Later Start Time This Year  

Because of unforeseen events, Muni Heritage Weekend events will start later and finish later on September 8-9 this year. But there are still going to be very special happenings for transportation fans of all ages. A climate change protest will close Market Street late morning of Saturday, September 8 and a footrace sponsored by the Giants will close traffic lanes on The Embarcadero Sunday morning. Both these events were scheduled after our dates were locked down and there’s really nothing… — Read More

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“Coming to Town” Talk to Help Open Salesforce Transit Center August 11

  Lots of buzz about the new $2.1 Salesforce Transit Center holding its grand opening Saturday, August 11. For example, this story in the Examiner, worth a read for the historic context. Or this one, about the incredible park atop the terminal. Or this one, about the loonnng delay in getting train service (commuter and high-speed to LA) into the terminal  in the afternoon. But in this post, we’re inviting everyone to the new center’s bus deck at 1 pm… — Read More

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“The Greatest Streetcar Museum in America”

    That’s the title of a great piece by Justin Franz on the Trains Magazine website today. Click the link and read it. It really says everything that needs to be said about the history and popularity of San Francisco’s vintage streetcar operation.  Thanks, Justin, for the story, and thanks, Muni, for the dedicated people who run and maintain these treasures. Just to be clear, the headline on Justin’s piece refers to the streetcars themselves, what we call the… — Read More

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Historic Streetcars Move Back Home Tonight

After four years camping out unprotected at Muni Metro East, just off Third Street in Dogpatch, Muni’s historic fleet moves back to its regular home at Cameron Beach Yard at Geneva and San Jose Avenues in the Excelsior District tonight. On June 21, 2014, the streamlined PCC streetcars were moved out of Cameron Beach Yard, the former Geneva Division, which has housed San Francisco streetcars since 1900. This was done in order to replace all the track across the street… — Read More

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“Newest” PCC Streetcar Collides with Truck

Around 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the newest PCC streetcar to reenter regular service following a complete rebuilding collided with a large box truck while returning to the carbarn after completing its day’s work on the F-line. The impact knocked the streetcar, No. 1063 (painted to honor Baltimore Transit), off the track and turned the truck on its side. No injuries had been reported by the time this post was made. The streetcar had no passengers aboard at the… — Read More

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