F-line to return in May, Hyde cable later this year!

Mayor London Breed told a group from Fisherman’s Wharf this morning that F-line vintage streetcar service will return to the full length of the route, from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf, in May.

Cable car service on the Powell-Hyde line (only, for now) will resume as early as mid-summer, but many details remain to be worked out and that date could change. There is no word at this point when service on the Powell-Mason or California lines might resume.

It is our understanding that initial F-line streetcar service will be provided for eight hours a day by the streamlined PCC cars only, with operator protective shields to be installed around the operator’s position, as is done on the buses. For further operator safety, the same operator will keep the car all day, taking it out of the barn and bringing it back at the end of the shift, as is currently being done with buses and light rail vehicles.

This will limit F-line operation initially to eight hours a day, with exact hours to be determined in consultation with merchant groups along the line. (Pre-pandemic, the F-line operated 18 hours a day, with most F-line cars staying out the whole time, with one operator relieving another in the middle of the day.) The time between cars (service frequency) will be less than the approximately 6-8 minutes pre-pandemic and will depend to some extent on demand

It appears resumption of full-line F-line service will be brief, however. Work to replace the tracks between Fifth and Eighth Streets as part of the Better Market Street Project is slated to begin this fall and could last up to two years. Market Street Railway is working hard to convince the Department of Public Works, which is in charge of the project, to stage the work in a way which gets the tracks done in the shortest amount of time possible so that streetcar service can resume. During whatever period the tracks from Fifth to Eighth have to be out of service for replacement, we are working with SFMTA in hopes of operating double-end streetcars from the Wharf to the crossover at Fifth Street, with single-ended cars providing additional service along the waterfront between the Ferry Building and the Wharf area.

Market Street Railway has worked very hard for months now, side by side with Muni’s operator’s union (Local 250A) and numerous business and neighborhood groups to get the iconic cable cars and F-line streetcars back on the street. We thank Mayor Breed and SFMTA leadership for finding a way to return these symbols of our city to the street during these challenging budget times. They’ll send a sign to the Bay Area, California, and the world that San Francisco is back in business.

We will have a complete report on this for our members in the new edition of Inside Track, our quarterly member magazine, due out next week. Click here to become a member and get it. We’ll send you the last two issues as a bonus.

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Chronicle, 1947: cable cars ‘surely dead’

Photo from the Chronicle in 1947 showing one of Muni’s ten new “hill-climbing Twin Coaches”, bought to replace the Powell cable cars, inexplicably posed next to a California Street cable car, which Muni didn’t own at that time and wasn’t threatened. (Muni later bought 90 trolley coaches from Twin in this body style, which were familiar sights around town for a quarter-century.)

Controversy is swirling again around the future of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, after a Chronicle column by Heather Knight last weekend that seemed to imply the three cable lines could be junked in 2023 unless San Francisco voters pony up lots more bucks for SFMTA/Muni to keep running them. (For the record, SFMTA denies the cable cars would be junked. We have the full behind-the-scenes story on this in the next Inside Track, our exclusive member magazine, due out within two weeks.)

The brewing brouhaha led the Chronicle’s cool culture critic, Peter Hartlaub, to dip into the Chron’s “vault” and emerge with some great photos and info. The actual story is behind a paywall online, but we’re sharing a few photos here and summarizing a rather remarkable revealing of the paper’s anti-cable attitude back then.

San Francisco history buffs know the basics of the story: In January 1947, Roger Lapham, a businessman elected mayor on a platform to modernize the postwar city, announced he planed to “junk the cable cars”. (Lapham’s target was the two city-owned Powell lines; the other cable lines were owned by the private California Street Cable Railway Co., which was struggling financially, and if the Powell lines were ripped out, it’s doubtful the city would have rescued them four years later as it did.)

January 29, 1947 front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, with its premature obituary for the cable cars. Click image to enlarge.

Hartlaub points a big finger at his own paper for swallowing Lapham’s line, and declaring the Powell lines dead before any actual decision had been taken. The Chron wasn’t alone: the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations were quick to bury the little cars while they were still kicking. Yet in the article, headlined “A Shame Revealed”, Hartlaub makes a strong (and entertainingly written) case that his paper cheered on cable car haters.” He called the January 29, 1947 story pictured above “a piece of editorial sensationalism disguised as a news story”, and then noted, “In the days that followed, there were more fantastic tales of the super-bus, the decrepit state of the track and fantasies of runaway cars killing unsuspecting citizens. The Chronicle seemingly stacked the opinion pages with anti-cable-car letters.”

Of course, we know what happened next: at a time when women’s voices weren’t welcomed in San Francisco (or most anywhere else), Telegraph Hill resident Friedel Klussmann assembled a brigade of women and handed the mayor his metaphorical head by placing and passing a ballot measure in November 1947 to save the Powell cables.

Hartlaub’s Chronicle article includes this wonderful photo taken at Jackson and Octavia Streets, indicating it appeared in the newspaper November 10, 1947. But that doesn’t jibe with the headlight style and lettering on the cable car, which suggest some time between 1953 and 1956. In any case, it’s ironic for this photo in Pacific Heights to illustrate the Chronicle story, since the wonderful Washington-Jackson line was ripped out after Cable Car War II in 1954 cut the system in half. Just for fun, here’s the same intersection today. This block of Octavia is still brick. The apartment building is little changed. The white mansion, built in 1913 for “Big Alma” Spreckels, is now owned by novelist Danielle Steele and sports a giant privacy hedge all the way round. But no more Washington-Jackson cable car.

Here’s the coda to this cable car concerto: before his public “junk ’em” announcement, Lapham had ordered Muni to buy buses to replace the Powell cars. Motor coaches then had limited power, but Muni purchased ten “Twin coaches” that featured two engines each, to provide extra hill-climbing power. But Muni couldn’t keep the two engines in sync, defeating the hill-climbing capabilities, and once the Powell cables were saved, yanked one of the engines out of each bus and sent them out on lightly-used routes until retiring them way early after just six years of use.

Just one of these historic buses survives. Our nonprofit acquired it from a museum that wasn’t using it a couple of decades ago, and gave it to Muni for their historic bus collection. Gradually, Muni is restoring the bus to operating condition. We plan a big unveiling when it’s ready.

But it won’t be running on Powell Street, thank God (and Friedel).

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End of (last original) track

After 98 years, the last original Muni streetcar tracks fall to the jackhammer at the west end of Taraval Street. Roger Goldberg photo.

When street railway companies laid tracks in San Francisco streets, they were responsible for maintaining the area around the tracks. That’s part of the reason it was customary to lay a row of basalt pieces right next to the outer rails. The dense, heavy, gray stone is correctly called Belgian block or sett though often mistakenly called cobblestone. (Cobbles are more egg shaped.)

End of track on the L-line, May 15, 1925. Streetcars connected here with one of Muni’s first bus lines, the 2-Ocean, which ran from Playland to Sloat Boulevard mostly along the Great Highway. Look under the streetcar to see the Belgian block lining the tracks. SFMTA Archive.

The Belgian block provides a buffer between the rails and the street paving. When streets are paved in asphalt right up to the track, even slight movements of the tracks over time can cause the asphalt to crack or bulge. Hot or freezing weather can exacerbate this tendency. Also, since street railways almost always were responsible for maintaining the street not only between the tracks, but outward for a fixed difference, the Belgian blocks can reduce maintenance.

In its early years, Muni always lined its tracks with Belgian block when installing new rails. Over the decades, as worn rails were replaced, the Belgian blocks disappeared, just as they did from the surface of many entire streets when they were repaved.

Last “Iron Monster” in service on the L-line, 35th and Taraval, 1958. The Belgian block extended along the entire line in those days. Robert McVay photo, MSR Archive.

The last surviving stretch of Belgian block-lined streetcar track in San Francisco just disappeared. This was the two westernmost blocks of Taraval Street in the Sunset District, where tracks for the L-Taraval line were installed in 1923. These two blocks of track left regular service in 1937, when an extension opened south on 46th Avenue to reach the zoo. The spur track was then used only for emergencies, such as temporary storage of disabled equipment.

Looking east today on Taraval from 48th Avenue. Roger Goldberg photo.

In 2003, when Muni rebuilt the Zoo loop (whose original track had lasted 66 years!), they started digging west from 46th, ripping out Belgian block and old track. The historic spur wasn’t supposed to be part of the zoo loop project, so we checked with the project manager, who told us the old rail on the spur was too rusty to weld to, so they were going to rip it out until they found good rail to weld to. We suggested since it was rarely used, good old-fashioned bolting and bonding might work instead, and the project manager, Fariba Mahmoudi, agreed, saving the historic track (and money).

Looking west from end of track on Taraval, 1923 and 2019. Above, MSR Archive; below, Google Streetview.

But all of the Sunset’s streets are laid on sand, and the sand under the spur track later was judged to be insufficient to continue supporting modern LRVs, so the end of track was “red-tagged” — no more streetcars. Now, as part of the replacement of all the tracks on Taraval west of Sunset Boulevard, the spur tracks, more rust than rail after being in the salt air for 98 years, have finally given up the ghost. Yet even while the rails themselves finally deteriorated, the Belgian blocks remained set and solid 98 years after their installation.

The tracks are being replaced right now, but — good news — the crew is saving all the Belgian block and will lay it back down next to the new rail, to preserve the historic look of the rails.

Saved Belgian block, slated to be replaced next to the new tracks.

Thanks to the SFMTA team for preserving the look of this historic stretch of Taraval track. We hope when full Muni service resumes we can inaugurate the new rail with a charter of Muni Car 1.

If you appreciate the things we do to preserve historic transit in San Francisco, please consider supporting us with a donation or membership. Thanks.

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Black barrier-breakers in San Francisco transit

In recent decades, memorable African-American leaders have made history in San Francisco transit. There’s Curtis E. Green, Sr., the first Black general manager of a major US transit agency. H. Welton Flynn, first Black San Francisco City Commissioner, and leader of Muni’s governing boards for many years. Larry Martin, a powerful and persuasive head of Muni’s operators’ union.

For this year’s Black History Month, we’ll reach back further in time, to highlight three women and one man who broke barriers in transit.

Charlotte Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant: In April 1863, Charlotte Brown boarded a horse-drawn streetcar run by the Omnibus Railroad Company. The operator told her she wasn’t allowed to ride because she was Black. She told him she had always ridden the streetcars and was very late to her appointment. When a white woman on board complained about her presence, the operator physically removed Charlotte from the car.

Omnibus Railroad horsecar on Montgomery Street

She brought Omnibus Railroad Co. to court – twice – and won. It was a huge victory, happening just after Black people were allowed to testify against whites in court. Another Civil Rights pioneer, the noted African-American entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, had the same experience in 1866, before the earlier suits were finally adjudicated. Pleasant successfully challenged streetcar segregation all the way to the California Supreme Court and won. These women changed California history, some 90 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and changed national history.

Audley Cole: Audley Cole was the first Black operator ever hired by Muni, in 1941. He passed the civil service examination by leaving his race off the form. After he was hired, white operators refused to give him the training necessary to start work. Fourteen operators decided to be suspended rather than train him, and the operators’ union threatened a $100 fine against any operator who trained him. The one white man who tried to train him was beaten so severely he was hospitalized.

Audley Cole

After three months, with support from the ILWU (the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union) and the general manager of Muni, Cole finally received training directly from the head of Muni’s training department. At Muni, he fought for fairer treatment for future Black employees. 3 years later, there were nearly 100 Black employees at Muni. “Civil service is dedicated to fair play,” said Cole. “It’s a job for which I have qualified and I want it. I’m going to get it.”

Maya Angelou: Now remembered as a famed author and poet, Maya Angelou’s first job – in 1943, when she was 16 – was as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job initially, she said, because she “liked the uniforms.” When she tried to apply, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the job application.

Maya Angelou

She didn’t give up – she went back to the office every single day and sat in the waiting room. Eventually, a manager approached her and allowed her to apply. (She said she was 18, the minimum age). She became the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco. During that summer, she operated the 7-Haight line, which at that time ran from East Bay Terminal (at First and Mission) out Market, Haight, and then along Lincoln Way to reach the beach, crossing the park to terminate at Playland. Market Street Railway is proposing that Streetcar 798, of the type she worked on, be dedicated to her memory when it is restored.

As you can see, many of the first civil rights breakthroughs in public transit happened here in San Francisco. Yet few people know about them. We’re trying to change that through stories like this and other actions to ensure these barrier-breakers are properly remembered. We salute all those who have stood up to racism, sexism, and discrimination in San Francisco’s transit industry…for more than 150 years!

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Streetcars to buses

See gallery at end of story The Covid-19 pandemic caused Muni to convert all its rail lines to buses in 2020, with rail service fitfully resuming, in stages, in 2021. Quite a reversal for the transit agency born as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, whose service was dominated by streetcars for the first 35 years of its existence, and had never before been strictly a bus operation for longer than a weekend at a time. Here’s a story we put… — Read More

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The 15-Third is back

Though not this exact bus. In a time when many of its well-established lines, including the F-Market historic streetcars (which carried more than 20,000 riders a day) are still suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muni is adding an entirely new route. No, wait. What they’re doing is reviving the well-known bus line known as the 15-Third, and setting it up kind of like a T-Express, to provide faster service downtown from the Hunters Point neighborhood and points along Third… — Read More

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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. 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… — Read More

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Final restored PCC back home

The last of 16 streamlined PCC streetcars completely rebuilt for Muni by Brookville Equipment Company was delivered to its owner today. Car 1007 was built for Muni by St. Louis Car Company in 1948 and ran daily until it was retired in 1982. Our nonprofit successfully lobbied for it and the other surviving cars in the original class of ten cars to be preserved by Muni when it scrapped or sold many of its other 100+ PCCs. Our advocacy was… — Read More

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Unique gifts for SF transit fans

Our online store is the place to get transit-related San Francisco gifts you can’t find anywhere else. And with our physical museum across from the Ferry Building closed by the pandemic, the online store is the ONLY place to find these unique items. Take a look at the wonderful array of gifts for everyone on your list. Big or small, we have it all, from apparel and books to cute little stocking stuffers! Don’t hesitate – we have a limited… — Read More

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Market Street 1932: Wowza!

Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes. This trip up Market Street between the Ferry and Grant Avenue was original actual black and white motion picture footage that our friend Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, turned us onto several years ago.… — Read More

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Uncovering Cal Cable’s past

Constructing a new form of transportation for San Francisco, workers uncovered an old one the other day. Contractors building the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project scraped away asphalt to find the vertical curve of the original California Street cable car line bending westward and upward towards Franklin Street. Below, that same block, with a cable car descending the hill on this same track, before the Cal line was savagely cut in half on December 30, 1956 (a dark… — Read More

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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. 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… — Read More

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Cable car on display at Powell & Market

There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season. Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to… — Read More

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