Jubilation — and riots — on Market Street 75 years ago

When President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, ending World War II, celebrations erupted around the world. As the primary port of embarkation for US troops headed to the Pacific, San Francisco’s revelry was especially intense.

Market, Fourth, and Stockton Streets, August 14, 1945

By early evening, crowds were pouring onto Market Street, almost like lemmings. Streetcars were jammed, and many celebrants climbed on the roofs of the cars. One was our late historian, Phil Hoffman. He remembered the night this way:

My mother must not have been paying attention, because I was 14 years old and said, ‘Can I go down and see the celebration?’ and in a moment of weakness she said yes…and I began to see people on the roofs of the streetcars. ‘Ha. This is my golden opportunity.’ So I climbed on the roof of Car 86, all the way up Market, until finally the inspector at Van Ness told me to come down, so off I went. I was ’86’d’ from Car 86. (Note to those of a tender age: to ‘Eighty-six’ someone means to eject them, usually from a bar.)

Philip Hoffman

There is some great color film footage of V-J day and other vintage motion picture clips of San Francisco’s streetcar heyday, with interviews from Phil and other transit historians, including the late Arthur Lloyd, in our video production “Take Me Out”, here. A still frame is below.

But there is a much darker side to what was unleashed in San Francisco on V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, a terrible and ugly side that got almost no public attention then, or in the decades that followed. Here’s how the Chronicle recounted it in a retrospective piece five years ago:

Thousands of frenzied, drunken revelers, an estimated 90 percent of them young Navy enlistees who had not served overseas, embarked on a three-night orgy of vandalism, looting, assault, robbery, rape and murder. By the time the “Peace Riots” burned themselves out on Friday morning, 13 people were dead, at least six women had been raped, 1,059 people were injured, and an incalculable amount of damage had been done to businesses, public buildings, streetcars, cars, traffic lights, signs, barber poles, marquees and everything else the rioters had gotten their hands on. They were the deadliest riots in the city’s history.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 2015

The eye-opening article recounts some horrific and terrible individual crimes, and reports that no action was taken against any of the rioters, either by the military or the civilian authorities. San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown promised an investigation, but both it and a grand jury probe yielded nothing. The city simply swept it, and the many victims, under the rug.

On the roof of a Muni streetcar, Market and Taylor Streets, August 14, 1945. Virginia de Carvalho photo, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle

One of those victims was Joe Georgy, a Muni inspector, killed when a rioter smashed him on the head while he was switching streetcars back at 12th and Market. Georgy was 34.

So, while many lives were saved by the Japanese surrender on this day 75 years ago, including in all probability some of the young sailor rioters, who according to contemporary accounts hadn’t yet been shipped out to the Pacific, too many lives were lost because of unchecked ‘celebration’.

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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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When the oldest streetcar was new

How old is the oldest electric streetcar in Muni’s historic fleet? So old that it regularly crossed paths with cable cars on Market Street. When “dinkies” (small, single truck streetcars) like preserved Car 578 were new, they were also novel, in that cable cars dominated San Francisco transit and had the exclusive rights to Market Street. The electric cars only saw Market when they crossed it. While they looked like cable cars, they were twice as fast and very high tech for the time, 120 years ago.

Two photographic glass plates recently found by Howard Jarvis (no, not the author of Prop. 13 for those who remember back that far) appear to make the dinkies central to the composition. The two photographs were clearly taken by the same photographer, probably within a few minutes of each other, from the same place, the second floor of a building at Ellis and Market, looking southeast across to Fourth Street. Based on other photos of the same intersection, these shots were taken between 1898 and 1900. One photograph is shifted a little to the right from the other one. We include several crops and a full image here.

In the crop at the top of the post, we see a dinky identical to Muni’s Car 578, built in 1896, crossing Market from Ellis to Fourth Street, headed south to the Southern Pacific Train Depot. (We can’t make out the full car number, though it doesn’t appear to be 578 itself but rather another in the bright-yellow fleet of Ellis-O’Farrell line cars, all built by Hammond, which also built many of the California Cable Cars still in Muni’s fleet today.)

In the close-up below, we see that the dinky is crossing behind a green Hayes Street cable car (later the 21-Hayes streetcar and then trolley bus), which is about to pass an establishment called “Midway Plaisance, Home of Burlesque” on its route to the newly-opened Ferry Building. First, though, it will roll past a small shop with a sign on its roof that says RATS in big letters and ROACHES, ANTS, and BEDBUGS in smaller ones. Really wish we could read the rest of it but we presume it’s an extermination business, located where the landmark Humboldt Bank Building rose a few years later.

The Humboldt Bank was designed more or less as a bookend to the Call Building at Third and Market, which dominates the full frame below when you zoom out (remember when “zoom” had nothing to do with quarantine communications?).

Fascinating to look at the people (you can click on the above photo to get a larger view). Scores of men and women clearly visible, but not a single bare head. Interesting signs in this image too, such as “Ohio Dental Parlors” occupying a large space on the second floor in the building at left. (Did Ohio have some kind of advanced dentistry?)

A crop of the second image, above, shifted slightly south, reveals a few additional things. First, there’s the beer wagon at the corner, passing under the store awning advertising “La Harmonia Cigars”. Beer and cigars were the most common advertisements seen in photos of this era, and by extension, presumably the most commonly consumed “vices” of the city of the day.

The dinky in this image is headed north, toward Golden Gate Park out Ellis and then O’Farrell Streets. There’s a cable car in the same place as the first photo but we can’t tell which line it’s assigned to. What can’t be missed though are the garish ads for “Original Uncle Bill Private Loan Offices”. Uncle will loan you money “from $1 up” “at the lowest rate”. And, highly unusual for that time, he’s “open Sundays”. If it’s not already clear that it’s a pawnshop, the sign “unredeemed pledges for sale” is a giveaway.

One other piece of San Francisco trivia. The second image makes it clear that the big billboard to the right is for Roos Brothers, “leading clothiers”, at 27-37 Kearny Street, two blocks away. That building, plus the one the ad is painted on, plus everything else visible in the above photo (except the Call Building), burned on April 18, 1906. But Roos Brothers survived as a family business and later relocated to a stylish store directly across the street from the billboard at Market and Stockton (shown in the Google Maps image below on the left as XXL). Then, after a merger, the firm built a new building across the street, exactly where its billboard stood in 1900 (that location is now occupied by Ross Dress for Less, the white building with the bulbed corner on the right.). The old Call Building is the only common object in the then-and-now photos, though it’s almost unrecognizable following its renovation into an Art Deco facade as the Central Tower in 1940 (it’s the white building on the right in the middle distance).

While this intersection today is eerily quiet with no streetcars on Market or cable cars a block away on Powell, it’s still some consolation to get a fresh look at pieces of the past when photos like this appear. Thanks to Mike Ahmadi, who works with Howard Jarvis and let us post these great shots. Mike runs a Facebook Group called “In Howard’s Barn”, which has other great vintage photo finds and offers very hi-res prints for sale. You can inquire at inhowardsbarn@gmail.com. And as wonderful as these vintage photos are, take a moment to imagine yourself there, experiencing it all in glorious color, starting with the bright yellow of the centerpiece, the Ellis-O’Farrell line dinky. We’ll help.

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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 free as a membership benefit. Read on!)

The design continues our traditional attractive layout. The size, 14×10 inches, is designed to keep shipping costs low, but is still plenty large enough to let the photos shine!

The year 2021 marks the centennial of the year our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, took over most of San Francisco transit operations from United Railroads, beginning a fierce rivalry with the young Municipal Railway (Muni) that culminated in the merger of 1944. We pay tribute to our namesake with rare thumbnail photos on the date pages, and a special page celebrating the centennial.

Reminder: if you make an annual membership contribution to Market Street Railway of $100 or more, you automatically get a free copy of the calendar. We will start putting the free calendars for our $100+ members in the mail next week. The US Post Office seems a little less efficient these days, so be patient…even though we ALL want 2021 to get here (because it means 2020 will be OVER!)

If you’d like to join now at or above the $100 annual level (or $10 monthly level) to take advantage of the free calendar opportunity, here’s the link to become a member.

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When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create,… — Read More

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Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to… — Read More

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Pride 1983

Like everyone in San Francisco, we miss the LGBTQ Pride Parade up Market Street this year. At least we can share a look back, framed with pleasure. During the first year of the Trolley Festivals, 1983, we got the idea of asking if streetcars could be included in the parade. Yes, indeed came the answer. So the Blackpool boat tram and Muni Car 1 took their place in line and tooled up Market Street. The choice of destination for the… — 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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What’s New is Old

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service. But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in… — Read More

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When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

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… — Read More

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You need this mask!

“Information Gladly Given, But Safety Requires Avoiding Unnecessary Conversation.”

Countless San Francisco commuters have probably taken a few moments to ponder this simple statement, which has been posted near the operator’s station of every Muni bus and streetcar since the early 1960s.

The message is simultaneously friendly and forbidding, inviting yet indifferent, personable yet coldly professional. Now it’s available as an adult face mask, when its message is oh so relevant.

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Muni Heritage Weekend postponed

The very popular annual Muni Heritage Weekend is being postponed at least into spring of 2021. No exact date has yet been sent for the rescheduled event. The postponement has seemed inevitable for weeks, given the course of Covid-19 through San Francisco, and the enduring shelter-in-place orders. SFMTA and Market Street Railway, which co-sponsor the event, agreed this week that it was not feasible to hold it on August 22-23, its scheduled 2020 dates. As a result, we’ve jointly set… — Read More

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Streetcars in the Sunset

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower. The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically… — Read More

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The Castro’s rich transit history

Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years. What the heck is a steam dummy? That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator.… — Read More

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