Patriarch Streetcar Turns 125

578S 2nd and Mission, 1904, SFMTA Archives
Car 578 at 2nd and Mission, 1904. SFMTA Archive

According to our historian, the redoubtable Emiliano Echeverria, 125 years ago, August 10, 1896 (give or take a day), a new streetcar was delivered for service in San Francisco. Streetcars themselves had only become a viable transit technology eight years before in Richmond, Virginia. San Francisco had opened its first streetcar line only four years earlier, in 1892, but transit companies led by Market Street Railway Company were busy already, replacing some cable car lines with streetcars and building new lines with the electric vehicles.

The first streetcars that appeared in San Francisco looked a lot like cable cars, except for the trolley pole on the roof that conducted electricity from the overhead wire. That wasn’t surprising. The standard cable car design of the time, the “California Car” (named after the California Street cable car design still used today), was popular with riders, with open end sections and a closed center section. And many of the early San Francisco streetcars were built by cable car builders.

That new streetcar delivered in August 1896 still operates today. Built by Hammond, which later built today’s fleet of California Street cable cars, No. 578 is the oldest passenger transit vehicle in America still on the operating roster of a public transit agency. It survived because it was turned into a work car after the 1906 earthquake and was kept around in that capacity before being restored by Muni’s crafts workers for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the earthquake in 1956. It was then going to be put on static display at a proposed railroad museum across from the Hyde Street Pier, but when that fell through, it went back to Muni for a time and was then loaned to the Western Railway Museum in Solano County.

The Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, spearheaded by leaders of Market Street Railway, saw Car 578 brought home to carry passengers occasionally on its home city’s rails. Known affectionately by its many fans as the “Dinky” for its compact size, Car 578 has been wildly popular during the annual Muni Heritage Weekends (pictured below) that ran for eight years before the pandemic and we hope will resume in 2022.

We’re going to run a special feature to celebrate Car 578‘s 125th birthday in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, with many more historic photos of this patriarch of San Francisco’s streetcar fleet. Join Market Street Railway now so you don’t miss it!

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Happy 125th Birthday, Car 578!!

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Welcome back, F-line!

San Francisco’s famed (and much missed) F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line is carrying happy passengers again. Regular service began on Saturday, May 15, with Boston PCC 1059 the first car to reach Fisherman’s Wharf, followed by Detroit 1079, as documented below by Matt Lee. As a bonus, the four-block loop through the Wharf from Pier 39 to the fishing fleet’s harbor at Jones Street, was back in service after having been shut down in Fall 2019 for construction on Jefferson Street, as shown in the photo above, by Jeremy Whiteman, featuring Philadelphia PCC 1055.

All the cars on the line have been fitted with new protective plexiglas barriers for the operators. Eighteen PCCs have been fitted out so far, sufficient to handle the 12-car schedule for the eight-hour-a-day initial service. Because of continuing federal regulations, all passengers had to wear masks, as on all transit lines in the country. Capacity was constrained by social distancing requirements. Within those constraints, the cars enjoyed healthy crowds, which can be expected to grow as more people become aware that the sleek streetcars are back on track.

All along the six-mile route, the PCCs brought smiles to passersby. The cars all carried American flags, plus special flags commemorating the F-line’s return, installed early that morning in dreary drizzle at Cameron Beach Yard by our dedicated volunteer flag master Joe Hickey, MSR board Vice Chair James Giraudo (who donated the flags) and MSR President Rick Laubscher.

Our San Francisco Railway Museum reopened along with the streetcar service and did a bustling business its first day. James Giraudo snapped this pic of museum manager taking down the “closed” sign after 13 months. The free museum’s interim hours are Noon to 5 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We expect to expand those days and hours as visitors and office workers return to the city.

The first day of operation followed a midday celebration on Friday outside our museum, led by Mayor London Breed, who praised the restart of the F-line as proof that “San Francisco is back!” She then boarded her favorite streetcar, the 87-year old Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228, and tooted up The Embarcadero, briefly sharing operating duties with expert motorman Angel Carvajal.

After her turn at the controls, the Mayor waved to passersby, repeatedly announcing, “We’re back!” and “Time for fun again!”, delighting the invited guests on the boat, including SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin and MSR board Chair Carmen Clark.

Hoodline published a comprehensive look at the celebration, including great boat pix and videos. Here’s a link to the Examiner’s coverage, including a photo of the all-but-invisible protective operator barrier on the PCC. Finally, a link to Channel 2’s coverage, including video of the whole celebration.

The weather was not unfamiliar to the boat, which spent decades cruising along the foggy, chilly Irish Sea coast in its first home, and besides, nothing was going to dampen the celebratory spirits of having the F-line back. Perhaps the best comment of the celebration day came from speaker Joseph Ahearne, owner of El Porteno in the Ferry Building, a purveyor of wonderful empanadas. Mr. Ahearne described the financial struggles his family faced because of the pandemic, and emphasized how important the return of the F-line is to small businesses it serves, and how special it is to San Franciscans and the city. “The cable cars belong to the world, but the F-line streetcars are ours, and we love them.”

To help welcome back the F-line, we have designed and printed these advertising cards now posted in all the PCCs and available for purchase at our museum.

And while they last, we’re giving out free commemorative stickers, with five individual streetcar images, designed by our board member Chris Arvin, and our 2021 calendars (one sheet per visitor please) at the museum, May 20-22.

Thanks for everyone for all the hard work in making the return of the F-line a big success. Special thanks to the Muni streetcar maintenance team, shop workers, led by Doug Lee, Louis Guzzo, and Jesse Guthrie, with Joseph Flores, Dick Lui, Paul Rullhausen, and Kevin Sheridan on the front lines with their groups getting those required protective barriers designed, fabricated, and installed in record time, in-house! 

Also very special thanks to the “PCC Committee”, an ad hoc group of F-line operators who love the streetcars and advocated at the grass roots level for their return, along with providing invaluable advice on the design of the barriers. The group is led by Transport Workers Union Local 250A President Roger Marenco, who also effectively led outreach to elected officials and SFMTA leadership to build support for the streetcars’ return. The PCC Committee includes operators Aleena Galloway (who spoke for the group at the Mayor’s celebration), John Caberto, Garry Coward, Mike Delia, David Gunter, Forrest Hareford, Eric Lawson, Ryan Lee, Roderick Mills, Juel Rice, and Jacqueline Robinson.

Come take a ride on the F soon to show your support and enjoy the reopening of San Francisco! Great restaurants and shops await you all along the line. And until you can ride in person, you can again follow exactly where the F-line streetcars are when they’re in service with our great live map, created by our board member Kat Siegal.

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St. Patrick’s Day, 1906

Workers of Irish extraction played a major part in laying and maintaining track for United Railroads in 1906. Here’s a crew at work on tracks along Fourth Street, looking north from Bryant. It’s dated March 17, 1906, one month and one day before the earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco.

The images, both full-sized at the bottom and cropped two ways here, come from a glass plate made by United Railroads photographer John Henry Mentz and preserved by the fabulous SFMTA Photo Archive, to whom all the credit.

Click any image for a full-res version and then zoom in to see details like the ad for Columbia, “the gem of Talking Machines”, available at 125 Geary Street and perfect for the double parlor of your Victorian home. Or lots on which to build your dream San Francisco house: one dollar down, one dollar a week! And if you need to get out of town, check in at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station at 21 Powell Street, right at the cable car turntable!

After a hard day on the job, though, the crew shown here was more likely to stop in at the Transfer Saloon, just steps away at the corner, for a St. Louis Beer or Harper’s Whiskey, as advertised out front. And if they were privileged enough to have a phone at home, they could use the Bell pay phone inside to let the family know where they were…and then maybe drop in at the vaudeville show at Fischer’s theatre, advertised on the Bryant Street wall.

When Mentz took this 1906 photo, streetcars on Fourth ran north to Market, then out Ellis to Golden Gate Park. San Francisco’s oldest preserved streetcar, 1896 “Dinky” 578, ran on this line, on this very track in fact, when it was new. A dinky is faintly visible on the extreme right of the photo below, at about Harrison Street. Could it be our 578?

“Dinky” 578 still carrying passengers before the pandemic at 20th & Church Streets.

In 1947, after Muni took over, the Fourth Street tracks were switched to connect to the original F-line at Stockton and Market, extending the F, which served the Marina, North Beach, and Chinatown, down to the old Southern Pacific train depot. (The 30-Stockton bus took over this route in 1951.)

And today, as seen in the then-and-now view of the whole original photo, the track’s back on Fourth!

Google Streetview

Yep, the spot where the crew was working on Fourth Street in 1906 is now the portal for the lonnnng-awaited Central Subway, which will carry the T-line north under Fourth and Stockton Streets to Union Square and Chinatown, come next year (so we’re told).

In 1906, crews like this one got the tracks on both Fourth and Bryant Streets back in service within two weeks after the quake, even though the saloon and every building in the 1906 photo was incinerated on April 18. The saloon site is now the offramp for the last San Francisco exit from Interstate 80 before the Bay Bridge. So, if you’re hunting for St. Paddy’s Day cheer, look somewhere else. Or better yet, wait til next year, when hopefully we can all celebrate the wearin’ of the green together!

If you enjoy these looks back, and want to keep seeing the past (like 578) present in the future, please consider supporting us. Even the price of a beer helps!

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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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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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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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Giving Tuesday: can you help?

Today is Giving Tuesday, a day promoted around the world to focus people’s attention on the needs of many kinds addressed by nonprofits. We at Market Street Railway know full well, especially right now, that there are urgent needs everywhere. We hope you’ll be able to spare a little something for charities in San Francisco, or wherever you’re reading this, that are helping with the Covid-19 pandemic or other human needs. We do want to let you know that Covid-19… — Read More

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Cool backdrops let you Zoom into history

The Zoom app, an obscure business conferencing tool just a few months ago, is suddenly the star and salvation of the shut-down world, with millions of people jumping on to videochat with friends and family. Zoom offers the option of putting an electronic backdrop behind you, and offers some stock scenics. But you can also upload your own, which gave the archives and communications staffs at SFMTA a great idea. We love it! There are samples above and below. Here’s… — 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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Pier 39 is now E/F-line terminal for at least a year

This morning, operators on Muni’s E-Embarcadero and F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar lines started rolling their destination signs past “Fisherman’s Wharf” and stopped at “Pier 39”, the big visitor attraction a block east of what’s traditionally considered the Wharf. And those Wharf destination signs are supposed to stay dark for at least a full year, maybe longer, while the city makes changes to three blocks of Jefferson Street, from Powell to Jones, changes that do NOT include the F-line tracks… — Read More

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Back On Track — After 77 Years Off!

Early this morning, a cable car originally constructed in 1883 became Muni’s oldest operating transit vehicle. Early this morning, Sacramento & Clay Sts. cable car 19 made a full trip on the California Street line pulled by the cable. It was the first time this cable car was pulled by a cable on the street in 77 years, since its retirement in 1942. This news, and these wonderful photos, come from Market Street Railway member Traci Cox who documented the… — Read More

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