Happy Centennial to 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.

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Welcome to our new site!

Led by our great volunteers Chris Arvin and Kat Siegal, we’ve revamped streetcar.org to have a fresh look and much more utility, especially for mobile users.

The freshest part of the new site is the live streetcar map created by Kat and Chris. You can read all about it in this story from the Examiner. Easier to use than our former map, it tells mobile users not only how far away the next streetcar is from their stop, but also which streetcar it is. And besides actual photos of the car, it shows these hopelessly cute icons that Chris and Kat designed. The icons are already getting a following of their own, so we’ve started producing sheets of stickers with the icons on them, available at our San Francisco Railway Museum. (We’ll be rolling out more merchandise with the icons soon; and Chris has some available now, here.)

There’s still a lot more to be done on the website. We’ll be creating a more focused history section that incorporates Chris’s wonderful Lost Streetcars website and ties it to stories of San Francisco’s transit history. And we’ll completely rebuild our online store to make it easier and faster for you to find great historic-transit-related merchandise. So check the site out now, and check back often.

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London Buses in SF: 1952

London RTL-type double-deck bus on Market Street at Eighth, 1952

The librarian for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Van Niekerken, comes up with some dandy articles by digging through the newspaper’s voluminous archives. Somehow, we missed this great story and photos, showing three double-deck London Transport buses coming to, and driving through, San Francisco on a cross-country British tourism promotion in 1952. The photo above shows one of the RTL-type buses (predecessor to London Transport’s famed Routemasters) on Market Street at Eighth, sharing the street with three “Iron Monster” Muni streetcars. The Whitcomb Hotel is on the left behind the bus, with the Fox Theater farther up the street on the right.

The London buses have New York bus license plates, as well as their own UK registration. And their roll signs read “GREETINGS FROM BRITAIN” in the square sign box, with “TO SAN FRANCISCO” in the rectangular box below. Presumably, that lower box could be changed to show whatever city they were currently visiting.

Because California’s overhead road clearances didn’t always anticipate vehicles this tall, they brought along telescoping poles that they could use to test the clearance before driving through. The photo below shows a tight squeeze going under the Southern Pacific Railroad trestle on El Camino Real in Colma. This is a particularly interesting photo. The old tracks for the 40-line interurban streetcar to San Mateo are still in place, and well south of the San Francisco city limits, we see a Muni White Company motor coach trailing the double-decker. That’s something of a mystery. During this period, Muni operated the developer-funded 76-Broadmoor line, connecting a new subdivision in Daly City to Muni lines in the city, but it never went this far south. (Maybe it was an escort vehicle, causing three steps behind the royalty of the double-decker.) There’s still a rail crossing at this point: BART, which took over the old SP right-of-way.

London double-decker squeezing under the Southern Pacific railroad trestle in Colma.

Muni did try out a double-decker bus at one point much later on, a demonstrator that didn’t catch on. For higher capacity, they chose articulated buses instead, or what the British, with their gift for great phrases, call “bendy-buses”.

And of course, double-deck buses are commonplace sights in San Francisco today, most of them open top tour buses. Tourists: don’t forget to come to the San Francisco Railway Museum to buy that sweatshirt that you DID forget at home! 🙂

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Remembering Cam Beach

Cam Beach with Muni’s oldest streetcar, 1896-vintage Car 578

Cameron Beach would have turned 70 today. San Francisco’s transit system would be better if he were still with us. But that wasn’t to be. On March 19, 2011, he died suddenly of a heart attack. At the time of his death, he was a member of SFMTA’s Board of Directors, having been appointed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2007, following his retirement as Chief Operating Officer of Sacramento Regional Transit.

On his 70th birthday, we want to share his story and his spirit with those who never knew him, and those who were among his many friends.

On the SFMTA board, Cam quickly won the respect of his fellow directors for his tremendous depth of knowledge and experience and his unswerving commitment to meeting the needs of the public. In an interview, he said, “I have always viewed issues from the user’s point of view.  How is the passenger or the motorist or the person looking for a parking place or the bicyclist or the pedestrian going to perceive our action?” He enjoyed great respect from employees across SFMTA, because they knew he understood the demands of their jobs, but also couldn’t be “bs’d” because of that detailed understanding of operations and maintenance. With a lifetime of knowledge about Muni, starting as a young rail and bus fan, you couldn’t fool Cam, and he in turn educated his fellow SFMTA Board members in a way that was insightful and optimistic, concentrating on the possibilities instead of just the shortcomings. Everyone who knew Cam knew he was a straight shooter, looking for positives wherever possible, refusing to play “gotcha” games and deal in oneupmanship.

First and foremost, Cam Beach was a San Franciscan, believing in the enduring promise of this city, while certainly not blind to its shortcomings. He was born January 26, 1949, at Letterman Hospital. He grew up in Cow Hollow, went to high school at Sacred Heart and Galileo, from which he graduated. Growing up in the city, he rode Muni everywhere, and became a lifelong fan of the system, incredibly knowledgeable about its history and operations. Even as he built a career and raised a family in Sacramento, his heart stayed here, and he was delighted to visit as much as possible, and finally relocate. Going out on foggy days from his West Portal home, Going out on foggy days, he’d sometimes wear a sweatshirt emblazoned “Old School San Francisco Native”.

Cam was a long-time Market Street Railway Member who joined our Board of Directors in 2001, even before he retired from his job Sacramento. Early in 2003, he was joined on our board by Carmen Clark, another transportation professional with deep experience in San Francisco. It was love at first sight. They married at Grace Cathedral and took a California Street cable car to their reception. It doesn’t get much more San Francisco than that.

Cam Beach and Carmen Clark

Though Cam left our board when he joined SFMTA’s in 2007, he never lost his love for the historic streetcars and cable cars. He recognized that they not only brought almost 50,000 people where they wanted to go every day, but they also helped Muni put its best foot forward to the public, something he believed was increasingly important. He was a strong supporter of increasing F-line streetcar service to meet rising demand, for the start up of the E-Embarcadero line, and the extension of service to Aquatic Park and Fort Mason.  

2007 Bus Rodeo

As his many friends know, Cam loved buses too, perhaps just as much. That’s why Market Street Railway was happy to support Muni’s motor coach maintenance team in its restoration of one of Cam’s favorite vehicle types, the Mack buses he grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. We paid for new tires and upholstery, things Muni couldn’t obtain through their regular channels. Now that the Mack is completely restored, we will be asking SFMTA to dedicate that coach, No. 2230, to Cam, as a complement to its naming of the historic streetcars’ home at Geneva and San Jose Avenues, as Cameron Beach Yard.

Restored 1956 Mack Coach 2230 at Levi’s Plaza

To further honor Cam’s memory, we are inviting our members and friends to make a donation to help us buy tires for the very historic bus Muni’s team is restoring now: a 1947 Twin Coach dual-engine bus bought by Muni for the express purpose of replacing the Powell Street cable cars. The arrogant actions of then-Mayor Roger Lapham in ordering the bus purchase were met by the people power led by Friedel Klussmann, the citizen who mobilized women and men to stop Lapham’s plan and save the Powell cable cars. This bus and its siblings ended up running on mostly minor Muni routes, but still retain a potent place in history for where they DIDN’T run.

Newspaper clip featuring the Twin Coach type now being restored at Muni

If you’d like to help remember Cam’s memory by contributing to the restoration of this bus, you can do so here, choose “Fleet Enhancement Fund”, and note in the box that your donation is in Cam’s memory. Thanks so much!

We at Market Street Railway are proud and honored that Carmen Clark today serves as our Board Chair. Her own decades-long commitment to better transit is reinforced, she says, by the many things she learned from Cam, and by his unswerving dedication to making Muni better. On her desk, she keeps a verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson she says reminds her of Cam’s virtues. We agree:

DEFINITION OF A SUCCESSFUL LIFE

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

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“Torpedoes” on the F-line

Muni’s biggest PCC streetcars have been nicknamed “torpedoes” by fans since shortly after they arrived in San Francisco in 1948. The 50’5″ behemoths are four feet longer than the far more numerous single-end PCC streamliners, and a full nine feet wide. The origin of the nickname is a bit obscure, but many think it derives from the sleekness of the design. There are seven of these cars in Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet. Three are currently being completely rebuilt at Brookville… — Read More

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10-Year Profile Picture Challenge

Posting old and current profile photos side by side has been the rage on Facebook of late, so we thought we’d post our own…just one of dozens of comparisons we could make that show just how wonderful Muni’s restoration of historic streetcars is. This car, 1009, admittedly needed more “plastic surgery” than most others. The photo from 10 years ago shows it ripped (not the good muscle kind, either) and slathered in blue protective paint after sitting out of service… — Read More

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Decorated Cable Cars, Now and Then

‘Tis the season to show off holiday spirit in all kinds of ways. The San Francisco Chronicle is both reporting and demonstrating that spirit with our most iconic transit vehicles, the cable cars. You can see the publication’s handiwork on Powell Cable Car 1 (pictured in the photo by Val Lupiz above, complete with Victorian-costumed guests), one of eight cable cars decorated this year in a growing campaign led by Val, Jeremy Whiteman, and Frank Zepeda (MSR members all), and supported… — Read More

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Big Boost for Mid-Market F-line Loop

The US Department of Transportation has granted San Francisco $15 million to help pay for the first phase of the city’s vision to remake Market Street. Here’s the news story, and here’s the city’s official website for the project.   Included in that first phase is a critical improvement to the F-line historic streetcar service, shown above: a bi-directional loop track at Civic Center, using the short first block of McAllister Street and the northerly extension of Seventh Street (called… — Read More

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Muni’s “Fireplace”

Flash back a half-century or more, when the West Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was done up to resemble a giant brick fireplace, complements of local merchants. We see PCC Car 1010 about to plunge into the “hearth” on its trip downtown, emerging a few minutes later at Market and Castro Streets.  Did you know that San Francisco is getting Car 1010 as a belated holiday present in the new year? It’s being completely renovated at Brookville Equipment Company… — Read More

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Incredible Film: Cable Cars on Pacific Ave., 1929

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. A couple of months ago, we got a call asking whether we recognized the location of a film. We did — Pacific Avenue. We had never seen motion pictures of that line, which closed in 1929. Now, the video has been posted on YouTube, with additional information on the provenance of the film. It was professionally shot, with sound, by a Movietone Newsreel crew, which spent several days filming the line… — Read More

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Update: 916 Test Cut Short; Not Out the Rest of the Weekend

  Muni tests cars for a good reason before they enter service. The “newest” member of the vintage fleet, 1946 Melbourne Tram 916, came out this morning for what was supposed to be two 12-hour days of testing along The Embarcadero and the T-line as far as Muni Metro East, to check out its systems following a recent rebuilding of its trucks. The operating crew said the car ran like a dream from a propulsion and braking standpoint in its… — Read More

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“Zurich” Car to Return To Service Soon?

Look what was testing in Cameron Beach Yard on Sunday (July 8). Car 737, Muni’s lone European-style PCC streetcar has been out of service for some time. Built in 1952 for Brussels, Belgium, acquired by Muni in 2004, and painted (at then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s request) to honor San Francisco’s sister city of Zurich, Switzerland (which ran similar-looking cars) it has needed parts and maintenance attention. But when word came that the Mayor of Zurich was coming to San Francisco later… — Read More

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Buses on F-line, No E-line Sunday, June 24

The Pride Parade has been San Francisco’s summer kickoff celebration for more than decades now, with huge throngs lining Market Street to watch almost 300 parade units go by. Back in the 1980s, historic streetcars were actually part of the parade, shown here in 1983, as a Blackpool boat tram and Muni’s famed Car 1 participated. The boat tram’s authentic destination sign seemed particularly appropriate. This year, though, streetcars will be completely absent from the parade route, not only for the duration… — Read More

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Last Public Vintage Streetcar Charter of 2018: June 16

Much to our disappointment, Muni is suspending historic streetcar charters for seven months starting June 22, (except for our arrangements Operators’ Circle members charter on September 7). They cite, among other things, a shutdown of the T-line this fall due to construction of a new platform for the Warriors’ arena in Mission Bay. Whatever the merit of the reason, to the best of knowledge, there will be only one historic streetcar charter open to all Market Street Railway members and… — Read More

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Meet MSR Board Chair Carmen Clark April 17

Carmen Clark, pictured above with SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, is a long-time public transportation leader. She has served as executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, interim executive director of SFMTA (Muni) and has provided executive consulting services to numerous Bay Area and national public transit agency. We are delighted that she is the new chair of the Market Street Railway Board of Directors. Come meet Carmen for a casual, candid conversation about our organization’s goals… — Read More

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