Smiles are breaking out along the city’s waterfront and along Market Street, as Muni’s vintage streetcars are out in force for the first time in more than a year. The F-line is running a full test schedule, including pull-outs and pull-ins along the J-Church line, in advance of the official reopening of the line for passenger service on May 15. Initial service will run seven days a week, but just eight hours a day (11 am-7 pm) initially, running the whole route from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf.
EXTRA smiles popped out today with refresher training on two of Muni’s most popular vintage streetcars, including the oldest operating passenger streetcar in America, single-truck “Dinky” 578, which celebrates its 125th birthday at the end of the summer. The great shot above, on the Castro curve at 17th and Market, comes from Jeremy Whiteman.
Traci Cox, normally a master of the low-angle shot, checks in with an “above-it-all” shot of Boat Tram 228 cruising along Church behind a new Siemens LRV, with PCC 1071 in its yellow Minneapolis-St. Paul livery, headed toward its F-line test run.
Here are some other great shots from today. It feels a lot different — and better — on the streets of San Francisco now. The colorful F-line cars make a huge difference.
And to finish, c’mon, you know you want to see another boat photo. Here’s a great one to end with, another Traci Cox high angle shot on San Jose Avenue, as the boat tram headed back to Cameron Beach Yard today.
Today is Opening Day at home for the San Francisco Giants, the first time in 18 months they’ll play in front of fans at Oracle Park. Often, sporting events like this feature a live band, though we’re probably not far enough in our reopening for that. But we can look back to such days, not just for the Giants, but for another San Francisco institution: Muni.
You might call this a double-header: band and ball team all in one shot. We got this photo from member Mike Parkinson. It’s dated February 2, 1930, and we like to think it demonstrates team spirit. Check out the detail by clicking on the photo above and looking at the crops below.
First off, the obvious: all men, and all white as well — the City was indeed discriminatory in its hiring practices 90 years ago, as we’ve discussed here before. We wish we knew more details about the band and the ball club. Who did the team play, for example? Were there grudge matches against Rec & Park, which kept Muni streetcars from crossing Golden Gate Park? Was there a District Attorney’s team, and if so did they prosecute stolen bases? Did the band ever “mount up” on Work Car C-1 and tour the town as “Musicians in Motion”?
For this post, we’ll just focus on style. The ball players look natty in those dark unis with the white pinstripes. But wait, there’s more than one uniform type.
The player lower center has this cool diagonal script thing going on his jersey, plus the interlocked “SF” on his sleeve; quite a style step up from the arched block letters on the “base” jerseys. And what else do we spy?
Yes, indeed, the famed “O’Shaughnessy logo”, supposedly designed by legendary City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy to symbolize the first big-city transit system owned by the people themselves: Muni. By this time the logo was placed on all new equipment Muni bought but was not yet universal around the system. An “alternate jersey” three-quarters of a century before Major League Baseball embraced the idea.
The logo also appears on the band hats. It looks like these are enamel pins; very stylish. Coincidentally, we offer these enamel logo pins in our online store, though we never knew before now that there was an actual prototype for them. For that matter, we don’t know whether the band played at the team’s games, either. But it’s cool to see this pride in the workplace. (By the way, you can get your O’Shaughnessy fix in a number of ways with us.)
Good luck to the Giants this season, and equally good luck to Muni. They had an extremely challenging “season” last year, but through the determination and hard work of their team, both the front line “players” and the “coaches” (pun intended) that kept moving San Franciscans on essential missions, they have emerged as winners in our book. With the best yet to come: F-line historic streetcar service slated to resume next month, and cable cars later in the year!
Editor’s note:One hundred years ago—April 1, 1921 (no fooling!)—an old name appeared anew on the San Francisco scene: Market Street Railway Company. There had already been four transit companies bearing that name, dating back to 1860. This incarnation of the name came after a financial reorganization of the city’s dominant transit company, United Railroads, which with its predecessor had consolidated numerous private operators of cable cars, horsecars, and electric streetcars in the preceding 30 years.
Our nonprofit took that famed name, Market Street Railway, for ourselves back in 1977, 33 years after Muni acquired our namesake. To mark the centennial of our namesake, our member magazine Inside Track published this story, illuminating how transit got started in San Francisco and how it brought to us the city we know today. To receive the rest of the series and other exclusive features, please join us as a member!
Rick Laubscher Market Street Railway President
For the first half-century of our city’s transit (and really, all of America’s), the driving force was private companies using public streets to try to make a profit, by essentially renting those streets—paying for the exclusive transit use of them. Today, of course, we think of public mass transit as not only serving the public, but owned by the public as well—a function of government, not a for-profit business. Yet public ownership of a big-city transit line didn’t happen until 1912, right here, with Muni.
Before that, all over the country, mass transit was provided by companies that aimed to make a profit. In the Gold Rush-enriched San Francisco of the 1850s, the first public transit vehicles were horse-drawn omnibuses (yes, that’s where the word ‘bus’ comes from). They were basically urban stagecoaches. But what few streets existed then were rough at best.
To provide a smoother ride on larger vehicles, a man named Thomas Hayes won the right from the government in 1857 to lay tracks in a few streets for his exclusive use. It was the first street railway franchise awarded in California.
Hayes named his operation the Market Street Railroad Company, and on July 4, 1860, began operating a steam-powered passenger car on tracks from Third Street out Market and then South on Valencia. He then ran a branch out a street he named for himself to Laguna Street, to help him develop land he owned, land now known as Hayes Valley.
Hayes paid the government for his franchise, basically renting the streets his tracks were laid on. The success of his company immediately attracted competitors. The government took bids for the franchise rights to other streets, with the winners paying fees and a percentage of their fares.
After steam operation on Market Street was banned in 1868, horses took over, pulling little trailers along the tracks on many routes owned by various start-up companies. In 1873, Scotsman Andrew Hallidie won a franchise on Clay Street, not for horse-drawn cars, but for little cars pulled by an underground cable. This high technology innovation was twice as fast as horsecars, and could climb hills that horses couldn’t. But the uncertainty of long-term franchise rights discouraged large-scale investment until 1879, when the state granted San Francisco the right to award long-term street railway franchises, up to 50 years. Existing small-scale franchise holders applied for the new, longer franchises, increasing the value of their companies. This in turn drew bigger financial players to San Francisco transit, since these franchises now had predictable value.
Stanford on Market Street
In 1882, Leland Stanford, former California governor, a builder of the transcontinental railroad, and soon to become robber-baron-in-charge of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad (whose tentacles all over the state gained it the nickname of the Octopus), bought up the company Thomas Hayes had started, by this time a horsecar operation calling itself Market Street Railway.
Stanford’s plans were to replace horsepower with cable power and build more lines radiating off Market. Appropriately, he renamed it the Market Street Cable Railway Company. (Stanford soon got kicked out of his rail interests by Collis P. Huntington, who lived a couple blocks from him atop Nob Hill, but consoled himself with a US Senate seat and a university built on his farm in Palo Alto, which he named for his late son.)
Other San Francisco transit companies, led by the Omnibus Railroad, quickly followed Stanford’s lead in converting the franchises for their horsecar lines to cable power, but after Frank Sprague made the electric streetcar practical in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, companies switched to this latest high-tech transit mode, which was twice as fast as cable cars and cheaper to install and maintain.
San Francisco got its first electric streetcar line in 1891, built by two brothers named Joost, from Market and Steuart Streets (just steps from our San Francisco Railway Museum) via a variety of South of Market and Mission District Streets to reach the county line. Again, it was the grant of an exclusive long-term franchise that justified the capital investment.
In 1893, the Southern Pacific interests snapped up a number of smaller companies (and their franchises), naming the new entity Market Street Railway Company. Its intent was to convert routes to electric streetcars (if they weren’t too steep, as cable lines such as Powell were). It was able to convert several cable lines to electric streetcars and built new electric lines too.
Uniting the railroads
But the Market Street Railway of 1893 lasted less than ten years. In 1902, a group of eastern capitalists bought out the Southern Pacific interests and consolidated its holdings with several other rail transit companies it had already purchased. These included the Sutter Street Railroad, operated by cable power, and the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway (the company the Joosts had founded, which had just opened a new carbarn at Geneva & San Jose Avenues, a site now home to Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet).
The new company, holding dozens of valuable street franchises, as well as the track and vehicles that operated on them, was known as United Railroads (URR). Getting the most value from its most valuable franchise, along Market Street, was a top priority for the new company. That required converting the five Market cable car lines to electric streetcars. But a city ordinance pushed by merchants forbade overhead wires on Market (and on Sutter, the company’s most direct route west to the fast-growing Richmond District). URR didn’t want to pay for the expensive electric conduit operation that city leaders demanded (already installed in New York and Washington DC). So, the cable cars soldiered on along Market Street, already antiquated by national standards.
The stalemate continued until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake and fire destroyed most cable machinery in San Francisco. URR, aided by bribes paid to members of the Board of Supervisors, won the right to string “temporary” overhead wires on Market and Sutter Streets and substitute streetcars for the old cable cars. These immediately became, along with Mission and Fillmore streets, some of the company’s busiest routes.
The franchises that United Railroads depended upon were not distributed evenly across the city. For example, in the 1880s and 90s, several competing companies built east-west lines from downtown into the Richmond District, both to take advantage of the residential growth there, and to serve the then-new urban oasis of Golden Gate Park. Transit service on almost every block caused the Richmond to grow even faster. Meantime, on the south side of the park, transit service in the Sunset District was sparse, as was also true in neighborhoods starting to develop in the southern part of the city.
Attracting private transit companies to invest in substantial new lines to these areas got harder in 1902, the same year URR came into being. A new, progressive, city charter in 1900 had set the goal of eventual public ownership of utilities, including transit. Two years later, in furtherance of that goal, the city government cut the length of new transit franchises to 25 years. By this time, many of the original 50-year franchises were at or nearing the halfway point in their lives. Seeing the writing on the wall, the original backers of United Railroads sold their shares. New shareholders, backed by hard-nosed URR President Patrick Calhoun, took an approach less friendly to the city and downright hostile to organized labor, leading to a bloody carmen’s strike in 1907.
Even with a hostile city government, URR leaders had reason to feel they were in the driver’s seat as they fought the carmen’s strike. The city government had twice asked voters to approve bonds to start a municipal railway, and both times voters had said no. Besides, no other big city had publicly-owned transit lines, and most of URR’s important franchises were good for at least 20 more years. But the ugly 1907 strike, in a union-friendly town, started changing minds about the privately-owned transit company.
Then, after a third failure at the ballot box, bonds to create a municipal railway were finally approved by voters in 1909, starting with the acquisition and conversion to streetcars of the Geary Street cable line, which had eluded United Railroads’ grasp. (We’ll chronicle the birth pangs of Muni in our next issue.) Now there would be competition, at least in some parts of town. And as the years ticked by, those franchises that were the foundation of URR’s business would lose value unless renewed, which was now contrary to city policy.
The first lines of the new Municipal Railway were concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the city, but its biggest spur to the city’s growth came when it opened lines where its private competitors couldn’t get a franchise: underground. The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in 1918 suddenly made the empty lands of the city’s southwest quadrant attractive to homebuilders, replacing the long, indirect surface slogs provided by United Railroads surface service with a quick trip on Muni tracks through the tunnel. The private company lobbied city officials hard to be granted the right to share the tunnel with Muni, but failed. Increased public ill-will toward the company following another bloody strike in 1917 no doubt played a part.
And yet United Railroads’ problems went far deeper. Physical damage from the 1906 earthquake and fire was followed by plummeting revenue from fewer riders as the city recovered. URR President Calhoun siphoned off money for his own purposes. Competition popped up on busy corridors from unregulated jitneys—private automobiles offering faster rides for the same five-cent fare as the streetcars (a nickel was called a “jit” in the slang of the day). And to top it off, a runaway streetcar in Visitacion Valley, along what’s now Geneva Avenue, killed eight passengers and injured more than 70 in 1918. It was the worst streetcar disaster in California history, resulting in large damage awards to victims.
Taken together, these circumstances caused the financial failure of United Railroads. Since its very formation in 1902, there had been talk that the original investors had paid too much for the properties and franchises they took over, and negotiations had been going on for several years to reorganize the company on firmer financial ground by paying off bondholders in the company at a significant loss. These negotiations accelerated even as a number of civic leaders called for a city takeover. But that wasn’t in the offing, not yet. Instead, a reorganization ended the life of United Railroads, its assets going to a familiar name: Market Street Railway Company.
What did the future hold for this new operator with the old name? What kind of transit service could San Franciscans expect from a company whose franchise rights were ever closer to their end? Would the city government help or hinder Market Street Railway? All questions we’ll address in the near future.
Owning, using, and paying for the streets
Our city’s streets are unquestionably owned by the public (except a handful of private streets in gated communities, a rarity in San Francisco). But owning, paying for, and using are three different things.
As you can see in our exclusive narrated version of the famous 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” film, horses, buggies, large dray wagons, bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles were all using the city-owned street space. But only the companies operating the cable cars, streetcars, and horsecars were paying for the right to use the street, making money by collecting fares (some of which they shared with the city under their franchise agreements).
In 1914, some private automobile drivers started picking up passengers on the same routes as United Railroads, poaching the five cent fares but not paying “rent” on any kind of franchise. The city eventually regulated these “jitneys” and forced them from Market onto Mission Street instead, a practice that lasted all the way to 2016. Author Don Anderson quotes Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, as calling his company the modern equivalent of the jitneys. (See Don’s excellent story on the city’s jitneys here.)
The early jitneys took revenue from United Railroads and the nascent Muni. A century later, the appearance of Uber and Lyft decimated the taxi business and reduced Muni ridership as well. Taxis pay “rent” to use streets by purchasing SFMTA-issued medallions, which cost $250,000. Competition from Uber and Lyft have made the medallions worth only a fraction of that, and taxi owners are suing the city. Uber and Lyft didn’t pay any “rent” to use the streets at the beginning, but many cities now impose some kind of tax or fee on them. In San Francisco, that’s a voter-approved 3.25% tax on most trips. That tax money goes to SFMTA. Additionally, because the city considers Uber and Lyft cars to be private automobiles, SFMTA bans them from Market Street, while taxis are allowed (with conditions).
In the past few (pre-pandemic) years, the numbers of bicycles and scooters, both manual and electric, have grown rapidly in the city. Companies that rent them have to get a franchise and pay a fee to the city for the right to operate on the streets. Private owners of bicycles and scooters pay no fees. Automobile owners pay gas taxes and state license fees. They pay to park both at meters in commercial districts and at the curb in many residential districts, though parking permits. Additionally, they pay to park at both SFMTA-owned and private garages, with a hefty parking tax imposed at all garages.
This complex array of charges for various transportation modes is the source of continuing and vigorous policy debate in the city. The city’s overarching goal is to reduce street congestion and vehicle emissions by providing more exclusive street space for Muni vehicles, bicycles and scooters, reducing the space for private automobiles. Increased parking fees are also intended in part to discourage private automobile operation in the city, and the city is now studying a proposed congestion charge on private automobiles that enter the downtown area (similar to what’s in place in London and Singapore). The city has also considered imposing its own license fee on cars registered in the city.
Many automobile owners are outraged by what they consider the assault on their long-time primacy on the streets of San Francisco, but the revenue from fees on autos and other modes of transportation is channeled to SFMTA, intended to subsidize Muni service, including of course the historic streetcars and cable cars.
San Francisco lost 53,000 residents in the first eight months of the pandemic, most of them to neighborhood Bay Area counties. Major downtown employers such as Salesforce, Twitter, Google, and Facebook have said they’ll let employees work from home most of the time for the foreseeable future. As the pandemic wanes, we’re likely to see a far different congestion picture than before. Our nonprofit’s goal is making sure the historic streetcars and cable cars still “own” the place they’ve earned on the streets of San Francisco.
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?
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!
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) presentin the future, please consider supporting us. Even the price of a beer helps!
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
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
With San Francisco’s historic streetcars still shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t take an actual ride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the permanent F-Market line, but we can get some virtual thrills with these two new merchandise items, designed by Chris Arvin. Above, a poster with Chris’s iconic, er, icons that playfully visualize some of Muni’s historic streetcar fleet. Below, a pin featuring a PCC in original Muni livery. These and an ever growing number of… — Read More
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
“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.
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
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
UPDATE: The City and County of San Francisco is now allowing indoor museums to reopen with limited capacity, but with no F-line streetcars running, there are few people in the area. We will most likely reopen when F-line historic streetcar service resumes No date has yet been set for that; we will announce plans on this website when decisions are made. Though our physical museum is closed, we continue to take orders for merchandise on our online store, and will… — Read More