107 Years Ago Today

December 28, 1912, about 1 p.m., looking west on Geary Street at Grant Avenue. A crowd estimated at 50,000 people engulfs Muni’s first streetcars as they inaugurate the A-Geary line. Car 3 is in the foreground, left, trailing Cars 2 and 1 (which carried Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph). Click the photo and enjoy the wonderful detail. Try to find a bareheaded person (we found only one). Go window shopping at The Paragon, where a year-end 1/4-1/2 off sale is underway (that building is still there). Note that Car 3 is missing its rear “A” route plate (Did they run out? Was it filched?) A remarkable image. Courtesy SFMTA Archive.

On December 28, 1912, ten shiny gray streetcars with brick-red roofs lined up on Geary Street, from Kearny Street to Grant Avenue. The first, Numbered 1 in gold leaf outlined in black, opened its black scissor gate. Up stepped the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr.

From his pocket, he took a Liberty Head nickel, with a large “V” on the back (people knew back then that was the roman numeral for “five”). He nodded at conductor Nathan Rahn, in his crisp navy blue uniform, and dropped it into the firebox. It clanked. The press was told this 1912-S nickel was one of the first 40 ever minted at the San Francisco Mint at Fifth and Mission. The Mayor strode through the car, its crisp pale yellow rattan streets still pristine, its wood paneling still smelling of varnish.

Originally, the streetcars were to have been decorated, and the Municipal Band was supposed to be aboard the first car, playing its way along the line to the initial terminal at 33rd Avenue. The Mayor personally scotched this idea, saying, “Let’s get the cars going all right first, and toot our horn afterward”. Still, the crowd estimated at 50,000 San Franciscans roared for a speech from the mayor. He answered their call with these remarks:

“It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. s must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”

Mayor James Rolph, Jr., December 28, 1912

Mayor Rolph then joined Motorman Eugene Clisbee on the front platform of Car 1, gave the signal, and the streetcar inched forward through the swarms of people to loud cheers, and the silent salute of dozens of American flags hanging from the upper floors of surrounding buildings. Filled with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on, Car 1 picked up speed as the crowd thinned, and by Jones Street, was making good time. A photographer snapped the shot below, with an escort automobile next to it. (That photo ended up in the San Francisco Public Library with a notation “date and location unknown”. Until our nonprofit recognized it for what it was, documented the location and event, and publicized it.)

Car 1 on December 28, 1912, westbound on Geary at Jones Street. San Francisco Public Library.

While Mayor Rolph loved photo-ops, he was no one-block-and-off guy. He rode every inch of track, followed by the other cars that had lined up behind. Muni only owned ten streetcars initially, but just over two years later, they would be operating almost 200 streetcars on seven lines (plus two special lines for the 1915 exposition). With the opening of tunnels under San Francisco hills in 1918 and 1928, Rolph’s vision of city-wide Muni service would be achieved during his own tenure as mayor (he was elected governor in 1930).

Car 1 (center) near the end of its first service life at Sutro Barn, 32nd Avenue and Clement Street, 1949. MSR Archive.

Muni’s first ten streetcars were retired in 1951. Only Car 1 of this group was preserved, for possible static display in a museum. But in 1962, Muni craftworkers restored it to its original appearance to celebrate the Railway’s 50th anniversary, and it gave rides on Market Street for a nickel one week. This was the germ of an idea to operate historic streetcar service on our main street, brought to reality with the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980, which were the result of advocacy from early leaders of Market Street Railway (the nonprofit named for Muni’s old private competitor). The success of the Trolley Festivals led to the permanent F-Market line, which opened in 1995 and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000, again thanks in large measure to the persistent and persuasive advocacy of Market Street Railway.

Rust and rot, Car 1, 2004. MSR Archive.

As for Car 1 itself, it began to rust and rot in the sun and rain after the covered storage sheds at Geneva Division were demolished in the 1980s. Market Street Railway advocated successfully for both restoration of this priceless vehicle and construction of protective covered storage for the historic streetcar fleet, both achieved around Muni’s centennial year of 2012.

Running any big-city transit agency is tough, to say the least. Running one in a high-density city with increasingly crowded streets is tougher yet. Despite the challenges, Muni’s leaders, with strong support from elected officials, have managed to turn one of America’s oldest transit fleets into one of its newest, and its greenest as well, in the past eight years. All while operating the nation’s largest fleet of vintage transit vehicles (cable cars as well as streetcars) in regular daily service, taking people where they want to go with delight.

Car 1, completely restored, at Muni’s centennial celebration on April 5, 2012, with many dignitaries including (on platform) Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. SFMTA photo.

Market Street Railway is proud to serve as Muni’s nonprofit preservation partner and salute it on its 107th anniversary. Please consider a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership to help us in our mission of preserving historic transit in San Francisco by clicking here. Thanks, and Happy 2020, everyone!

Source credit for opening day detail: “The People’s Railway” by Anthony Perles.

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Double your year-end donation!

Your year-end tax-deductible donation will be DOUBLED thanks to a matching challenge from our board members. Please read on!

Hard to believe that 2020 marks 25 years since the permanent F-line opened on Market Street, and 20 years since it was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf, where one of the famed Blackpool “Boat Trams” is pictured (both of the Boat Trams, we should mention, Market Street Railway acquired for Muni and paid to ship here).

Muni is, of course, America’s first publicly-owned big city transit system, celebrating its 107th anniversary of operation on December 28. Someone recently described our nonprofit as “like the starter dough that makes sourdough bread possible. Without that starter, always on hand to be a catalyst, no sourdough.” We’re certainly not as famous as San Francisco sourdough, but we’re flattered by the analogy.  As we’ve said before, it takes patience and persistence to accomplish good things in San Francisco. Important projects don’t get done as quickly as we would like, that’s true, but we’ve seen so many examples of other advocacy groups who constantly act confrontative instead of collaborative, and they usually end up with no results at all.   

We made some good progress in 2019, notably getting the Boats back into summertime waterfront service, to the delight of the public, thanks to SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum. Having been at this advocacy for almost 40 years (since the planning of the first Trolley Festival in the early 1980s), we’ve seen both supportive and obstructive officials at Muni. But our patient building of relationships at City Hall and with leading businesses and neighborhood groups has enabled steady growth and improvement in the historic streetcar operation, and contributed to rejuvenation of the cable car system, overcoming the periodic internal indifference that now appears past. 

With new leadership in place at Muni and its parent, SFMTA, we believe 2020 can be a breakthrough year, with your help. There are already early indications that the beloved Boats will be cruising the waterfront more often in 2020. We believe contracts will finally go out to completely restore five more historic streetcars from the 1920s. They include New Orleans 913 (1923), Market Street Railway 798 (1924), Johnstown 351 (1926), Osaka 151 (1927) and Porto, Portugal 189(1929), restore them with their original trucks, not replicas, thanks to our advocacy, to give the traditional ride of these great vintage vehicles.

Additionally, original 1914 Muni 162 should reenter service, its 105-year old trucks completely rebuilt in-house, by Muni’s great crafts workers. Following that, its sister 1914 Car 130 is slated for a complete in-house rebuilding. Muni leadership’s decision to do this work in-house (pending identification of space and budgeting) is to us a clear demonstration of their strong commitment to the true permanent operation of not only the F-line, but also the E-Embarcadero line, where the double-end vintage streetcars will primarily be assigned. And again, thanks to our advocacy, we are closer to getting the E-line extended westward to Aquatic Park to serve Fort Mason, with a grant of nearly $1 million to get to the design phase approved by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Our board of directors, chaired by Carmen Clark, joins me in thanking all our members and donors for their support that made these and other accomplishments possible. And this year, several members of our board members have stepped up to personally match the first $7,500 in year-end donations we receive. These will be used to help us strengthen our day-to-day advocacy to get the projects I mentioned across the finish line. They’ll also seed an ambitious project we’ll be telling you more about in the next Inside Track, our member magazine. Our San Francisco Railway Museum begins its 15th year of operation in a few months. It’s time to freshen it, both inside and outside, with more moving images and interactivity to appeal to new generations of transit fans, to build enduring support for the historic streetcars and cable cars. Your year-end gifts will be the “starter” for this important project, and our board match will double your donation’s impact

We hope to have made major progress on the museum by 2020’s Muni Heritage Weekend, August 22-23.  Of course, the oh-so-popular Blackpool Boat Trams will be there, along with both Melbourne trams, Muni’s 1912 flagship Car 1, 1896 “Dinky” 578, and much more. 

For all these reasons, and especially our board members’ matching offer, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation to Market Street Railway. You can make a one-time gift of as little as $10, or a recurring monthly donation. Please click here to donate and help us keep the past present in the future. And please consider sharing this email with friends who might want to join Market Street Railway or make a donationThanks for your ongoing support.

Warm wishes for a very happy holiday season.

Looking forward,

Rick Laubscher, President, Market Street Railway

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2020 Muni Heritage Weekend: August 22-23

Just a sliver of the action at Muni Heritage Weekend 2019. More than a dozen rarely-operated streetcars, cable cars, and buses offered rides to the public.

SFMTA has confirmed to us that Muni Heritage Weekend in 2020 will take place August 22-23. This is earlier than the past few years and should give opportunities for more families from out of town to attend. We expect a repeat of past years’ successful events, featuring streetcars, cable cars, and buses from 70-137 years old carrying happy riders along the streets of San Francisco, with our San Francisco Railway Museum at the center of the action.

There are constraints on when this increasingly popular event to be scheduled. To ensure sufficient extra operators to pilot the heritage streetcars and buses, it can’t conflict with special events that require extra Muni service, such as Giants’ baseball games or major festivals. The plaza across from our Museum must be available from the city’s Recreation & Parks Department for staging and static displays, and plaza reservations didn’t open until a couple of weeks ago. And it must not conflict with periods when it is hard to get extra operators to work overtime, such as Labor Day Weekend.

One September weekend, the 19th and 20th, would have met these criteria, but that is Rosh Hashanah, and we and SFMTA agreed on the August 22-23 dates instead. The traction action runs from 11 am – 5 pm both Saturday and Sunday.

Folks coming from out of town can plan their visit with confidence now. We will be providing updates in the coming months on details of the event as we flesh out the activities. But there’ll be plenty to do; count on it. We will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the permanent F-line on Market Street and the 20th anniversary of its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf, so look for some special activities. We’ll also have some special activities for our members, particularly those in the Operator’s Circle ($250 or more in annual support). Stand by!

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Two Great Streetcar Stories

Muni’s historic streetcars, and the people who love them, keep gaining media attention, both in their hometown, and far afield. For your Thanksgiving weekend reading pleasure, we’re sharing two stories from the San Francisco Chronicle, and its associated website, sfgate.com.

Both stories show how the historic streetcars continue to attract new generations of fans, thanks in part to Market Street Railway’s continuing efforts aimed at exactly that goal. It’s a core part of our mission to keep the past present in the future, by making it relevant and delightful to younger San Franciscans and visitors.

Titillated passengers on the F-Bomb Comedy Train. Photo, PJ Crame, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle.

First, some laughs. There’s now a comedy car on the F-line, at least once in a while. Here’s the story of the F-Bomb Comedy Train. A group charters a streetcar (in the case of the most recent event on November 25, a “Mint Milano“, and runs the F-line with performances by local comedians along the way. Next event is supposed to take place in January, but no specific date yet. The group says they’ll post info when available on their Facebook Group, where you can sign up for email notifications. So, please don’t ask us; it’s their gig, and we love it! (Note that part of our advocacy efforts in the coming year will be gaining SFMTA concurrence to expand opportunities for groups and people to charter historic streetcars and ride them on other lines besides the F and E.

Alex Key with the replica 1911 streetcar at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Photo: Nick Otto, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle.

Second, an in-depth story about one of our valued volunteers at our San Francisco Railway Museum. He’s 16-year old Alex Key, profiled by the Chronicle‘s talented writer Sam Whiting. (Note that Chronicle content is kept behind a paywall; we think the link above should work, but if it doesn’t, a summary: the article recounts Alex’s amazing memory for transit history, current lines and stops (not just on Muni rail lines, but every Muni bus line BART, and other Bay Area transit systems as well), and his pleasure at helping visitors out with directions.)

We are very proud of all our dedicated volunteers, who interpret San Francisco transit history to our museum visitors, and often to E- and F-line riders as well. If you’d like to join our volunteer corps, just send an email to volunteer@streetcar.org.

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Happy Centennial of a Big Global Streetcar Event

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB), whose history is wonderfully summarized in the quoted sections below, which were originally posted on Facebook by the group Australian Rail Maps, which also provided the historic photo from 1991 above. The M&MTB built both of Muni’s W-class trams: W2 496 in 1929, and SW6 916 in 1946. (Muni also has W2 586, built in 1930, complete and in storage.) W-class trams are generally… — Read More

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Grab a seat on this unique cable car and feed the hungry

Seats are going fast for a first-time opportunity to tour the cable car system on the biggest cable car ever built: Sacramento-Clay “Big 19”, at 34 feet a full seven feet longer than Powell cars, and at 136 years, the oldest operating cable car in the world. And you can ride it on Mason and Hyde Streets, as well as California Street, in a four-hour exclusive charter on November 9, starting at 11 a.m., with lunch included from the famous Buena… — Read More

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Boat to Cruise on Fleet Week Weekend

UPDATE, FRIDAY MORNING, OCTOBER 11 — The Boat is out today as well, a bonus day! The copy below has been adjusted to reflect this. Thanks to initiative by staff at SFMTA, led by Randy Catanach, chief of rail maintenance, one of Muni’s two 1934 Blackpool, England, open-top Boat Trams will cruise the waterfront from our San Francisco Railway Museum to Pier 39 on Fleet Week Weekend — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, October 11-13, from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.… — Read More

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Boat Keeps Sailing Through Fleet Week

SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum has approved the extension of summer Blackpool Boat Tram service through Fleet Week in mid-October. The boat will continue to operate from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. on The Embarcadero between our San Francisco Railway Museum and Pier 39 every Tuesday and Wednesday through October 9. This is a welcome development, given the great popularity of the Boat Tram so far this summer. In last weekend’s Muni Heritage celebration, riders queued up for more… — Read More

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Heritage Weekend Halftime Report

Great first day for Muni Heritage Weekend. Most diverse group of vintage transit vehicles ever; biggest crowds ever; most visitors to our San Francisco Railway Museum ever. We’ll post most of the photos after Sunday’s action, but we want to make sure you see a few shots, and more importantly, these links: The Chronicle’s Steve Rubenstein looks at the first day’s action, with a focus on buses. And the Chron’s venerable “Native Son”, columnist Carl Nolte, pens a paean to… — Read More

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Ride, Join, and SHOP at Heritage Weekend

Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7 and 8, is the best two days of the year when it comes to riding a wide range of vintage transit vehicles — streetcars, cable cars, trolley buses, and motor buses — ranging in age from 44 to 136 years! You literally cannot do that anywhere else in the world, at any time. And it’s also the best two days of the year to get your shopping done at our San Francisco Railway Museum, the… — Read More

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Sept. 7-8 Muni Heritage Weekend Details Here!

September 7 and 8 are shaping up to be the best Muni Heritage Weekend ever! This year’s seventh annual event should feature two vintage rail vehicle debuts, plus a full roster of returning favorite streetcars, cable cars, and buses. All the action is centered at our San Francisco Railway Museum, 77 Steuart Street across from the Ferry Building at the F-line Steuart Street stop. (The one exception: the special cable cars, which will board one block away at California and… — Read More

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Big 19 in Broad Daylight

For the first time in 77 years today, the biggest cable car in San Francisco (or anywhere for that matter) climbed “halfway to the stars” and back down again under cable power, in regular service conditions. The cable car known as “Big 19” for its size (seven feet longer than Powell Street Cable Car 19, and four feet longer than the California Street cable cars, previously the longest in the fleet) has been on the streets twice before in recent… — Read More

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Great Start to Summer Boat Service

The first day of summer boat tram service, May 28, went very well. Some highlights: The Boat ran great, the banners Market Street Railway prepared looked great; thanks to Randy Catanach’s rail maintenance crew. The operating crew (Angel Carvajal and Juiel Rice) were great with riders, very welcoming. Market Street Railway had docents on board all day answering questions. Loads were good all day; full both directions on final few trips. Lots of waves and positive feedback from onlookers all… — Read More

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Muni Heritage Weekend Sept. 7-8

The premier vintage transit event of the year, Muni Heritage Weekend, happens September 7-8 this year. Rides will be offered each day from 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. For the first time, this popular event, co-sponsored by SFMTA and Market Street Railway, will kick off San Francisco Transit Week, an event co-sponsored by SFMTA and the San Francisco Transit Riders organization (SFTR). Details are still being finalized, but for Heritage Weekend at least, you can expect, at a minimum, several… — Read More

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Happy Centennial to One “L” of a Streetcar Line

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… — Read More

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