December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line.
But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly owned streetcars in any major American city. San Franciscans turned out because they were proud of what their government had done.
In those days, private companies owned transit lines, which made a profit, even with a five-cent fare. They were awarded franchises from cities for the right to use the streets, lay down their tracks, and string their overhead wires. In San Francisco, this arrangement had led to significant corruption and the public was sick of it. So they approved a bond issue to purchase the obsolete Geary Street Cable Railroad and convert it to streetcars.
When Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph boarded Car No. 1, paid his fare (using one of the first 40 nickels produced by the San Francisco Mint less than three blocks away on Fifth Street), and personally took the controls for the ride out Geary, the crowd roared.
Now, 110 years later, Muni faces perhaps the most critical moment in its existence. Travel patterns that date back to the 19th century, focusing on connecting Downtown employment and shopping with outlying neighborhoods, were shattered by the pandemic, and almost three years on, it seems pretty clear that the combination of both working and shopping from home (at least part-time) requires a re-definition of what “Downtown” means, and how to justify the huge operating costs of both local and regional rail systems built to serve it.
But this past year saw tourism revive significantly, with the F-line and the cable cars busy. Next year marks 150 years of cable cars, dating back to Andrew Hallidie’s first line on Clay Street in 1873. We are coordinating a months-long celebration, about which we’ll have more details in January. It’s also the 40th anniversary of the first Trolley Festival on Market Street, which led to the permanent F-line. We were in the forefront of getting the vintage streetcars back on Market Street and extended along the waterfront.
We would very much appreciate your support for our advocacy with a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership.
We really need your help to ensure that the streetcars and cable cars keep their important place in Muni operations, especially as federal Covid relief money runs out. These symbols of San Francisco must endure as operating transit vehicles, taking people efficiently where they want to go. That includes the very streetcar Mayor Rolph operated, Car No. 1 (above), which our advocacy helped get fully restored as Muni’s 100th birthday gift to itself in 1912.
Thanks for your support. Looking forward to a successful 2023.