Happy 120th Birthday, SF Streetcars

On April 17, 1892, the first electric streetcar service opened in San Francisco. The line started at Market and Steuart Streets, a block from the Ferry terminal and just a few feet from our San Francisco Railway Museum. The line of the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway ran out to Holy Cross Cemetery south of the county line, in what is Colma today. The line zigged and zagged through downtown, partly to avoid infringing on other companies’ street franchise rights, but generally followed Steuart, Harrison, 14th St. and Guerrero to reach San Jose Avenue.

DSC_1025 copy.JPGMuni’s historic streetcar collection includes one of the city’s earliest, single truck No. 578, built in 1895, shown here near the terminal of the city’s first streetcar line on Steuart Street, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Made practical by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, just five years earlier, the electric streetcar was already decimating its predecessor technology, the cable car, in big cities all over America, and why not? Streetcars were twice as fast and easier to maintain, although they couldn’t climb steep hills like cable cars could. They also (at least initially) required overhead electric wires, which many found unsightly. Opponents of such wires successfully kept electric streetcars off Market Street for the next 14 years, although streetcar lines did spring up on many other streets, including Mission and Fillmore.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the cable car systems throughout the city; the main transit company of the time, United Railroads, took the opportunity (with some help from bribes) to string “temporary” wires on Market and bring streetcars to the city’s main street, where they have remained essentially ever since.
All of these early streetcar lines were privately owned, built to make a profit (which they amazingly did with a standard fare of five cents). But 20 years after the city got its first streetcar line, it got its (and America’s) first publicly owned streetcar line, the Municipal Railway (Muni), whose centennial we celebrate this year.

On April 27, 1992, while the permanent F-line was under construction, Muni and Market Street Railway mounted a grand streetcar parade down Market to celebrate the centennial of San Francisco streetcars. Today’s 120th will be marked simply by the same steady service streetcars provide every day in San Francisco. Cheers!