NOTE: This is the first of five articles chronicling the history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Others are being posted in the following weeks.
Public mass transit is something government does, right? Today, yes, but it used to be the opposite. Private companies provided that service for a profit and government stayed out of it.
Until the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) arrived on the scene on December 28, 1912. Muni was America’s first big city transit service “built by the people”. How it came to be is a story filled with politics, corruption, and progressivism, because we’re talking about San Francisco!
Charter sets a goal
In the late 19th century, privately owned transit companies were one of the biggest industries in the United States. They operated by renting the right from city governments to build tracks on specific streets in a city and carry paying passengers on rail vehicles (first horsecars, then cable cars, then electric streetcars as technology quickly evolved). In densely populated cities such as San Francisco, this led to cutthroat competition between companies with rights on parallel streets (and left remnants still in place today, with the closely-spaced service still prevalent in a few parts of our City). It also encouraged corruption, as we will see. By the end of the century, many progressive leaders in the City were determined to find a better way.
In 1900, San Francisco voters approved a new City Charter, which among other progressive features called for eventual city government ownership of all public utilities. There was widespread dissatisfaction with privately owned transit in the City, largely consolidated in 1902 under Chicago ownership as United Railroads. Part of this dissatisfaction was the company’s refusal to invest the required money to convert the slow cable car system on Market to faster electric streetcars, using the underground power system then operating successfully in Manhattan and in Washington. The company wanted overhead wires, which were already in use on the lines on side streets they had converted to streetcar use, but which were staunchly opposed by those who felt Market Street should be wire-free. (A tangle of overhead power and telephone lines had only recently been undergrounded along Market.)
A lengthy cable line, running from Market and Geary westward to Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District, had eluded the grasp of the United Railroads octopus. Its city-granted franchise to operate had an expiration date of November 6, 1903. Following the Charter’s mandate, city leaders swept into action, commissioning the city engineer, C.E. Grunsky, in 1901 to prepare plans and estimate costs to use the Geary Street cable tracks, which were in excellent condition, for an electric streetcar line, with power supplied by the underground conduit system, with the cable channel acting as the conduit. This would have been inexpensive and avoided overhead wires.
But city voters failed to give the necessary two-thirds majority to a bond issue to pay for the conversion in 1902. A second try, in 1903, also failed at the ballot box. At this point, Mayor James D. Phelan joined with interests related to the powerful Claus Spreckels (who owned the Call Building across the street from the Geary cable line’s turntable) to create something called the “Municipal Street Railways of San Francisco”. This private company was structured so that the city could buy it at any time by simply paying the capital costs expended to that point, plus interest. Their goal was to implement streetcar lines using the underground conduit system for power. They filed their corporate papers with the State of California on April 17, 1906.
Quake shakes things up
The next day, the earth shook and the sky burned (to steal the title of William Bronson’s great history of the earthquake and fire). The transit system was a shambles, with cable lines especially hard hit. The Phelan-Spreckels company was soon forgotten. United Railroads managed to get the Fillmore crosstown streetcar line (today’s 22) back in service within a week, and won permission to string wires “temporarily” on Market so electric streetcars could quickly take over, since the cable machinery had been wrecked. (They soon made this permanent by bribing the entire Board of Supervisors.) A city budget item to have the city take over and rehabilitate the Geary cable line was diverted to rebuild streets and public buildings, but the line did get castoff Market Street cable cars, far larger than the small dummy and trailer sets previously used on Geary.
City leaders tried again to win voter approval for a municipal streetcar line on Geary in June 1909. Voters again rejected it, but this time it was very close, so it was put back on the ballot on a special election on December 30, 1909. This time, the fourth attempt, voters said yes.
Muni becomes reality
But some bankers said no to the Municipal Railway bonds, seeing this novel public operation as risky. Many of the bonds were sold instead to local investors, and by June 1911, the City was ready to begin construction.
City-employed laborers planted poles and strung overhead wire while the Geary cable cars ran beneath. Other crews built new streetcar track from Fifth Avenue to 33rd, with a spur along Tenth Avenue to reach Golden Gate Park. Then, on May 5, 1912, it was time to begin the final phase. The Geary cable fell silent as celebrants banged pots and honked horns to end its era. The old trackway was soon engulfed with contractors with work gangs and steam-powered heavy equipment, ripping out the formidable cable yolks concreted into the street and laying down streetcar tracks. A separate contract to W.L. Holman was to supply 43 new “California-type” streetcars, with open end sections and a closed center section for smoking.
The street work went astonishingly fast (especially by today’s standards), with 6.5 miles of track between Kearny Street and Fifth Avenue completely replaced in seven months, not counting the new carbarn ladder tracks at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The cars were more problematic. Holman, an experienced cable car builder (who had recently finished constructing a new fleet of cable cars for the California Street Cable Railroad Company, to replace those incinerated in 1906), faltered in fulfilling the order, ultimately only delivering ten cars by December 1912, and twenty overall. The rest of the order was built by Union Iron Works, from which Holman had gotten the steel for the cars it built. (The shop building where these streetcars were built has just been renovated into tech-oriented office space as part of the magnificent restoration and repurposing of the Union Iron Works (later Bethlehem Steel) site at Pier 70 on the Central Waterfront.)
Finally, on December 28, 1912, that memorable moment we’ve recounted many times: as 50,000 San Franciscans cheered, Mayor James Rolph, Jr., boarded Municipal Railway Car Number 1, deposited one of the first nickels ever produced at the San Francisco Mint, and announced to the crowd, “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. It 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.”
Rolph instantly followed up by promoting a $3.5 million bond issue to expand Muni, campaigning hard for it and winning voter approval in 1913. Initial Muni expansion included digging the Stockton Street Tunnel to bring streetcars from downtown to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and penetrating the Mission District with the H-line on Potrero Avenue and Van Ness, and the J-Church. Then the biggest project of all, the Twin Peaks Tunnel, carrying the K and L lines into the Ingleside and Parkside Districts.
Before its tenth birthday, Muni was operating eleven full-time streetcar lines, adding two more (the M and N) later in the 1920s. But realizing Rolph’s dream of a city-wide Municipal Railway would have to wait and wait until, after six attempts overwhelmingly defeated by the electorate over an 18-year period, voters finally approved the buy-out of United Railroads’ successor, Market Street Railway Company on May 16, 1944, with the merged system debuting on September 29 of that year.
From the perspective of voter approval, you could say that for getting Muni started, “fourth time’s a charm.” For making it city-wide, “seventh time’s a charm.”
- By Rick Laubscher
We are indebted to the definitive history of Muni, The People’s Railway, by Anthony Perles, published in 1980 and now, sadly, out of print, but often available on eBay.