It was 20 years ago today…

…that the F-Market streetcar line became the F-Market & Wharves streetcar line, with the opening of the extension from First and Market Streets to Jones and Beach, connecting Downtown to the Ferry Building, The Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf. On March 4, 2000, the extension created what we call the “Steel Triangle” of rail: the two Powell cable lines and the F-line.

Early days of the Wharf service. MSR Archive

Transit historian Peter Ehrlich, a longtime Market Street Railway member and retired F-line operator, has literally written the book on this, San Francisco’s F-line (the updated 2019 hardcover edition is available at our museum or online direct from the publisher. It’s also available on Amazon, here). He headlines the section on the extension opening, “Riders Quickly Overwhelm the Trolleys”. And did they ever. MSR President Rick Laubscher remembers riding the inaugural VIP car, Melbourne 496 (still faithfully plying the waterfront today) and hearing a reporter asking a top Muni official, “Will this car carry regular passengers?” The response: “No, we’re not going to use the old cars in service”. No sooner had the car gotten to the Wharf when line manager Ken Rodriguez ordered it into regular passenger service, to handle the crowds, which it did very well with its ample standing room and open design.

The extension opening also brought San Francisco its fleet of Milan trams. Market Street Railway had been advising Muni officials over and over that they didn’t have enough streetcars for Wharf service, given the huge popularity of the first phase of the permanent F-line, which opened from Castro to First Street on Market in 1995 (terminating at the old East Bay Terminal at Fremont and Mission, now the Salesforce Transit Center). If Muni brass of the day had listened, there would have been time to restore some of Muni’s retired PCCs to augment the 17 PCCs that opened the F-line. But they waited too long to act. As Ehrlich’s book points out, Rodriguez, a 27-year Muni veteran who worked his way up from operator to lead rail service, was intrigued by the 1928 Milan tram that had been acquired for the Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, and which had proved very reliable and popular in service. He took the initiative and acquired 10 more that Milan was retiring (even though they had been upgraded just a decade before).

The “new” Milan trams were rushed into service as the extension opened. Several of the vintage streetcars from Trolley Festival days made regular appearances on the F-line after the extension opened as well, including Muni’s own Car 1 and Car 130 from its original 1910s streetcar fleet, the aforementioned Melbourne 496, and New Orleans “Streetcar Named Desire” 952 (which was just out testing the other day following a long hiatus). The Milans and vintage cars held the fort until Muni could acquire 11 well-maintained PCCs from Newark, New Jersey in 2002 and modify them for San Francisco service, a move for which Market Street Railway led the advocacy.

Of course, the extended F-line has gone on to become the most popular traditional streetcar line in America, surpassing even New Orleans’ storied St. Charles line. And 16 years after the F-line extension opened, it was joined by the E-line extending south to the Giants’ Ballpark, Mission Bay, and Caltrain, providing a great option for visitors from the Peninsula to ride the train to the City and the streetcar to the Wharf, leaving their automobiles behind.

All year, Market Street Railway will be celebrating this double-anniversary (20 years for the extension, 25 for the F-line on Market in September). Watch for details, and Happy 20th to the Wharf service.

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