Memories of the Market Street Railway

Memories of the Market Street Railway
ONE OF THE ‘JEWETT 100s’—Car No. 108 is at Eighth Avenue and Clement in 1942. These cars had big platforms, but no place to sit on them! Wilbur Whittaker photo

By Bruce L. Battles, Market Street Railway Member

Editor’s Note: Member Bruce Battles shares childhood memories of his first encounter with San Francisco and its streetcars, especially those of our namesake, Market Street Railway Company.

I was introduced to the Market Street Railway Co. in June 1943 when my family arrived in San Francisco on the ferry from Oakland. We had come to California from Nevada, and before that, the Midwest. We walked off the boat, through the Ferry Building and onto the street, to be met by a steady parade of streetcars. They circled in front of the building on a multi-track loop, stopped to let off and take on more passengers, and then swung back onto a big wide street and were gone.

There were more trolleys on each side of the Ferry Building—they came up to some stub-ended tracks, changed ends, and went back the way they had come. It was almost more than a nine-year old could take in at once! 

Having lived in Chicago and Milwaukee before San Francisco, I was a confirmed trolley fan, but San Francisco seemed like the busiest and most interesting trolley operation I had seen so far. World War II meant that the San Francisco waterfront was really busy. There were trucks everywhere, ships being loaded and unloaded, ferries on the Bay, ‘flying boats’ taking off in the Bay, and, of course, all those streetcars. 

I learned that San Francisco had two streetcar companies, and one of them had two different paint schemes. One company, named Market Street Railway (MSRy), had dark green cars with white ends, and the other, the Municipal Railway (Muni), had some cars that were a somber gray with maroon window frames, and others that were yellow and blue. All the cars had a strange basket-like device on the front, down low, near the track. I had never seen them before, and could only imagine why they were there.

Most of the cars had open platforms and you got on at the rear. The conductor greeted you, made change from a device holding coins on his belt, made sure you paid your fare, and gave you a transfer if you asked for one. At each stop, he would lean out the doorway to see if anyone was heading for his car to get on. After everyone was on board, he gave two tugs on a rope, which rang a bell up at the front of the car, and the motorman knew it was safe to go ahead. It was just like Chicago. 

Memories of the Market Street Railway
‘Sutro 200’ No. 215 at 45th and Point Lobos, about to turn onto the private right-of-way near the end of the 2-line. Note the snappily-dressed ‘motorette’ at the controller with the conductor standing right behind her. Hey, back to the rear platform, fella! (About 1942.) Wilbur Whittaker photo

Housing was hard to find in San Francisco at that time, so we first stayed at the Shasta Hotel, at Kearny and Bush Streets. The last time I looked, it was still there. On the desk in the lobby, under a piece of glass, was a map of San Francisco with all the lines of the Market Street Railway on it. My brother and I would study that map every chance we got, and it wasn’t long before we knew where most of the streetcar lines went. 

Kearny Street was very busy, with both streetcars and buses on it—mostly buses. Occasionally a streetcar would come by—they were the green and white ones. They had no number in the box on the roof, which I thought was odd. They had a large metal sign hanging on each end, which at one end said ‘north beach’, and at the other end said ‘s p depot’. Occasionally ‘s p depot’ was followed by ‘union iron works’. 

These cars had folding doors at all four corners, and they usually ran with the rear doors open. They had a shambling, rattling ‘wooden’ sound, and didn’t seem to be in any hurry. We only rode them a couple times—I remember standing on the back platform of one, while the Conductor was turning the crank on the farebox, counting the money. We only rode the car from Market to Bush Street, so we weren’t on it long. The cars seemed old and worn out, with dirty windows, dents, and faded paint.

A block from Bush Street was Sutter Street, with lines numbered 1 through 4. After we were there a while, we discovered that the 2-line took you all the way to the ocean. I still hadn’t seen the Pacific Ocean, so one day my mother took me all the way to the end of the 2-line. The cars used on Sutter Street seemed a little heavier, noisier, faster, and more solidly built than the ones used on Kearny Street.

By the time we started riding these cars, my brother and I ‘knew the drill’—you got on, waited patiently on the back platform while our mother paid the fares, and then went forward through the car, opening and closing the two sliding doors that enclosed the center section of the car. When we got to the front platform, we tried to get a seat there, or else we stood next to the motorman, on his left, looked out the front window, and took it all in. Standing was only a minor annoyance—standing with a good view of the track ahead was better than sitting and not seeing anything. 

The ride out Sutter Street was typically San Francisco—crowded streets, all the buildings right next to each other, and the car stopping at every cross street. There were a lot of hills on the Sutter Street lines, and one of the things I always did was watch to see if the fender would hit the ground at the bottom of a hill. I had never seen Eclipse fenders before, and they were quite a novelty to me.

Memories of the Market Street Railway
Inside the wooden terminal near the Cliff House at the end of the 2-line, around 1946. Sutro Baths was just out the door to the left; the soda fountain was behind car No. 253. Try the “Home-made Texas Chili”—if you dare. Tom Gray photo

Near the outer end of the 2-line, the car suddenly turned off the street and went down a stretch of private right-of-way through what seemed to be a forest. It made a couple of turns and pulled into a little two-track depot and stopped. We were at the Sutro Terminal, the end of the line. That depot was really nifty—it had crossover tracks in it, so a car could leave from either track. There was a nice snack bar inside also, with the best hot chocolate I’d ever had. The first time we got there, it was chilly and foggy, and after riding all the way on the front platform of the car, we were all freezing. That hot chocolate sure tasted good!

We rode the Sutter Street lines a lot, and I got to know those cars quite well. Of all the cars I rode on the Market Street Railway, they seemed to be in the best shape. Nothing against such a colorful and interesting company as MSRy, but a lot of their cars were not in very good condition. Many had dirty windows, or dents, or faded paint, or they leaned to one side, and on several, half or more of the fender was missing. On a lot of them, there was no roll sign—just the metal ‘dash sign’ on the end. On some, the sign was missing, or the glass was painted over. Rarely did you see one in fresh paint. Compared to the Muni, the cars seemed old and worn out, and were noisier. In spite of this, I never rode one that had mechanical problems or failed to make it to our destination. 

I soon discovered the four tracks on Market Street. We figured out that the outer tracks were for the Municipal Railway cars, and that the Market Street Railway used the inner tracks. If you wanted to board a car on the inner tracks, you had to move fast or you would either miss your car or maybe get run over.

It seemed like a dangerous place to be, and we were always very careful when we had to board a White Front car on Market Street. They would stop slightly behind a Muni car, and in this way, the rear doors would be between Muni cars, and you had an opening to get on board. But you couldn’t pause or look like you were uncertain, because the conductor wouldn’t wait—he would give ‘two bells’ and the car would pull away. You had to know where you were going and which car you wanted or you’d get left behind.

The space between cars on the inner and outer tracks was just 24 inches—you had to stand in a single line while you were waiting if two cars came by at the same time. Everybody seemed to know where they were going, but if you were new in town, it was a little unnerving.

Memories of the Market Street Railway
Car No. 299, on the 20-Ellis Street line, showing the art deco ‘zip stripe’ livery adopted by Market Street Railway Co. at the end of the 1930s, but only applied to a minority of streetcars. The ad for Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe on the car’s dash tells us it’s 1941. The car is next to the Frank M. Smith tennis shop, advertising “Patrician Gut” on the side. The 800s were similar in appearance. This car is operating on the 20-Ellis Street line. Wilbur Whittaker photo

Another exciting thing about the four tracks was how you got to see the running gear of a car ‘in action’ riding on one next to it! A little scene I’ve never forgotten was riding out Market on a Muni L-line car, sitting on the plank seat across the front platform, when we were overtaken by a Market Street Railway 900-series car, on the 31-line. No streetcar I’d ever heard compared to the low-pitched, ringing growl of a 900. I can remember actually feeling sorry for the people who lived out on the 31-line. In the daytime, you could hear one coming a block away, and at night, it was even further. They sounded as though nothing in the running gear had been lubricated for months.

Those 900s were fun to listen to and exciting to ride on. And watching one up close, as you rode out Market Street alongside it, was about as thrilling as trolley riding can get. You could see the trucks bounce up and down at rail joints, and bang across switches, and hear all that wonderful gear noise. You could see the motorman peering ahead, notching up the controller, and working the air brake. And when you were riding on a 900, you certainly knew you were on a streetcar, not a bus. All that noise told you that you were getting your money’s worth—you were going somewhere in an urgent and no-nonsense manner, on a conveyance that was durable, powerful, and more than up to the job! 

Another exciting place to watch trolleys was on Mission Street. My dad worked for the Western Pacific Railroad on Mission just west of First Street. We would go down there to meet him when he got off work, or sometimes for lunch. At the corner of First and Mission, you could watch cars on First Street as they crossed Mission and headed into the East Bay Terminal. There was a steady stream of cars, both Market Street Railway and Muni, and the parade was endless. On Mission Street, there were three MSRy lines—the 11, 12, and 14—and those cars went by constantly. There were several different types of cars used on those lines, so there was lots of variety.

After settling in at the hotel, we started house hunting with my mother—on the streetcar of course. We went all over the city, and a few of those trips stand out in my memory. 

One day we decided to look at a house on Oak Street, along the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. We walked down to Market Street and then one block west to Fourth Street, intending to take a MSRy 20-line car out Ellis Street and over to Oak, which would go right past the place. We waited a long time for a 20 car, which was an omen of things to come. It was a home-built ‘California Comfort Car’, like preserved No. 798, and did indeed take us to less than a block from the house, which was much too big for what we needed, so we were only there a few minutes. We walked back to the corner where we got off, and waited for the next 20-car. It was a cold and overcast day, and we waited and waited and waited! In desperation, we finally walked two blocks over to Haight Street, because I remembered from the hotel lobby map that there were three car lines on Haight Street (the 6, 7, and 17). We waited all of about 45 seconds, a 7 came along, and we got on. 

Memories of the Market Street Railway
Car No. 987, one of the ‘Noisy Nine Hundreds’, turns off Divisadero onto Turk, outbound on the 31-line. The 900s differed from the 800s in that the head sign was in the window instead of on the roof. Some of them had the vent in the center window. Tom Gray photo

The Haight Street lines usually used 100-class cars built by Jewett (the same as replica car No. 105 in our museum). The first time I saw one, they seemed ancient, creaky and noisy, but they rode nice and had leather seats instead of cane. They had one serious fault, which made them unattractive to me—there were no seats on the platforms! Moreover, there was no good place to stand on the platform, either! As cold as I was that day, I wanted to ride on the front platform and watch the motorman run the car. Not a chance. When my brother and I tried to stand in the front corner, to the motorman’s left, he gruffly told us, “Can’t stand there, kid—you’ll have to go inside.” We were insulted! Riding inside was not nearly as much fun, but we really were chilly from all that waiting, and for once, riding inside wasn’t too bad. This experience soured us on those cars, even though they had a great sound and were fun to watch. 

One day my mother took us to the Zoo. We rode out on a Muni L-line car, saw the Zoo, then grabbed a hot dog from a stand on Sloat Boulevard. While we were eating, a 12-line car pulled into its terminal. We prevailed on our mother to let us ride back on the 12, and that was an adventure! The car was one of the 800s. We got good seats at the front, and settled in for an exciting ride. It was a long line, and had all that terrific private right-of-way up Sloat and then on Junipero Serra. After that came the long ride on Ocean Avenue and finally on Mission Street all the way downtown. We saw a lot of the city I had never seen before, but it seemed like it took us two hours to get downtown; a lot slower than the L, which went through the Twin Peaks Tunnel. 

One morning, probably on a house-hunting trip, we were headed out Fulton Street on a 5-line car. It was one of the 800s, and being outbound in the morning, there weren’t a lot of people on the car. As we got further west, and started down that long hill, the car really picked up speed. We were flying down that hill, with the controller wide open, and as I recall, the track was not the best on that section of Fulton Street. The car was swaying, bouncing, and fishtailing, and my brother and I were enjoying every second of it. We were sitting in the first seat nearest the front of the car, in the open section, on the left side.

Memories of the Market Street Railway
Car No. 1240, one of the San Mateo interurbans and running without a headlight, takes some spot time at the end of the 12-line on Sloat Boulevard, next to the Zoo. It’s the early 1940s and the snack bar behind the car is offering hot dogs for a dime. Wilbur Whittaker photo

Our excitement was rudely interrupted by a huge bang! coming from over the Motorman’s head, on the ceiling. It scared us both so much that we started to retreat into the closed section. The motorman just laughed, shut off the power, reached up and reset the circuit breaker, and notched up the controller. We sheepishly sat back down, and when we asked later what happened, he just said, “Too fast—blew the breaker!” I never drive out Fulton Street without thinking of that incident.

One day we needed to go from my dad’s office to the Sears store out at Mission and Army Streets. I still remember a friend of my dad’s telling us, “That’s way out there! It’s a long ride!” I had no idea where Army Street was, but I still remember wondering whether it might have tents or barracks on it. The first 14-line car that came by was a 900. It was crowded, but some gentleman gave my mother his seat and we made the long trip out to Sears. I remember standing in the back section of the car, wishing I was up on the front platform. The car was wonderfully noisy, and crowded or not, it was a great ride. Alas, Army Street looked just like any other street; I was a little disappointed. (And now it’s not even named Army anymore; it’s Cesar Chavez.)

When we left the Sears store, we waited for an inbound 14-line car, and it wasn’t long before a huge White Front car came along that did not have a headlight. It had a sign on the front that said, ‘san mateo interurban car’, which was a complete mystery to me. I had never heard of San Mateo and I wondered how far away it was. The sign also said, ‘minimum fare 10 cents’, so my mother told us not to get on—it would probably cost too much! 

Memories of the Market Street Railway
Market Street Railway’s 9-line had many outer terminals over the years but always ran on Valencia Street. Here, car No. 1684 turns off Market onto Valencia in the late 1930s. Note the Fallon Hotel, a building still standing today. Next to it, behind the car, is the McRoskey Airflex Matress Company, a San Francisco institution founded in 1899 and still in business at the same location. Wilbur Whittaker photo

The car seemed huge, heavy, and old, and made a nice rumble when it pulled away. It was one of the 1200-class, and it had a different roof sign, where the route number (40) was on a cloth roll, rather than metal plates in a box. I wondered if I would ever get a chance to ride on one of those cars, but it never happened. We finally got an inbound 14 and made it back to town. 

For whatever reason, we never found a place to live in San Francisco, and by the end of the summer, my parents decided to move back to Nevada. My dad’s job may have had something to do with it, or maybe it was the high rents; I never heard. But just before Labor Day, we packed up and took the train to Reno, where my brother and I started school. The pace was slower and I missed the streetcars. 

Looking back on all this, I can see why the public embraced Muni’s PCC cars when they appeared in San Francisco. It was fun to ride on the old trolleys, but riding home on one after a long day at work must have been tiring and uncomfortable. If you were a passenger day after day, I daresay the thrill would wear off pretty fast. They were modern cars when they were built, but by the end of their lives, those streetcars were outmoded and slow. What made them exciting and fun to ride on when I was a youngster also made them ripe for replacement. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time—I thought those wonderful cars would always be there.

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Comments: 2

  1. A really good read. Brought to life a San Francisco experience one could not know not having lived in that era. Your details about the cars and ride experience was most fascinating. Alas, you never got the chance to ride the 40 line. Thank you for sharing a terrific story!!

  2. Hi Bruce!
    Excellent recollection of MSRy at the time! I lived on 21st Avenue right between the 5 Line on Fulton and the 31 Line on Balboa St. I rode both line with my Mom many, many times in the years 1940 until their end of street car service. Which line we rode depended on our Market Street destination. For, example, if were headed to Union Furniture at McAllister and Market, we would take the 5 on Fulton St. If we were headed to the Emporium, it was the 31 Line for us.
    At night, for my first few years, I was serenaded by the sounds of the cars on both lines, especially the 31, climbing the big dip between 22nd and 24th Avenues. That was all gone when these lines were “bustituted” by mid-1949. I don’t think I slept as well after the street cars were gone!

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