“R” You Ready? Muni’s First Trolley Bus Line Runs Again Sept. 24-25

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Seventy-five years ago this month, Muni opened its very first trolley bus line. The “R-Howard” ran from Beale and Howard Streets out Howard and South Van Ness to Army Street (now Cesar Chavez). This Muni Heritage Weekend, September 24-25, you’ll be able to ride the R-line one more time, to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The action starts at our San Francisco Railway Museum, 77 Steuart Street between Market and Mission (across from the Ferry Building). There at the curb you’ll see the last surviving trolley bus that originally ran the R-line, a 1941 model that Market Street Railway acquired some years ago and cosmetically restored. It doesn’t operate — getting it back into running shape is a priority of ours, and we’re working with some good folks at Muni to see what can be done — but it will be on display carrying a timeline of Muni’s trolley bus history inside.

Once you’ve inspected the original R-Howard bus, you can board one of its two descendants — a 1950 Marmon-Herrington or 1975 Flyer — for an actual ride that gets pretty close to the R-line original. (The R-line became part of the 41-Union-Howard in the late 1940s, a route No. 776 used to run.) There hasn’t been passenger trolley bus service on Howard for a long time, but the wires were left up to give Mission Street buses a detour when needed, and to make a faster trip to and from the bus barn.

The buses will leave the museum every 45 minutes starting at 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Given that Howard is now one-way downtown, they’ll follow this route with no stops: Steuart, Market, Fourth, Howard, South Van Ness, and 26th Street to Mission. At the corner of 26th and Mission, they’ll make a brief stop to let riders from the Mission and Bernal Heights climb on, then head back downtown, again express, via Mission, 25th, South Van Ness, 11th Street, Market, Spear, Mission, and Steuart.

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The 776 was out today giving operators some refresher training. Here it is at Mission & 16th Streets, as captured by our friend Adolfo Echeverry.

Though the R-line was Muni’s first trolley coach line, it was San Francisco’s second. Its private competitor Market Street Railway Company (namesake of our non-profit) converted its 33-line streetcar through SOMA, the Mission,and over Twin Peaks, to trolley coaches in 1935. The R-line came about after the franchise the city had given Market Street Railway for the 35-line streetcar expired at the end of the 1930s. Single operator buses were cheaper to run than two-operator streetcars, and the 35-line didn’t have many riders, so Muni decided to try the newer trolley bus technology and maybe steal some passengers from their competitor’s lines on Mission, such as the 14.

The revival of the R-line is just one aspect of Muni Heritage Weekend, which includes rarely seen vintage streetcars and buses carrying the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, September 24-25. This is your chance to ride one of the popular boat trams from Blackpool, England or San Francisco’s oldest streetcar, the 1896 “dinky” at no charge from our museum to Pier 39. There’ll be a big sidewalk sale of streetcar memorabilia, and lots of other things going on as well. Keep an eye on this space to learn more!