Fourth of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century
The end of World War II in 1945 marked the beginning of big changes for the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). The previous year, it had more than doubled in size when San Francisco voters finally approved acquiring Muni’s private competitor, Market Street Railway Company (MSRy-our namesake). MSRy’s equipment was on its last legs, run into the ground by a combination of wartime crush loads, reduced maintenance capabilities, and deferred maintenance caused by its failing financial situation. Its streetcar tracks, power supply systems, and facilities were on the brink of collapse.
Muni’s original vehicles and facilities were in better shape, but its streetcars, though well maintained, were obsolete. Other than five streamlined PCC-lookalike cars purchased in 1939, all of Muni’s 238 streetcars (and all 440 they acquired from Market Street Railway) were boxy and drafty.
Muni’s needs were clear. Three major factors determined how well they would meet those needs in the postwar years: labor, voters, and automobiles.
Coping day to day
World War II ended 11 months after the Muni-MSRy merger took effect. That period was one of just coping day to day: making service each morning with ramshackle equipment and depleted (and exhausted) staff. The continual stress must have resembled that of the Covid crisis.
But while Muni had acquired the physical assets of MSRy, it had not acquired the competitor’s patent for its “White Front” treatment of its equipment, specifically dash lights on the ends of streetcars illuminating bright-white painted ends, patented as a “safety feature”. Muni leaders (or maybe the City Attorney) decided these ends would have to be repainted as quickly as possible. The standard Muni streetcar paint scheme of the day was blue, with yellow trim. These colors, in multiple variations, were slapped on the ends of streetcars in multiple patterns, perhaps to test future possible looks for the fleet. (This gave way soon enough to a scheme incorporating MSRy’s traditional green, with cream “wings” on the side, which became Muni’s livery for a generation.) The old company’s shields were removed from streetcars very quickly, but photos show they stayed on the Powell cable cars for a year or longer, as though the cable cars were an afterthought to Muni.
The Newton Plan
In mid-1946, the merged system operated just under 600 streetcars on 260 miles of single track. The lines with the most riders were, in order, B-Geary, N-Judah, 14-Mission, H-Potrero, L-Taraval, F-Stockton, K-Ingleside, C-Geary-California, 15-Third-Kearny, J-Church, 5-McAllister, 22-Fillmore, 7-Haight, and D-Geary-Van Ness.
Muni commissioned a series of service plans after the war. The first, from former MSRy vice president Leonard Newton, basically accepted the system as it was, rather than trying to examine changes in travel patterns that might have occurred or that could have been expected from planned development. He recommended converting some streetcar lines to buses, but did nothing to eliminate parallel service from the days of competition between Muni and MSRy.
Newton did recommend retaining thirteen streetcar routes and reequipping them with modern PCC-type streamlined streetcars (as now operate on the F-line). These included most of the busiest existing lines: B, C, D, F, H, K, L, N from Muni and the 7 and 14 from MSRy. He proposed routing the 7 through Sunset Tunnel with the N and serving inner Haight Street by keeping a portion of the 17-line, abandoning its north-south run through the Sunset District on 20th Avenue (where the track was in terrible shape).
Newton’s plan included converting the other busiest lines – the J, 5, 15, and 22 – to buses. Mysteriously, he recommended keeping the 3-Jackson and 4-Sutter as streetcars, despite lighter ridership, the narrowness of Sutter Street, and the heavy parallel service on Geary, just two blocks south. Newton recommended buying 313 new PCC streetcars to serve these 13 routes, which would have been a huge order.
Two elements of the streetcar-heavy Newton plan were in fact put into effect. The F-Stockton line, which ran from the Marina through North Beach and Chinatown, reaching downtown through the Stockton tunnel, was connected in 1947 to MSRy’s 20-line tracks at Fourth & Market to reach the Southern Pacific train depot via Fourth and Townsend Streets.
Also in accord with Newton’s plan, the H-line, which ran from Fort Mason south on Van Ness, 11th Street and Potrero Avenue to Army Street, was extended farther south via the tracks of MSRy’s 25-line on San Bruno Avenue through the Portola District to reach the edge of Visitacion Valley. But the extension track was in poor shape, and Muni assigned many decrepit ex-MSRy streetcars to the H-line. Additionally, the state Division of Highways was planning a freeway next to the southern part of the extended H-line, which opened in 1952. Perhaps Muni brass thought the parallel freeway would steal some of its streetcar ridership. The original route of the H became the 47-Potrero trolley coach in 1950. The southern part of the extended H-line morphed through various motor coach routes (now the 9-San Bruno).
These were the only pieces of Newton’s plan that got off the drawing board, however briefly. With good reason: labor costs.
The Newton Plan clearly stated that the 313 new PCCs he envisioned running on 13 retained streetcar lines would be operated by two-person crews, even though a primary reason national transit leaders designed the PCC in the first place, some ten years earlier, was to halve labor costs by only requiring one operator. But Newton was only reflecting a political reality: San Francisco’s transit unions were not budging on the two-operator requirement for streetcars, even though union members in such labor bastions as Detroit had already agreed to the switch.
Along with the streetcars, buses, tracks, and carbarns, Muni inherited Market Street Railway’s labor unions. That integration did not go smoothly.
Transit workers in San Francisco had seen considerable turmoil in the 20th century. Two bitter and brutal strikes against the hard-core management of the private United Railroads in 1907 and 1917, and persistent prejudice among union leaders against admitting women and people of color to platform jobs (motorman, gripman, conductor, and bus driver) earlier in the 1940s, just for starters.
In 1946, Muni was faced with trying to forge a single contract covering platform workers represented at the time by multiple unions. Muni proposed a raise of about 13% (at a time when post-war inflation was eroding workers’ buying power). One “carmen’s” union, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, agreed, as did the Board of Supervisors. But a second union, affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, demanded twice as much and pulled its members off the streetcars on June 30.
The city came to a halt as people climbed into automobiles and created instant gridlock. Breathless prose ensued from the newspapers. The Hearst-owned Examiner savagely attacked the CIO union’s acting leader as “a follower of the Communist Party line”.
Frantic negotiations led by Mayor Roger Lapham ended the strike within a few days with the promise of a ballot measure to set Muni operators’ pay at the average of the highest-two paying transit systems in California (i.e. guaranteeing that Muni operators would always be the second-highest paid in the state). The ballot measure passed that November, and that pay formula endured for a half-century. The two labor umbrella organizations merged to become the AFL-CIO in 1955; the Muni operators’ unions eventually merged as well.
Better luck with buses
With Muni’s finances squeezed by higher wages, the inheritance of many money-losing MSRy routes, and labor intransigence against single-operator streetcars, Newton’s plan was dead on arrival. In early 1947, a new plan, tied to a $20 million bond issue, tilted heavily toward buses, which required a single operator. But organized labor played a role here, too, on the type of buses.
As the late Muni maintenance leader Warren DeMerritt pointed out in an interview for our member magazine, Inside Track,
They wanted to replace [streetcars] with [motor] coaches. Myself, as part of IBEW [the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers], we fought tooth and nail. We got the public to back us to buy and maintain trolley coaches as the main sources of transit in San Francisco. So that was our proudest moment.Warren DeMerritt
Electric trolley coaches had additional advantages in San Francisco, to be sure. The City and County of San Francisco owned its own electrical generating system, Hetch Hetchy Water and Power. The same feeder cables, support poles, and span wires on streetcar lines could be used for the trolley coach overhead, just by adding a second overhead wire to provide the ground. And trolley coaches could operate on the city’s steepest hills, beyond the abilities of streetcars and motor coaches.
Unlike most past (and many future) attempts by Muni to win voter support for new equipment and facilities, the 1947 bond issue passed, in large measure because of the concerted advocacy of Mayor Roger Lapham, who had won election in 1943 in part because of his outspoken call for consolidation and modernization of transit.
Almost all the bond money was spent on hundreds of new motor coaches and trolley coaches used to convert former streetcar lines. Had there been enough money right after the war to buy a full fleet of PCC cars, at least for the core streetcar lines, the public might have embraced their comfort and speed and insisted on retention of more streetcar lines. However, with two-operator PCC streetcars costing double the labor expense of a one-driver bus of similar capacity, there was no management incentive to buy large numbers of new streetcars.
Muni did manage to find enough money to buy ten modern streetcars, its first true PCCs, in 1948. These cars, numbered 1006-1015, were double-ended and set up for two-person crews. (Seven of these are in F-line operation today!)
By this time, the decision had been made for mass conversion to buses. However, if Muni had used these 10 new PCCs and its five lookalike “Magic Carpet” streamliners to operate lines whose fate was in the balance, like the F-Stockton, it might have saved streetcar service there. Instead, Muni used all its modern streetcars during this period on the L and N lines, which were the least likely conversion candidates, because they used tunnels difficult or impossible to convert to bus operation.
The ‘busification’ of Muni led to the end of the famed ‘Roar of the Four’—the quartet of streetcar tracks that filled Market Street almost curb to curb from Castro to the Ferries. The section from Valencia west, with lighter streetcar traffic, was reduced to two tracks shortly after the 1944 merger. The remainder of Market Street was converted over the next several years.
This period also saw the demise of the legendary 40-line. This interurban route stretched twenty miles from Fifth & Market to downtown San Mateo on the Peninsula and was abandoned without replacement in 1949. The Southern Pacific commuter trains ran alongside much of the way, and unlike MSRy, from which it had inherited the 40-line, Muni had no interest in operating beyond the city limits.
Another unusual streetcar operation that ended in this period was the E-Union, with its picturesque single-truck “dinkeys”, necessary to climb the steep hills along the line. It actually got a few years of extra life. Muni had planned to replace it with trolley buses by 1942, but World War II delayed the conversion until 1947.
In all, some two dozen streetcar lines disappeared in the 12 years following the merger, though most, like the 3-Jackson, 14-Mission, 21-Hayes, 22-Fillmore, and 31-Balboa converted to buses on nearly identical routes. Railfans and nostalgia buffs lamented these losses to be sure, as did some San Franciscans. But by the end of the 1940s, what most members of the public saw – and appreciated – instead was a fleet of new trolley coaches and motor coaches with upholstered seats and effective heaters running on smoothly repaved streets, replacing noisy, drafty, old streetcars with hard seats often bouncing along on bad track.
Cable car wars
Streetcars weren’t the only railed vehicles under assault after World War II. The Powell Street cable cars likely would have climbed to “heaven” if not for a remarkable civic campaign in 1947 led by a remarkable woman, Friedel Klussmann.
While many current San Franciscans may find it hard to believe, back then the Powell cable cars were fully integrated into the Muni transit system, with the same fares, full transfer privileges, and no lines of tourists at the turntables. And they were already recognized by many residents and visitors as iconic symbols of the city.
Apparently blind to the little cars’ appeal, Mayor Roger Lapham had Muni buy double-engine Twin Coach motor coaches to take over from the two Powell Street cable car lines (Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson, which used those streets to reach Pacific Heights). Trouble is, neither the mayor nor Muni asked the public. Mrs. Klussmann (as she preferred to be known), a doctor’s wife active in art clubs, put together what was predominantly a movement of civic-minded women at a time when women were presumed to have no political power. After a masterful public relations campaign, the mayor’s proposal was destroyed by a margin of better than three to one. We clarify details of the 1947 cable car fight here.
Flush with their victory, Mrs. Klussmann’s forces tried a bond issue on the June 1948 ballot to have the City buy the city’s other cable car operation, the privately owned California Street Cable Railroad (“Cal Cable”), which operated lines on California (from Market to Presidio Avenue) and on O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Streets, plus a five-block shuttle on lower Jones Street.
The June 1948 bond issue failed, but a November 1948 ballot measure authorizing the City’s future purchase of Cal Cable out of “available funds,” passed because it didn’t require a 2/3 majority, as bond issues do. Cal Cable went broke in late 1951, and Muni took over in January 1952.
The infrastructure of Cal Cable was as poor as its finances. Its two major lines used different grips and the machinery was decrepit. The City’s head of public utilities, James Turner, wanted to scrap the Cal Cable lines altogether. Several alternatives were proposed to ‘rationalize’ the system (which meant reducing trackage), including a California-Hyde line. Following myriad machinations, Muni shut down the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line on May 16, 1954.
The following month, voters, many swayed by a misleading PR campaign, narrowly approved a plan to cut the cable car trackage in half, putting the California Street line’s western terminal at Van Ness, and whacking off the western half of the Washington-Jackson line, while combining the remainder with the trackage on Hyde to form a Powell-Hyde line.
Mrs. Klussmann and her allies responded with a measure on the November 1954 ballot that would have restored all five cable lines to service just as they were, but it was narrowly defeated after another disinformation campaign run by a PR consultant paid (illegally, it was later ruled) by Muni’s parent, the Public Utilities Commission.
The net result: cable cars disappeared from the Tenderloin, Pacific Heights, and California Street west of Van Ness. The reduced cable system, in place by 1957, was concentrated—by design—in the quadrant of the city favored by visitors, inevitably leading to the morphing of the cable cars from largely serving residents to carrying mostly tourists. We tell the full story of the 1954 cable car wars, with rare photos, here.
Cable cars weren’t the only threatened rail vehicles in that period. Muni’s remaining streetcar lines were under attack as well. The cost of operating streetcars with two crew members was stretching Muni’s finances. In a 1949 report on the Muni to the Board of Supervisors, consulting engineer Arthur Jenkins noted, “Almost every city in the country that still continues to operate streetcar service uses one-man cars with the notable exception of San Francisco.” He went on to state “it has been generally true throughout the industry that use of one-man cars has not been adopted primarily as a means of increasing profits to owners, but as a means of remaining in business at all.”
Muni wasn’t in business to make a profit, of course, but politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. It was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, Muni had. But more and more lines were slipping into operating deficits. In the 1952-53 fiscal year, for example, Muni figures showed that the streetcar lines collectively lost almost half a million dollars, while the new trolley bus routes (which all replaced streetcars) made an operating profit of almost two million dollars. Of the seven streetcar lines, only the B and C made an operating profit. (The K and L, on the other hand, were the biggest losers in the entire Muni system.) And the B-bus, which operated nights and Sundays, made a significantly higher profit per operating hour than the B and C streetcars it replaced.
The financial crunch led to radical reductions in streetcar service. By 1952, buses had replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel sections of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt it had no choice.
Muni did get 25 more new PCC streetcars in 1951-52, including the very last PCC built in North America, Car 1040, part of today’s F-line fleet. Yet the PCCs didn’t bring Muni any savings because Muni’s labor agreements still required two operators on each car. To dig out of the deficit hole, Muni increased its fare by 50% in 1952, to 15¢ (a bigger deal than it sounds like today).
Discouraged by this time from winning voter approval for single-operator streetcars, Muni proposed more rail-to-rubber conversions. getting a $6.6 million bond issue on the November 1952 ballot that would have converted the B, C, and J lines to trolley coaches and buying just 15 more PCCs to replace more old streetcars on the remaining tunnel lines. It gained almost 60% voter approval, but needed 2/3. Muni brought back the same bond issue a year later. It failed again, this time just winning 49% when it needed 2/3. Back to the drawing board for Muni management.
Finally, voters did approve single-operator streetcars in June 1954—but only the PCCs. Even so, by this time it was a steep uphill battle to save streetcar service on Geary. Voters had already turned down buying more PCCs twice in the preceding 18 months, and the last manufacturer, St. Louis Car Company, had stopped making them. Thus, the B-Geary (and its short-turn sibling, the C, which stopped at Second Avenue after trolley coaches took over its California Street trackage) had to soldier on with the drafty first generation streetcars variously called ‘battleships’, ‘boxcars’, or to use a term coined in the 1950s by newspaper columnist Dick Nolan, ‘iron monsters’ (though they were really wooden with some steel). These streetcars, most from the same class as preserved F-line cars Nos. 130 and 162, were noisy, slower than the PCCs, and still required crews of two. Here’s the full story of the ups and downs of Geary’s transit history.
Another major factor shaping Muni in this era was ‘auto mania’, then reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one-way, including Post and O’Farrell, the pair that flanked Geary. (Making O’Farrell one-way, in part to feed new garages for shoppers, was the coup de grace for the O’Farrell cable line.)
Freeways were opening around the state (including in southeast San Francisco, where in 1952 the James Lick Freeway replaced Potrero Avenue and Bayshore Blvd. as U.S. 101). More were being planned to crosshatch the city with concrete, largely intended to connect the Bay Area’s burgeoning suburbs with each other.
In this context, many thought the old-fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell. Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard—the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a ‘Great Wide Way’, replacing streetcars with buses—and more parking for automobiles.
San Francisco city planners who were eyeing the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro-auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated in part by Japanese-Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African-American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place. By the mid-1950s, there was talk of ripping down the Victorians along that part of Geary to gouge out a broad expressway to get automobiles downtown more quickly.
But the streetcars were in the way. Certainly the tracks could be rebuilt—as they were in 1948 when Geary was widened between Masonic and Divisadero. But, said the critics, it would be expensive, and why keep running those clunky old ‘trolley cars’ anyway? (In the San Francisco of those days, ‘streetcar’ had been the universally used term for the vehicles. Opponents began using ‘trolley cars’ as an epithet to conjure up the slow and inefficient ‘Toonerville Trolley’ of cartoon fame.)
The final factor for Geary: the promise of rapid transit. The demand was certainly there: except for Market Street, Geary was the busiest transit corridor in the City. While the western half of Geary was wide, the eastern half was narrow and congested. Muni’s first 43 streetcars were built narrower than usual, specifically for operation on Geary (though most were quickly switched to the even more congested F-Stockton line when it opened). A subway under Geary downtown and through the Western Addition, surfacing at Steiner Street, was proposed as early as 1936. It would have used conventional streetcars, and, had it been built—at a then-projected cost of $13 million—it might have forestalled the automobile expressway. But it was the depths of the Depression, and there was just no money available. Here’s a link to our story about the long quest to build subways for Muni.
By the mid-1950s, this concept had evolved into a scheme for a heavy-rail subway carrying regional trains—later known as BART—from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. The future of transit on Geary became an issue in the mayoral election of 1955. The winner, George Christopher, had pledged to keep streetcars on Geary at least until rapid transit plans were further advanced.
But a combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two-operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addition, and the promise of a subway—combined to change Christopher’s mind after he took office. Muni’s oldest streetcar corridor was doomed. Just before 1956 ended, so did the B- and C-lines. Railfans and many residents mourned to no avail. Geary was now served by buses, on the 38-line.
Those Geary buses weren’t even clean electric trolley coaches, as Muni had proposed in the failed bond issues of 1952 and 53, but rather new diesel buses built by Mack. One of Muni’s greatest woes in this era was acquiring vehicles. Between arcane restrictions in the City Charter, a chronic lack of funding, and voters averse to Muni bond issues, Muni bosses were forced to pursue creative solutions.
While the trolley coaches purchased from the 1947 bond issue were performing well and had a long remaining life, the gasoline-fueled motor coaches from White were smelly and unpopular with the public, besides being prone to engine fires and far less efficient than newer diesel buses. Unable to buy, Muni tried leasing, but the biggest bus builder, General Motors, wasn’t interested. Finally, Muni found one bus builder—Mack—willing to go the lease route. Under its terms, Mack would lease Muni a number of new buses every year and replace them as each bus turned six years old.
It sounded too good to be true, and turned out that way, since Mack left the bus business before the initial lease term concluded. Still, the sturdy Macks took over motor coach lines all over the city, including some ‘community service’ lines added in the 1950s to serve suburban style low-density housing developments filling in the hillsides of Mount Davidson, Diamond Heights, and other previously open spaces. (Most of these new residents preferred their automobiles, though, dooming these lines to be big money losers.)
Muni also still needed additional modern streetcars. They struggled for years to find a way to obtain some. The problem wasn’t a lack of supply. Many properties around the country were dumping low-mileage PCCs in favor of buses, but Muni didn’t have enough money to buy. Perhaps if the 1953 bond issue had passed, PCCs in excellent condition from a city like Detroit might have arrived in time to serve the B-line and maybe save it. To B or not to B, however, Muni needed more PCCs to replace the two-operator battleships still helping serve its surviving streetcar lines.
They finally found what they needed at St. Louis Public Service Company (SLPS), which was undergoing its own bus conversion. Unlike other transit companies dumping streetcars in the 1950s, SLPS was willing to lease its old PCCs instead of selling them, getting around Muni’s lack of capital funding, the same way it had with the Mack coaches.
Muni leased 66 1946-vintage PCCs from SLPS in 1957. This gave Muni (barely) enough one-operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two-operator ‘boxcars’ on the remaining five lines by 1958. (In 1962, they added four final PCCs from SLPS.)
Into the ’60s
As the 1960s dawned, Muni appeared to be a more or less stable transit system. The 15¢ base fare hadn’t changed since 1952 (and wouldn’t until 1969). Its fleet of 105 streetcars, 39 cable cars, 365 trolley coaches, and 500+ motor coaches was in reasonably good condition. Some of its infrastructure, including rail storage and maintenance facilities and electrical power supply, was clearly crumbling, but its bus facilities were in decent shape. Ridership stopped falling in 1958 and was slowly rising again, unlike most U.S. transit systems.
The City government itself showed at least some signs of a hangover from its auto mania. Besides all the one-way streets to move traffic to, from, and through Downtown, the City uprooted dozens of homes in the late 1950s to widen Portola Drive and upper Market Street to give autos a faster ride across Twin Peaks, Then, in 1961, they dedicated the new Geary Expressway, an eight-lane racetrack through the Western Addition from Gough to Divisadero, eradicating blocks of Victorian homes in the process and scattering minority communities.
The real turning point in voter sentiment about fast roads, though, had come in 1959, with the opening of the Embarcadero Freeway, whose double decks cut off the Ferry Building from Market Street (wiping out Muni’s famed Ferry Loop in the process). Its ugliness, noise, and shadows ripped apart the urban fabric of the blocks it loomed over. Its planned extension to the Golden Gate Bridge was blocked by opposition from the Board of Supervisors, and it became essentially a long on- and off-ramp for the Bay Bridge. But its very presence gave citizens a rallying point against other planned freeways, including one that would have wiped out the Golden Gate Park panhandle.
Indeed, regional planners and politicians were beginning to realize that with the existing constraint of bridge capacity and the pollution caused by internal combustion engines, they had to consider alternatives to move people across the Bay.
This was the setting as Muni celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1962. As a centerpiece of the celebration, Muni restored the very streetcar Mayor Rolph operated out Geary to begin it all in 1912. Car No. 1 was returned to its 1912 appearance by Muni crafts workers and operated on Market Street for what was called ‘Muni Golden Week’ starting October 15, charging the original nickel fare to the delight of all. Herb Caen, the city’s ranking newspaperman, said to Muni, “Don’t take it away.” Mrs. Klussmann chaired the celebration, and a Mack bus was painted gold and trotted around the system as part of the festivities.
Barely two weeks after Muni’s Golden Week ended, some of Muni’s biggest changes were to be ordained by Bay Area voters—when they approved BART.
[A primary source for this article is The People’s Railway, an excellent history of Muni (sadly, long out of print), authored by the late Anthony Perles with assistance from Tom Matoff, Peter Straus and the late John McKane. The author is indebted to all of them for their work. Sections of this article are also drawn from earlier articles by the author that appeared in Inside Track.]
- by RIck Laubscher
Like our exclusive content? Please consider even a small donation to help our nonprofit.
Installments in this series: