San Francisco streetcar No. 578 is America’s oldest passenger streetcar still on the active roster of an urban transit agency, and one of the oldest operating electric streetcars in the world.
George Pleasant photo.
Built in San Francisco in July or August 1896 by Hammond Car Co., the same firm that later built the California Street cable cars, It entered service after being completed by its owner, Market Street Railway Company, at its barn on Kentucky Street (now Third Street in Mission Bay).
This historic treasure is a bouncy single-trucker that was part of San Francisco’s first generation of electric streetcars. It was built for one of the city’s first streetcar lines, which ran from Golden Gate Park via Oak, Page, Devisadero (as it was then spelled), O’Farrell and Ellis Streets to reach Market Street. No. 578 was built when the line was extended across Market and down Fourth Street to reach the Southern Pacific train depot (trackage taken over by Muni’s original F-Stockton line after World War II). In 1898, it took on extra duties on Sunday, when it carried families out to Ocean Beach on H Street (now Lincoln Way), along the southern edge of Golden Gate Park.
No. 578’s first owner was taken over by United Railroads in 1902. The next year, it was reassigned to the carbarn at 24th and Utah Streets (now the parking garage for San Francisco General Hospital), serving South of Market lines. Its location meant it survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Soon afterward, when most of the other cars in its class were scrapped as obsolete, it dodged destruction by being converted into a work car.
Renumbered 0601 and based at Geneva Division (also home to today’s vintage streetcar fleet), it was mostly used early in the morning to apply sand to streetcar rails on grades, to improve traction for passenger streetcars. It served half a century in this capacity, passing into the ownership of a different Market Street Railway Company in 1921, then to Muni in 1944.
In 1956, Muni crafts workers beautifully restored it to its original appearance as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the earthquake and fire. It was later put on ‘permanent loan’ to a railway museum in the belief that Muni would not use it again. But the Historic Trolley Festivals led to its recall to active Muni service. It ran along Market Street during early festivals, and then, during the final Trolley Festival season of 1987, was used in demonstration service along The Embarcadero from the Ferry Building to Pier 39, using the abandoned State Belt freight tracks and towing a generator to provide the electric power. This demonstration project helped lead to the F-line extension along The Embarcadero.
Though operational, No. 578 is only used in revenue service on special occasions. The outside seats were slightly shortened in 2004 to allow wheelchair accessibility. Plans have been discussed to fit it with a track brake used on many cars of this class.
Built in San Francisco by Hammond Car Company for the original Market Street Railway Company. Operated in Western Addition and Downtown, later serving Ocean Beach on Sundays.
When larger streetcars took over its original route, assigned to lower-ridership lines in the South of Market/Mission District
Converted into a sand car (work equipment) for Geneva Division; acquired by Muni in 1944 as part of its purchase of Market Street Railway Company.
Restored by Muni crafts workers for earthquake 50th anniversary service; later loaned to Western Railway Museum in Solano County.
Recalled by Muni for Trolley Festival service. Pioneered E-line service on freight tracks along The Embarcadero as a demonstration project in 1987, powered by a generator it towed.
After F-line startup, used occasionally in special service, including ‘preview’ E-line service in 2001.
Seats in end section slightly shortened to accommodate wheelchairs.
Market Street Railway Company, San Francisco CA, 1896
Hammond Car Co., San Francisco
2 GE 1000