“Trackless Trolleys”?

The Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub, who does some productive digging around in the paper’s archives, has come up with a very good story on the conversion of many San Francisco streetcar lines to trolley coaches in the late 1940s. Above, one of several great photos from the story. Taken on the first day of electric bus service on Market Street, July 5, 1949, it shows a Twin Coach on the 5-McAllister followed by a mix of Marmon-Herringtons and Twins, outbound at Grant Avenue. Streetcars are still very much on the scene, including then-new double-end PCC 1009, still operating on the E-line today!

The conversion turned two dozen streetcar lines into bus routes. The majority of those conversions were to trolley coaches. Interestingly, Chronicle articles of the day referred to the new electric buses as “trackless trolleys”, a term mostly used in the East. Use of that term didn’t last long here; riders were soon referring to them as “trolley buses” while Muni officially called them “trolley coaches”.

A couple of clarifications on the article: Hartlaub seems to imply that the plans of PUC General Manager James Turner called for complete elimination of tracks on Market Street, when in fact only the outer tracks were taken up. He also noted that the only environmental benefit Muni seemed to tout for the new trolley buses was that the interiors wouldn’t smell bad. Not surprising that Muni would focus on this, though, since riders of converted streetcar lines had for a year been riding on interim gasoline motor coaches from White Motor Company, which had terrible ventilation that filled their interiors with gasoline fumes.

Overall, it’s a very good read. Worth your time.

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Van Ness and McAllister, Nov. 1, 1917

This photo from the SFMTA Archive was taken exactly 100 years before the date of this post, on November 1, 1917. No streetcars in the picture, but we do see important infrastructure: the poles that hold up the wires that bring power to the streetcars.

We’re at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, looking northeast across Van Ness. City Hall, then new, sits on the southeast corner of this intersection. Across Van Ness, we see an apartment building with ground floor retail that’s still there. If you click the photo, at left center at the corner of Redwood Street, you can see a shop offering vulcanizing services (presumably for tires). Van Ness is so wide, and so devoid of traffic, that automobile drivers felt free to park perpendicular to the curb — or parallel, whatever they wanted.

On the left, we see a metal pole with a metal cap belonging to the privately owned United Railroads, used for the 5-McAllister line that ran essentially the same route as today’s 5-Fulton bus.

On the right, a concrete pole belonging to the Municipal Railway, then less than five years old. Van Ness, one of the city’s widest streets, hosted the H-Potrero streetcar line on this stretch of the street (replaced in 1949 by the 47-Potrero trolley bus).

Muni generally preferred concrete poles for their streetcar lines. They used streetcar rail for reinforcement. The poles on Van Ness were installed in 1914 without streetlights. Those were bolted on in the late 1930s, as Van Ness was readied for an increased flow of automobile traffic from the new Golden Gate Bridge.

Bringing the light pole story up to date, the metal poles came to Muni with the rest of the private company’s infrastructure in 1944, when the city took over. The metal poles on lines that were converted to trolley coach, many are still in use.

As for the concrete poles, they have badly deteriorated, as would be expected after a century. In planning the new Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, SFMTA (Muni’s parent) proposed replacing the old concrete poles with modernistic metal ones. They felt this was necessary not only because many of the old poles were structurally unsound, but also because the poles needed to be taller because the trolley bus wires were being moved from the curb lanes to the center right-of-way.

But at the last minute, after repeated public outreach and hearings, a group of influential people in Pacific Heights demanded that the old poles and lights be retained or replicated. After negotiations, they settled for getting rid of the modern lights and substituting some old-timey looking lights that have no history in San Francisco.

But hey, those concrete poles lasted a century. The one is this picture is still there (although the metal pole on McAllister has been replaced, probably when the State of California was built a quarter-century ago on the spot occupied by the bar in the photo offering Golden State Beer for a nickel).

And oh, by the way, traffic on much of Van Ness was diverted today to clear two lanes for sewer replacement, one component of the BRT project.

Thanks as always to SFMTA for preserving the photographic history of transit in San Francisco.

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