Patriarch Streetcar Turns 125

578S 2nd and Mission, 1904, SFMTA Archives
Car 578 at 2nd and Mission, 1904. SFMTA Archive

According to our historian, the redoubtable Emiliano Echeverria, 125 years ago, August 10, 1896 (give or take a day), a new streetcar was delivered for service in San Francisco. Streetcars themselves had only become a viable transit technology eight years before in Richmond, Virginia. San Francisco had opened its first streetcar line only four years earlier, in 1892, but transit companies led by Market Street Railway Company were busy already, replacing some cable car lines with streetcars and building new lines with the electric vehicles.

The first streetcars that appeared in San Francisco looked a lot like cable cars, except for the trolley pole on the roof that conducted electricity from the overhead wire. That wasn’t surprising. The standard cable car design of the time, the “California Car” (named after the California Street cable car design still used today), was popular with riders, with open end sections and a closed center section. And many of the early San Francisco streetcars were built by cable car builders.

That new streetcar delivered in August 1896 still operates today. Built by Hammond, which later built today’s fleet of California Street cable cars, No. 578 is the oldest passenger transit vehicle in America still on the operating roster of a public transit agency. It survived because it was turned into a work car after the 1906 earthquake and was kept around in that capacity before being restored by Muni’s crafts workers for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the earthquake in 1956. It was then going to be put on static display at a proposed railroad museum across from the Hyde Street Pier, but when that fell through, it went back to Muni for a time and was then loaned to the Western Railway Museum in Solano County.

The Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, spearheaded by leaders of Market Street Railway, saw Car 578 brought home to carry passengers occasionally on its home city’s rails. Known affectionately by its many fans as the “Dinky” for its compact size, Car 578 has been wildly popular during the annual Muni Heritage Weekends (pictured below) that ran for eight years before the pandemic and we hope will resume in 2022.

We’re going to run a special feature to celebrate Car 578‘s 125th birthday in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, with many more historic photos of this patriarch of San Francisco’s streetcar fleet. Join Market Street Railway now so you don’t miss it!

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Happy 125th Birthday, Car 578!!

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121 Years in One Day

Muni Supervisor Robert Parks, who trains operators on every type of streetcar and light rail vehicle in the city, may have set a record today.

In the morning (above), he trained operators on Muni’s newest model of LRV, Siemens car 2001, delivered earlier this year. (The first Siemens cars are due to start carrying paying passengers next month.) Above. 2001at the N-Judah Ocean Beach terminal.

Then, he got a call — could he do a shop move, transferring 1896 single-truck “dinky” 578 across Cameron Beach Yard.

The same operator running one of the very the newest streetcars in America and the oldest passenger streetcar still on the roster of a US transit agency in the same day — vehicles built 121 years apart. That’s gotta be a record!

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Robert moved the dinky “across town,” which he called us to correct. We regret the error but are still in awe of his “double-header”.

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City Hall Avenue, Around 1913

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Almost no one is still with us who actually saw the street named City Hall Avenue.  It ran parallel to Market Street, half a block north, and stretched just two blocks between Leavenworth and Larkin Streets. The massive but poorly built City Hall and neighboring Hall of Records filled the north side of the street.

Because of the municipal buildings, it was an important street, at least until April 18, 1906, when the giant earthquake shook the shoddily built City Hall to the ground. As an important street, it rated a streetcar line, the Tenth and Montgomery line of United Railroads, a meandering route that started at Tenth and Bryant, crossed Market, zigzagged on Polk and Grove to run along City Hall Avenue, then turned north on Leavenworth to Post, Post to Montgomery (where those two streets intersect Market Street), and then north via Montgomery and Washington to Kearny Street.

In the photo above, looking west from Leavenworth Street and dated around 1913, City Hall Avenue looks like a ghost town. The old City Hall is gone, with plans being made to build the grand new one we love today two blocks away. The Hall of Records, not too badly damaged in the quake, has been fixed up and is back in use, but it too is headed for demolition as a new vision for a grand Civic Center takes shapes. The only other buildings in the shot were thrown up after the earthquake and look temporary, which they turned out to be. The overhead wires and tracks turn from Leavenworth Street (to the right in the photo) onto City Hall Avenue.

14938351_10209745024253921_2384041602252333076_nThe map to the left shows the street grid of the time, with City Hall Avenue just to the right of Market Street, with a plaza connecting the two where Hyde Street is today.

So why put a photo without streetcars on a streetcar site? Because streetcars were pretty rare on this line by this time.

With the abrupt shift from cable cars to streetcars on Market Street after the quake, and establishment of other streetcar lines, the meandering Tenth and Montgomery line became an anachronism, just a few years after its opening in 1900. It only drew decent ridership during rush hours, with so few riders the rest of the time that United Railroads kept the small single-truck “dinkys” (identical to preserved Car 578) on the line, while other lines got bigger streetcars. Before long, service was cut to the minimum necessary to retain the city-awarded franchise to use the streets.

When City Hall Avenue itself was ripped up within a few years of this photo, United Railways rerouted this line along existing tracks on Larkin and McAllister Streets, and it held on until 1931. Very few photographs have come to light of the early days of streetcars on this line but at least we have the tracks, and a vanished street, to look at.

Thanks to John A. Harris for posting the photo on the Facebook group San Francisco Remembered, and to Kevin Walsh for posting the map there with his comment. Thanks too to Emiliano Echeverria, who corrected a couple of facts in the post, which is now updated.

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Terrific Heritage Weekend

This year’s Muni Heritage Weekend was the best of the five that have taken place so far. Biggest crowds, more kids and families, more vintage vehicles operating, more variety in the routes operated. Kudos to everyone involved on Muni’s side — and there were dozens, operators, mechanics, supervisors, and more, directed by Ed Cobean. Here are a few shots of the action.

The weekend started with a ceremonial run of O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car 42 over Hyde Street trackage it hadn’t felt in 62 years. The car, under the command of ace grip Val Lupiz, operated like a charm. The old Hyde terminal was just a switch, because the cars were double ended. Val took the opportunity to put the car on the Turntable, using the switch at the terminal to change tracks first, so photographers could get the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. (No, it doesnimg_6380‘t fit on the turntable.)

 

Muni’s fabled streetcar number 1 was out and about, signed for its original route, the “A-Geary.” This weekend, it operated along Market to Castro on Saturday on the F-line and to Pier 39 on The Embarcadero on Sunday.

img_64142016 marks the 75th anniversary of Muni’s operation of trolley buses, the “Green Machines” that continued zero-emission operation of more than 20 Muni routes when they were converted from streetcars. To celebrate, one of Muni’s first 9 trolley coaches, the 506, from 1941, carried a great photographic display documenting trolley coach history at Muni. It doesn’t operate (though we hope it will again someday), but was a great centerpiece. But second generation Muni trolley coach 776, shown behind the 506, operated the pioneering R-Howard-South Van Ness line to 26th Street and back.

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From inside the 776 on Market, we see 1929 Melbourne 496 rolling by. It worked the F-line to Castro both days. (The trolley buses, including 1975 Flyer 5300, reached Howard by turning left off Market at Fourth, since the original wire on that part of Howard is gone.img_6475

A surprise participant was Muni’s oldest bus, the 042, built in 1938 by the White Motor Company. Its engine had given up the ghost, but the top-notch mechanics at Woods Motor Coach Division swapped it out for one in a White bus Market Street Railway’s Paul Wells located in the Santa Cruz Mountains and repatriated. The 042 operated like a dream looping around Union Square all weekend, as did 1970 GMC “fishbowl” 3287, shown behind it.

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The most popular vehicles, as always were 1896 “dinky” 578, Muni’s oldest streetcar, and one of Muni’s two Blackpool, England, “boat trams” from 1934. They were especially welcomed during a very hot weekend as they cruised The Embarcadero between Pier 39 and our museum. Here’s the 578 with its restored route lettering (courtesy Market Street Railway) taking a break on Mission.

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Your correspondent was under the weather this weekend and didn’t get very many good shots. So we’re asking your help. Please share your best photographs with us for possible use in the next issue of our newsletter Inside Track, or in our 2018 calendar now being prepared. You can share your photos here.  Thanks.

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Getting Ready for Muni Heritage Weekend

  What you’re looking at here is Muni maintenance folks applying decals the other day to Car 578, the oldest streetcar in Muni’s fleet, built in 1896. When Muni restored it to its original appearance in 1956, for the 50th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake, the work was overseen by Charlie Smallwood, Muni maintenance manager and legendary San Francisco rail historian. Charlie had a Muni sign painter reproduce the original lettering on the car, which was painted for one specific line,… — Read More

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Honoring Labor

  Happy Labor Day 2016! Here’s a shout out to San Francisco past and present, who built, maintained, and operated our transit system. Its history was punctuated by struggles on behalf of unions, including strikes that cost workers’ lives early in the century, that led to a solid union environment today. In celebration of the hundreds of thousands of good jobs transit provided through the decades, two photos from the wonderful SFMTA Archives (with a hat tip to Archivist Jeremy Menzies… — Read More

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