What might have been: Geary

Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.

MAKING A “B-LINE” TO DOWNTOWN — Muni “Iron Monster” Car 87 crosses Van Ness Avenue eastbound on the B-Geary line in 1956, passing the famous Tommy’s Joynt Hofbrau, which is offering “stuffed boneless squab chicken” inside, according to the banner. The top floors of the rickety Victorian structure would later be decapitated for safety reasons. Next door, the 1891 brick St. Mary’s Cathedral would burn in 1962 and be resurrected as a modernist concrete cathedral two blocks west. It was replaced by the television studios of KRON4, which in turn was torn down and replaced by a housing development in 2020. MSR Archive.

Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least downtown, yet every attempt at a subway in the Geary corridor has fallen short. It’s a story of initial success for America’s first publicly owned transit system, a tale of betrayal by a mayor, tantalizing possibilities, and half-a-loaf solutions.

This is the story of Muni on Geary.

Muni’s roots were firmly planted on Geary. Its first ten streetcars headed west from the foot of Geary at 12:00 Noon, December 28, 1912, penetrating the Richmond District to reach its less-developed western section. Muni started with two lines on Geary: the A, which turned south at Tenth Avenue and ran to Golden Gate Park, and the B, which continued west to 33rd Avenue, and within a few months reached Ocean Beach by jogging south on 33rd, then running along Balboa, 45th, and Cabrillo. Muni’s tracks also reached the Ferry Building in 1913, making the B-line a true “Bay to Breakers” route.

FIRST RUN — Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph personally pilots the first streetcar on Geary Street, preserved Car 1, headed west crossing Jones Street, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public Library.

But Muni didn’t stop there. Using its new tracks on Market and Geary, they created the C-line on California Street in 1915, branching off Geary at Second Avenue, running two blocks north, and then west to reach Lincoln Park at 33rd Avenue, taking over an expired United Railroads franchise. Muni had already opened its D-line a year earlier, turning north from Geary onto Van Ness Avenue, then west on Chestnut to reach the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the fair, the D-line was rerouted to run on west from Van Ness on Union Street, with a couple of jogs to reach the Presidio.

Not only Muni’s first lines were on Geary; it’s nerve center was, too. Geary Car House, with Muni headquarters space later added on top, sat just about halfway between the Ferries and the Beach, at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The car house served more than just the four Geary lines. The cute “dinkies” of the E-Union line were tucked away downstairs on Presidio Avenue. A fleet of “battleships” or “boxcars” or “iron monsters”, as Muni’s original bulky streetcars were variously called over their lifespan, were housed under cover along the Geary frontage, also serving other lines as they opened, including the F-Stockton, J-Church, and N-Judah. Though a trolley coach division was added behind the car house in 1949, Muni’s top executives still worked, literally, right on top of streetcars.

NERVE CENTER – Geary car house in the early 1950s. “Iron monster” Car 53 has just pulled out for its day on the N-Judah line. MSR Archive.

The Richmond District was saturated with streetcar service. Besides Muni’s A, B, and C lines, its private competitor (known as Market Street Railway from 1921-1944) operated three lines that ran from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean: the 5 on Fulton, and the 1 and 2 mostly on Clement. (Later in 1932, it built yet another line, the 31, on Balboa, the same year Muni killed off its little used A-line on 10th Avenue, which it had hoped to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Sunset District before being blocked by parks czar John McLaren.)

Despite all this competition, the centrality of Geary in the Richmond District, and its extra width from Geary Car House west, made the B Muni’s premier line. Geary was the Richmond’s prime shopping street, attracting customers from all over the city and beyond. East of the car house, Geary was narrow, making for a slower ride downtown.

As detailed below, two 1930s proposals to put the Geary streetcars in a subway downtown came to nothing, so the Geary lines kept operating as before with frequent and crowded service, riders boarding the big boxy streetcars at the rear, the conductor taking their five cent fare, the motorman concentrating on the safely operating the car.

ROOM TO RUN — Widening Geary in 1948 between Divisadero and Masonic. We’re looking west from Lyon Street at the new tracks and eastbound traffic lanes, while C-line Car 609 (ex-Market Street Railway 209) heads towards us on the old tracks. The big Sears store would later rise top left. SFMTA Archive.

Geary riders got a possible taste of the future in 1948, when the City widened Geary on the hill between Divisadero and Masonic, taking much of the land from the former Calvary Cemetery. Concrete boarding islands at stops were an upgrade from dodging autos to board streetcars at these stops. There was talk at the time of widening Geary farther east, but this would require tearing down or moving homes and dislocating people.

MODERN MEDIAN—Passengers wait at a new boarding island on the widened Geary median at Baker Street. This faster operation that could have easily been extended to the subsequent Geary Expressway, later built through the Western Addition. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Financial squeeze

Meanwhile, by 1951, the City Charter requirement that all streetcars operate with crews of two was putting big financial pressure on Muni’s remaining car lines. Buses only required one operator, and Muni had already converted all the streetcar lines it inherited from our namesake, Market Street Railway Company. Four of Muni’s own streetcar lines, the D, E, F, and H, had also been newly “busified.” And by 1952, buses had even replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel section of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt they had no choice.

WHICH LINE IS IT ANYWAY?—Muni scheduled a few odd runs on Geary. Above, preserved Car 130 (still in Muni’s vintage fleet today!) is signed for the J-Church, and is turning around at 33rd and Geary to head inbound, one of a few J runs that followed this practice. Since they always used double-end cars, these runs could have headed straight downtown from the car barn. Judging from the sun, it’s midafternoon, and the J car’s extra trip on the B may have been as a “school tripper” for students from George Washington High, just off to the right. Below, a few N-Judah runs went all the way to Playland-at-the-Beach when they pulled out, switching back on the spur track to avoid waiting at the loop, then heading inbound all the way to East Bay Terminal before actually heading out the N, providing extra service to meet the big demand on Geary. Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. Muni was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, it 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 (all of which supplanted 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.

PCCs on the B—briefly

TORPEDO TEASE—For a brief time, Muni ran some of its double-end modern cars in regular service on the B-Geary, but only on Saturdays. Here’s “torpedo” PCC 1006 on 33rd Avenue bound for Playland-at-the-Beach around 1952. Philip Hoffman photo, MSR Archive.

Muni had only fifteen modern streetcars at this point, all double-ended: five so-called “Magic Carpet” streamliners bought in 1939, which looked like PCCs but with different technology, and ten true double-end PCCs bought in 1948, using some of the 1947 bond issue proceeds. The Geary lines required 75 streetcars for service, and the fast-accelerating modern cars didn’t mesh well with the traditional ones, though for a time, the modern cars were dispatched to the B on Saturdays, providing a tease of what might someday happen.

MAGIC CARPET RIDE—Along with “torpedos” 1006-1015, Muni sometimes dispatched its five 1939 PCC-look-alike “Magic Carpet” cars on the B-Geary on Saturdays. Here’s No. 1005 ready to depart East Bay Terminal, signed for the B, but wait… the paint scheme shows that the car has been single-ended, which happened after modern cars were pulled from Geary Saturday service. So this is probably a fantrip. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

But using the last of the 1947 bond issue funds, Muni was able to buy 25 more PCCs, single-ended and numbered 1016-1040. (These turned out to be the last PCCs ever built in North America. Thanks in part to MSR’s advocacy, Car 1040 has been fully restored and is a star of Muni’s heritage streetcar fleet. Six more “Baby Tens”, as the class was known, were purchased by Market Street Railway from museums and private owners over the last quarter-century and returned to Muni, where they are stored for future restoration as needed.)

Muni hoped to run these “Baby Tens” with a single operator, but voters said no in late 1951, so they were set up as two–operator cars. At first these cars were assigned to Geary Division, but not to the B-Geary line. Rather, they worked the K, L, and N lines.

As Muni’s first single–end streetcars, though, the “Baby Tens” had no way to turn around at Geary Car House. A track wye at Masonic and Geary that would have enabled that had been ripped out just three years earlier when Masonic Avenue was extended north from Geary to Euclid. So before going into service on one of the Market Street lines, these “Baby Tens” had to go all the way out to Ocean Beach on the B, take the terminal loop, and make a full trip inbound, signed “B-Geary/Bridge.” This gave some riders the belief that these fast, quiet cars were on their line to stay. A similar impression came from the double–ended PCCs that were occasionally assigned to Saturday runs on the B.

PEEKABOO — A “Baby Ten” PCC mixes in with the “Iron Monsters” at Geary Car House, January 1952, with holiday wreaths still in place. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

Not for long. By 1953, all 40 of Muni’s modern streetcars (35 PCCs and five “Magic Carpets”) were ensconced at Geneva Division, completely divorced from operation on Geary. Some speculate that this was part of a conscious plan to drive streetcars from Geary. But after the defeat of a bond issue in 1953 that might have resulted in more PCCs, Muni officials may have just concluded there was no near–term prospect of completely modernizing Geary streetcar service—the B and C required 75 cars between them. Besides, Muni’s existing modern cars were far more comfortable to ride through the tunnels than the drafty “Iron Monsters”, and faster too.

So Geary Car House was again home only to the old–style streetcars. Some of these cars were “only” 25 years old, and all had been kept in good shape. Muni installed doors on the formerly open ends of some of the old cars and upgraded them cosmetically as well. Muni management still hoped to win voter approval to operate its entire streetcar fleet with single–person crews, significantly cutting labor costs. But the carmen’s union was staunchly opposed to changing the status quo for the old cars. A compromise, finally approved by voters in 1954, allowed only newer–type streetcars to have single operators.

The PCCs were quickly converted to one–operator, and Muni began thinking about additional PCCs. But thinking didn’t translate into doing, as Muni did not have the capital to purchase any more modern streetcars at the time —or for that matter, new motor coaches either.

“Auto mania”

The early 1950s also saw “auto mania” reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one–way, including the pair that flanked Geary, Post and O’Farrell (dooming the inner end of the wonderful O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable car line in the process). Big automobile garages were built for shoppers and commuters. Numerous proposed freeways slashed across planners’ maps. In this context, many thought the old–fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.

“GREAT WIDE WAY” — Point Lobos Avenue was built as a wide boulevard west from Masonic Avenue and had its name changed to Geary Boulevard in 1911, as it was a direct extension of downtown’s Geary Street. Merchants on this part of Geary — we’re at 18th Avenue here — wanted the street widened further east as well in the 1950s — not to help the streetcars, which many of them undervalued, but to make a higher-capacity automobile connection with downtown. MSR Archive.

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.

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 mainly 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 in the neighborhood. By the mid–1950s, momentum was building to widen two-lane Geary between Gough and Divisadero, tearing down the old Victorians to gouge out a broad expressway that would 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.)

HOLLOWED GROUND—The Geary Expressway included a two-block long underpass to separate automobiles from traffic on Fillmore Street. The ramp starts just to the left of this 1956 photo, looking east on the old Geary Street at Webster Street. The buildings on the left were all demolished for the Expressway, replaced in 1968 by Japan Center, as shown below in a 2019 Google StreetView shot. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Subway dreams

One last factor in the mix: rapid transit. Rider demand was very high: 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 original F-line on equally narrow Stockton Street when it opened).

The passenger volumes on the Geary lines were such that in 1931 City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy proposed putting the streetcars in a subway under O’Farrell at least to Larkin Street. A consultant’s report in 1935 was even more ambitious, calling for a streetcar subway under Geary from Market all the way to Steiner Street. Both failed to gain approval. The second proposal, which included a Market Street subway as well, was resoundingly defeated by voters. Had the Geary subway 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 voters didn’t have the appetite for it.

THE BIG SQUEEZE—When Geary Street was two-way downtown, it was a squeeze for Muni’s full-width “Iron Monsters”. This problem was recognized as soon as the line opened in 1912, and repeated proposals for a subway beneath Geary followed. Here, C-line car 212 growls up the hill from Van Ness Avenue to Franklin Street in 1956. John Harder collection, MSR Archive.

By the mid–1950s, planning for what became the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) included a heavy–rail subway under Geary carrying regional trains from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. This raised the possibility of real rapid transit under Geary as far west as Park-Presidio Boulevard. But that initial proposal was a long way from reality.

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 could be built. About this time, a civic committee led by hotelier Ben Swig came up with a creative financing idea for Muni—lease vehicles instead of buying them. After a struggle, they found one bus builder (Mack) willing to go that route. But streetcars were something else. Many properties around the country were converting to buses, and there were PCCs in great condition available for sale in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other places—though not (at that time) for lease.

Goodbye, B

The combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two–operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addi-tion, and the promise of a subway—changed 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 the 38-line, operated by the new, leased, Mack diesel buses.

RAILS TO RUBBER — One of the sturdy Mack motor coaches that took over from streetcars on Geary in 1956, shown here westbound at Arguello Boulevard around 1968. Tom Gray photo, Cameron Beach Collection, MSR Archive.

Too little, too late

At just this juncture, Muni finally found some PCC streetcars it could afford. St. Louis Public Service, which was undergoing its own bus conversion, agreed to lease Muni 66 (ultimately 70) 1946–vintage PCCs. This gave Muni (barely) enough one–operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two–operator “boxcars” on the remaining five lines by 1958. But it wasn’t enough to save streetcars on Geary.

Soon after, “auto mania” subsided in San Francisco. Outraged by the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which started going up just as the B was disappearing, and by proposals to cut freeways through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s “freeway revolt,” the first of its kind in the nation, lashed back at the “asphalt jungle”. However, with the increasingly powerful Redevelopment Agency as the spearhead, the Geary Expressway did get built in the early 1960s, at a cost of hundreds of homes and thousands of disrupted lives.

LAST FANTRIP—Above, the last PCC ever built in North America, Car 1040 carries a group of railfans onto Geary from Market for one last run on the B-line, December 30, 1956, one day after passenger service ended. Forty-four years and two days earlier, Car 1 inaugurated the very first Muni line just 100 feet west of this spot. Below, Car 1040 reaches the end of the line at Playland. If one-operator cars like Car 1040 could have been acquired in sufficient numbers and assigned to Geary in the early 1950s, the B-line might have been saved. But it wasn’t to be… Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Perhaps if the freeway revolt had occurred a few years sooner, perhaps if one–operator streetcars had been approved a few years sooner, perhaps if leased PCCs had been available a few years sooner… perhaps if these things had happened, the B might have survived as a streetcar line. But they didn’t happen. The view of the powerful interests that ruled San Francisco at the time was that streetcars were out of step with modern times. And so streetcars only survived where it was too difficult to replace them with buses: the tunnel lines (K, L, M, and N), and the J-Church, where neighbors rallied in defense of their preferred transit mode.

FAREWELL — the last regular passenger run of the B-Geary prepares to leave Playland, December 29, 1956. Jack Tillmany photo, MSR Archive.

What might yet be

Still, many hoped the 38-line bus would prove to be an interim operation. That original BART-proposed subway under Geary to reach and cross the Golden Gate Bridge died when Marin County pulled out of the district, but Muni then proposed its own heavy-rail subway under Post and Geary as far west as 40th Avenue as part of a rapid transit package put to San Francisco voters in 1966. Yet again, though, the voters said “no.”

VOTERS SAID NO — Muni’s 1966 proposal for a heavy-rail subway under Geary. MSR Archive.

Muni seriously proposed a Geary subway and light–rail line again in 1989 as part of a sales tax increase ballot measure. The measure (which also funded construction of the permanent F-line) called for detailed evaluation of two potential rail corridors — Geary and Third Street — but funding to build only one. Voters approved the measure, and the Muni planners of the day were counting on Geary being chosen to go forward, because the demand was so much greater.

But while Third Street businesses and residents lobbied hard for rail along the city’s east side, the reception by Geary businesses and residents was tepid at best, with significant opposition from the same Geary merchants who had lobbied decades earlier for the “Great Wide Way”. Third Street won out, and the Geary subway dream was deferred again.

Most recently, in 2003, possible rail service on Geary was again dangled before voters — sort of — in the form of Proposition K, a renewal of the earlier sales tax measure. It called for creation of “fast, frequent, and reliable bus rapid transit service, with exclusive transit lanes and dedicated stations, on Geary Boulevard (designed and built to rail-ready standards)”. But to planners, that didn’t mean installing tracks while the street was torn up (as Seattle did when it built a subway initially operated by trolley buses), or even installing underground conduit for future electrification. Without those things, converting to streetcar use would require ripping out all the pavement, sending the “rapid” buses back to the curb lane for the duration of the conversion process, which as we have learned on the current Van Ness BRT project, is anything but “rapid”.

Geary BRT –Approved design for Geary Bus Rapid Transit, looking west at 16th Avenue. San Francisco County Transportation Authority graphic.

On top of that, increasing cost estimates have forced numerous compromises and cutbacks in the Geary BRT project, such that the separated center-lane area is less than half of what was envisioned, stretching only from Stanyan Street to 27th Avenue, a distance of 1.75 miles, or about one-third of the 38-line’s route along the “Great Wide Way” of Geary Boulevard between 48th Avenue and Gough Street. The remainder of the route will operate in curb lanes, as now, though with some operating improvements for the buses. This seems to some knowledgeable observers like “half a loaf”, far less than should be warranted by the daily ridership on Geary, which at more than 50,000 people remains far and away Muni’s busiest line.

When you add the future funding and patronage uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to this compromised BRT project, resumed rail service on Geary might seem completely out of reach. But wait: BART is now studying a second Transbay Tube to meet what was fast-increasing demand. On the San Francisco side, support has been growing to run the BART line under — Geary!

Hope springs eternal.

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“Fair, Please”: Streetcars to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

During the first weeks of 1915, Pancho Villa proclaimed himself in charge of Mexico. Germany began open submarine warfare in the Atlantic as the Lusitania prepared to sail to England. California’s only active volcano, Mount Lassen, was erupting–spewing ash for hours at a time. And as bad weather pelted San Francisco, workmen toiled ’round-the-clock on the city’s northern shoreline to complete preparations for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Initially conceived in 1904 to occur upon the completion of the Panama Canal, this event had become a celebration of the rebirth of San Francisco following the devastating Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Millions of dollars went to develop the site and to promote San Francisco as the host city. When San Francisco was selected for the Fair over New Orleans, President William Howard Taft stated, “San Francisco knows how.”

The Ferry Building was the landing point for Fairgoers from the East Bay, and as far away as Sacramento. Emblazoned on the Bay-side of the Ferry Building, approaching passengers saw a huge sign: “California Welcomes the World – Panama-Pacific Exposition” with the year “1915” in lights on the building’s famed tower. Photo courtesy BAERA Archives at F.M. Smith Library, Western Railway Museum.

Indeed, San Franciscans had much to be proud of. They had used one of the worst natural disasters on record as the springboard for a number of civic improvements, including the new City Hall and Municipal Auditorium. Another civic improvement would prove to make all the difference in getting crowds to the Fair. This was the launching of the Municipal Railway of San Francisco (Muni)–an ambitious experiment in street railway ownership, construction, and operation. The Railway began operations December 28, 1912 with just ten cars on Geary Street. Yet just twenty-six months later as the exposition opened, Muni was operating almost 200 streetcars over ten lines, and had vaulted into a much stronger competitive position against its dominant private rival, United Railroads.

The site

PPIE construction commenced in 1912 on 635 acres in an area called “Harbor View”, extending from Van Ness Avenue almost to Fort Point. The site, later known as the Marina District, was cobbled together from a piece of the Army’s Presidio, a stalled real estate development, and land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay. It was a long way from downtown hotels and other neighborhoods. To succeed in an era totally reliant on public transportation, there had to be an efficient and reliable way to move crowds of people to and from the Fair.

Newly-rebuilt Car No. 642 leads a “crush load” two-car “train” on Fillmore at Green Street. A crowd of people chose the steep walk down the steps to the Exposition rather than wait in line for the clearly overtaxed counterbalance service. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, Jesse Brown Cook Collection.

This posed several significant challenges that had to be overcome by the city’s street railway system during the scheduled 288-day run. In light of this, the Board of Supervisors engaged Transit Consultant Bion J. Arnold to make suggestions “in order to improve the transportation facilities of this city.” Arnold described the existing lines’ inadequate capacities to transport people to the PPIE. He stated that the only “important line” that “reasonably approaches” the Exposition site was the Polk Street line of the United Railroads with a capacity of 12,000 passengers per day. The Union Street electric line of Presidio & Ferries Railroad could carry 4,800 passengers per day, while California Cable Railroad’s Hyde Cable Line and the United Railroads’ Fillmore Line together only had a capacity of an additional 9,300. He noted, however, that the Polk line’s terminal was a mile from the main exhibits and two miles from the sports and drill grounds.

The plan

A two-car train waits for the signal from the starter to proceed over the crest of Fillmore Hill at Broadway. This is an example of a Wednesday morning load taken April 14, 1915. The house at the extreme left still stands today. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

In response, the Board of Supervisors turned to City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy to provide a plan and estimate of cost of a “Municipal System of Street Railways…designed to furnish to the Panama-Pacific Exposition a fully adequate street railway service…” While outlining several route options, O’Shaughnessy indicated that the Exposition was expected to draw as many as 8,640,000 visitors overall and stressed that, on the day of maximum attendance, a total of a quarter-million persons were expected. Many of these would arrive from points east at the Ferry Building or come from the Peninsula and points south via the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Motor vehicle alternatives

While automobiles were not considered to be a primary form of transportation, there were options to reach the Exposition, including the new competition of nickel jitneys and open-buses mounted on early truck chassis. Bus routes were to operate to the gates, and the Arnold Report warned, “If adequate street railway facilities are not available, motor buses will have to be relied upon for a considerable share of land traffic.” Unfourtunately, the buses of that time were rather precarious devices of limited seating capacity.

The street railway system

Given the size of expected crowds, very limited private automobile ownership, and the state of bus development, it was clear that streetcars would be the primary means of serving the 1915 Exposition. Both Muni and URR would respond by establishing new terminals, routes and (in the case of Muni) new lines.

United Railroads lines & routes

With its strong philosophical and political support of the nascent Municipal Railway, the city had become increasingly combative with rival United Railroads over its franchise rights on city streets. In this environment, URR indicated it was unwilling to build track extensions to serve the Fair.

Sandwiched between Roos Brothers and Painless Parker’s Dentistry, a new Muni “B-type” car (identical to preserved Nos. 130 and 162) changes ends at Stockton and Market Streets during the Fair. It sports a “Zone Entrance Transportation Dock” dash sign indicating that it is using the Fort Mason loop. Today, that very Roos Bros. building is occupied by the Virgin Megastore. Jack Tillmany Collection.

The URR’s regular 19-Polk line offered service from Ninth and Bryant via Larkin and Polk to the PPIE Van Ness Avenue Entrance. URR also adjusted the route of the 23-line (Fillmore-Valencia) from its terminal at Sacramento and Divisadero to Fillmore and Broadway, to connect with its existing counterbalance on Fillmore Hill. Four new routes on existing trackage provided service to the Fair from the Southern Pacific Depot, Mission District, Ferry and the Haight. United Railroads did build a few feet of new trackage, in the form of a temporary loop at the north end of its 19-line, and assigned three new routes to it, augmenting the 19: the 32-Depot-Exposition, from the Southern Pacific depot via Townsend, 4th, Ellis, Hyde, O’Farrell, Larkin, Post and Polk Streets (returning via Polk, Post, Larkin, Ellis and Fourth); the 33-Mission-Exposition, from 29th and Mission via Mission, 9th Street, Larkin, Post, and Polk; and the 34 Sutter-Exposition, which ran from the Ferry Building via Market, Sutter, and Polk. Additionally, the 35-Haight-Exposition line operated from Carl and Stanyan via Carl, Clayton, Frederick, Masonic, and Page to Fillmore, returning via Oak Street. It allowed transfer to the URR Fillmore lines 22 and 23, which in turn connected with the Fillmore Hill counterbalance line to reach the Fair. [Note that after the Fair, the numbers of these temporary lines were reassigned to newer lines.]

Muni Car No. 14 (like Car No. 1) operates southbound on Van Ness at Union, displaying a “33rd Ave Geary” destination sign, probably on opening day, Feb. 20, 1915. While the roof route boxes are empty, this destination sign is consistent with the short-lived I-line, making this a rare picture indeed. Photo courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

Most of the URR routes only reached the eastern edge of the Fair, the so-called ‘Fun Zone’–far away from the main exhibitions. The only URR line directly serving the main area was the Fillmore Hill line, which operated over Fillmore Street’s 25-degree grade from Broadway to Green by use of an ingenious counterbalance system. Tiny, single truck electric streetcars (twins of preserved ‘Dinky’ No. 578s) were secured by a “wishbone” to a fixed grip “plow” connected to an underground cable at the top and bottom of the hill simultaneously. The northbound car descended the grade (with power on); its weight helping pull the southbound car up the hill. Attempting to meet traffic demands, the URR closed the formerly open cars and coupled them in pairs, with the lead car receiving power and feeding it through its controller to the two motors on each car using connecting cables. The public must have expressed some trepidation about the ominous Fillmore Hill grade. Despite installing a stronger cable and newer connecting “plows”, the URR felt compelled to note in its revitalized April 1915 Transit Tidings service brochure that “the Fillmore Hill Line is absolutely safe.” In fact, given the overview of the Exposition site from atop Fillmore Hill, the line may have also been one of the more exciting rides of the entire PPIE experience.

New municipal railway: Lines and routes

In light of O’Shaughnessy’s recommendations and the fact that the URR would not be building new lines, the Board of Supervisors augmented the existing Municipal Railway Geary Street lines by approving the creation of three new Muni lines and purchasing a fourth, all with the immediate purpose of serving Fairgoers. These four lines went on to serve San Franciscans beyond World War II with streetcars, and with some changes, they still carry Muni riders, albeit with buses. During the Exposition, though, these lines sometimes served terminals different from their later ones.

San Francisco Day–November 2, 1915–brought 348,472 patrons to the PPIE, a crowd exceeded only on Closing Day. The “J” terminal had been extended on July 9, 1915 to the Scott and Chestnut Street main entrance. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, Jesse Brown Cook Collection.

When the franchise of the Presidio and Ferries Railroad’s Union Street line expired in December 1913, the City bought it, rebuilt it to Muni standards, and renamed it the “E-Union”. It ran from the north Ferry terminal on The Embarcadero through the Produce District on the one-way pair of Washington (outbound) and Jackson (inbound) Streets, then over Columbus Avenue to Union, and over Russian Hill via Union, Larkin, and Vallejo Streets, then jogged on Franklin to reach Union, which it followed to the Presidio. It served the Baker Street and Presidio entrances to the PPIE. The D-Van Ness began operating on August 15, 1914, from the Ferry via Market, Geary, and Van Ness, until it reached the E-line trackage at Vallejo. From that point, alternate cars provided service in both directions on the “Exposition Loop” formed by tracks on Union, Steiner, Greenwich, and Scott to Chestnut Street. After the Fair closed, the route operated both directions on Union, Steiner, Greenwich, and Scott to a crossover installed on Chestnut Street. Later, on May 4, 1918 after new tracks were installed on three blocks of Greenwich from Steiner to Baker Street, the D-line joined the E in serving the Presidio, utilizing a unique route following Steiner and Greenwich to avoid the steep grades on outer Union. The “mountain goat” single truck cars of the E could navigate grades that the double-truck cars of the D could not handle.

A-type cars operating on Columbus Avenue displaying “Ferry” and “Scott St.” destination signs and ‘J’ rooof plates. J.B. Monaco photo, courtesy of Richard Monaco.

On August 15, 1914, the H-Potrero began offering cross-town service from 25th Street and Potrero Avenue via Potrero, Division, 11th Street, Van Ness Avenue to Bay Street. Upon completion of a right-of-way through the ‘upper post’ of the Army’s Fort Mason. It was extended to a loop on Laguna Street on December 29, 1914. Supplemental services were also offered over H-line track to the Chestnut loop from both Sixteenth and Potrero and from Market Street. The F-Stockton was inaugurated on December 29, 1914 from Market and Stockton Streets via Stockton, through a new tunnel drilled between Union Square and Chinatown, then via Columbus, North Point, and Van Ness before it reached its terminal at the Fort Mason Loop. After the Fair, it was re-routed on Van Ness and out Chestnut to Scott. Muni showed flexibility during tthe Fair in adapting to Fairgoers’ travel patterns. Three additional Muni routes were established specifically for the Fair.

Though the dash signs may suggest otherwise, neither of these URR cars directly served the exposition. They promoted connections to URR’s 19-Polk and 22-Fillmore lines, which did. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

A new “G” (Columbus Line) operated from Stockton and Market over parts of the Presidio and Ferries Union Street Line via Stockton, Union, Larkin, Vallejo, Franklin, Baker, and Greenwich to the Presidio & Ferries terminal in the Presidio. An “I” line ran from 33rd and Geary to the Exposition Loop via Geary and Van Ness, making the same loop as the D. Municipal Railway Operating Revenue Logs for FY 1914-15 reveal that, in addition to the first three days of the Fair, it ran on Sundays and holidays, and a few Saturdays, at least through July, 1915. Despite infrequent operation, it generated considerable revenues per day. A “J” route (not to be confused with the current J-Church) began operations on February 10, 1915, sharing E-line trackage from the Ferry to Columbus and Union, then F-line tracks to Van Ness and the Fort Mason Loop. On July 9, 1915, it was re-routed up Van Ness and out Chestnut to Scott. Beyond these regular dedicated exposition lines, there is evidence that both Muni and URR diverted service from other lines to the Exposition on particularly heavy demand days. But even when on their normal routes, URR cars operating on the Market, Haight and Sutter Street lines regularly bore “Exposition via Polk St. or Fillmore St.” dash signs to encourage transfer to URR Fair routes.


Both URR and Muni installed high-capacity loop terminals to disgorge and load crowds rapidly at various Fair entrances. To expedite car loading at the Fort Mason Loop, Muni constructed an enclosed temporary station to allow for change making and prepaid boarding of cars. The United Railroads also constructed a loop and high-capacity loading shed on a block of land it owned bordered by Francisco, Polk, Bay, and Van Ness Avenues (now occupied by Galileo Academy of Science and Technology).

Success by any measure

This misidentified URR photo is actually taken from the corner of Francisco and Polk, and shows the construction status of the Exhibition Loop a scant nine days before opening day. San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

The Panama Pacific Exposition was a success in all respects. By the time that the last turnstile had turned, 18,876,438 admissions had been recorded, ten million more than the planning estimates, showing that many people came back again and again. Average daily attendance of 65,543 more than doubled the estimate of 30,000. Although planners estimated the highest attendance day of the PPIE would draw about 250,000 people, the closing day crowd was 459,022 (almost equal to the city’s population of 485,000). Undoubtedly, the efforts of San Francisco’s transportation services contributed to the Fair’s success. Both the United Railroads and Muni enjoyed windfall profits from this service as did the Ferry services of both the Key Route and Northwestern Pacific.


The nascent Municipal Railway met the construction and operational challenges of the Exposition while acquiring 125 “B-type” cars that would be the backbone of its fleet for the next forty years. Although construction delays on Muni’s “A” and “B” lines along Geary Street raised skepticism, all construction and car deliveries for the Fair were completed ahead of schedule. Throughout the PPIE, the fledgling Muni management staff also gained considerable operational experience in meeting varied service demands.

This photo shows the URR Exhibition loop in operation, including a “32” car (Depot and Exposition). The Yellowstone Lodge and Grand Canyon can be seen to the right near Bay Street and Van Ness Avenue. The Tower of Jewels, rising a mile away in the distance beyond the roller coaster, is opposite the Scott Street main entrance. Photo courtesy BAERA Archives at F.M. Smith Library, Western Railway Museum.

San Franciscans today often cite the Palace of Fine Arts as the only surviving remnant of the PPIE, but there are in fact several others. The Auditorium at Civic Center (now named for Bill Graham) was constructed by the PPIE and presented as a gift to the city. The Stockton Tunnel was built so the original F-line could serve the Fair, and the Fort Mason Tunnel was built for freight railroad service to help build the Fair. (It later served the Army, and is now being studied as an extension of the latest E-line–the E-Embarcadero–to reach Fort Mason from Fisherman’s Wharf.) The Broadway Tunnel, while not built until 1952, was originally proposed to provide access to the Harbor View area for the PPIE. However, the main legacy for Muni was a well-built system connecting the northeastern and north central portions of the city to the Ferry Terminal as well as the financial and retail areas. When the Fair closed, Muni service along the D, E, and F lines fostered the residential developments and retail streets that became known as the northern portion of Cow Hollow and the Marina District. In the end, the city was left with the route structure upon which streetcars would operate for the next 35 years. Most importantly, by meeting the challenges presented by the Exposition, Muni demonstrated that it was a vital and mature agency of the “City that Knows How”.

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