December 28, 1912. Fifty thousand San Franciscans gathered at Market and Geary Streets. Was it a presidential visit? No, it was the transit equivalent of a late visit from Santa. It was a new streetcar line.
But symbolically it was a lot more than that. For the ten locally-built gray and maroon streetcars that began running up and down the A-Geary line that day had letterboards on the side emblazoned in gold leaf “MUNICIPAL RAILWAY.” They were the first publicly owned streetcars in any major American city. San Franciscans turned out because they were proud of what their government had done.
In those days, private companies owned transit lines, which made a profit, even with a five-cent fare. They were awarded franchises from cities for the right to use the streets, lay down their tracks, and string their overhead wires. In San Francisco, this arrangement had led to significant corruption and the public was sick of it. So they approved a bond issue to purchase the obsolete Geary Street Cable Railroad and convert it to streetcars.
When Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph boarded Car No. 1, paid his fare (using one of the first 40 nickels produced by the San Francisco Mint less than three blocks away on Fifth Street), and personally took the controls for the ride out Geary, the crowd roared.
Now, 108 years later, Muni faces perhaps the most critical moment in its existence. Travel patterns that date back to the 19th century, focusing on connecting downtown employment and shopping with outlying neighborhoods, have been shattered by the pandemic, with no clear picture of how widespread and permanent the change to working and shopping from home will be.
We do believe that when the pandemic ebbs, tourism will return and help rejuvenate businesses from the Wharf to the Castro District, and we are advocating hard for the F-line to be reinstated to serve those businesses as well as the growing number of residents in new developments along Market Street. We would very much appreciate your support for our advocacy with a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership.
In whatever form Muni emerges from this cataclysmic event, its history as America’s first publicly owned big city transit system will endure — as will that very streetcar Mayor Rolph operated, Car No. 1 (above), which our advocacy helped get fully restored as Muni’s 100th birthday gift to itself in 1912. We can’t wait to see it carrying passengers on the street again — to celebrate the future reopening of the F-line!
Like everyone in San Francisco, we miss the LGBTQ Pride Parade up Market Street this year. At least we can share a look back, framed with pleasure.
During the first year of the Trolley Festivals, 1983, we got the idea of asking if streetcars could be included in the parade. Yes, indeed came the answer. So the Blackpool boat tram and Muni Car 1 took their place in line and tooled up Market Street. The choice of destination for the boat tram’s roll signs (blinds, to the English) was obvious. People loved it!
On December 28, 1912, ten shiny gray streetcars with brick-red roofs lined up on Geary Street, from Kearny Street to Grant Avenue. The first, Numbered 1 in gold leaf outlined in black, opened its black scissor gate. Up stepped the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr.
From his pocket, he took a Liberty Head nickel, with a large “V” on the back (people knew back then that was the roman numeral for “five”). He nodded at conductor Nathan Rahn, in his crisp navy blue uniform, and dropped it into the firebox. It clanked. The press was told this 1912-S nickel was one of the first 40 ever minted at the San Francisco Mint at Fifth and Mission. The Mayor strode through the car, its crisp pale yellow rattan streets still pristine, its wood paneling still smelling of varnish.
Originally, the streetcars were to have been decorated, and the Municipal Band was supposed to be aboard the first car, playing its way along the line to the initial terminal at 33rd Avenue. The Mayor personally scotched this idea, saying, “Let’s get the cars going all right first, and toot our horn afterward”. Still, the crowd estimated at 50,000 San Franciscans roared for a speech from the mayor. He answered their call with these remarks:
“It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. s must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”
Mayor James Rolph, Jr., December 28, 1912
Mayor Rolph then joined Motorman Eugene Clisbee on the front platform of Car 1, gave the signal, and the streetcar inched forward through the swarms of people to loud cheers, and the silent salute of dozens of American flags hanging from the upper floors of surrounding buildings. Filled with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on, Car 1 picked up speed as the crowd thinned, and by Jones Street, was making good time. A photographer snapped the shot below, with an escort automobile next to it. (That photo ended up in the San Francisco Public Library with a notation “date and location unknown”. Until our nonprofit recognized it for what it was, documented the location and event, and publicized it.)
While Mayor Rolph loved photo-ops, he was no one-block-and-off guy. He rode every inch of track, followed by the other cars that had lined up behind. Muni only owned ten streetcars initially, but just over two years later, they would be operating almost 200 streetcars on seven lines (plus two special lines for the 1915 exposition). With the opening of tunnels under San Francisco hills in 1918 and 1928, Rolph’s vision of city-wide Muni service would be achieved during his own tenure as mayor (he was elected governor in 1930).
Muni’s first ten streetcars were retired in 1951. Only Car 1 of this group was preserved, for possible static display in a museum. But in 1962, Muni craftworkers restored it to its original appearance to celebrate the Railway’s 50th anniversary, and it gave rides on Market Street for a nickel one week. This was the germ of an idea to operate historic streetcar service on our main street, brought to reality with the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980, which were the result of advocacy from early leaders of Market Street Railway (the nonprofit named for Muni’s old private competitor). The success of the Trolley Festivals led to the permanent F-Market line, which opened in 1995 and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000, again thanks in large measure to the persistent and persuasive advocacy of Market Street Railway.
As for Car 1 itself, it began to rust and rot in the sun and rain after the covered storage sheds at Geneva Division were demolished in the 1980s. Market Street Railway advocated successfully for both restoration of this priceless vehicle and construction of protective covered storage for the historic streetcar fleet, both achieved around Muni’s centennial year of 2012.
Running any big-city transit agency is tough, to say the least. Running one in a high-density city with increasingly crowded streets is tougher yet. Despite the challenges, Muni’s leaders, with strong support from elected officials, have managed to turn one of America’s oldest transit fleets into one of its newest, and its greenest as well, in the past eight years. All while operating the nation’s largest fleet of vintage transit vehicles (cable cars as well as streetcars) in regular daily service, taking people where they want to go with delight.
Market Street Railway is proud to serve as Muni’s nonprofit preservation partner and salute it on its 107th anniversary. Please consider a year-end tax-deductible donation or membership to help us in our mission of preserving historic transit in San Francisco by clicking here. Thanks, and Happy 2020, everyone!
Source credit for opening day detail: “The People’s Railway” by Anthony Perles.
On December 28, 1912, Mayor James Rolph, Jr. took one of the first five cent pieces minted in San Francisco, put it into a farebox, pulled on his operator’s cap, and personally piloted it out Geary Street.
It was the first run, on the first day, with the first streetcar owned by the public in a large American city. It was the birth of Muni.
Today, Muni is celebrating with a post highlighting some of the great photos of their history in their archive. Take a look!
Oh, about that photo above. It was in the San Francisco Public Library, but had no label. No one knew when it was taken or what it represented. We did the research and pointed it out. It’s on Geary, headed west at Jones Street, and yes, that’s Mayor Rolph at the controller.
The Pride Parade has been San Francisco’s summer kickoff celebration for more than decades now, with huge throngs lining Market Street to watch almost 300 parade units go by. Back in the 1980s, historic streetcars were actually part of the parade, shown here in 1983, as a Blackpool boat tram and Muni’s famed Car 1 participated. The boat tram’s authentic destination sign seemed particularly appropriate. This year, though, streetcars will be completely absent from the parade route, not only for the duration… — Read More
In a welcome surprise, Muni Operations assigned its flagship streetcar, vintage 1912 Car 1, to regular E-line service today, the first time that has happened since the E-line opened for seven-day service two years ago. It caught our usual coterie of fan-photographers off-guard, but we managed to catch a shot of it, above, pulling in to Muni Metro East at the end of the day. The special appearance was probably because of the Giants’ home opener at AT&T Park on… — Read More
On December 28, 1912, 50,000 people flooded Geary Street near Market. They were there to cheer a streetcar! More exactly, ten streetcars, lined up in numerical order pointed west, led by Car 1. It was the opening of the first publicly owned transit system in a major American city: the Municipal Railway of San Francisco. The new city-owned streetcar line on Geary was a product of the Progressive Era, which called for ownership of public utilities by the public, not… — Read More
In transit jargon, the trip to the carbarn after completing the day’s runs is the pull-in. A man who helped revitalize San Francisco’s transit system has unexpectedly — and very sadly — finished his runs, way too soon. Mayor Edwin Lee died suddenly of a heart attack in the early hours of December 12, 2017. He was just 65 years old. Pictured above on a boat tram at the opening of the E-Embarcadero vintage streetcar line in 2015 with then-Supervisor… — Read More
Passing by Muni Metro East as today’s afternoon faded into evening, what should appear but a lineup representing 105 years of San Francisco transit history. Right to left, 1912 Car 1, the first publicly owned streetcar in America, getting ready to go out on a charter. Next to it, 1948 PCC 1015, signed for training duty. And then one of the new 2017 Siemens LRVs, number 2006, still being tested. Not something you can see in any other US transit… — Read More
Rick Prelinger’s “Lost Landscapes: San Francisco” is celebrating its eleventh year at the Castro Theater in December. What better way to get there for the showing on Wednesday, December 7, than a ride on Muni’s very first streetcar, car 1, built in 1912. The streetcar ride to the Castro Theater will follow a special reception at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Here’s a brief description of “Lost Landscapes 11”: This year’s program features new scenes of San Franciscans working, playing,… — Read More
Muni’s famed streetcar No. 1, on its very first run, with Mayor James Rolph, Jr. at the controls, headed west on Geary at Jones, December 28, 1912. San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library photo. December 28 is the 100th anniversary of Muni’s opening day — the first big city publicly owned transit system in America. We wish we could all meet at Kearny and Market and ride Muni’s first streetcar out Geary Street — for a nickel. But… — Read More
This screenshot from the special F-line LIVE map that NextMuni created at our request shows a welcome sight this showery Saturday. There’s Muni Car No. 1 out on the F-line, at the Wharf terminal, upper left. The screenshot shows the F-line around 1:30 p.m., Saturday, March 31. But hang on before you dash down, fare in hand. Even though it shows on the map as in service, it’s not taking passengers. Muni is training crews on the pristine renovated 1912… — Read More