Boat or Dinky: which will win?

So we’ve been running a fun little contest on our Twitter account and our Facebook group. It’s an idea from our board member Chris Arvin to let people pick their “fan favorite streetcar” – however each person wants to define “favorite”. It was set up as an NCAA-style bracket, where you start with 32 teams, er, streetcars, and pit them against each other in pairs, where the one receiving the most votes in each matchup moves on to the next round, until you’re down to the Final Four, and then, the last two.

To see if there are differences between our audience on Twitter and that on Facebook, we’re actually running separate contests, using the same brackets. There were some differences in winners in the preliminary rounds between the two platforms’ audiences, but on both, the finals came down to the 1896 single-truck “Dinky”, the oldest passenger streetcar still operated by a North American transit agency, and the 1934 Blackpool, England “Boat Tram), whose open top and jaunty whistle has turned heads and generated smiles for decades in San Francisco.

The Twitter poll will close at Noon (Pacific Time) on Thursday, June 3, but we’ll keep our Facebook group poll open through the weekend to give people who haven’t participated in the contest yet a chance to vote in the finals.

We’ll share the final bracket results for both platforms here after all voting is finished.

We’ve heard from a few folks that it’s unfair that they should have to vote between two streetcars they love at any point in the contest, even more so as we’ve moved through the “Sweet Sixteen”, “Elite Eight”, and “Final Four”. It makes us happy to know so many people love so many different streetcars. And after all, it’s not like the streetcars get retired if they lose. There’s always another day.

In fact, we’re thinking of running a separate contest down the road just for the 32 PCCs, with all those colorful liveries. And maybe a separate one for just the older (pre-World War II) vintage cars. Stay tuned, and if you haven’t voted, please do!

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St. Patrick’s Day, 1906

Workers of Irish extraction played a major part in laying and maintaining track for United Railroads in 1906. Here’s a crew at work on tracks along Fourth Street, looking north from Bryant. It’s dated March 17, 1906, one month and one day before the earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco.

The images, both full-sized at the bottom and cropped two ways here, come from a glass plate made by United Railroads photographer John Henry Mentz and preserved by the fabulous SFMTA Photo Archive, to whom all the credit.

Click any image for a full-res version and then zoom in to see details like the ad for Columbia, “the gem of Talking Machines”, available at 125 Geary Street and perfect for the double parlor of your Victorian home. Or lots on which to build your dream San Francisco house: one dollar down, one dollar a week! And if you need to get out of town, check in at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station at 21 Powell Street, right at the cable car turntable!

After a hard day on the job, though, the crew shown here was more likely to stop in at the Transfer Saloon, just steps away at the corner, for a St. Louis Beer or Harper’s Whiskey, as advertised out front. And if they were privileged enough to have a phone at home, they could use the Bell pay phone inside to let the family know where they were…and then maybe drop in at the vaudeville show at Fischer’s theatre, advertised on the Bryant Street wall.

When Mentz took this 1906 photo, streetcars on Fourth ran north to Market, then out Ellis to Golden Gate Park. San Francisco’s oldest preserved streetcar, 1896 “Dinky” 578, ran on this line, on this very track in fact, when it was new. A dinky is faintly visible on the extreme right of the photo below, at about Harrison Street. Could it be our 578?

“Dinky” 578 still carrying passengers before the pandemic at 20th & Church Streets.

In 1947, after Muni took over, the Fourth Street tracks were switched to connect to the original F-line at Stockton and Market, extending the F, which served the Marina, North Beach, and Chinatown, down to the old Southern Pacific train depot. (The 30-Stockton bus took over this route in 1951.)

And today, as seen in the then-and-now view of the whole original photo, the track’s back on Fourth!

Google Streetview

Yep, the spot where the crew was working on Fourth Street in 1906 is now the portal for the lonnnng-awaited Central Subway, which will carry the T-line north under Fourth and Stockton Streets to Union Square and Chinatown, come next year (so we’re told).

In 1906, crews like this one got the tracks on both Fourth and Bryant Streets back in service within two weeks after the quake, even though the saloon and every building in the 1906 photo was incinerated on April 18. The saloon site is now the offramp for the last San Francisco exit from Interstate 80 before the Bay Bridge. So, if you’re hunting for St. Paddy’s Day cheer, look somewhere else. Or better yet, wait til next year, when hopefully we can all celebrate the wearin’ of the green together!

If you enjoy these looks back, and want to keep seeing the past (like 578) present in the future, please consider supporting us. Even the price of a beer helps!

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When the oldest streetcar was new

How old is the oldest electric streetcar in Muni’s historic fleet? So old that it regularly crossed paths with cable cars on Market Street. When “dinkies” (small, single truck streetcars) like preserved Car 578 were new, they were also novel, in that cable cars dominated San Francisco transit and had the exclusive rights to Market Street. The electric cars only saw Market when they crossed it. While they looked like cable cars, they were twice as fast and very high tech for the time, 120 years ago.

Two photographic glass plates recently found by Howard Jarvis (no, not the author of Prop. 13 for those who remember back that far) appear to make the dinkies central to the composition. The two photographs were clearly taken by the same photographer, probably within a few minutes of each other, from the same place, the second floor of a building at Ellis and Market, looking southeast across to Fourth Street. Based on other photos of the same intersection, these shots were taken between 1898 and 1900. One photograph is shifted a little to the right from the other one. We include several crops and a full image here.

In the crop at the top of the post, we see a dinky identical to Muni’s Car 578, built in 1896, crossing Market from Ellis to Fourth Street, headed south to the Southern Pacific Train Depot. (We can’t make out the full car number, though it doesn’t appear to be 578 itself but rather another in the bright-yellow fleet of Ellis-O’Farrell line cars, all built by Hammond, which also built many of the California Cable Cars still in Muni’s fleet today.)

In the close-up below, we see that the dinky is crossing behind a green Hayes Street cable car (later the 21-Hayes streetcar and then trolley bus), which is about to pass an establishment called “Midway Plaisance, Home of Burlesque” on its route to the newly-opened Ferry Building. First, though, it will roll past a small shop with a sign on its roof that says RATS in big letters and ROACHES, ANTS, and BEDBUGS in smaller ones. Really wish we could read the rest of it but we presume it’s an extermination business, located where the landmark Humboldt Bank Building rose a few years later.

The Humboldt Bank was designed more or less as a bookend to the Call Building at Third and Market, which dominates the full frame below when you zoom out (remember when “zoom” had nothing to do with quarantine communications?).

Fascinating to look at the people (you can click on the above photo to get a larger view). Scores of men and women clearly visible, but not a single bare head. Interesting signs in this image too, such as “Ohio Dental Parlors” occupying a large space on the second floor in the building at left. (Did Ohio have some kind of advanced dentistry?)

A crop of the second image, above, shifted slightly south, reveals a few additional things. First, there’s the beer wagon at the corner, passing under the store awning advertising “La Harmonia Cigars”. Beer and cigars were the most common advertisements seen in photos of this era, and by extension, presumably the most commonly consumed “vices” of the city of the day.

The dinky in this image is headed north, toward Golden Gate Park out Ellis and then O’Farrell Streets. There’s a cable car in the same place as the first photo but we can’t tell which line it’s assigned to. What can’t be missed though are the garish ads for “Original Uncle Bill Private Loan Offices”. Uncle will loan you money “from $1 up” “at the lowest rate”. And, highly unusual for that time, he’s “open Sundays”. If it’s not already clear that it’s a pawnshop, the sign “unredeemed pledges for sale” is a giveaway.

One other piece of San Francisco trivia. The second image makes it clear that the big billboard to the right is for Roos Brothers, “leading clothiers”, at 27-37 Kearny Street, two blocks away. That building, plus the one the ad is painted on, plus everything else visible in the above photo (except the Call Building), burned on April 18, 1906. But Roos Brothers survived as a family business and later relocated to a stylish store directly across the street from the billboard at Market and Stockton (shown in the Google Maps image below on the left as XXL). Then, after a merger, the firm built a new building across the street, exactly where its billboard stood in 1900 (that location is now occupied by Ross Dress for Less, the white building with the bulbed corner on the right.). The old Call Building is the only common object in the then-and-now photos, though it’s almost unrecognizable following its renovation into an Art Deco facade as the Central Tower in 1940 (it’s the white building on the right in the middle distance).

While this intersection today is eerily quiet with no streetcars on Market or cable cars a block away on Powell, it’s still some consolation to get a fresh look at pieces of the past when photos like this appear. Thanks to Mike Ahmadi, who works with Howard Jarvis and let us post these great shots. Mike runs a Facebook Group called “In Howard’s Barn”, which has other great vintage photo finds and offers very hi-res prints for sale. You can inquire at inhowardsbarn@gmail.com. And as wonderful as these vintage photos are, take a moment to imagine yourself there, experiencing it all in glorious color, starting with the bright yellow of the centerpiece, the Ellis-O’Farrell line dinky. We’ll help.

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