Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

That list simply has to start with Maurice Klebolt, a force of nature. Klebolt, who came to San Francisco from Chicago, ran a one-man travel agency, served as a part-time Muni operator, and cultivated elected officials on a single issue: operating historic streetcars on Market Street after regular streetcar service on the J, K, L, M, and N lines went underground with the opening of the Muni Metro Subway in the early 1980s. Others talked about it and began to plan for it, but Klebolt believed in actually DOING something instead. And did he ever. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle captures his activism perfectly.

Maurice Klebolt (left) with the Hamburg streetcar he brought to San Francisco, flanked by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer in about 1984. MSR Archive

Klebolt and then-downtown business executive Rick Laubscher, who mobilized that community through the Chamber of Commerce, teamed up in something of a “Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside” pairing to win acceptance of a proof of concept in the form of a summer “Historic Trolley Festival” in 1983, which was renewed for a total of five seasons and built public support for the permanent F-line in 1995 and its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

Klebolt brought numerous international vintage streetcars to San Francisco for Muni’s fleet, and led the charge to grow the new, seven-member nonprofit known as Market Street Railway into a vibrant membership organization by personally shaking down – er, soliciting – everyone he know (and many he didn’t) for what were then $10 memberships. that remains in Muni’s fleet (and remains in need of restoration). Maury’s untimely death in 1988 at just 58 left a real void, but the success of the Trolley Festivals had put a permanent F-line squarely on City Hall’s agenda. Read our tribute to him here, with more hard-to-believe (but true) tales, including his personal version of Cold War-era glasnost.

“Streetcar Named Desire for Peace”, Moscow/Orel Car 106, brought to San Francisco by Maurice Klebolt, participated in a 1992 parade honoring San Francisco’s centennial of streetcars. MSR Archive

While Klebolt may have been the most visible openly gay man associated with the creation of the F-line, several others played very significant roles. The solid and enduring support of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was essential to the Trolley Festivals and permanent F-line, but the implementation of her wishes was carried out by her top transportation staff member, Alan Lubliner. Alan’s attention to detail and follow-through kept the project progressing, even when some inside Muni and other city agencies didn’t see the urgency of action. Alan went on to a very successful career in New York with the transportation consulting firm Parsons-Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

The city’s nonprofit partner in facilitating the first two Trolley Festivals was the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (Market Street Railway took on that role starting in the third year). Lee Knight led the internal Chamber team that made dozens of arrangements on a faster schedule than the City’s procedures would allow. Lee later joined Muni’s then-parent, the city’s Public Utilities Commission as planning manager, before his life was tragically cut short by AIDS.

Once in operation, the spirit of the Trolley Festival was definitively captured by the senior motorman operating the vintage streetcars, Jack Smith, the son of one of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar operators. Jack literally learned the craft of piloting streetcars at his father’s knee. His encyclopedic knowledge of San Francisco transit history and his unquestioned expertise in streetcar operation was looked up to by the other operators and by management as well. After his retirement from Muni, he served on Market Street Railway’s board of directors with distinction for several years, and was a long-time volunteer on restoration activities of our organization, focused on original San Francisco streetcars. Here’s how we remembered him after his unexpected passing in 2004, at age 72.

Motorman extraordinaire Jack Smith (left), who could operate any streetcar (or cable car), including the complicated Russian Tram 106, at first sight, receives a mock “tribute” from Maurice Klebolt, who brought the tram from Russia, at 17th and Castro in 1987. MSR Archive

There were many other members of the LGBTQ community that played positive roles in the Trolley Festival, particularly residents and merchants the Castro’s District, whose embrace of the vintage streetcars were a significant boost to their success. The Festival streetcars had to go where tracks already were, making Castro Street the logical terminal. Several gay business groups came together to issue a guide to introduce streetcar riders to neighborhood businesses. A booster committee was formed, led by a gay man named Robert Hunter, who asked the Chamber if they could create their own poster. Of course, came the reply. We have recently been offered a mint-condition copy of this artifact and offer this rough photograph we’ve been sent here.

And speaking of posters, we celebrate John Wullbrandt, then a young San Francisco artist who had done whimsical posters of a PCC and a cable car when we approached him to create posters for the first two Trolley Festivals. John raised the money from two other gay men, Bob Campbell and Joe Caplett, and we gained wonderful promotional tools. John is now a renowned fine artist based near Santa Barbara. We offer John’s 1984 poster of famous San Franciscans riding the Boat Tram (shown below) in our online store and at our museum store. The Chamber of Commerce focused on patronizing LGBTQ businesses for the promotional services needed for the Trolley Festivals, including purchasing signage from a small business on Brady Street, Budget Signs, owned by a young gay man named Mark Leno, who went on to a very successful political career in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Beyond the openly LGBTQ people who helped enable the F-line to become reality, there were other prominent people involved who chose not to reveal their sexual orientation during their lifetimes, and we honor that choice. But their contributions are certainly remembered and appreciated. (Anytime one attempts recognizing people who contributed to a team effort, there is always the risk of missing someone. We apologize if so.)

The historic streetcars have always been wildly popular in the Castro District, from the first article we remember being written about them in a local gay publication (with the headline “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” from Judy Garland’s ‘Trolley Song’) to loud complaints from merchants and residents when F-line service was threatened with extended interruptions. On several occasions, vintage streetcars have taken pride of place in the annual Pride Parade, something we hope will happen again in the future.

During the Trolley Festival’s first year, 1983, both the Blackpool Boat Tram and Muni’s very first streetcar, Car 1, participated in the Pride Parade. MSR Archive

On a national and international level, many gay men took leadership roles in rescuing streetcars from the scrap heap starting after World War II, and in creating museums to operate them. They did this in an era when coming out was to risk severe professional and personal consequences, so they often did not reveal their preferences. But you can see their legacy in museums all over the world. Our nonprofit has likewise benefited by the work of openly gay folks who have served on our board, among them Maury, Jack, Steve Ferrario, and our longtime board member and secretary, Art Curtis, who worked his way up from PCC operator to Chief Inspector at Muni.

Today of course, Muni’s parent, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is headed by a gay man, Jeff Tumlin, a San Franciscan for 30 years and frequent F-line rider. Its board of directors currently includes out small business leader Manny Yekutiel and has had other prominent LGBTQ leaders in the recent past, including former State Senator and State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, and long-time board Chair Tom Nolan, who was previously a San Mateo County Supervisor. Indeed, at all levels, from front line workers to leadership to governance, the LGBTQ community is extensively represented at SFMTA.

Happy Pride Month!

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The Castro’s rich transit history

Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years.

What the heck is a steam dummy?

That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator. The trailer holds the passengers. They had to dynamite the hill next to where the Mint stands now, at Duboce Avenue, to cut Market through from downtown. The Market Street Cable Railway Co. ran this steam dummy for several years to connect with cable car service to the Ferry Building at Valencia Street. (A similar steam dummy ran on Market Street downtown for a few years starting in 1860 but the noise drove people nuts on the crowded street.  

The neighborhood cable cars built

No crowds in Eureka Valley (as The Castro was then called) back when the Market Street Cable Railway Company, owned by Southern Pacific interests, replaced the steam dummy in 1887 with a direct cable car line from the Ferry to Castro on Market, then over the hill on Castro to 26th Street in Noe Valley. The shot above, from the 1890s, looks along Market west of Noe toward Twin Peaks. The ornate building just left of the cable car is the site of the later Bank of America building (now occupied by Soulcycle). The Castro cable line completed the Market Street cable car network, with most of those routes surviving even today as large portions of Muni’s 5, 7, and 21 trolley bus lines, and the F-Market streetcar.

Each of the Market Street cable lines had different colored cars, so riders downtown could see their car from a distance. Castro cable cars were ivory (Valencia was blue, Haight red, McAllister yellow, Hayes green).

The coming of the cable car and its speedy (9mph) trip downtown brought a building boom along its route on outer Market and over the Castro Hill into Valley. Victorian row houses marched up the streets within walking distance of a car stop. More remote blocks atop Dolores Heights took decades longer to develop for lack of public transit.

Electric streetcars take over

Streetcar 1588 and Streetcar 1590 on the 8 Line on Market Street East of 16th Street | December 5, 1917

The 1906 Earthquake ended an era for the Castro as well as the City. While the buildings of the neighborhood survived, the Market Street cable system was badly damaged. United Railroads (URR), by then the owner, had for years wanted to replace the cables on Market with faster electric streetcars, but had met resistance from those who considered overhead trolley wires to be unsightly. In the confusion following the earthquake, URR’s owners took a straightforward approach to get what they wanted. They bribed the entire Board of Supervisors. Within weeks, the wires were up on Market and streetcars reached the Castro, numbered as the 8-line. (The two cars above are on Market at 16th Street in 1917.) But from 18th Street south, the Castro hill was too steep for streetcars. So that portion of the cable line was left in place as a kind of shuttle.

Along Comes Muni

The obvious corruption surrounding the private transit operation, coupled with the arrival of the Progressive Era in San Francisco, brought forth the nation’s first major publicly owned transit system in 1912: the Municipal Railway. Muni’s first line went out Geary from Market along an old cable route, but bigger things were in the offing. The ambitious and capable city engineer, Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, encouraged by the peripatetic mayor, ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph, laid plans for what was the biggest infrastructure project built in San Francisco to that time: a streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks, to open up the distant sand dunes in the west to housing.

Where to start the tunnel? O’Shaughnessy felt there was only one logical spot: what was then the end of Market Street, at Castro. The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened in 1918, its east portal recessed into a little rise (adjoining what is now Harvey Milk Plaza) so that one day it could be connected to a subway under Market. The private United Railroads wouldn’t share its tracks on Market, so Muni built its own alongside, making four streetcar tracks running all the way up Market. (The 8-line tracks can be seen turning onto Castro in the 1935 photo above; more detail of the tunnel portal below.)

With the additional streetcar service from Muni, the neighborhood around Castro and Market prospered. The streetcars of the 8-line, by then owned by Market Street Railway (MSRy), successor to URR and namesake of our organization, competed with the K and (after 1923) L tunnel cars of the Muni. Together, they provided the largely working-class residents of Eureka Valley with some of the most convenient public transit in the City.

The transit picture diversified in 1935. San Francisco’s first trolley bus line opened: Market Street Railway’s 33-line along 18th Street (shown here at 18th and Castro) and over Twin Peaks to the Haight. It was converted from a streetcar route partly to save money, since the streetcar required two crew members and the bus one. The same year, Muni brought the motor bus to the neighborhood, with what was then called Muni’s 6-Eureka-Diamond line (now essentially the 35-line), running from the now-vanished Eureka Valley station of the Twin Peaks Tunnel (at Market and Eureka) southward up the hill, competing with the Castro cable car. Muni was soon using little White gasoline buses on the line, including No. 042, preserved by Muni with our organization’s help.

Castro Cable’s Odyssey

So in the years just before World War II, the Castro was the only neighborhood in the City served by all four modes of transit: streetcar, trolley bus, motor bus, and cable car. That ended April 5, 1941, when the Castro cable passed into history.

But what a ride it was. The photo above shows Castro Cable Car 6 pulling into its terminal south of 18th Street around 1940, with the Ferry-bound 8-line streetcar across the street, along with the Castro Theater.

The Castro cable cars were rebuilt by Market Street Railway in 1927 into the prosaic design you see above from a rebuild 20 years earlier by United Railroads that was fancier, and even included the stunning open “breezer” below, pictured in 1916, which operated for a number of years on nice days. (Imagine climbing the hill on that!)

This was never a tourist line, though. It provided a connection from Noe Valley to downtown for workers and shoppers … and a great way for a kid to get over the hill by hitching a ride on his bike, as in this 1941 shot at 21st Street.

When it closed for good on April 5, 1941, the Castro Cable was mourned by a small but sorrowful group of riders and friends (photo below), replaced by a new crosstown motor bus line, the 24-Divisadero. There was neighborhood support for keeping the cable cars, but the line was losing buckets of money, and the private operator could not sustain the losses.

Sadly, no Castro cable cars were preserved, but Muni recently restored a near-twin from the Sacramento-Clay line (abandoned in 1942), which now operates on special occasions on California, Mason, or Hyde streets.

During the War, rationing of gasoline and rubber tires caused a national boom in transit ridership. Both Muni and MSRy ran their streetcars into the ground (literally in a few cases, when rotten platforms fell off). In 1944, after saying ‘no’ several times over the years, San Francisco voters okayed the public purchase of MSRy, which was consolidated into Muni, lock, stock, and streetcars. As the war ended, it was clear the equipment would have to be replaced, but with what?

The decision came down to convert all of the old MSRy streetcar lines, and some of Muni’s, to bus operation: trolley bus in most cases, to take advantage of the overhead wires and poles already in place as well as cheap City-owned Hetch Hetchy hydro power. In fact, all the streetcar lines might have been scrapped if the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the N-line’s Sunset Tunnel had been wide enough for buses.

Steel wheels to rubber tires

After 43 years of running by the Castro Theater, the 8-line lost its streetcars in 1949, replaced by trolley coaches. The outer streetcar tracks on Market had already been removed, and Muni’s K, L, and M lines took over the 8’s familiar spot in the center of Market. The tracks on Castro were removed too. (In the 1937 shot above, the 8 car switches tracks at its terminal, in front of what’s now Cliff’s Variety. In the 1976 shot directly below, trolley coach 776 is in the exact same spot, with Cliff’s on the far right. That 1950 bus, painted at the time for the national bicentennial, was preserved by Market Street Railway and Muni now runs it on special occasions. The shot below that dates to 1973 and shows how the block of Castro between Market and 18th looked from about 1950 until the street was redone around 2017.)

On Market Street itself, the Art Deco-style “PCC” streetcars had finished replacing the drafty boxy original Muni streetcars by 1958. (The photo below shows one of Muni’s original streamliners at Castro and Market in 1959. In case you’re wondering, the gas station has been at that location since the early 1920s!) With upholstered seats and a springy suspension, the modern streetcars attracted a loyal following among Castro riders, and were the City’s streetcar standard for 30 years.

Muni Metro Suffers Birth Pains

In the 1970s, Muni finally built the Market Street subway that had been dreamed about since the 1910s. It connected directly to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, obliterating the old East Portal at Castro.

During the protracted construction, though, Muni had to keep running the PCCs, because there weren’t enough buses to substitute. The streetcars were moved off Market, so the subway between Duboce and Castro could be built easily. The “temporary” streetcar detour included new tracks on 17th Street (still there!) between Church and Castro.

Building the Castro Metro Station while streetcar service continued was more complex. The streetcars had to wind back and forth on trestle track above the station excavation to gain temporary access to the tunnel. Wags called it the ‘Collingwood Elevated,’ for the side street it blocked, but the neighbors on that street and others nearby had more pungent names for it. After station construction was finished in the late 1970s, “temporary” portals shored up with steel and wood retaining walls (also still there) gave the K, L, and M line streetcars access to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, until the subway could open (it was delayed several years).

During this period, of course, the neighborhood was going through more profound changes than any transit line could bring. The earlier generations of immigrants that originally populated the district, largely German and Irish, were gone, and their children and grandchildren were migrating to the suburbs.

A new wave of immigration was sweeping the neighborhood, predominantly gay men, drawn by the City’s relative openness and the attractive (if somewhat down at the heels) housing in the area.

The new residents transformed the neighborhood in many ways, restoring its vintage homes, bringing new life to the street scene, even discarding the old name. No one called it Eureka Valley anymore. It was the Castro now., complete with its own Muni Metro station.

The Trolley Festival: 1983

It looked like surface streetcar service to Castro was history when the last ‘green torpedoes’ pulled into the barn in September 1982. But an unusual coalition of downtown business, Upper Market merchants, and Castro residents, organized by members of our nonprofit Market Street Railway, put together something called the Historic Trolley Festival, to operate restored Muni antiques and vintage streetcars from around the world on the Market Street tracks to provide a ‘substitute attraction’ for the cable cars, then being rebuilt. That’s Mayor Dianne Feinstein, opening the first festival on May 27, 1983 aboard Muni’s very first streetcar from 1912, Car 1, at 17th and Castro. It was supposed to be a one-year thing, but its popularity among Upper Market residents, many of whom preferred the old cars to the crowded Metro or the 8-line bus, called for its return. It ran five summers in all, with a mix of streetcars from around the US and the world, including the 1905 Council Crest streetcar from Portland, Oregon, below.

The permanent F-line: 1995

The great success of the Trolley Festivals led to the construction of the F-line, with Castro providing the western anchor of the operation. The opening event on September 1, 1995, featured the popular open-top Blackpool, England boat tram, but basic service has been provided by popular PCC streetcars, painted to honor the various cities that once operated this historic vehicle type.

The F-line replaced the 8-line trolley coaches, and was immediately so popular that Muni realized it would need additional cars to operate the planned extension to Fisherman’s Wharf. Muni acquired ten 1928-vintage trams from Milan, Italy, and opened The Embarcadero extension on March 4, 2000, providing direct service from the Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf for the first time. The F-line has proven to be a big help to the small businesses of the Castro and all along its route.

Castro by Cable Car Poster

We at Market Street Railway are proud members of the Castro Merchants and have many supporters in the neighborhood, with the Twin Peaks Tavern next to the F-line terminal being one of our longest-standing business members.

We are also proud to offer a number of great Castro-themed products, part of our exclusive Historic Travel Series, at our online store and our museum. We at Market Street Railway are proud members of the Castro Merchants and have many supporters in the neighborhood, with the Twin Peaks Tavern next to the F-line terminal being one of our longest-standing business members.

So the Castro has seen a great deal of transit change and social change as well. But thanks to the F-line, one constant remains. When Castro residents head downtown, they ride the rails of Market Street, just as their predecessors have for more than 130 years.

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