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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Magic Carpet Ride


San Francisco’s first streamlined streetcars arrived in 1939. The outsides looked like the modern “PCC” streetcars popping up in many North American cities at the time, but San Francisco’s were different inside, because the City Charter of the day forbade the payment of patent royalties for some reason, and many components of the PCC were patented.

So Muni ordered five cars that looked like this, numbered 1001-1005, with a mix of trucks, motors, and other components. All, though, had a General Electric Cineston hand controller instead of the PCC’s foot pedals. Their ride was so smooth and quiet compared to their boxy cousins that they were dubbed “Magic Carpets”.

World War II and constrained city finances were two reasons Muni didn’t buy more of these modern streetcars in the years that followed, but in 1948, with the patent problems resolved, Muni did buy 10 double-end “real” PCCs, numbered 1006-1015, seven of which have been restored for operation on the E-Embarcadero line.

Here, in 1942, we see Magic Carpet 1002 at the inbound station at Castro and Market Streets, having just emerged from a run through the Twin Peaks Tunnel (no doubt an amazing experience to first-time riders). The 1002 shows the route sign X-11th St. Only, which was used for pull-ins to the car barn just off the H-Potrero line at Hampshire and Mariposa Streets. In this era, the Carpets usually served the L-Taraval, so it’s a good bet that’s where it had been running during its shift.

This great image was taken by Ralph Demoro, father of legendary railfan and journalist Harre Demoro, and is now part of the Market Street Railway Archive, donated as part of the John Harder Collection. Click on it and look at some of the details. The road sign to the right points to Upper Market Street, the automobile route over Twin Peaks, and offers the destinations Junipero Serra Boulevard, San Mateo, and Skyline Boulevard. The building to the left, still there, offers “Danish Confections”. The patented (and unique to San Francisco) Wiley “birdcage” sits by the entry to the tunnel, right, where two riders wait for an outbound K or L car (during this period, the M-line was only a shuttle from West Portal to Ocean View. There was no Stonestown or Parkmerced then). A hard-to-read warning sign between the Examiner newsrack and the street sign on the pole next to the streetcar reads “KEEP TO RIGHT OF TUNNEL.”

By the late 1970s, this stop disappeared when the Twin Peaks Tunnel was connected under Castro and Market to the new Muni Metro Subway.

Only one of the five Magic Carpets survived after they were retired in 1959. Car 1003 is at the Western Railway Museum in Solano County. In today’s historic streetcar fleet, one of the 1948 PCCs, 1010, pays tribute to the Magic Carpets by wearing the Carpets’ original blue and yellow livery.

By the way, Muni’s competitor of that era, our namesake, Market Street Railway, dreamed about buying similar streamlined double-end streetcars but could never afford them. They’re honored in today’s historic fleet as well, with PCC 1011.

UPDATE, August 6 — one of our members, John Bromley, has checked in to enlighten us (we are so glad for the collective knowledge of our members and friends). John notes that this was a fan trip on June 7, 1942, and sent additional photos along. We should have noticed the “XX” on the run number sign, a sure tip-off. We’re posting a couple of these additional photos John supplied, both taken by Ralph Demoro.

The photo above shows the 1002 at what was then the end of the K-Ingleside line, on Brighton Avenue at Grafton Avenue, three blocks south of Ocean Avenue. (The K shared tracks on Ocean with competitor Market Street Railway’s 12-line and needed its own terminal. The Brighton trackage was removed by the mid-1950s.) The photo below is taken at the end of the original F-line at its Marina District terminal on Chestnut Street near Scott Street. The original F-line became the 30-Stockton bus, extended a few blocks in the Marina, in 1951. As far as we know, the Carpets never operated in revenue service on the F-line, as the narrowness of Stockton Street led Muni to stick to their oldest cars, the 1912-1913 A-types (including preserved Car 1).

Thanks to John for the extra information and great photos.

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First Rebuilt PCC, Honoring Harvey Milk, to be Welcomed Back March 15

 

The first of 16 PCC streetcars to go back into service following a complete rebuilding at Brookville Equipment Corporation in Pennsylvania will be celebrated at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday, March 15 at the F-line terminal on 17th Street at Castro and Market.

Streetcar 1051 will be rededicated to Harvey Milk, to whom it was originally dedicated in 2009. The streetcar contains informational displays, prepared by Market Street Railway, celebrating Harvey Milk not only as a pioneering openly gay elected official and champion on LGBTQ rights, but also as a vocal advocate for public transportation.

Milk was the first member of the Board of Supervisors to regularly use a Muni Fast Pass. He rode PCC streetcars painted exactly like the 1051 between his City Hall office and his home and camera store in the Castro. District Supervisor Jeff Sheehy will speak, as will SFMTA officials and a representative of the Castro Merchants, a strong supporter of the F-line.

“We are proud to welcome this streetcar back into Muni service fully restored, rebuilt and ready for action,” said Ed Reiskin, SFMTA Director of Transportation, in a SFMTA news release. “The Harvey Milk streetcar honors the memory of Supervisor Milk. His legacy is well-known and this permanent exhibit honors his life and draws additional attention to his efforts to improve Muni and make San Francisco a better place to live.”

The historic streetcar displays the simplified green and cream livery of the 1970s and is the same Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) model that was in service at that time. It was featured in the film “Milk,” starring Sean Penn, which debuted in 2008.

The current $31.5 million rehabilitation of the original 16 PCCs in the F-line fleet, which were built between 1946 and 1948 and were last overhauled 25 years ago, includes re-engineering of the electrical and propulsion systems, inspection of current ancillary electrical systems and rewiring all lighting systems. The cars are being “skinned” down to their frames, which are inspected and repaired where needed. New sheet metal is applied over the whole body.

The streetcar will be open for public inspection before and after the brief 10:15 ceremony and is then cleared to enter regular passenger service. Come by for the event, and then look for the shiny new car on the street.

 

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“Service Improvement” on the F-line? You decide.

If you’re riding the F-line this sunny Saturday morning, you’ll find fewer streetcars out there, and longer wait times. But not to worry, it’s a “service improvement.”  Who says so? Muni.

Muni’s parent, SFMTA, sent out a blog post entitled “More Muni Forward Service Improvements Roll Out”. The F-line is mentioned. But when you click through to the story, it’s, well, a different story.

After listing other “improvements” (including cutting back a major crosstown bus line to eliminate transfers to the 14-Mission), they take on the F-line.  “As we fine-tune service to better match demand, a few routes with extra capacity will also see reductions in service, [including the] F Market & Wharves line in the morning and afternoon.” Well, we see the F-line every single day, with every car passing by our San Francisco Railway Museum. Tell the folks stuffed on board the cars about the “extra capacity” they don’t need.

Oh, but wait, Muni then goes on to explain: “Note on the F Line: In recent months we’ve seen issues with streetcars and buses crowding at the line’s terminal at 17th and Market streets. This slight reduction in service frequency is expected to help make the line more reliable.” Huh? If the streetcars are crowding the terminal, it’s because of poor line management. And who is responsible for that? The riders?

Beyond the facts of the rollout, there’s the way it was done — with zero public outreach. After this story was posted, we got an angry call from the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District leadership, asking what we knew about it. The answer: nothing, because we learned about it from the public notice along with everyone else. Turns out the Castro Merchants weren’t informed either. So there was no chance for suggestions of other ways to solve whatever issues might have arisen.

After we learned of this, we did call Muni service planner Julie Kirschbaum, who told us something different than what the official release said. She said the issue was a shortage of both streetcars and trained operators for the F-line. But the fact is that there is not a shortage of streetcars for current operations, and Muni has gotten around the training issue, which has now dragged on for over a year, by assigning buses to regular F-line runs. Has that changed? We weren’t told.

In any event, we are going to be looking very closely at this, working toward further adjustments at the next sign-up period in a couple of months, and advocating for F-line service improvements that are actually improvements. We’ll keep you posted.

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“Super Bust 50”

“Super Bust 50” is the headline of the new Castro Merchants monthly President’s Letter by Daniel Bergerac. You can read his entire letter here, but here’s the gist. As the Super Let Down after Super Bowl 50 starts to fade, let’s remember who is going to end up paying the biggest price for Santa Clara hosting this huge sporting event – – we are: local merchants, especially in The Castro.  But, we are not alone, we hear, as local merchant associations all over… — Read More

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