Patriarch Streetcar Turns 125

578S 2nd and Mission, 1904, SFMTA Archives
Car 578 at 2nd and Mission, 1904. SFMTA Archive

According to our historian, the redoubtable Emiliano Echeverria, 125 years ago, August 10, 1896 (give or take a day), a new streetcar was delivered for service in San Francisco. Streetcars themselves had only become a viable transit technology eight years before in Richmond, Virginia. San Francisco had opened its first streetcar line only four years earlier, in 1892, but transit companies led by Market Street Railway Company were busy already, replacing some cable car lines with streetcars and building new lines with the electric vehicles.

The first streetcars that appeared in San Francisco looked a lot like cable cars, except for the trolley pole on the roof that conducted electricity from the overhead wire. That wasn’t surprising. The standard cable car design of the time, the “California Car” (named after the California Street cable car design still used today), was popular with riders, with open end sections and a closed center section. And many of the early San Francisco streetcars were built by cable car builders.

That new streetcar delivered in August 1896 still operates today. Built by Hammond, which later built today’s fleet of California Street cable cars, No. 578 is the oldest passenger transit vehicle in America still on the operating roster of a public transit agency. It survived because it was turned into a work car after the 1906 earthquake and was kept around in that capacity before being restored by Muni’s crafts workers for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the earthquake in 1956. It was then going to be put on static display at a proposed railroad museum across from the Hyde Street Pier, but when that fell through, it went back to Muni for a time and was then loaned to the Western Railway Museum in Solano County.

The Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, spearheaded by leaders of Market Street Railway, saw Car 578 brought home to carry passengers occasionally on its home city’s rails. Known affectionately by its many fans as the “Dinky” for its compact size, Car 578 has been wildly popular during the annual Muni Heritage Weekends (pictured below) that ran for eight years before the pandemic and we hope will resume in 2022.

We’re going to run a special feature to celebrate Car 578‘s 125th birthday in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, with many more historic photos of this patriarch of San Francisco’s streetcar fleet. Join Market Street Railway now so you don’t miss it!

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Happy 125th Birthday, Car 578!!

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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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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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121 Years in One Day

Muni Supervisor Robert Parks, who trains operators on every type of streetcar and light rail vehicle in the city, may have set a record today.

In the morning (above), he trained operators on Muni’s newest model of LRV, Siemens car 2001, delivered earlier this year. (The first Siemens cars are due to start carrying paying passengers next month.) Above. 2001at the N-Judah Ocean Beach terminal.

Then, he got a call — could he do a shop move, transferring 1896 single-truck “dinky” 578 across Cameron Beach Yard.

The same operator running one of the very the newest streetcars in America and the oldest passenger streetcar still on the roster of a US transit agency in the same day — vehicles built 121 years apart. That’s gotta be a record!

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Robert moved the dinky “across town,” which he called us to correct. We regret the error but are still in awe of his “double-header”.

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What Would You Have Saved From the Old Boneyard?

The new issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, should reach your mailboxes any day now. It contains a story about our efforts to save the best PCC streetcars at Muni’s current “boneyard”, on Marin Street near Islais Creek, as Muni moves to convert the space into a bus testing yard. (No, we’re not going to post that story here, at least not yet; our members feel getting first knowledge of important developments regarding the historic streetcar fleet is a perk of… — Read More

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City Hall Avenue, Around 1913

Almost no one is still with us who actually saw the street named City Hall Avenue.  It ran parallel to Market Street, half a block north, and stretched just two blocks between Leavenworth and Larkin Streets. The massive but poorly built City Hall and neighboring Hall of Records filled the north side of the street. Because of the municipal buildings, it was an important street, at least until April 18, 1906, when the giant earthquake shook the shoddily built City Hall… — Read More

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Getting Ready for Muni Heritage Weekend

  What you’re looking at here is Muni maintenance folks applying decals the other day to Car 578, the oldest streetcar in Muni’s fleet, built in 1896. When Muni restored it to its original appearance in 1956, for the 50th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake, the work was overseen by Charlie Smallwood, Muni maintenance manager and legendary San Francisco rail historian. Charlie had a Muni sign painter reproduce the original lettering on the car, which was painted for one specific line,… — Read More

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Honoring Labor

  Happy Labor Day 2016! Here’s a shout out to San Francisco past and present, who built, maintained, and operated our transit system. Its history was punctuated by struggles on behalf of unions, including strikes that cost workers’ lives early in the century, that led to a solid union environment today. In celebration of the hundreds of thousands of good jobs transit provided through the decades, two photos from the wonderful SFMTA Archives (with a hat tip to Archivist Jeremy Menzies… — Read More

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