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?

“Bone Yard” at Funston and Lincoln Way, 1944, SFMTA Archive.

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 their membership. But you can get the new Inside Track instantly, by email if you join right now.)

This post is about the original “boneyard,” the streetcar storage area created by our namesake, the old Market Street Railway Company, in the city block bounded by Lincoln Way, Funston Avenue, 14th Avenue, and Irving Street. (Thanks to the SFMTA Archive for the photo, dated March 1944.)

Our namesake stored over 100 streetcars here at a time, with a large infusion entering the boneyard in the late 1930s, after the courts squashed the company’s operation of some streetcars with just a single crew member. Rather than convert those cars back into two-person operation, they just stored them. Even the increased ridership of World War II didn’t pry them out. These included advanced-looking (but underpowered) “rail sedans” purchased second-hand from East St. Louis, conventional arch roof cars from that railway and from Williamsport, PA, and a variety of deck-roof and arch roof cars originally purchased by predecessor United Railroads, plus, over time, most of the streetcars Market Street Railway built with San Francisco labor in its own Elkton Shops near Balboa Park (now the site of Muni’s Curtis E. Green Light Rail Division).

After Market Street Railway was merged with Muni in 1944, the railway stored streetcars here for a time as they were taken out of service in favor of trolley buses. Briefly, these included at least some of the single-truck E-Union line “dinkys”.

We only know of one single streetcar that escaped the boneyard and is still intact today: 1924 home-built car 798, about which we hope to share some very good news soon. For now, let’s play a game for those with some knowledge of the boneyard.

If you could have waved a magic wand and saved up to three streetcars from scrapping, so that they could be running on the E- and F-lines today, which three would they be (meaning which type, not which specific car numbers)?  Answer in the comments section.  Wishing won’t make it so, but what the heck.

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City Hall Avenue, Around 1913

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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 to the ground. As an important street, it rated a streetcar line, the Tenth and Montgomery line of United Railroads, a meandering route that started at Tenth and Bryant, crossed Market, zigzagged on Polk and Grove to run along City Hall Avenue, then turned north on Leavenworth to Post, Post to Montgomery (where those two streets intersect Market Street), and then north via Montgomery and Washington to Kearny Street.

In the photo above, looking west from Leavenworth Street and dated around 1913, City Hall Avenue looks like a ghost town. The old City Hall is gone, with plans being made to build the grand new one we love today two blocks away. The Hall of Records, not too badly damaged in the quake, has been fixed up and is back in use, but it too is headed for demolition as a new vision for a grand Civic Center takes shapes. The only other buildings in the shot were thrown up after the earthquake and look temporary, which they turned out to be. The overhead wires and tracks turn from Leavenworth Street (to the right in the photo) onto City Hall Avenue.

14938351_10209745024253921_2384041602252333076_nThe map to the left shows the street grid of the time, with City Hall Avenue just to the right of Market Street, with a plaza connecting the two where Hyde Street is today.

So why put a photo without streetcars on a streetcar site? Because streetcars were pretty rare on this line by this time.

With the abrupt shift from cable cars to streetcars on Market Street after the quake, and establishment of other streetcar lines, the meandering Tenth and Montgomery line became an anachronism, just a few years after its opening in 1900. It only drew decent ridership during rush hours, with so few riders the rest of the time that United Railroads kept the small single-truck “dinkys” (identical to preserved Car 578) on the line, while other lines got bigger streetcars. Before long, service was cut to the minimum necessary to retain the city-awarded franchise to use the streets.

When City Hall Avenue itself was ripped up within a few years of this photo, United Railways rerouted this line along existing tracks on Larkin and McAllister Streets, and it held on until 1931. Very few photographs have come to light of the early days of streetcars on this line but at least we have the tracks, and a vanished street, to look at.

Thanks to John A. Harris for posting the photo on the Facebook group San Francisco Remembered, and to Kevin Walsh for posting the map there with his comment. Thanks too to Emiliano Echeverria, who corrected a couple of facts in the post, which is now updated.

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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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Patriarch Streetcar Turns 120

According to our historian, the redoubtable Emiliano Echeverria, 120 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 got its first streetcar line only four years before, in 1892, but transit companies led by Market Street Railway Company were replacing cable car lines with streetcars and building new lines with the electric… — Read More

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