Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)

by Art Curtis     

Art Curtis on his first day as a Muni motorman, 1961, at what turned out to be his favorite terminal, City College on the K-Ingleside line. MSR Archive

 Stand on Market Street today and watch the streetcars go by.  You’ll notice they pretty much stay in the same order all day.  You might see the Boston PCC, then the yellow Milan tram, then the Harvey Milk car (Muni 1051).  Back when I was operating streetcars on Market in the 1960s though, it was a much different story.

Market Street, 1967. Wonder whether the motorman of J-line PCC 1031 was Art’s nemisis, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein? MSR Archive

They were all streamliner PCCs then, of course, all painted green and cream, so that casual onlookers couldn’t tell if the order of the cars changed.  But the order of the cars made a big difference to many of us operators – the difference between a good day and a bad day.

Here’s why.  Today, it’s just the F-line on Market, but back then all five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, shared those Market Street tracks.  Those of us who were “runners” – who liked to take advantage of the PCCs fast acceleration and rapid braking to keep to our schedule – did our best to be sure we had room to run.

Let me give you an example.  I once worked a run [a day’s worth of trips] named 27-K, which meant it was run number 27 primarily routed on the K-Ingleside line.  I picked up the car from its previous operator every day at 4:47 p.m. at the West Portal of the old Twin Peaks Tunnel. Usually, though, the operator was six to eight minutes late.  As a runner that just heightened my enjoyment of the day’s work. 

One of Art’s favored “Baby Ten” PCCs rolling out Ocean Avenue at Cedro in Ingleside Terraces, bound for City College. If Art Curtis were the motorman, he’d be hustling to make up time. Mike Sheridan photo, MSR Archive

 You see, that run was scheduled to start its next trip, from the old Phelan Loop at City College, at 5:06 p.m., less than 20 minutes after I was scheduled to get the car at West Portal.  It was a daily, but totally rewarding challenge to get the heavy load of students at that hour on board at the terminal and make it back to West Portal within the bare ten minutes allowed by the schedule (laughably short compared to today’s schedules).

PCC 1027 at the K-line’s City College terminal. The car will navigate a very tight loop to get back to Ocean Avenue. Art would have the wheels squealing to beat his slow L-line compatriot, Joe Shook, to West Portal. MSR Archive

 Achieving that reward was especially important during one particular sign-up, because if I got to West Portal late, my follower on the L-line would cut me out, get ahead of me through the tunnel and down Market.  That motorman was the infamously slow Joe Shook, who was already a couple of minutes late when he reached West Portal.  I would often make a “Hollywood Stop” at West Portal & Ulloa, rolling through the inbound point-on switch ringing my gong and waving at Joe to stop and let me go ahead of him.

If I got in place ahead of Joe, I still had to hot foot it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel and down to Church Street on Market to make sure I got in place ahead of my J-line follower, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein, who always liked to run a couple of minutes ahead of schedule.  The final challenge on this first trip on 27-K was to get up the hill to Duboce and make sure I got in place ahead of my “N” follower, whose name I can’t remember – but I do remember that just like the other two, he was so, so slow!!  If I could get ahead of them, I could make up any lost time.  Nothing better for a runner like me to start down the hill from Duboce and see my leader somewhere down around Fourth or Third Street. Then I could really move!! It made no difference if we had a “swinging load” of passengers or not – just as long as we could move!

Market Street east of Duboce, with the double-deck Central Freeway looming over Octavia Street. Despite the freeway, Art had a clear view inbound well past Van Ness. MSR Archive

But if any of these guys got in front of me, I knew that when I finally got back to West Portal outbound, I’d be really late. That would force the inspector, Bill Veach (whom I had “helped” at West Portal as a young railfan before I was hired), to set up a car trade for me. I usually inherited a “good” car (which to me meant either a double-ended “Torpedo” or a “Baby Ten,” not an ex-St. Louis 1100) when I began my run. But if I was late on the first return trip from East Bay Terminal, I’d be stuck for the rest of the night with whatever car Bill could get another motorman to trade at West Portal. Though he did always try to get me a Baby Ten or a Torpedo if he could, it all depended on which motormen were willing to make the car trades and pull-in late.  If he couldn’t make a trade, I told him to just let me run and I’ll get back on time!

Inspector Bill Veach, right, checks on PCC 1145 at West Portal. If Art were in that 1100, he’d be begging Veach for a trade for a Baby Ten or Torpedo. By the way, note the extra black fleet number over the front door. That was Art’s idea, as an inspector, to make it easier to pick out individual cars during BART construction. Only a few cars ever got this treatment, though. MSR Archive

This may sound trivial to some readers today, but let me tell you, having a good car to run, and room to run it, made all the difference between a frustrating day at work and a satisfying one – and of course it made things better for passengers, too, since I knew how to keep my car on schedule if no one got in front of me to slow me down!!

PCC 1025 at East Bay Terminal, completing another run, a bit before Art’s time at Muni (1955). Note the W-P neon sign on Mission Street, the headquarters of Western Pacific Railroad. The feather promotes their “Feather River Route” through the Sierra Nevada. Phillip Scherer photo, MSR Archive

Art Curtis’ family has generously asked that donations in his memory can be made to Market Street Railway. If you’re so inclined, click here, and put Art’s name in the honoree box near the bottom of the donation page. We’ll use those donations for something special to honor him.

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What’s New is Old

48-Ingleside-Taraval bus that replaced night and weekend K and L streetcar service in the early 1950s. MSR Archive

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service.

But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in the early 1980s. This post on the SFMTA website has all the details, so we won’t recount them here, though we are including the post’s map below.

Proposed Muni Metro service starting mid-August. SFMTA graphic

We’re a historic transit site, so we’ll focus on the history, starting with the origins of Muni Metro. Muni was essentially gifted the Market Street Subway as part of the 1962 bond issue that built BART, and considered various ways to get the most value out of it. One idea given serious consideration in the 1960s was to buy high-platform subway cars, extend the M line under West Portal and the N in a subway to 19th and Irving, and make the J, K, and L buses. But voters turned down a Muni bond issue to pay for that, and many J, K, L and Outer Sunset N riders protested at giving up their one-seat rides downtown. So, pushed by BART to make up its mind, Muni essentially left routings as they were, cramming all five surface streetcar lines into the subway using new LRVs, and then intending to scrap surface streetcar service on Market (different story, covered here).

But feeding five surface rail lines at the mercy of mixed street traffic smoothly into a subway operation has consistently proved vexing. Delays in the subway have been common the entire 40 years it’s been open, delays that are often protracted, frustrating and sometimes enraging riders. Several visions to improve operations have put forward over the years by outsiders, including this one that we share as information only. All these visions have faced the same problem: strong neighborhood opposition to having to transfer to use the subway.

Boeing LRV on the M line at West Portal Station, 1990s. MSR Archive

By saying it’s an interim move, some observers note that what Tumlin and Kirschbaum are following is the old political axiom, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”; that is, try out changes now that you’d be unlikely to get through the political process in normal times. And Tumlin is on the record as saying he wants to rebuild Muni operations with a fresh eye, for tomorrow’s needs.

We must note, though, that the roots of this change are not new; they go back well before the subway existed, at least as far as the late 1940s. The K, L, and M lines we know today are essentially the same as when created a century ago. Then, it was politics and financial considerations that set out their routes. The K, for example, originally only went to St. Francis Circle. just five blocks from the West Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. To extend it farther, the city cut a deal with rival United Railroads to share the track of URR’s 12-line along Ocean Avenue. But the K route looks weird on a map, like the line is making a U-turn. The original 1918 rationale seems to have been that the K could attract riders right away because the Ingleside was already largely built-up, while it would take many years for the L and M, much of whose routes went through vacant land to stimulate housing and thus ridership. The same could be said for the outer end of the N-Judah, opened through the new Sunset Tunnel in 1928. (Here’s the full history of streetcars in the Sunset.)

After World War II, San Francisco’s streetcar infrastructure — the tracks, overhead, and cars themselves, were worn out. Additionally, Muni was unable to win approval from voters to allow a single operator to run a streetcar. They still required crews of two, and labor costs were driving Muni from breaking even to losing money. That was a primary factor in converting two dozen streetcar lines to single-operator buses between 1947 and 1951. At that time, Muni considered a similar core rail service using just the M and N lines in their tunnels and on Market Street, with feeder buses to connect. In fact, they went so far as to start a bus line in January 1951 called the 48-Ingleside-Taraval (top photo) to replace K and L streetcars on the outer portions of those lines nights, weekends, and holidays. K and L riders complained of course, and streetcars were restored 16 months later.

The new interim plan for Metro service includes that same K/L routing, using LRVs on the surface only. Riders will have to transfer at West Portal to either the M, which will continue to operate its full route, or S-Shuttle service which will run in the subway only between West Portal and Embarcadero Station.

Boeing LRV turning from the K onto the L line at West Portal in the early 1980s. This is the same turn the K/L surface route will make when rail service resumes in August. MSR Archive

Prospective changes to the J-Church line also have a faint echo in the past. As one of the lesser-ridden Muni rail lines (then as well as now), Muni came close to replacing J-line streetcars with trolley buses (numbered 46-Church) around 1950, forsaking the scenic right of way through Dolores Park and over Dolores Heights with a straight trolley bus shot up Church, too steep for streetcars. It might well have happened but Muni ran out of money for new trolley buses and besides the neighbors on Church fought hard for their streetcars.

The new plan calls for running LRVs on the J from Balboa Park to Market Street only, transferring passengers there to the subway (or, when it starts back up) to the F-line. Intriguingly, shortly after the F-line opened in 1995, its PCCs were routed out Church Street at night for several weeks to provide J-line service while the subway was closed for work. (LRVs cannot currently use Market Street, since the overhead won’t work with pantographs, though in the longer term that could be changed.)

PCC 1015, newly returned from restoration, testing on the J-line at 21st Street earlier this year. Could this become real? Jeremy Whiteman photo for the 2021 MSR Calendar.

Officially of course, the re-start of Metro service with the routings shown on the map is interim. At the very least, the opening of the long-delayed Central Subway, not scheduled for the end of 2021, will take the T-line out of the Market Street Subway. And it’s possible, if riders see a net reduction in trip times, even with a transfer, that at least some of these interim changes could stick.

There are a lot of moving pieces in play here, not least of which is the severe budget strain governments will face in the wake of the pandemic. Who knows? Maybe if Muni is unable to fund the full complement of Siemens LRVs, the J-line could be run with PCCs. More than in a long time, anything’s possible now. And we at Market Street Railway are keeping an open mind about everything.

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Tunnel Vision

The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel February 3, 1918, brought mobs of San Franciscans way out west to St. Francis Circle, which was as far as the Muni K-line went then. (The crowd is listening to Mayor Rolph speak, out of frame to the right.) Soon, an agreement would be reached with United Railroads to extend the K over its Ocean Avenue tracks. SFMTA Archive

Though it sits on the western edge of North America, San Francisco had always looked eastward – to its bay, rather than the vast Pacific. Its magnificent protected harbor had driven the City’s economy, and its population, since the Gold Rush of 1849. Residential neighborhoods gradually fanned out from the downtown core in the decades that followed. With the jobs clustered around the waterfront, residential growth followed the early transit lines that connected homes to those jobs.

Improvements in transit technology helped. Horse-drawn streetcars were eclipsed by cable cars, twice as fast. By the end of the 1880s, cable cars ran from the Ferry Building halfway to the Pacific, even to the end of Market Street and then over the Castro hill into Noe Valley.

Then came the electric streetcar, twice as fast as the cables. By 1903, these high-technology vehicles ran all the way south to San Mateo, 20 miles from downtown. The 1906 earthquake and fire decimated most of the City’s remaining cable system along with much of its housing stock and business property. Still blessed by its harbor, the City quickly began rebuilding. But many San Franciscans had been forced to Oakland and other close-in East Bay cities by the shaking and flames. They found their new surroundings attractive, and fast and frequent ferry service coupled with streetcars and interurban trains that met the ferries on the Oakland side made their daily commute to the City faster than even some San Franciscans enjoyed—and at the same price: just a nickel!

Envisioning Speed

While the northeastern quarter of San Francisco was densely packed with residents by 1910, the western half of the city was still sparsely settled. Except for the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at Land’s End, the city’s seven-mile Pacific shoreline seemed deserted. An exception: a collection of discarded cable cars and horsecars festooned among the dunes along the beach south of Golden Gate Park. Pioneers turned them into modest homes and dubbed it Carville.

Streetcars had reached the beach by this time, but only where they could skirt the giant pair of hills that bisected the city – Twin Peaks. The 5 and 7 lines of United Railroads framed Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, and the 12-line ran down Mission from the Ferry, then out Ocean Avenue and Sloat Boulevard to the ocean. But commuting from the ends of those lines, especially the 12, often took longer than taking a ferry from Oakland, where the weather was better anyway.

But what if you could go under Twin Peaks with fast streetcars? An area of 16 square miles would then be within reasonable commute distance of downtown.

Construction of the eastern end of the tunnel, starting at Castro Street, was cut-and-cover for several blocks. Early 1915. SFMTA Archive

The idea was attracting public debate at least as early as 1908, even before the bond issue that created Muni. When Muni opened its first lines, on Geary Street at the end of 1912, excitement about a Twin Peaks Tunnel grew, and the idea was at the core of a city transit plan prepared by famed consultant Bion J. Arnold in 1914 and strongly endorsed by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and powerful city engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy. What cinched the tunnel was the willingness of large property owners who would be served by the tunnel to pay for it. It ended up costing $4 million.

While several locations were initially considered for the east portal of the tunnel, the obvious choice was the end of Market Street, a wide boulevard that already had streetcar service by United Railroads as far as Castro Street, where the ground started climbing up to Twin Peaks. The City paid for the tunnel by assessing property owners who wanted it and would benefit from it. That included those looking to develop residential neighborhoods that came to be known as Forest Hill, West Portal, and St. Francis Wood.

Construction on the tunnel started at the end of 1914, clawing through the very soft ground near Castro, which caused the eastern end of the tunnel to be built with a “cut-and-cover” method. A small station was built at Eureka Street, just inside the Castro portal, even though there was a surface stop at Castro. O’Shaughnessy wanted to make it easy to connect the tunnel to a future streetcar subway under Market Street, which he was confident would have to be built soon. As this part of the tunnel was completed, with each track in its own concrete box, new streets were created above, including an extension of Market Street and a short street, Storrie, which the tunnel’s contractor named after himself.

Forms for the concrete façade of the West Portal are already being erected on March 12, 1915, even though the digging of the tunnel had barely begun. Mule-drawn wagons hauled away the dirt; the sign promotes a real estate development. SFMTA Archive

Real estate developers heavily promoted the new tunnel and its Forest Hill Station. Not surprising, especially since assessments on their land paid for the tunnel and station. MSR Archive

The bulk of the construction was deeper tunneling, with a single bore spanning both streetcar tracks. Just east of the tunnel’s midway point, a second station, named for the nearby lake, Laguna Honda, was installed at the deepest part of the tunnel. Elevators, manned by Muni operators, took riders to and from the platforms. Soon after the tunnel opened, a new neighborhood, Forest Hill, sprang up, and the station eventually took the neighborhood’s name.

The tunnel itself was completed in July 1917, though tracks and wires had not yet been installed. At a dedication ceremony on July 25, 1917, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph rather grandiloquently stated, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” (though streetcar service through the tunnel was still seven months away).

The Board of Supervisors fought about whether the private United Railroads, which already reached the West of Twin Peaks area by roundabout routes, would be allowed to share the tunnel with the Municipal Railway. Answer: no. Instead, Muni built its own set of tracks along Market Street from the Ferry to Castro Street, flanking the private company’s “inside tracks.” The sound of competing streetcars rumbling along Market side by side on the quartet of tracks became known as “the roar of the four”.

Automobiles have made it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel on rare occasions (usually with an inebriated driver), but only once did autos parade through the tunnel legally. On June 15, 1917, an authorized motorcade climbed over Twin Peaks and entered the West Portal for a bumpy underground ride on a bed of temporary ties to reach Castro Street. Arthur Spaulding photo, SFMTA Archive

The 12,000-foot Twin Peaks Tunnel was the longest streetcar tunnel in North America until eclipsed in 1998 by the Robertson Tunnel in Portland. The original West Portal of the tunnel was monumental, dominating the new neighborhood shopping street named for it. That imposing façade was demolished in the 1970s to build a station inside, when the long-wished-for subway under Market Street was finally built and connected to the tunnel at Castro. (That connection wiped out the Eureka Street Station, whose ghostly platforms can still be seen by riders traversing the tunnel.)

San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. pilots the first streetcar through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. Ten years had elapsed since the idea of a streetcar tunnel to open up the southwest quadrant of the city had started to gain traction. The tunnel itself took three years to build. SFMTA Archive

The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened for service February 3, 1918, with Mayor Rolph personally piloting the first Muni streetcar, No. 117, all the way through. A huge crowd turned out. The first line to serve it, the K-Ingleside, originally ran just a few blocks from West Portal to St. Francis Circle until an agreement was reached with United Railroads to share that company’s trackage on Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

The following year, the L-Taraval line opened as a shuttle from West Portal to 33rd Avenue. It reached Ocean Beach by 1923 and fostered growth for blocks in each direction through what became known as the Parkside neighborhood.

In 1925, another shuttle, the M-Ocean View, opened from West Portal to Broad and Plymouth Streets, running through open country in a narrow right-of-way bounded by empty residential lots, then following the alignment of 19th Avenue before turning east.

The East Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel at Castro Street, August 19, 1935. The middle tracks that turn left onto Castro are for the 8-line of Muni’s competitor, Market Street Railway. SFMTA Archive

These same three lines run through the tunnel today, transitioning underground to the Market Street subway under Castro Street, but oh, how their surroundings have changed, especially the M’s.

While new homes sprang up along the routes of the K and L in a steady progression, the M saw much higher density growth – but not for decades. In fact, the M was so poorly patronized that streetcar service was suspended for five years starting in 1939.

Forest Hill Station in the middle of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was austere to say the least, and always had a distinctive musty smell. Here, on February 26, 1948, “Magic Carpet” Car 1001, built in 1939 and outbound on the L-Taraval, passes vintage-1914 “Iron Monster” 129, inbound on the K-Ingleside. SFMTA Archive

The end of World War II brought many returning soldiers and sailors home to San Francisco and attracted many more who had passed through on their way to and from the war and liked the city they saw. The GI Bill gave benefits to these veterans including help buying homes and attending college. San Francisco State College mushroomed in size, growing a large campus on empty land along 19th Avenue at Holloway. Just south, a massive apartment complex named Parkmerced sprang up, and to the north, the City’s first large suburban-style shopping center, named Stonestown. The M-line served all these developments, and ridership steadily grew.

M-Ocean view “Iron Monster” Car 150, built in 1914, meets L-Taraval “Magic Carpet” Car 1001 at West Portal, June 1, 1951. MSR Archive

Coulda, Shoulda

There have been thoughts about altering or extending the Twin Peaks Tunnel several times, going back to the earliest planning stages, when one proposal called for a branch heading northwest from a point between the Eureka Valley and Forest Hill stations, to serve the central Sunset District, perhaps along Noriega Street. The Sunset Tunnel, completed farther north under Buena Vista Park in 1928, addressed this need instead, with the N-Judah line.

A later proposal came much closer to reality. The 1962 BART bound issue included money to extend the Twin Peaks Tunnel under West Portal Avenue to St. Francis Circle. When building the tunnel, the City could have made West Portal Avenue as wide as it wanted, since there was nothing but sand where the tunnel daylighted. As the shopping district developed outside the tunnel’s western entrance, drivers parking their automobiles slowed down the streetcars along the street. But the merchants on West Portal Avenue wanted that easy automobile access and opposed the disruption to their businesses the underground subway construction would pose. Muni ended up “trading in” the money set aside for a West Portal Avenue extension of the tunnel to help finance an additional Muni Metro/BART station at Embarcadero.

As part of the Market Street Subway project, the monumental West Portal was demolished to make way for a new station. In this August 21, 1978 view, PCC 1158 threads its way across the newly replaced switches for the L-Taraval line at Ulloa Street. MSR Archive

The conversion of the Twin Peaks Tunnel into an extension of the Market Street Subway required work at both ends. While the new Castro Station was being built underground, Muni PCC streetcars had to access the tunnel via scary temporary trestles and tracks that wags dubbed the “Collingwood Elevated,” named for the adjacent street. August 22, 1973. SFMTA Archive

Second Century: More Important

If anything, the Twin Peaks Tunnel will become even more important in its second century. The connectivity provided by the M-line was a key factor in the city approving increased density for Parkmerced, where 5700 additional housing units are planned. Muni expects enough ridership growth there to be actively planning projects to speed up the M-line, including undergrounding the tracks under West Portal Avenue. The tab could reach $3 billion if all of the M-line from West Portal to Parkmerced were undergrounded. This, in turn, would allow a true subway-style operation of the M, with trains of up to four cars.

West Portal Station, July 14, 2015. SFMTA Archive

The passage of time has proven the value of the vision its boosters had for the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

We thank the wonderful SFMTA Archive for the use of most photos in this story, and we invite you to visit their great gallery of Twin Peaks Tunnel photos.

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