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
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.
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.
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).
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!
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!
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower.
The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically the largest district in the City, and, with almost 90,000 residents, the most populous as well. It was also the last major chunk of town to be developed. That’s where Muni, its former competitors, and streetcars come into the picture.
Sand dunes and scrub
When people thought of San Francisco in its first 75 years of existence, they thought almost exclusively of the bustling port, downtown, and posh residential districts, all near San Francisco Bay. This made sense, as our unmatched natural harbor generated much of the city’s commerce. The city effectively turned its back on the mighty Pacific Ocean, so much so that the 11 square miles on the city’s oceanfront was known as the “Outside Lands”.
In 1870, inspired by New York’s then-new Central Park, the city engaged William Hammond Hall to design a similarly grand public open space cutting east to west across the Outside Lands. A street grid for the western part of town had been laid out, still mostly on paper, and the city claimed the four-block-wide swath of land between D Street (now Fulton Street) and H Street (now Lincoln Way) for the park, starting at Stanyan Street and running westward to the breakers of the Pacific. Residential neighborhoods were rising east of Stanyan, accelerated by the advent of direct-to-downtown cable car service on Haight, Hayes, and McAllister Streets. in 1883.
That same year, 1883, Southern Pacific interests, including Leland Stanford, effectively extended their Haight Street cable line westward by opening the Park and Ocean Railroad, using a steam train, from the Stanyan Street turntable to the doorstep of the already popular Cliff House. The steam line followed H Street/Lincoln Way almost to Ocean Beach, then turned north through the western edge of Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond District, ending at B (Balboa) Street. The first weekend, 10,000 people reportedly rode that steam train to the beach. (San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya has a wonderful write up on the backstory of the Park & Ocean, linked here, but behind a paywall for some.)
From steam to electric
This steam route was electrified in 1898, and by 1902 was operated by conventional streetcars, though not really for residents — because there were hardly any. The northern end of Ocean Beach, where the Cliff House and Adolph Sutro’s grand bathing palace were located, were a prime Sunday recreation destination, soon attracting a fast growing amusement park called Chutes-at-the-Beach as well (renamed Playland in 1926). The Lincoln Way route to the beach was faster for San Franciscans from the Mission District and other working class neighborhoods south of Market and on Sundays, and United Railroads (which had consolidated several private companies in 1902) would add streetcars from other lines to the Haight/H Street line to handle the crowds.
Having the streetcar tracks right up against the park had a side benefit. The city contracted with United Railroads to carry ‘street sweepings’ (horse manure) to fill in sandy gullies in outer Golden Gate Park. The company had special work cars with tilting bins that did the deed, using temporary trestles built from into the swales in the park. So in a way, streetcars built the Sunset’s park before they built the Sunset itself.
The few residents in the Sunset early in the 20th century were concentrated near Ocean Beach and generally lived what was called a Bohemian lifestyle. They turned discarded horsecars and cable cars into beach cottages.
In his book Carville-by-the-Sea, San Francisco historian Woody LaBounty says the retired railcars were used as “residences, vacation homes, clubhouses, restaurants, and even churches.” Famous people, including Jack London and poet George Sterling, visited. Gradually homes were built around the railcars and they disappeared from view, but LaBounty says at least one, a shingled box on Great Highway, has “a unique living room created from two cable cars while the bedroom is an intact horsecar.”
Streetcar startup service
Carville residents used the Lincoln Way streetcars, which came to be numbered the 7-Haight line, but there wasn’t much else in the way of residents out west then. A developer subsidized a United Railroads (URR) subsidiary called Parkside Transit Company, running a line on 20th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Taraval Street, then west on Taraval to 33rd Avenue and south to Sloat.
In 1916, URR used the Parkside Transit trackage to run a new line, the 17- Haight & Ingleside from the Ferry alongside the 7-Haight & Ocean line, then cutting across the Sunset on 20th almost all the way to Sloat, jogging over on Wawona to 19th Avenue (back then then a regular-width, sleepy street) to go around what became Stern Grove and reach Sloat. There, the 17-line met up with the 12-Mission & Ingleside line that came down Mission Street from the Ferries, then across Ocean Avenue. The 12 then ran in the middle of extra-wise Sloat Boulevard to the Beach. But for decades, these lines traversed what were truly the “Outside Lands”, with few houses to serve at and no ‘built-in’ attractions like the beach amusements in the Richmond District (the Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool at Ocean Beach and Sloat) didn’t open until the 1930s).
The 12 and 17 lines were roundabout routes because Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro separated the Sunset from the developed part of town. Coming in from Haight or Mission Streets was a slow ride and did not do much to attract people to live under the blanket of gray.
Muni burrows its way in
Enter the Municipal Railway, the City-owned streetcar system opened in 1912 on Geary Street. Real estate developers saw a potential gold mine in the Sunset, and encouraged politicians to extend fast Muni service to the district by means of tunnels and agreed to assess themselves to pay for it.
For ‘can-do’ City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, that encouragement fit right in with his own vision. In 18 months, he holed through one of the longest streetcar tunnels ever built, from Castro and Market under Twin Peaks to the middle of nowhere. When it opened on Feb. 3, 1918, with Mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph at the controls of gray-and-maroon car No. 117, 10,000 turned out to cheer. Here’s a comprehensive look at how the Twin Peaks Tunnel came to be.
New upscale neighborhoods soon appeared because of the fast tunnel service to the downtown business center. Forest Hill spread out around the station in the middle of the tunnel; indeed, real estate developers helped pay for the tunnel. Just beyond and south of the tunnel’s West Portal, the ritzy St. Francis Wood grew up.
But here, we concentrate on the development of the expansive sand dunes that formed the flat part of the Sunset District. So we won’t discuss two of the three lines that Muni established through the Twin Peaks Tunnel: the K-Ingleside, which shared tracks with URR’s 12-line on Junipero Serra and Ocean Avenue, and the M-Ocean View, which ran through sparsely settled land southeast of the tunnel, but later grew important with the development of Parkmerced, Stonestown, and San Francisco State University.
The Twin Peaks Tunnel line that made the big difference in developing the southern Sunset District (which many call the Parkside District, though its nowhere near Golden Gate Park) was the L-Taraval, which opened in 1919 as a shuttle from West Portal and was extended through the tunnel in 1923. The L was originally planned for Vicente Street, but instead shared the tracks of the URR’s Parkside line from 20th Avenue to 33rd Avenue. See our centennial celebration of the L-line here for more detail on the L.
Ten years after Twin Peaks, Muni tunneled again, this time under Buena Vista Park to create the N-Judah line from the Ferry Loop to a loop at Ocean Beach. The N made the parallel MSRy 7-line on Lincoln Way seem poky, what with all its stops on Haight while the N zipped through the tunnel.
The L, and N, running parallel ten blocks apart through the Sunset, facilitated a building boom in the 1930s, further fueled by low-interest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. Developers such as Henry Doelger and Standard Building Company (“Sunstream Homes”) came to dominate the district, focused on working-class families.
Consolidating Sunset service
Expansion of Muni to the Sunset was a deliberate act of public policy. The investment in tunnels was made knowing Muni’s private competitor couldn’t afford to match it, and would lose competitive advantage. The City wanted that: its goal was to municipalize–take over–all transit services, which it did by buying out the old Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and the Cal Cable Railway Co. in 1952.
Lack of money blunted Muni’s expansionist fervor, though. After the takeover of Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni could have rebuilt the worn-out track of MSRy’s 7, 12, and 17 lines and routed them through the Muni tunnels to speed those lines’ riders downtown. But voters had only funded purchase of the MSRy’s decrepit assets Instead, Muni ripped out the tracks and either discontinued parts of the routes or put buses on. Nor did Muni leverage its tunnel investment by adding additional lines on streets built extra wide to accommodate transit, such as Noriega.
Buses make their mark
However, Muni did take advantage of wide Sunset streets for bus service. Muni opened a pioneering bus on Noriega Street in 1941 that connected to the N at 22/23 Avenues and Judah. (This was extended downtown at the end of the 1940s to become the 71-Haight-Noriega with rush-hour extra service on the 16x-Noriega Express.) Another Haight Street bus, the 72-Haight-Sunset, ran down Sunset Boulevard (built in the 1930s as an automobile thoroughfare between 36th and 37th Streets) to Sloat. And after 19th Avenue was widened in 1937 to carry Highway 1 between the Peninsula and the Golden Gate Bridge (which forced the cutback of the southern terminal of the 17-line streetcar), Muni established its 28-line in 1949, still one of its most important crosstown lines, now running from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge and then all the way south to the Daly City BART Station.
Real estate was so cheap in the Sunset back in the day that Muni’s private competitor bought two entire blocks to serve its streetcar operation (even though it had few lines out there). It owned the block bounded by Lincoln Way and Irving Street, Funston and 14th Avenues, originally intending to build a massive car barn there. Tight finances led them to turn it into a “boneyard” for out of service cars. The 1943 photo above shows a billboard at the boneyard promising to sell the land for housing if voters would approve purchase of Market Street Railway. (They finally did, the following year.) Of lesser value, but still important to Market Street Railway operations, was the block bounded by Pacheco, Ortega, and 21st and 22nd Avenues. The sand dunes there were “mined” by a conveyor belt on rails and loaded onto a differential dump car, which accessed the lot via a spur on Pacheco Street from the 17-line, delivering the sand to streetcar barns for use in helping stop streetcars when tracks were wet. This shot was taken in the late 1930s, after MSRy had already sold the strip at the right of the photo along 21st Avenue for new houses.
Other Muni bus lines connecting the streetcar trunk lines included the 18-Sloat, which took over the outer 12-line when streetcars were abandoned there after World War II and then crossed the Sunset on 46th Avenue, and the 66-Quintara, a lightly ridden route that serves now as a feeder for the N, but formerly ran rush hour service downtown via Haight Street. Today, Quintara is mainly served by the 48-line, another “Bay to Breakers” route that runs from Third Street in Dogpatch over 24th Street, Portola Drive, West Portal, and Quintara, with the distinction of connecting all six Muni light rail lines. In the past decade, heavy demand on the N-line led Muni to add peak hour express bus service to the N between Ocean Beach and Downtown.
But for the narrowness of the Twin Peaks Tunnel and (to a lesser extent) the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, M, and N streetcar lines might have been converted to buses too, instead of being put into the Market Street Subway in the 1980s with modern light rail vehicles. By the 1950s, transit managers around America were bus-crazy, and operating costs of Muni’s old style streetcars, which required two operators by city ordinance, led Muni to cut streetcar service way back, even substituting a bus line called the 48- Ingleside-Taraval for K and L streetcars nights and Sundays in the early 1950s.
Muni Metro era
Fortunately, though, voters repealed the two-operator requirement for modern streetcars in 1954, enabling Muni to replace its original streetcar fleet by 1958 with the streamlined “PCC” (like the F-line’s colorful daily fleet). The 1962 passage of the BART bond issue included a new subway under Market for Muni. To complement it, Muni planned major upgrades on its streetcar lines in the Sunset for faster operation. The deteriorating N-Judah trackway was rebuilt as a raised right-of-way in the mid-1970s, but opposition from residents over more difficult access to their driveways kept the trackway from being extended to the beach or from being implemented on the L-line. Fitfully and over significant resident opposition, Muni has been able to make incremental operating improvements on the N and L lines since then.
The PCCs gave way to shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles as the J, K, L, M, and N lines migrated into the new Market Street subway by 1982.
Remnants of streetcars past
Today, by looking carefully, one can catch glimpses of the early transit investment that spurred the Sunset to life: the spur of the L-line on Taraval from 46th to the Beach, now the oldest (1923) surviving streetcar trackage in town; the wide median running the length of Sloat, put there to carry the old 12-line; and Railroad Trail behind the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, the route of the old steam trains, and later the 7-line streetcars, discontinued through the park in 1947. All part of the legacy of streetcars in the Sunset.
Muni has announced its most drastic system cutback yet, going into effect the next couple of days. Here is their announcement. It includes a map of the routes that will continue to operate and details on why the service is being further reduced.
This follows last month’s shutdown of, first, the cable cars and historic streetcars, on the grounds that operators had no separation from passengers akin to light rail vehicles and most buses. That was followed by the shutdown of the Market Street Subway, substituting surface buses on all the light rail line. Now, with 40% of operators expected to be off work, mostly self-quarantining for safety purposes, Muni service will be cut down to 17 key lines, focused on serving hospitals and other destinations for essential workers.
Last week did see some vintage streetcars on the streets, though not to carry passengers. Some were test runs by the vintage streetcar maintenance team, still hard at work, catching up on various projects. Above, from an “Orange Milano” training on the J-Church line (at Church & 29th Streets), is the first “Lemon Milano” to appear on the streets in more than two years: Car 1807, which has been out of service. The testing revealed it still has a traction motor problem, which is now being addressed.
Another shop test, of Twin City Rapid Transit PCC 1071, in its original Minneapolis-St. Paul livery, on Church Street, on April 3.
Shop trials weren’t the only vintage operations of the past week. On April 1 (no fooling), PCCs 1051 (the Harvey Milk car) and 1055 (in its original Philadelphia 1940s livery) went out the L-line, resulting in this great shot at 35th Avenue and Taraval, with Car 1055 resting “in the hole” of the track wye on 35th, awaiting a road call from maintenance (remember, these cars haven’t been operating in awhile now). These cars were training new streetcar operators, and this piece of training finished last Friday. Next step is line training, involving supervised operation during regular service, which obviously has been put off. The trained operators have been reassigned to buses for the duration.
Before the training was suspended, though, a clean sweep of Milan liveries, with “Mint Milano” 1814 at the L-line terminal at 46th and Wawona, following “Orange Milano” 1815.
Thanks to the photographers who grabbed these shots. They come from our Facebook Group, which is seeing a big increase in activity with great historic photos being posted and discussed. If you’re not a member, here’s the link. Join us!
And special thanks to all the operators and maintainers doing their very best to keep critical Muni service running. We will get through this!
On April 12, 1919, the first L-Taraval streetcar hit the rails, overcoming obstacles to begin a century of service that continues today. The Twin Peaks Tunnel had opened fourteen months before, bringing fast streetcar service from downtown to the nearly empty southwestern quadrant of the city. Initially, there was just one line, the K, but property owners in the areas above and west of the tunnel, who had paid for its construction, expected – and demanded – more. So, Muni… — Read More
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… — Read More