Streetcars in the Sunset

Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph operates the first N-Judah car through the Sunset Tunnel, October 21, 1928.

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

Car 703 (identical to preserved 578) on a Sunday “tripper” run behind what’s now the Beach Chalet restaurant in Golden Gate Park, October 1903. As its livery showed, this car served the 10th & Montgomery route on weekdays.

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.

Dumping “Street Sweepings” in Golden Gate Park, 1905

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.

Carville

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.

Carville, 1905. This shot is at what became 48th Avenue and Judah Street, where the N-line turns around today. Note the detail below. Car 1207, far left, painted green, had served what became the 14-Mission line; Car 1197, center, painted yellow worked Kearny Street. Both had been rebuilt from horsecars just nine years before, reflecting the fast evolution of electric streetcar technology.

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

H Street (Lincoln Way) near where Sunset Blvd. was later built, 1908

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.

Another of those single-truck dinkies passing a lonely house on 20th Avenue between Kirkham and Judah Streets, 1914.

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

“Sunny Jim” Rolph’s first tunnel trip, opening the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. SFMTA Archive

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.

West Portal from Edgehill Way, 1920, with sand dunes and the Pacific beyond. (Dig that Buick!) The Twin Peaks Tunnel portal is just behind the man’s hat brim, the empty West Portal Avenue stretches out in front of his hat brim. Contrast this with the shot below, taken in 1929 from above the portal, below, showing the vibrant village that had grown up. The L-line tracks turn right here onto Ulloa Street.

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.

33rd Avenue and Taraval, looking west, 1923. This is where the tracks of the Parkside line turned south via 33rd, Vicente, and 35th to reach Sloat Boulevard and the 12-line. Judging from the Parkside Sales Office, center, the Parkside line (discontinued in 1927) had limited success in spurring residential development, unlike the Muni lines in the Sunset did.

Sunset Tunnel

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.

Two rarely-seen photos of the N-line opening day, October 21, 1928. Above, Mayor Rolph pilots the first car past 31st Avenue toward Ocean Beach, Below, the end of the line at the Great Highway loop. The run numbers in the two visible cars (3 and 4) suggest that the Mayor’s car and its follower have come and gone. but the crowd continues to celebrate.
That building at the corner of Judah and LaPlaya (behind the streetcars in both the above and below shots) has been a restaurant for as long as the N has been a streetcar line. For decades it was Dick’s at the Beach (pictured below with PCC 1143 in 1961), popular with N-line operators and rail fans.

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.

Looking north on 31st Avenue from Lawton, 1930, two blocks north of the third photo up. A 1938 aerial map shows these vacant blocks built out, typical of what quickly happened within a few blocks of both the N and L lines.

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.

20th Avenue and Judah, 1937. Market Street Railway Car 131 crosses Muni’s N-Judah tracks, headed for Stern Grove (a full size replica of the cab of this 1911 streetcar type is on display in our museum).

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

By 1951, the Sunset had grown enough to need extra rush hour bus service. Here, a 16 Noriega bus from White Motor Company loads neatly queued passengers on Mason Street near Market Street for an express run home.

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.

PCC 1037 on the new N-Judah right of way, in 1976, looking east from 15th Avenue.

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.

Just emerged from the Market Street Subway in early 1980, an N-Judah Boeing-Vertol LRV heads west on Duboce Avenue for the Sunset Tunnel while PCC 1134 is headed for Market in surface service during the phased opening of the subway.

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.

Looking north on the 7-line’s right-of-way through Golden Gate Park, about 1946. The Big Dipper roller coaster and Playland-at-the-Beach are in the background.

Written by Rick Laubscher. Thanks to the Western Neighborhoods Project and SFMTA Archive for use of their photos. Uncredited photos are from the Market Street Railway Archive.

Share
No Comments on Streetcars in the Sunset
Share

Rainy Day on Market, World War II

13876297_1403930086290219_3873920317787814786_n

 

Weather forecast says rain’s on the way for the Bay Area. As good a time as any to share this photo of Market Street, looking east from Fifth Street, taken during World War II (likely 1943 or early 1944). Rich detail in this photo. The blue and gold N-Judah on the outside track is trying to squeeze past the automobile so it can catch up to the competing 5-McAllister streetcar (with the flashy “zip stripe” on the side) of our namesake, Market Street Railway.

American flags and a striped banner hang from the streetcar span wires. The switches from the inside tracks to Fifth Street, where the 40-line interurbans to San Mateo terminated, are visible around the traffic cop with his bright raincoat (was it white or yellow?). Engulfed in the crowd at the extreme center right of the shot (to the left of the word “The” for the Owl Drug Company store at the corner) is the patented Wiley “birdcage” traffic signal unique to San Francisco. How were motorists and streetcar motormen expected to see it? (You can see an operating one at our San Francisco Railway Museum.) Next to the birdcage, a small porcelain traffic sign, put there by Triple-A, points drivers toward the Bay Bridge entrance at Bryant Street (no connecting freeway then!).

Gray’s Navy Blues and GallenKamp Shoes are two of the stores in the building on the north side of Market, which would be ripped down a quarter-century later to build the Powell Street BART station and Hallidie Plaza. The awnings of the ground floor retail store in the Flood Building (where Gap’s flagship store is now) are just visible at the top. The patterns on the sea of umbrellas make us wish this shot was in color.

Share
1 Comment on Rainy Day on Market, World War II
Share

Postgame Parade

162-1015 N beach copy

The Super Bowl ended this football season, but we’ll go into overtime for a minute to share a special football-related photo. We’re at the end of the N-Judah line at Ocean Beach. Based on the clues in the photo, it’s between 1955 and 1957. PCC “torpedo” No. 1015 is about to take the loop and head inbound. It’s been converted from double-end to single-end operation, hence the blocked-off doors you see.

On the stub track sit two “B type” original Muni streetcars, built in 1914 but recently “modernized” with conductor-operated doors on their rear platforms. We can’t tell the number of the car, on the right, but the one closer to us is No. 162. We know why it and its sibling are laying over from the yellow dash sign saying “Football Today – Kezar Stadium.” It’s probably a 49ers game (city high school games were played there too). Muni banked a couple of cars on the N-line terminal spur for postgame pickups. Other cars would switch back near Kezar on Carl Street to take fans home.

As mentioned last week, we’ve captured this distinctive dash sign on a tee shirt which you can buy at our San Francisco Railway Museum.  They’ll be up on our online store next week. (By the way, “shortest route” dates back to the pre-1944 days when Muni competed with our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, whose service to Kezar ran via Haight Street instead of the N-line’s faster Sunset Tunnel route.)

Kezar Tee shirt

It’s amazing that at least two of the three streetcars pictured in this 60 year old photo are preserved (heck, could be all three if that other one is No. 130). Well, maybe not so amazing…our organization and its founders successfully championed the preservation of the rare double-end PCCs Muni owned, such that seven of the ten are in service today! And we brought No. 162 back from a museum and began its restoration. (Today, we’re working with SFMTA to get the damage it suffered in an accident two years ago repaired. It is a slow process, but we won’t rest until it’s back on the street.)

Your support is what makes our work possible. Please consider donating or joining, and visit our museum for great displays, vintage film and photos, and great gifts too!

Share
1 Comment on Postgame Parade
Share

Happy 87th Birthday, N-Judah!

WeastPortalSunset

The N-Judah streetcar line turns 87 on October 21. SFMTA’s great blog has already posted some great photos of its 1928 opening, including one (the top one on their blog page) we don’t remember seeing before, so we’re going to share a couple of more recent shots instead. These were taken during a dead-of-the-night test run in 2010, after the LRVs had gone to bed for the night.

The purpose was to check clearances along the surface portion of the N-line to see which historic streetcars would be able to clear. Of course, the N-line was served by its original type of “Iron Monster” streetcars (like Muni No. 130) and then, for a third of a century, by PCCs like the ones that run on the F-line now. But years ago, when Muni installed an accessibility platform downtown-bound right where the tracks turn from Judah onto Ninth Avenue, they didn’t leave enough room for at least a few of the historic cars to clear the curve without scraping the ramp. In response, the Muni leadership of the day simply banned all historic cars from the N-line.

This meant that special event service for neighborhood celebrations or excursions and charters could no longer go out the N to Ocean Beach, as they had regularly since the days of the Trolley Festivals in the 1980s. (Excursions regularly go out the J, K, L, M, and the inner portion of the T, and are very popular. A few Saturdays ago, Muni ran a special vintage service on Ocean Avenue for the merchants there.)

10th&JudahAnyway, Muni already knew that the longest PCCs, the double-ended “torpedoes”, couldn’t clear the ramp at 9th and Judah, and it knew that narrower cars, like the boat trams and the 1050 class of PCCs, did clear.  But what about the 12 full width single-end PCCs, the 1070 class, plus historic car No. 1040, the last PCC built in North America? At 9 feet even, those cars are eight inches wider than the 1050 class, which came second-hand from Philadelphia.

As it turned out, the 2010 test showed they do clear the ramp. Muni hasn’t yet lifted the blanket ban on historic streetcars on the N-line, but we hope they will, and are advocating to allow charters, excursions, and special service for the neighborhood out there.  Maybe after the Sunset Tunnel rerailing project is completed…in time for the N-line’s 88th birthday next year!

Share
1 Comment on Happy 87th Birthday, N-Judah!
Share

The Day the Streetcars (Almost) Died

It was 30 years ago today, September 17, 1982, that surface streetcars on Market Street were supposed to roll into history forever. As Market Street Railway member Bob Davis reminds us, that was expected to be the final day of operation of Muni’s streamlined PCC streetcars, with full seven-day operation in the Muni Metro Subway on all five lines (J,K,L,M,N) starting the next morning, using new Boeing light rail vehicles. When PCC No. 1108 took the N-Judah beach loop on… — Read More

4 Comments on The Day the Streetcars (Almost) Died
Share