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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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… — Read More
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