When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

Hundreds of demonstrators surround cable car No. 51 on May 16, 1954, trying to stop it from completing the final run on the O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line. MSR historian Phil Hoffman is in the middle on the roof. For the rest of his long life, Phil carried a scar on his hand from where the clapper on the roof bell whacked him as he held on.
Protestors surround cable car No. 51 on May 16, 1954, trying to stop it from completing the final run on the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line. MSR historian Phil Hoffman is in the middle on the roof. For the rest of his long life, Phil carried a scar on his hand from where the clapper on the roof bell whacked him as he held on.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars.

Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs. Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.

Seminal year: 1954

Downtown-bound O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car No. 57 swings 'wrong-way' from Hyde into the oncoming traffic of Pine Street, (1954). The overhead neon sign warns motorists that an eastbound cable car is invading the one-way westbound street for two blocks, before it turns south on Jones Street. This mechanism was set up when the City made Pine one-way. Downtown interests longed to do the same with O'Farrell Street where two automobile garages were being built. The pressure for a one-way downtown street grid helped doom this fabled cable car line, which shut down two weeks after Walt Vielbaum took this great photo.
Downtown-bound O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car No. 57 swings from Hyde into oncoming traffic on Pine Street in 1954. The overhead neon sign warns motorists that an eastbound cable car is invading the one-way westbound street for two blocks, before it turns south on Jones Street. This mechanism was set up when the City made Pine one-way in 1943. Downtown interests longed to do the same with O’Farrell Street where two automobile garages were being built. The pressure for a one-way downtown street grid helped doom this fabled cable car line, which shut down two weeks after Walt Vielbaum took this great photo.

The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.

In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market.

The old California line terminal at Presidio Avenue. Walt Vielbaum photo.
The old California line terminal at Presidio Avenue. Walt Vielbaum photo.

Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann.

In Pacific Heights, on California Street near Buchanan (note the ornate Victorian firehouse, now gone). Walt Vielbaum photo.
In Pacific Heights, on California Street near Buchanan (note the ornate Victorian firehouse, now gone). Walt Vielbaum photo.

In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, Mrs. Klussmann, supported mostly by other woman, galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)

Cal Cable collapses

Buoyed by the saving of the Powell cars, Mrs. Klussmann and her allies followed up with a ballot measure to buy the private Cal Cable system in 1948. It received 58 percent support, but fell short of the two-thirds required. But in November 1949, a revised measure that required a simple majority passed with 52 percent of the vote, allocating up to $150,000 in taxpayer money to buy the Cal Cable system.

Car 57 at the Market Street terminal of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, about 1948. The line served shoppers on Russian Hill coming to Union Square shops and food markets like the Grant Market on the right, across Market Street, where the author worked in his parents’ delicatessen as a boy. Opensfhistory.org, wnp14.10427

While the City’s representatives and the company’s leaders were trying to come to agreement on a fair price, the company’s financial situation was rapidly deteriorating. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.

In January 1952, the City finally acquired Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.

By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).

Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though.
In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).

Approaching Van Ness Avenue (the current California line terminal) from Franklin Street. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Approaching Van Ness Avenue (the current California line terminal) from Franklin Street. Walt Vielbaum photo.

In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. It was clear that the most vulnerable stretch of trackage was the inner section of the O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line, which carried cable cars through the Tenderloin District, considered dangerous and tawdry by many, to reach Union Square and Market Street. Downtown interests wanted O’Farrell to become an auto thoroughfare, one-way eastbound, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s.

In drafting options for future cable car operation, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, relied heavily on a consultant named Marmion D. Mills, a former transit bus salesman, who had led the implementation of its conversion of two dozen streetcar lines to buses over the preceding four years. Mills’ preferred “Plan A” for cable car consolidation called for retaining the Powell-Mason line and combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. The Washington-Jackson line, which at the time extended past Hyde Street, through the mansions of Pacific Heights, and past Fillmore to Steiner Street and Alta Plaza park, was protected by the City Charter, but Mill’s Plan A called for its scrapping anyway, though that would presumably require a public vote, plus formal abandonment approval from the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Mills’s Plan A was openly pitched as the most effective arrangement to draw more tourist ridership, keeping them out of the Tenderloin, while downplaying the usefulness of cable cars to actual San Francisco residents. Eliminating all cable service that crossed Van Ness Avenue would also benefit that heavy automobile corridor, then as now US 101.

City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner disagreed with Mills’ Plan A, calling the conversion work to create a California-Hyde line too expensive and instead proposing to abandon all three Cal Cable lines completely, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines.

Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, initially supported the proposed California-Hyde line. McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.

Cars vs. cables

This map clearly shows how the actions of 1954 cut the cable car system in half, sacrificing historic lines and neighborhood service for a tourist-oriented route structure.

As arguments raged, attorney Morris Lowenthal began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge a opposition movement to save all the cable car trackage. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947.

The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussmann and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing.

At the last minute, though, McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan (Mills’s “Plan B”) to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.

Fighting one-way traffic at Pine and Hyde Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Fighting one-way traffic at Pine and Hyde Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.

Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.

Dirty tricks

Notice of service discontinuation painted along the cable car tracks. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Notice of service discontinuation painted along the cable car tracks. Walt Vielbaum photo.

The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the city payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces.

Misleading poster appearing on Muni vehicles, urging a “Yes” vote to cut the cable system in half, put together by city-paid consultant David Jones, in violation of the law. The “Cable Car Festival Committee” was a phony grass-roots (today called “Astroturf” organization organized by Jones with taxpayer money. Harre Demoro photo reproduced from the book The People’s Railway by Anthony Perles.)

Jones issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E–Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”–another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.

Swinging from Jones Street onto O'Farrell. The Jones shuttle track continues straight. Walt Vielbaum photo.
Swinging from Jones Street onto O’Farrell. The Jones shuttle track continues straight. Walt Vielbaum photo.

When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, longtime historian for our nonprofit) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.

San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoon by Bob Bastian after a judge found the Public Utilities Commission improperly influenced the 1954 ballot measures that cut the cable car system in half. (Reproduced from the book The People’s Railway by Anthony Perles.)

This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost, and the city had already torn up the tracks on O’Farrell. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. But the ballot measure results stood, and half of the city’s cable car system was gone forever.

Washington-Jackson ends, 1956

Washington-Jackson cable car 524 in 1948 at its westernmost point, on Steiner Street looping back toward Fillmore, where it will layover. Bob McVay took this photo from Alta Plaza Park. Opensfhistory.org image wnp32.2875

While Muni shut town all of the former Cal Cable trackage in 1954 (except California from Van Ness to Market), they kept the Washington-Jackson line running all the way to Steiner Street through September 2, 1956. Many residents of Pacific Heights, which supported the Washington-Jackson line, didn’t even know it was threatened, because it was never mentioned in the voter handbook and the Jones-led disinformation campaign claimed “every cable car on the streets today is here to stay”, but failing to mention that those assigned to the Washington-Jackson line would be shifted to the new Powell-Hyde line.

Car 523 passes the imposing Spreckels Mansion on Washington Street between Octavia and Gough in the mid-1950s. The photo is taken from Lafayette Park, another block of greenery along the Washington-Jackson line. The cable cars disappeared from this scene in 1956, and later, the mansion did too, after a fashion. Novelist Danielle Steel bought it and grew tall hedges that hid the house from the street. opensfhistory.org image wnp5.51027

Even though voters had approved rescinding the City Charter protection for the Washington-Jackson line achieved several years earlier by Mrs. Klussmann and her allies, the city kept that line (and the shortened California line) running while designing new track curves to connect Washington and Jackson Streets to the remaining trackage on Hyde, as well as changes needed to consolidate California Street operations into the Muni carbarn at Washington and Mason Streets.

They left the track on Hyde between Washington and California and installed a pull-curve from California onto Hyde (something PUC GM Turner claimed would be too expensive to do) to enable the California Street cable cars to get to and from Washington-Mason. When the design was finished, they abruptly pulled the plug on the Washington-Jackson line September 2, 1956, and almost immediately hired a contractor to rip out the tracks west of Hyde (tracks which had been relaid only a few years before). This blunted last ditch-attempts by Pacific Heights supporters of the line to save it.

In fact, in yet another shady act by the city government, Muni leaders never took the abandonment of the Washington-Jackson line to their own Public Utilities Commission, nor to the Board of Supervisors, as required. When this was found out and publicized, the tracks were already gone.

What might have been

Looking at the available evidence, it appears clear to this writer that if the city hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the activities of consultant Jones, voters would have retained all the cable lines, or at least most of them. The Chronicle had run a poll in February 1954 which showed public support running at a ratio of 13 to 1 to retain all five cable car lines. The strongest negative influence was downtown interests who wanted cable cars off O’Farrell Street. If Mrs. Klussmann had accepted the compromise proposal that would have run the Hyde line straight down Jones Street to Market (over the shuttle route), it quite possibly would have been adopted. Tourists drawn to that scenic route might have transformed the troubled area around Jones and Market and invigorated the stretch of Market between Powell and Jones.

The Jones Street cable car shuttle in 1896, backed by the Hibernia Bank building, still impressive today. If the Hyde line had been routed straight down Jones to terminate here, this building, which has struggled to find a use even after a recent renovation, would have been a prime visitor attraction, as would the surrounding stretch of Market Street. Opensfhistory.org, photo wnp5.50847

Alternatively, if the California-Hyde compromise had been adopted, the foot of California Street, then a dreary collection of hotels and bars, might have been revitalized sooner, and the California line cars would be packed on the trip between the Ferry Building and Aquatic Park. As it turned out, the California line, while traversing beautiful sights through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, really doesn’t have a destination. Efforts to reverse that mistake, by extending it to Japantown on California or to City Hall on Polk, have come to nothing, and today’s environmental process and extreme costs of new construction make future extensions unlikely.

Either of those alternatives would have saved the Washington-Jackson line, which would likely have transformed the surrounding blocks of Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park to visitor destinations, a mixed blessing to nearby residents to be sure.

As it turned out, of course, the 1888 Powell-Mason line was joined by the “new” Powell-Hyde line in 1957, each connecting one part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area to Union Square and Market Street, clearly enhancing retail businesses at the ends of the lines. The California line still struggles to find significant ridership, especially after Muni through-routed the 1-California trolley coach via Sacramento and Clay Streets parallel to and immediately north of California, and started charging more than twice as much for locals to ride the cable car instead of the bus.

Still with us

One vanishing institution passes another on May 2, 1954. Two weeks away from the end of the O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, Cable Car No. 57 rumbles west on O'Farrell Street past the Art Deco NBC Radio building. (That hole in the ground beyond is the site of the huge Downtown Center Garage, a big reason for pressure to make O'Farrell one-way.) NBC had been the dominant US radio network in the 1930s and 40s (actually two networks, the Red and the Blue, which was spun off to become ABC). In that era, station call letters were important marks of prestige. NBC's two powerful stations here were originally called KPO and KGO, but the company redesignated KPO with the company initials, sending the message that NBC considered San Francisco the most important city west of the Mississippi (where stations' first call letter was almost always 'K'. WNBC was in New York City, then as now corporate headquarters). The building at 420 Taylor Street housed state-of-the-art NBC studios, with an artistic tribute to a goddess of the airwaves over the front door (still there today). But network radio was on the wane by 1954 as television took over America's living rooms. Local personalities were coming to the fore in radio, including San Francisco, where the hottest was Don Sherwood, who had recently joined KSFO. NBC later assigned the prestigious 'KNBC' designation to its television station in...Los Angeles, renaming its once-dominant San Francisco radio station 'KNBR'. The radio game in San Francisco has changed repeatedly since this picture was taken, but Car No. 57 still rolls on every day...on the California Cable line, right past the site of Sherwood's KSFO studio in the Fairmont Hotel. Walt Vielbaum photo.
One vanishing institution passes another on May 2, 1954. Two weeks away from the end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, Cable Car 57 rumbles west on O’Farrell Street past the Art Deco NBC Radio building. (That hole in the ground beyond is the site of the huge Downtown Center Garage, a big reason for pressure to make O’Farrell one-way.) NBC had been the dominant US radio network in the 1930s and 40s (actually two networks, the Red and the Blue, which was spun off to become ABC). In that era, station call letters were important marks of prestige. NBC’s two powerful stations here were originally called KPO and KGO, but the company redesignated KPO with the company initials, sending the message that NBC considered San Francisco the most important city west of the Mississippi (where stations’ first call letter was almost always ‘K’. WNBC was in New York City). The building at 420 Taylor Street housed state-of-the-art NBC studios, with an artistic tribute to a goddess of the airwaves over the front door (still there today). But network radio was on the wane by 1954 as television took over America’s living rooms. Local personalities were coming to the fore in radio, including San Francisco, where the hottest was Don Sherwood, who had recently joined KSFO. NBC later assigned the prestigious ‘KNBC’ designation to its television station in…Los Angeles, renaming its once-dominant San Francisco radio station ‘KNBR’. Broadcast radio has withered since this picture was taken, but Car 57 still rolls on every day…on the California cable line, right past the site of Sherwood’s KSFO studio in the Fairmont Hotel. Walt Vielbaum photo.

While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.

When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus. (Author Paul Bignardi tracked down the fate of all of them in his fleet history of all Muni vehicles, available at our museum or online store.)

In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now again part of Muni’s fleet — the only one wearing the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde livery — serving as Muni’s ceremonial cable car and carrying the public every year during Muni Heritage Weekend.

O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line cable car 42 returns to the Hyde Street Hill after our nonprofit reacquired and helped restore it. Frank Zepeda photo, 2014.

While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines–California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde–to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.

O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 41 on O’Farrell Street, 1909. Val Lupiz collection.

Written by Rick Laubscher. Photos by Walter Vielbaum, except where noted..

This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member magazine, Inside Track, in 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the cable car massacre of 1954. Inside Track always contains exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else (at least until much later). We depend on your support to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate.  Thank you.

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“My City, My Game”

“This is my city and my game…You birds’ll be in New York or Constantinople or some place else. I’m in business here.” – Sam Spade

Dashiell Hammett invented the genre of the hard-boiled detective (now often called Noir) with his short stores in the magazine Black Mask and then in the most famous of his works, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930 and widely recognized today as a seminal work of American literature.

In that novel, the main character was cynical private eye Sam Spade, who became one of the most famous characters ever in detective fiction despite appearing in only that one novel of Hammett’s. But in both Falcon and in his earlier short stories, the major supporting character is San Francisco.

Dashiell Hammett

When the book was written, San Francisco was Hammett’s city too, a fact made obvious from the rich detail imparted in the spare, muscular prose Hammett favored. And though they only make cameo appearances in the book, streetcars and cable cars were a constant presence in the neighborhoods traversed by Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Wilmer Cook. By doing a little sleuthing of our own, we can extract some valuable clues into how San Franciscans like Hammett — and his creation Spade — relied on the rails to get around our town in the 1920s.

A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3

“Spade…crossed [Geary] street to board a westbound street-car. The youth in the cap boarded the same car. Spade left the car at Hyde Street and went up to his apartment. His rooms were not greatly upset, but showed unmistakable signs of being searched. When Spade had washed and had put on a fresh shirt and collar he went out again, walked up to Sutter Street, and boarded a westbound car. The youth boarded it also.”

The Maltese Falcon

In that single passage, Hammett captures the quintessence of San Francisco’s streetcar environment in the 1920s. (From actual events mentioned in the book, experts have established that the novel is set from December 6-10, 1928.)

Union Square, 1927, looking east on Geary at Powell. Muni Car 187, right; Market Street Railway Company’s Powell Cable Car 502, left.


After leaving Joel Cairo at the Geary Theater, Spade boards a gray ‘Battleship’ on the first American big-city street ever served by publicly owned streetcars. The A, B, C, and D were all trunk lines on Geary, and though they began diverging from Geary at Van Ness, Spade would’ve climbed on the first car that came along, because he was only going four blocks, almost not worth wasting a nickel on.

Then, after ascertaining that his ‘rooms’ on Post Street had been searched, Spade hikes one block up Hyde to Sutter where he would’ve boarded a streetcar owned by Muni’s fierce competitor, Market Street Railway Company. It could’ve been on the 1, 2, or 3 line; again, it didn’t matter to Spade since he was only riding a few blocks. By that time, all the Sutter cars should have sported the recently patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme, making them much more visible in the night than their fog-colored Muni counterparts.

The Hunter-Dulin Building, about 1930. Note the streetcars on Sutter.

Although the book doesn’t say so, Spade’s regular commute to his office would also have been on the Sutter streetcars. Hammett aficionado Joe Gores—an excellent mystery writer in his own right—deduced from clues in the novel that Spade’s office was in the Hunter-Dulin Building, which still stands at 111 Sutter. (Across Montgomery Street, in the Holbrook Building at 58 Sutter, were Market Street Railway Co.’s executive offices.)

Hammett as Spade

Looking east on Geary at Leavenworth, 1930, the route Spade rode in the book.

It’s quite clear that Hammett set The Maltese Falcon in places he knew well from his own daily experiences in San Francisco. His ‘rooms’, for example, were more than likely Hammett’s own apartment of the period, 891 Post Street, #401. In 1928, this corner, Hyde and Post, was almost as rara avis as the black bird everyone was pursuing in the novel: a downtown intersection without any streetcar or cable car tracks at all, making it a relative oasis of serenity, largely free from the near-constant growl of nearby streetcar motors or clatter of track joints. Since this apartment is where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, perhaps that lack of streetcars in the streets immediately below is why they appear only rarely in the book.

Rail lines Spade/Hammett could have ridden. Click to enlarge, then click again on the magnifying glass; on the underlying map you’ll see the tracks of every downtown streetcar and cable car line in 1927.

Hammett (and Spade) had plenty of transit options within walking distance, though, with the Geary and Sutter lines each one block away, as was the 10th & Montgomery Streets line, which ran up Post as far as Leavenworth, a block east. However, that line was so unimportant that it was usually operated by only one car (identical to preserved Car 578) to protect its franchise for Market Street Railway, and never even received a route number. The Montgomery portion of the was discontinued without replacement in 1927; the rest of the line was gone by 1932.

Montgomery Street “dinky” north of Sutter, 1927, with Spade’s fictional office in the Hunter-Dulin building in the background.

In the real world, Hammett would have used streetcars every day to get around town, as he had no automobile. At the beginning of his literary career, when he was writing short stories for Black Mask, the leading detective pulp fiction magazine of the day, his ‘day job’ was working as an advertising copywriter for Albert S. Samuels Jewelers at 895 Market, in the Lincoln Building at the corner of Fifth (now Westfield Center shopping mall, housing Nordstrom).

Postcard image of the Lincoln Building, Fifth and Market, 1922; The Emporium to its left. Samuel’s Jewelers far right and in the detail below, next to F.W. Woolworth. The street clock is now across Market, next to the Flood Building.

For five years earlier in the 1920s, he mostly lived with his wife and young daughter at 620 Eddy, between Larkin and Polk. ‘Mostly’ because Hammett was tubercular, and when the disease was active, he stayed in other nearby rooms to avoid the risk of infecting his family. In those days, before the 31-Balboa opened, Eddy was served by the westbound 4-Turk & Eddy line, which ran from the Ferries to the Richmond District. Hammett’s regular commute to the office would probably have taken him a block south to catch the inbound 4-car on Turk. That line made a clumsy dogleg when it reached Market, jogging a block north to Eddy before heading east again to merge into Market’s ‘Roar of the Four’ streetcar maelstrom at Powell.

A 20-line streetcar, shown here turning from westbound Ellis onto northbound Hyde, might have been Hammett’s ride home after an evening at John’s Grill.

For Hammett’s job at Samuels, it would’ve been quicker to jump off the car at Turk and Market and walk the short block to Fifth. For his previous job, as a Pinkerton detective, he would have stayed on the car until Eddy and Market (an intersection eradicated by the excavation of Hallidie Plaza as part of the BART project in the 1970s). Alighting from the car, he would have passed the Powell cable car turntable, sitting in the middle of an active street with no tourists waiting in line, and entered the ornate Flood Building at 870 Market Street, there to ride the open-sided birdcage elevators to the Pinkerton office in Suite 314 (five floors below Market Street Railway’s office today, Suite 803).

After work, if Hammett chose to grab a drink or meal at John’s Grill—then, as now, next door to the Ellis Street entrance of the Flood Building—he might have gotten home by jumping a 20-line streetcar westbound to Hyde, where the line jogged a block north to continue west on O’Farrell. From there, it was a two-block walk to 620 Eddy.

A ‘Pink’

Perhaps Dashiell Hammett, on his way to work, has just stepped off the #4-Turk & Eddy car angling onto Market Street past the Flood Building in the upper right of this 1925 view looking east on Market from Fifth. The buildings on the left were all ripped out in the late 1960s to build Hallidie Plaza, and the Powell Street BART/Muni Metro station.

Tagged as a communist during the witch hunts following World War II, Hammett was known as a ‘Pink’ in the early ’20s for a completely different reason: it was the standard term for Pinkerton detectives. It was this job that gave Hammett the grist for his detective novels. His first protagonist was a rotund nameless detective known as the ‘Continental Op’ after the fictional San Francisco detective agency the character served as an operative. The short stories featuring the Op built Hammett’s confidence and reputation.

Many of the Op stories were set in San Francisco and featured the same detailed city flavor as The Maltese Falcon. In The Whosis Kid, Hammett describes the Op tailing a suspect as he left the boxing matches at the Western Addition arena called Dreamland (later the site of Winterland). ‘The Kid walked down to Fillmore Street, took on a stack of wheats, bacon and coffee at a lunch room, and caught a No. 22 car. He—and likewise I—transferred to a No. 5 car at McAllister Street, dropped off at Polk…” (The same trip can be made on the same lines today, only on trolley buses instead of streetcars.)

In The House in Turk Street, the Op tries to gain information by spinning a story to residents that he was looking for witnesses who might have seen his (phony) client ‘thrown from the rear platform of a street car last week’—a common enough occurrence in those days to be credible.

As a Pink, Hammett worked on a variety of assignments that contributed flavor to his later writing. One of his cases, though, never was fictionalized: the holdup of the California Street Cable Railroad—presumably at Cal Cable’s offices at California & Hyde. According to William F. Nolan’s biography, Hammett: A Life at the Edge, he took on this case, among others, as extra work because he needed the money. In October 1921, he became a father when his daughter, Mary Jane, was born at St. Francis Hospital, just a block from the Cal Cable offices.

California Street Cable Railroad Company Car House at California and Hyde Streets, site of a holdup Dashiell Hammett investigated as a Pinkerton detective. A Trader Joe’s occupies this corner today.

Hammett and cable cars

Cable Cars are never mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, although action takes place both on Powell Street (in a hotel dubbed the St. Mark, though from its location it is clearly the St. Francis), and in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s apartment, likely located at 1201 California Street. Given Hammett’s familiarity with them and his penchant for local color, this may seem like an odd omission. It is possible that Hammett wanted to paint an urban landscape familiar to big-city dwellers all over America, and while streetcars were ubiquitous across the US in those days, cable cars were then running only in San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma. It’s also possible he didn’t want to clutter his prose by explaining what a cable car was.

Whatever his reasons, Hammett himself would have ridden his fair share of cable cars in those days. For a brief time in 1926, he and his family lived at 1309 Hyde Street, between Clay and Washington. To cable car aficionados even then, this was a famous stretch of Hyde, carrying the last completely new cable car line opened in the city.

When the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line opened in 1891, the rules required that the cable on new lines be ‘inferior’ (pass underneath) every older cable line it crossed. This meant that the gripman had to drop the ‘rope’ (cable) at every cable crossing to avoid snagging the ‘superior’ cable of the older line it was intersecting—22 times in all on one round trip for this newest line. In this particular stretch near Hammett’s apartment, the Hyde line crossed older lines at five successive intersections: California, Sacramento, Clay, Washington, and Jackson. (The tribulations of operating this line was memorialized by Gelett Burgess in 1901 in his poem The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip.)

Going north on Hyde was a lurching, jerky ride, as the first four blocks of this stretch were uphill, requiring the rope to be dropped and picked up again at each intersection before cresting the hill at Washington and coasting across Jackson. Southbound on Hyde, however, was a freewheeling joyride after Jackson, all the way past the carhouse on the southwest corner of California and Hyde (a supermarket today). Watch out, though: the line turned east (and uphill) at Pine, so the gripman had to be sure to take the rope after the carhouse.

Hammett may have ridden the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Street cable line to connect to the ferry (top right) to Sausalito to visit his wife and daughter in Marin. He would’ve gotten a bonus: a whiff of chocolate from the Ghirardelli factory to the left.

Hammett might have enjoyed this ride when he was living on Hyde, because the line then jogged down Jones to O’Farrell, a two-block walk from Samuels. (This portion of the great Hyde trackage disappeared in 1954.) Perhaps an even faster solution would have been jumping on a Washington-Jackson cable car a half-block from his house and riding directly to Powell and Market, with the jewelry store just across the street. Samuels later moved across Market to a location just east of the Flood Building. Its massive street clock made the move across Market too, and is today the only remnant of the family-owned jewelry firm that billed itself as ‘The House of Lucky Wedding Rings’.

It does not appear that Hammett wrote that slogan as part of his Samuels job. It would have been ironic if he had, for his own marriage was on the rocks. After leaving the Hyde Street apartment and his family for 891 Post, he rarely lived together with his wife again, famously beginning an affair with the playwright Lillian Hellman just a few years later, a relationship that would last until his death in 1961.

During an earlier family split, Hammett lived for a time at 20 Monroe Street, an alley off Bush near Stockton, while his wife and daughter lived across the bridgeless Golden Gate in San Anselmo. He visited them frequently on weekends, likely using cable cars for the first part of the journey: walk two blocks north to California Street for a ride on the Cal Cable, with a free transfer to the company’s Hyde line, then onto the Northwestern Pacific ferry at the Hyde Street Pier, switching to the electric interurban train at Sausalito for the rest of the trip.

Murder atop Stockton Tunnel

A Muni streetcar on the original F-line enters the Stockton Tunnel, headed north. The fictional murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, which opens The Maltese Falcon, took place on what was a vacant lot next to the portal, to the right of that truck exiting the tunnel.

Of more import to the literary world, during his time at 20 Monroe Street, Hammett daily passed the scene of the most famous fictional crime in San Francisco history—a crime of his own creation.

To reach Samuels, Hammett would have either walked three-quarters of a block west on Bush to catch a Powell cable car, or jogged a few feet east on Bush to descend the stairs at the south portal of the Stockton Tunnel, taking an F-Stockton Muni streetcar to its terminal at Market, then walking a block to his office.

Certainly, then, Hammett was quite familiar with the rather foreboding portal, constantly rent by the echoes of Muni ‘A-type’ streetcars (including preserved car No. 1) roaring through the tunnel. Though the novel doesn’t mention it, that ear-splitting sound of streetcars emerging from the portal would have been an effective mask for the sound of the bullet from the Webley-Fosbery revolver in Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s hand. That bullet, of course, killed Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, to open The Maltese Falcon, setting off the entire adventure. The scene of the crime was the dark alley named Burritt Street, just across Bush from the apartment on Monroe. In those days, there was a steeply sloped vacant lot between Burritt and the tunnel portal, down which the dying Archer tumbled.

Up in the world

Even before The Maltese Falcon was published as a book in February 1930, its successful serialization in Black Mask was bringing Hammett great success. His last San Francisco address, 1155 Leavenworth, showed he was literally moving up in the world, onto the upper slopes of Nob Hill, between California and Sacramento Streets. Here again, he was sandwiched among three cable car lines, but by now he was well off enough to take taxis when he needed to get around town. He left town for good in October 1929, bound for New York and then Hollywood before writer’s block truncated his career.

Of course, Hammett’s writing also led to one of the most loved movies ever made. The Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was actually the third version of the book put to celluloid, and by far the most faithful. The first-time director, John Huston, is said to have created the screenplay by simply converting the book’s dialogue into script form, using the book’s narrative as screen direction. There was, of course, some necessary editing and a little simplification, including the removal of the book’s streetcar scene. Few movies of the day were filmed outside Los Angeles, and except for the first panoramic stock shot of the City from the Bay, The Maltese Falcon was filmed on Hollywood sound stages or back lots.

Hammett’s legacy includes some of the most vivid prose ever penned in a San Francisco setting. It also conveys enduring insight into the way transit served as the vital circulation system bringing mobility to San Franciscans—just as Muni does today.

The “dingus” that caused all that running around San Francisco, immortalized in Hammett’s book.

Written by Rick Laubscher; photos from Market Street Railway Archive unless otherwise noted. If you’d like to keep stories like this coming, please consider supporting us.

For those with a New York Times subscription, check out this great 2014 story retracing Hammett’s haunts.

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