San Francisco’s famed (and much missed) F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line is carrying happy passengers again. Regular service began on Saturday, May 15, with Boston PCC 1059 the first car to reach Fisherman’s Wharf, followed by Detroit 1079, as documented below by Matt Lee. As a bonus, the four-block loop through the Wharf from Pier 39 to the fishing fleet’s harbor at Jones Street, was back in service after having been shut down in Fall 2019 for construction on Jefferson Street, as shown in the photo above, by Jeremy Whiteman, featuring Philadelphia PCC 1055.
All the cars on the line have been fitted with new protective plexiglas barriers for the operators. Eighteen PCCs have been fitted out so far, sufficient to handle the 12-car schedule for the eight-hour-a-day initial service. Because of continuing federal regulations, all passengers had to wear masks, as on all transit lines in the country. Capacity was constrained by social distancing requirements. Within those constraints, the cars enjoyed healthy crowds, which can be expected to grow as more people become aware that the sleek streetcars are back on track.
All along the six-mile route, the PCCs brought smiles to passersby. The cars all carried American flags, plus special flags commemorating the F-line’s return, installed early that morning in dreary drizzle at Cameron Beach Yard by our dedicated volunteer flag master Joe Hickey, MSR board Vice Chair James Giraudo (who donated the flags) and MSR President Rick Laubscher.
Our San Francisco Railway Museum reopened along with the streetcar service and did a bustling business its first day. James Giraudo snapped this pic of museum manager taking down the “closed” sign after 13 months. The free museum’s interim hours are Noon to 5 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We expect to expand those days and hours as visitors and office workers return to the city.
The first day of operation followed a midday celebration on Friday outside our museum, led by Mayor London Breed, who praised the restart of the F-line as proof that “San Francisco is back!” She then boarded her favorite streetcar, the 87-year old Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228, and tooted up The Embarcadero, briefly sharing operating duties with expert motorman Angel Carvajal.
After her turn at the controls, the Mayor waved to passersby, repeatedly announcing, “We’re back!” and “Time for fun again!”, delighting the invited guests on the boat, including SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin and MSR board Chair Carmen Clark.
The weather was not unfamiliar to the boat, which spent decades cruising along the foggy, chilly Irish Sea coast in its first home, and besides, nothing was going to dampen the celebratory spirits of having the F-line back. Perhaps the best comment of the celebration day came from speaker Joseph Ahearne, owner of El Porteno in the Ferry Building, a purveyor of wonderful empanadas. Mr. Ahearne described the financial struggles his family faced because of the pandemic, and emphasized how important the return of the F-line is to small businesses it serves, and how special it is to San Franciscans and the city. “The cable cars belong to the world, but the F-line streetcars are ours, and we love them.”
To help welcome back the F-line, we have designed and printed these advertising cards now posted in all the PCCs and available for purchase at our museum.
And while they last, we’re giving out free commemorative stickers, with five individual streetcar images, designed by our board member Chris Arvin, and our 2021 calendars (one sheet per visitor please) at the museum, May 20-22.
Thanks for everyone for all the hard work in making the return of the F-line a big success. Special thanks to the Muni streetcar maintenance team, shop workers, led by Doug Lee, Louis Guzzo, and Jesse Guthrie, with Joseph Flores, Dick Lui, Paul Rullhausen, and Kevin Sheridan on the front lines with their groups getting those required protective barriers designed, fabricated, and installed in record time, in-house!
Also very special thanks to the “PCC Committee”, an ad hoc group of F-line operators who love the streetcars and advocated at the grass roots level for their return, along with providing invaluable advice on the design of the barriers. The group is led by Transport Workers Union Local 250A President Roger Marenco, who also effectively led outreach to elected officials and SFMTA leadership to build support for the streetcars’ return. The PCC Committee includes operators Aleena Galloway (who spoke for the group at the Mayor’s celebration), John Caberto, Garry Coward, Mike Delia, David Gunter, Forrest Hareford, Eric Lawson, Ryan Lee, Roderick Mills, Juel Rice, and Jacqueline Robinson.
Come take a ride on the F soon to show your support and enjoy the reopening of San Francisco! Great restaurants and shops await you all along the line. And until you can ride in person, you can again follow exactly where the F-line streetcars are when they’re in service with our great live map, created by our board member Kat Siegal.
Editor’s note:One hundred years ago—April 1, 1921 (no fooling!)—an old name appeared anew on the San Francisco scene: Market Street Railway Company. There had already been four transit companies bearing that name, dating back to 1860. This incarnation of the name came after a financial reorganization of the city’s dominant transit company, United Railroads, which with its predecessor had consolidated numerous private operators of cable cars, horsecars, and electric streetcars in the preceding 30 years.
Our nonprofit took that famed name, Market Street Railway, for ourselves back in 1977, 33 years after Muni acquired our namesake. To mark the centennial of our namesake, our member magazine Inside Track published this story, illuminating how transit got started in San Francisco and how it brought to us the city we know today. To receive the rest of the series and other exclusive features, please join us as a member!
Rick Laubscher Market Street Railway President
For the first half-century of our city’s transit (and really, all of America’s), the driving force was private companies using public streets to try to make a profit, by essentially renting those streets—paying for the exclusive transit use of them. Today, of course, we think of public mass transit as not only serving the public, but owned by the public as well—a function of government, not a for-profit business. Yet public ownership of a big-city transit line didn’t happen until 1912, right here, with Muni.
Before that, all over the country, mass transit was provided by companies that aimed to make a profit. In the Gold Rush-enriched San Francisco of the 1850s, the first public transit vehicles were horse-drawn omnibuses (yes, that’s where the word ‘bus’ comes from). They were basically urban stagecoaches. But what few streets existed then were rough at best.
To provide a smoother ride on larger vehicles, a man named Thomas Hayes won the right from the government in 1857 to lay tracks in a few streets for his exclusive use. It was the first street railway franchise awarded in California.
Hayes named his operation the Market Street Railroad Company, and on July 4, 1860, began operating a steam-powered passenger car on tracks from Third Street out Market and then South on Valencia. He then ran a branch out a street he named for himself to Laguna Street, to help him develop land he owned, land now known as Hayes Valley.
Hayes paid the government for his franchise, basically renting the streets his tracks were laid on. The success of his company immediately attracted competitors. The government took bids for the franchise rights to other streets, with the winners paying fees and a percentage of their fares.
After steam operation on Market Street was banned in 1868, horses took over, pulling little trailers along the tracks on many routes owned by various start-up companies. In 1873, Scotsman Andrew Hallidie won a franchise on Clay Street, not for horse-drawn cars, but for little cars pulled by an underground cable. This high technology innovation was twice as fast as horsecars, and could climb hills that horses couldn’t. But the uncertainty of long-term franchise rights discouraged large-scale investment until 1879, when the state granted San Francisco the right to award long-term street railway franchises, up to 50 years. Existing small-scale franchise holders applied for the new, longer franchises, increasing the value of their companies. This in turn drew bigger financial players to San Francisco transit, since these franchises now had predictable value.
Stanford on Market Street
In 1882, Leland Stanford, former California governor, a builder of the transcontinental railroad, and soon to become robber-baron-in-charge of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad (whose tentacles all over the state gained it the nickname of the Octopus), bought up the company Thomas Hayes had started, by this time a horsecar operation calling itself Market Street Railway.
Stanford’s plans were to replace horsepower with cable power and build more lines radiating off Market. Appropriately, he renamed it the Market Street Cable Railway Company. (Stanford soon got kicked out of his rail interests by Collis P. Huntington, who lived a couple blocks from him atop Nob Hill, but consoled himself with a US Senate seat and a university built on his farm in Palo Alto, which he named for his late son.)
Other San Francisco transit companies, led by the Omnibus Railroad, quickly followed Stanford’s lead in converting the franchises for their horsecar lines to cable power, but after Frank Sprague made the electric streetcar practical in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, companies switched to this latest high-tech transit mode, which was twice as fast as cable cars and cheaper to install and maintain.
San Francisco got its first electric streetcar line in 1891, built by two brothers named Joost, from Market and Steuart Streets (just steps from our San Francisco Railway Museum) via a variety of South of Market and Mission District Streets to reach the county line. Again, it was the grant of an exclusive long-term franchise that justified the capital investment.
In 1893, the Southern Pacific interests snapped up a number of smaller companies (and their franchises), naming the new entity Market Street Railway Company. Its intent was to convert routes to electric streetcars (if they weren’t too steep, as cable lines such as Powell were). It was able to convert several cable lines to electric streetcars and built new electric lines too.
Uniting the railroads
But the Market Street Railway of 1893 lasted less than ten years. In 1902, a group of eastern capitalists bought out the Southern Pacific interests and consolidated its holdings with several other rail transit companies it had already purchased. These included the Sutter Street Railroad, operated by cable power, and the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway (the company the Joosts had founded, which had just opened a new carbarn at Geneva & San Jose Avenues, a site now home to Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet).
The new company, holding dozens of valuable street franchises, as well as the track and vehicles that operated on them, was known as United Railroads (URR). Getting the most value from its most valuable franchise, along Market Street, was a top priority for the new company. That required converting the five Market cable car lines to electric streetcars. But a city ordinance pushed by merchants forbade overhead wires on Market (and on Sutter, the company’s most direct route west to the fast-growing Richmond District). URR didn’t want to pay for the expensive electric conduit operation that city leaders demanded (already installed in New York and Washington DC). So, the cable cars soldiered on along Market Street, already antiquated by national standards.
The stalemate continued until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake and fire destroyed most cable machinery in San Francisco. URR, aided by bribes paid to members of the Board of Supervisors, won the right to string “temporary” overhead wires on Market and Sutter Streets and substitute streetcars for the old cable cars. These immediately became, along with Mission and Fillmore streets, some of the company’s busiest routes.
The franchises that United Railroads depended upon were not distributed evenly across the city. For example, in the 1880s and 90s, several competing companies built east-west lines from downtown into the Richmond District, both to take advantage of the residential growth there, and to serve the then-new urban oasis of Golden Gate Park. Transit service on almost every block caused the Richmond to grow even faster. Meantime, on the south side of the park, transit service in the Sunset District was sparse, as was also true in neighborhoods starting to develop in the southern part of the city.
Attracting private transit companies to invest in substantial new lines to these areas got harder in 1902, the same year URR came into being. A new, progressive, city charter in 1900 had set the goal of eventual public ownership of utilities, including transit. Two years later, in furtherance of that goal, the city government cut the length of new transit franchises to 25 years. By this time, many of the original 50-year franchises were at or nearing the halfway point in their lives. Seeing the writing on the wall, the original backers of United Railroads sold their shares. New shareholders, backed by hard-nosed URR President Patrick Calhoun, took an approach less friendly to the city and downright hostile to organized labor, leading to a bloody carmen’s strike in 1907.
Even with a hostile city government, URR leaders had reason to feel they were in the driver’s seat as they fought the carmen’s strike. The city government had twice asked voters to approve bonds to start a municipal railway, and both times voters had said no. Besides, no other big city had publicly-owned transit lines, and most of URR’s important franchises were good for at least 20 more years. But the ugly 1907 strike, in a union-friendly town, started changing minds about the privately-owned transit company.
Then, after a third failure at the ballot box, bonds to create a municipal railway were finally approved by voters in 1909, starting with the acquisition and conversion to streetcars of the Geary Street cable line, which had eluded United Railroads’ grasp. (We’ll chronicle the birth pangs of Muni in our next issue.) Now there would be competition, at least in some parts of town. And as the years ticked by, those franchises that were the foundation of URR’s business would lose value unless renewed, which was now contrary to city policy.
The first lines of the new Municipal Railway were concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the city, but its biggest spur to the city’s growth came when it opened lines where its private competitors couldn’t get a franchise: underground. The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in 1918 suddenly made the empty lands of the city’s southwest quadrant attractive to homebuilders, replacing the long, indirect surface slogs provided by United Railroads surface service with a quick trip on Muni tracks through the tunnel. The private company lobbied city officials hard to be granted the right to share the tunnel with Muni, but failed. Increased public ill-will toward the company following another bloody strike in 1917 no doubt played a part.
And yet United Railroads’ problems went far deeper. Physical damage from the 1906 earthquake and fire was followed by plummeting revenue from fewer riders as the city recovered. URR President Calhoun siphoned off money for his own purposes. Competition popped up on busy corridors from unregulated jitneys—private automobiles offering faster rides for the same five-cent fare as the streetcars (a nickel was called a “jit” in the slang of the day). And to top it off, a runaway streetcar in Visitacion Valley, along what’s now Geneva Avenue, killed eight passengers and injured more than 70 in 1918. It was the worst streetcar disaster in California history, resulting in large damage awards to victims.
Taken together, these circumstances caused the financial failure of United Railroads. Since its very formation in 1902, there had been talk that the original investors had paid too much for the properties and franchises they took over, and negotiations had been going on for several years to reorganize the company on firmer financial ground by paying off bondholders in the company at a significant loss. These negotiations accelerated even as a number of civic leaders called for a city takeover. But that wasn’t in the offing, not yet. Instead, a reorganization ended the life of United Railroads, its assets going to a familiar name: Market Street Railway Company.
What did the future hold for this new operator with the old name? What kind of transit service could San Franciscans expect from a company whose franchise rights were ever closer to their end? Would the city government help or hinder Market Street Railway? All questions we’ll address in the near future.
Owning, using, and paying for the streets
Our city’s streets are unquestionably owned by the public (except a handful of private streets in gated communities, a rarity in San Francisco). But owning, paying for, and using are three different things.
As you can see in our exclusive narrated version of the famous 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” film, horses, buggies, large dray wagons, bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles were all using the city-owned street space. But only the companies operating the cable cars, streetcars, and horsecars were paying for the right to use the street, making money by collecting fares (some of which they shared with the city under their franchise agreements).
In 1914, some private automobile drivers started picking up passengers on the same routes as United Railroads, poaching the five cent fares but not paying “rent” on any kind of franchise. The city eventually regulated these “jitneys” and forced them from Market onto Mission Street instead, a practice that lasted all the way to 2016. Author Don Anderson quotes Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, as calling his company the modern equivalent of the jitneys. (See Don’s excellent story on the city’s jitneys here.)
The early jitneys took revenue from United Railroads and the nascent Muni. A century later, the appearance of Uber and Lyft decimated the taxi business and reduced Muni ridership as well. Taxis pay “rent” to use streets by purchasing SFMTA-issued medallions, which cost $250,000. Competition from Uber and Lyft have made the medallions worth only a fraction of that, and taxi owners are suing the city. Uber and Lyft didn’t pay any “rent” to use the streets at the beginning, but many cities now impose some kind of tax or fee on them. In San Francisco, that’s a voter-approved 3.25% tax on most trips. That tax money goes to SFMTA. Additionally, because the city considers Uber and Lyft cars to be private automobiles, SFMTA bans them from Market Street, while taxis are allowed (with conditions).
In the past few (pre-pandemic) years, the numbers of bicycles and scooters, both manual and electric, have grown rapidly in the city. Companies that rent them have to get a franchise and pay a fee to the city for the right to operate on the streets. Private owners of bicycles and scooters pay no fees. Automobile owners pay gas taxes and state license fees. They pay to park both at meters in commercial districts and at the curb in many residential districts, though parking permits. Additionally, they pay to park at both SFMTA-owned and private garages, with a hefty parking tax imposed at all garages.
This complex array of charges for various transportation modes is the source of continuing and vigorous policy debate in the city. The city’s overarching goal is to reduce street congestion and vehicle emissions by providing more exclusive street space for Muni vehicles, bicycles and scooters, reducing the space for private automobiles. Increased parking fees are also intended in part to discourage private automobile operation in the city, and the city is now studying a proposed congestion charge on private automobiles that enter the downtown area (similar to what’s in place in London and Singapore). The city has also considered imposing its own license fee on cars registered in the city.
Many automobile owners are outraged by what they consider the assault on their long-time primacy on the streets of San Francisco, but the revenue from fees on autos and other modes of transportation is channeled to SFMTA, intended to subsidize Muni service, including of course the historic streetcars and cable cars.
San Francisco lost 53,000 residents in the first eight months of the pandemic, most of them to neighborhood Bay Area counties. Major downtown employers such as Salesforce, Twitter, Google, and Facebook have said they’ll let employees work from home most of the time for the foreseeable future. As the pandemic wanes, we’re likely to see a far different congestion picture than before. Our nonprofit’s goal is making sure the historic streetcars and cable cars still “own” the place they’ve earned on the streets of San Francisco.
Excerpted from a chapter in the forthcoming book by Emiliano Echeverria and Michael Dolgushkin, chronicling the complete history of San Francisco’s dominant transit operator for the first two decades of the 20th century.
At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco’s transit was coming of age. The Market Street Railway was in transition from being owned by interests in common with the Southern Pacific, to coming under the control of the partnership of Henry Huntington and I. W. Hellman: The Huntington – Hellman Syndicate. Management continued with Southern Pacific by mutual agreement. Things were going quite smoothly, indeed. Then everything changed.
In August 1900, the power behind everything connected with the Southern Pacific, and the Market Street Railway, Collis P. Huntington, died of heart failure. In the months just prior to his death, Collis P. Huntington had taken out large loans from the Speyer Brothers, which gave the investors of those loans “temporary” effective control of the Southern Pacific. Following Collis Huntington’s death, the Speyer Brothers had enough control to decide that they did not want “another Huntington” in the presidency of the Southern Pacific. With enough intrigue for a spy novel, they elected Arthur Hayes to the presidency of the Southern Pacific Company.
Henry Huntington, as a result, sold all his Southern Pacific stock holdings to investors who sold them to Edward H Harriman of the Union Pacific. Within a year Harriman would come to control the Southern Pacific. In addition to selling his holdings in the Southern Pacific, Huntington figured that it may be time to sell his interest in the Market Street Railway, as well. During the spring of 1901, he was noticing that a group of eastern investors were becoming more than casually interested in Bay Area transit systems. He decided that conversation with them may be opportune.
Eastern Investors, the Brown Brothers, Get Their Foothold
The group of “Eastern Capitalists,” The Brown Brothers, known locally as “The Baltimore Syndicate,” first entered the San Francisco transportation scene with the purchase of the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway on May 12, 1901. This meant that the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway was the founding basis for URR, not the Market Street Railway which was several months later. The following July 1 the Syndicate bought the Sutter Street Railway, which included the two Richmond District lines purchased from the Sutro Railroad in 1899.
On July 11, 1901, the Market Street Railway President Henry Huntington and financier I. W. Hellman met with Baltimore Syndicate representative George R. Webb who began negotiations toward purchase, along with California State Attorney General Tirey L. Ford and San Francisco mining operator R. G. Hanford representing the Syndicate.
The agreements were announced in the press on November 7, 1901, and the Market Street Railway’s operating assets were transferred to the new United Railroads of San Francisco on March 18, 1902. Market Street Railway was reorganized by I.W. Hellman as a holding corporation handling the financial obligations of both the Market Street Railway and the United Railroads, particularly its bonded indebtedness.
Brown Brothers representative Arthur Holland became president of United Railroads. George F. Chapman was appointed General Manager on May 22. It soon became obvious that the Baltimore Syndicate had paid far too much for the property, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 million dollars. This overvaluation proved an untenable situation for the company and plagued it throughout its existence.
It soon also became apparent that Patrick Calhoun of the United Railways investment Company, URR’s largest individual stockholder, acted as the power behind the scenes. Indeed, Calhoun was sent to San Francisco in 1903 to mediate the company’s dispute with the carmen’s union, a situation which prompted a news reporter to ask President Holland who was actually running the company.
The Brown Brothers Get Cold Feet: Ladenburg-Thalmann and The Rise of Patrick Calhoun
By April of 1905 the Brown Brothers had realized the futility of making a profit from a transit operation with overly watered stock, franchises of limited duration, and an only partially modernized system; and began negotiations to sell their interests in the United Railways Investment Company including its subsidiary United Railroads to the merchant banking firm of Ladenburg, Thalmann and Company.
In November Calhoun was back in San Francisco ostensibly for the purpose of attempting to negotiate a solution to the question of overhead trolley wires on Market and Sutter Streets, a matter which had been stewing all year. A few days later, on November 23, Arthur Holland announced his resignation as president of United Railroads, citing the Brown Brothers desire to withdraw from management of the company. Calhoun’s presence in San Francisco at the time Ladenburg, Thalmann & Company was taking over management can hardly be seen as a coincidence and, indeed, he was elected president of United Railroads on December 30, 1905. Among other factors, the new ownership and Calhoun’s ascendancy resulted in a much less friendly attitude toward organized labor. Calhoun, after a lengthy stay in New York, returned to San Francisco on March 12 to deal with proposed improvements to the United Railroads system and the perennial overhead trolley issue.
The great earthquake and fire of April 18-21, 1906 stopped United Railroads operations – cold, although cars began running on Fillmore Street the night of the 21st. Company headquarters moved temporarily to the Turk and Fillmore Car-house. The Royal, New York Underwriters, and Phoenix Insurance Companies were named adjustors of United Railroads losses. As the city rebuilt the company’s route structure and methods of operation changed. A couple of months later URR set up a more substantial temporary headquarters at the location of the former Oak & Broderick Power House. Here, company management could function until a new headquarters was found at 58 Sutter, its permanent home.
Then, on March 10, 1907, the receivers of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company joined other creditors (including General Electric and the Lorain Steel Company) in an adjustment of their claims against United Railroads, which had a floating indebtedness amounting to $3,500,000 and faced receivership. United Railways Investment Company agreed to issue notes in that amount to be secured by an issue of first preferred stock in United Railroads, to bear a 6 per cent interest, and be payable for the first half in August 1912, and the second half in February 1914. Patrick Calhoun blamed this situation on money lost during the recent strike, and said that the company was “cleaning up its finances.”
On May 5, 1907, the carmen went out on strike, during which United Railroads Vice President and General Manager George F Chapman passed away from pneumonia. After a brief interim tenure by Thornwell Mullaly, he was replaced as General Manager by Charles N. Black on September 11, 1907.
In December 1908, the United Railways Investment Company gained control of the Stanislaus Water Power Company, giving United Railroads not only abundant power for its lines but also a surplus of approximately 40,000 horsepower available for sale, saving the company $300,000 to $500,000.
Holding Companies Take Over Ownership
The Railroads and Power Development Company was formed on June 9, 1909, as a holding company which owned all stock, except directors’ qualifying shares of the United Railroads, San Francisco Electric Railways, Sierra and San Francisco Power Company, and Coast Valleys Gas and Electric Company. It also served the purpose of shielding United Railways Investment Company from United Railroads’ financial obligations.
The California Railway and Power Company was organized under the laws of Delaware on December 18, 1912, to acquire from The Railroads and Power Development Company all of the outstanding stock of the United Railroads of San Francisco, The San Francisco Electric Railway Company. Sierra and San Francisco Power Company, and Coast Valley Gas and Electric Company. All the issued common and preferred stock of California Railway and Power Company was owned by United Railways Investment Company. Ladenburg, Thalmann still retained some financial stake in United Railroads, but their influence immediately waned.
Patrick Calhoun Out, Jesse Lilienthal Ascends to the Presidency
On August 28, 1913, Patrick Calhoun resigned, and after a very brief tenure by Mason B. Starring, Jesse W. Lilienthal assumed the presidency of United Railroads.
Calhoun quit the United Railways Investment Company Board in April, 1914. The following month it was revealed that Calhoun had gotten permission by the United Railroads Board to purchase outside stock with company money, which he used instead to invest in the failed Solano Land Company to the tune of what was reported in the newspapers as $1,096,000 but was actually closer to $3,000,000. This sparked an investigation by the State Railroad Commission as to whether the money had been returned to United Railroads, and what the company intended to do if it hadn’t. Tirey L. Ford stated that he voted for the resolution but never heard the land company’s name mentioned. Lilienthal called the matter “ancient history,” and said he was not positive where the money was placed. He was supposedly unaware of the company’s financial state when he accepted the presidency, and said he would not have accepted it had he known. He also came under fire for his handling of his predecessor’s actions.
In 1916, during the midst of much corporate chaos, William Von Phul was appointed to succeed Charles N. Black as general manager of United Railroads on June 1, 1916. Not long afterwards a reorganization plan for the company was announced, which would involve a blanket mortgage for the entire property. The $1,000,000 United Railroads notes and the $1,925,000 California and Power notes would be taken care of by stock in the reorganized company. The outstanding $7,053,000 Market Street Railway 5s would receive par or 90. Bankers immediately began to express doubt over this arrangement, particularly if 4 per cent bonds could be placed at 50.
Not long after, the company’s bondholders invited Frank B. Anderson, William H. Crocker, Herbert Fleishhacker, I. W. Hellman, Jr., and J. D. McKee to form a new reorganization committee. About two weeks later the committee asked the four percent bondholders to deposit their securities with the Union Trust Company, hinting that the next coupons could not be paid unless the proposed organization could be consummated. Late in September the committee announced a plan in which the 4% bonds would get 25% in Market Street 5s and 46% in first preferred, wiping out $44,330,100 in URR’s liabilities.
Shortly thereafter, bankers revealed plans to pay URR bondholders 71 cents on the dollar, the company announced default on its October interest, and doubts were raised about whether the committee’s plan would do what was intended. In November, the Railroad Commission requested an inventory and appraisal of URR property, and the Baltimore Trust Company opposed the reorganization plan, asking for a better deal for its bondholders. By the end of the year a suit was brought by the Oakland Bank of Savings and D. A. Bulmore, along with the Anglo and London Paris National Bank, to foreclose the trust mortgage securing the outstanding $1,800,000 in outstanding Market Street Cable Railway bonds.
The United Railroads reorganization scheme, and opposition to it, dragged through the beginning of 1917, as clamor for purchase by the city increased. By the end of April the reorganization plans appeared to have been completed, with the bondholders to receive 66 2/3% of their holdings in new 6% bonds, 1% to 3% in new 6% first preferred stock, and 33% in new common stock. This seemed to satisfy everyone for the time being, but the issue was pushed to the back burner for the rest of the year by the United States entry into World War I, and the carmen’s strike (resulting in further agitation for municipal purchase). During this lull in negotiations, in October 1918, the California Railway and Power Company reported on its poor financial state, and blamed it primarily on the previous year’s strike.
The Reorganization Gets Back on Track
Early in 1919, the previously dormant reorganization plan was once again active, with Lilienthal explaining that the restructuring would be done in a way that would give a large margin between the expected earnings and the fixed charges, which would be accomplished by the holders of the United Railroads 4 per cent bonds taking junior securities in exchange, and that Ladenburg, Thalmann would accept junior securities of the reorganized company in exchange for the $5,000,000 obligation of the present one. The holders of the Market Street Cable 6s, the Ferries & Cliff House 6s, The Omnibus Cable Company 6s, and the Sutter Street Railway 5s, totaling $5,200,000, would receive par. Progress on this matter continued to be made into the next month, and its sinking fund 4 per cent bond certificates increased in value. However, Thornwell Mullally stepped down as assistant to the president of URR on February 25, 1919.
Although no one knew at the time, Jesse Lilienthal’s appointment as President of URR, like for George Chapman before him, would be the death of him. United Railroads President Jesse W. Lilienthal died of a stroke on June 3, 1919, as he was giving a speech at the Colonial Ballroom at the Hotel St. Francis, his last words being “In times like these we know no creeds. For the American of today there should be only this thought-one country, one flag, one God.” Lilienthal passed without having seen his desire for city purchase of the company come to fruition. William Von Phul took his place while also retaining the general manager position of United Railroads.
During the summer and fall of 1919, the United Railroads reorganization plans continued and were further amended. In August it was announced that 100 per cent of par would be offered, but with a reduced proportion of Market Street Railway bonds, and the balance made up in stock of all three issues. The following month came the news that the reorganization plans had been perfected. The United Railroads would cease to exist and the Market Street Railway Company, with a new $32,150,000 capitalization, would reacquire all the properties. A few days later the United Railroads bondholders were asked to deposit their securities with E. H. Rollins & Sons in return for five year 6 per cent notes. As of late November 1920, the plan had met with approval among the bondholders, but had not yet gone before the Railroad Commission for approval.
1920-21 – The Death of URR and the Rebirth of MSR
The petition for the United Railroads reorganization was not presented to the Railroad Commission until June 18, 1920, as clamor for city purchase persisted. The plan was formally submitted on September 10, with a reduction in the company’s capitalization from $81,945,600 to $47,516,000. The Railroad Commission approved the plan, and on January 29, 1921, the Union Trust Company began foreclosure proceedings against United Railroads, with the reorganization expected to take effect in 60 days. Those proceedings were temporarily halted on February 5, but were soon allowed to continue. The receiver’s sale took place on March 21, signaling the corporate end of United Railroads, and brought $7,000,000. Several steps remained to be taken, but on April 1, 1921 the Market Street Railway Company regained operation of most of San Francisco’s privately-owned street railway lines.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused Muni to convert all its rail lines to buses in 2020, with rail service fitfully resuming, in stages, in 2021. Quite a reversal for the transit agency born as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, whose service was dominated by streetcars for the first 35 years of its existence, and had never before been strictly a bus operation for longer than a weekend at a time. Here’s a story we put together in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of Muni’s first bus operation.
In September 1917 the Municipal Railway left the tracks for the first time, by running its first bus—a leased vehicle whose make and model is lost to history. Still, it was the beginning of a protracted turning point for Muni.
The city’s first buses
When San Francisco got its first transit motor bus, 50,000 streetcars across the US were unquestionably kings of urban American streets. Many of those streets were paved with rough cobblestones or Belgian block when they were paved at all. Cobbles were fine for horses, but rough on any wheeled vehicle, often leading drivers of the primitive automobiles and trucks of the day to try to share the smooth streetcar track area.
Muni’s first buses were small—just 19 seats—reflecting the technology limitations of the day. They were bought to complement streetcars, not compete with them. The first Muni bus route crossed Golden Gate Park from the end of the A-Geary line into the Sunset District. Muni’s guiding spirit, legendary City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, wanted to extend the streetcar tracks through the park, but was handed a rare defeat at the hands of another legend of city government, Parks chief John McLaren.
Other early Muni bus routes ran out Taraval Street from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, until the L-line was built, and along Great Highway. They didn’t go anywhere near downtown; their job was to take San Franciscans to the streetcars that did.
Buses provide acheaper alternative
By the mid-1920s, larger engines and better suspensions made buses practical on more city streets. Still, the bus was an afterthought. Muni’s private competitor, Market Street Railway Co., which bought its first three buses in 1926, used them to connect developing neighborhoods to its main streetcar lines, starting with the 14-Mission.
A bus could be operated by a single driver, while San Francisco’s streetcars required two, a motorman and conductor. In the mid-1930s, Market Street Railway tried to convert some of its streetcar lines to use streetcars with just one crewmember, but a court overturned the move, which had been strongly opposed by labor unions. In response, Market Street Railway began converting some of its unprofitable, less patronized streetcar lines to buses. By 1941, the 19-Polk, the Third Street lines and three South of Market lines had been ‘bustituted,’ along with the Castro cable line, and in 1942, the Sacramento-Clay cable car line as well.
As a public agency, Muni faced less pressure to replace streetcars with buses at this time, and by the end of 1937, twenty years after running its first bus, Muni still only owned nineteen of them. That more than doubled by the end of 1941, with 43 motor buses running on eleven routes, almost all still serving as feeders for the streetcars.
Tires and wires: Early trolley buses
By the mid-1930s, motor buses could go anywhere in San Francisco there were streets—if they weren’t too steep). But electric trolley buses could climb virtually any hill; could use the same power generated for streetcars, and didn’t need tracks in the street. Market Street Railway converted its 33-Ashbury line through the Mission and over Twin Peaks into the Haight-Ashbury to trolley buses in 1935, followed by Muni with its first line, the R-Howard-South Van Ness in 1941. Muni planned to convert the E-Union streetcar line to trolley buses as well, but World War II intervened.
World War II tested American mass transit to the limit. Streetcars and buses all over the country were packed with riders who couldn’t use their automobiles because of gasoline and rubber rationing. Almost no new transit vehicles were built because their makers were building war vehicles. By war’s end, most streetcars and their tracks were worn out. With peace restored, families bought automobiles as never before, forsaking transit. Many privately owned streetcar companies around the country were scooped up by a partnership of bus, tire, and fuel companies and converted to buses.
In San Francisco, the transition from streetcars to buses played out differently. The city itself bought out the private Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and combined it with Muni. Soon after, a city consultant prepared a post-war plan that would have retained strong streetcar lines such as the K, L, M, and N, and lines on Mission, Geary, Stockton, Sutter, and Haight streets.
But with fare revenue rapidly plummeting along with ridership, labor costs became an overriding issue. Single-operator buses began substituting for two-person streetcars on some lines evenings and weekends. A 1947 plan, tied to a bond issue, emphasized single-operator trolley buses instead. It passed and changed the face of the city.
The big switch
The end of the 1940s saw buses pass up streetcars as the main public transit vehicles in San Francisco. In mid-1946, Muni owned 600 streetcars and just 225 buses. By early 1952, buses numbered more than 800 (about equally split between motor and trolley buses), while active streetcars were down to about 200. Two dozen streetcar lines had been converted to bus operation. The rising cost of two-person streetcar crews, increased automobile traffic competing for street space, and worn out streetcar infrastructure all contributed to this changeover.
A fleet of White motor coaches, gasoline powered and very smelly to ride, provided bridge service during the conversion from streetcars to electric trolley coaches. The new trolley coach fleet was mostly Marmon-Harrington buses in three different sizes, augmented by sleek-looking Twin Coaches and hulking, hard-to-drive St. Louis Car Company buses.
By 1951, only 19% of Muni’s streetcar service was covering its operating costs, compared to more than a third of the bus service—especially distressing because buses were stuck with all the lowest ridership routes. Muni responded by minimizing streetcar service on nights and weekends, running only the N-Judah and a shuttle service on Market through the Twin Peaks Tunnel to West Portal, with the rest of the streetcar routes operated by buses during those lower-ridership periods.
Finally, voters repealed the requirement for two crewmembers on modern streetcars in 1954, and within four years, only ‘PCC’ streamliners, the type seen on the E- and F-lines today, remained in regular service. Five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, were saved, mostly because they used tunnels or rights-of-way difficult or too expensive to convert to bus use, but the busiest streetcar line, the B-Geary, which had no such protection, fell at the end of 1956, becoming the 38, still Muni’s busiest line overall.
Most of the big change to buses was completed by 1952, except for Geary, which got buses in 1956. San Francisco’s mix of buses and streetcars stayed pretty steady for the next four decades.
Several generations of motor coaches and trolley coaches have carried San Franciscans since then. Macks dominated the motor coach fleet from 1956-1969, followed by GMC ‘New Look’ coaches (which Muni was the last major property to buy new, in 1969). The ‘Fishbowls,’ as the GMCs were called, were augmented by smaller AM General buses (nicknamed ‘Gremlins’ after the small American Motors automobile of the area). The first fleet of articulated coaches (or ‘bendy buses,’ as the British call them) were delivered to Muni by MAN in 1984. Since then, most motor coaches have come from Neoplan or Flyer Industries. Flyer supplied a new generation of trolley coaches in 1975, replaced by Czech-designed ETI trolley buses starting in 2001. Various other bus manufacturers supplied smaller numbers of coaches over the past 50 years; these fleet details are beyond the scope of this story.
Rapid Transit came to San Francisco in 1973 with the opening of the BART Transbay Tube. By 1982, Muni’s five surviving streetcar lines moved into the Muni Metro subway under Market Street, and after successful summer demonstrations in the 1980s, vintage streetcars returned to the surface of Market permanently in 1995. In fact, the F-line and later the E-line run routes once served by buses: the 8-Market trolley bus on Market and the 32-Embarcadero along the waterfront. Then, in 2005, modern streetcars (called ‘light rail vehicles’ by some) replaced buses on one of San Francisco’s longest thoroughfares, Third Street, 66 years after buses replaced streetcars.
Today, Muni is midway through a multi-year process of replacing its rubber-tire fleet with a standard design, manufactured by New Flyer Industries. Both the hybrid motor coaches and trolley coaches share the same sleek body design, the first time that’s been true across the Muni rubber tire fleet. Both types of bus are being delivered in 40-foot (standard) and 60-foot (articulated) lengths.
It all adds up to one of the lowest emission transit fleets in North America, including 200 zero-emission streetcars/light rail vehicles (both modern and vintage), plus more than 400 zero-emission electric trolley buses, in addition to hundreds of hybrid diesel-electric motor buses.
Both buses and streetcars are essential to moving both residents and visitors around San Francisco, and along with the world-famous cable cars, provide the pulse along the arteries of the City by the Bay.
With San Francisco’s historic streetcars still shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t take an actual ride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the permanent F-Market line, but we can get some virtual thrills with these two new merchandise items, designed by Chris Arvin. Above, a poster with Chris’s iconic, er, icons that playfully visualize some of Muni’s historic streetcar fleet. Below, a pin featuring a PCC in original Muni livery. These and an ever growing number of… — Read More