Market Street subway dreams

Market Street subway dreams
ALMOST REALITY—This late 1950s composite, made while BART was in the planning stages, showed a station under Market and O’Farrell Streets, which didn’t happen. A faithful PCC streetcar is on the Muni level, above a conceptually-designed BART train. No overhead wires on Market, and trees in the middle! SFMTA Archive

Hard for some of us San Franciscans of a certain age to think of the Muni subway under Market Street as a part of history. Because that means that we ourselves…well, you know.

But it’s true. The shiny new Muni Metro subway opened to carry passengers on its first line, the N-Judah, on February 18, 1980, bringing a long-held dream to reality, and, to cynics, starting an operational nightmare that has recurred repeatedly since. 

The subway, and all Muni rail service, was shut down in Spring 2020 as part of the response to the Covid-19 crisis, with buses using surface routes replacing the subway lines. The subway gradually reopened through 2021, but it is still not operating at nearly the volume, either in passengers or trains, as it did before the pandemic. The shutdown, though, provided an opportunity to rethink how best to use this multi-billion-dollar asset to effectively move the most San Franciscans along the City’s most travelled corridor. One option might provide opportunities to get more value from the City’s historic streetcars as well.

This story covers the vision and creation of a subway under Market Street: 75 years of dreaming, planning, and building. Separately, we report on the subway’s first 40 years of operation, providing insights into why it has never worked nearly as well as promised.

Market Street subway dreams
GROWING NEED—By 1923, just five years after the quadruple-tracking of Market Street was finished, streetcars were slowing to a crawl in afternoon rush hours like this one at Lotta’s Fountain at Market and Geary. The new through-service on the L-Taraval line added to the congestion. SFMTA Archive

Subway stirrings

New York City famously opened the first full subway in America, the IRT, in 1904. (Boston had dug a short streetcar subway in 1897.) On Christmas Day 1904, the San Francisco Chronicle gave big play to the vision of an engineer who’d been to New York, suggesting that Market Street needed one of those things too, along with an array of other rapid transit (including a steel train tube under the Bay to Oakland, presaging BART). 

But like many transit “plans” over the decades, this was just a concept, with no official backing. The aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire soon refocused San Francisco’s attention, but as recovery from the cataclysm brought growing transit ridership, dreams grew again as well. 

In 1913, with the new San Francisco Municipal Railway less than a year old, City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy decided to design the East Portal (at Castro Street) of the yet-to-be-built streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks “to permit the continuation of the tunnel as a subway under Market Street with but slight alterations.” The tunnel, which opened in 1918, succeeded in its goal of opening up the southwestern quadrant of the city to residential development, though it took several decades for the build-out. 

When the tunnel opened, city-owned Muni and its private competitor, soon to be known as Market Street Railway (MSRy), began jousting for passengers all along Market Street on adjacent pairs of tracks (which came to be known as “The Roar of the Four”). The City’s official position called for public ownership of all utilities, including transit. As the expiration date of MSRy’s most important operating franchises neared, voters were asked to buy out the private company in 1925, but overwhelmingly refused. Those franchises expired in 1929 but were extended short-term. 

Two 1930s plans

O’Shaughnessy began preparing a “subway report” in 1930 that showed an ambitious two- and four-track subway under Market, costing an estimated $21 million. The first phase ramped two tracks down from the surface just east of Valencia Street (with the notation that “in the future” the subway could be extended to connect directly to the Twin Peaks and Sunset Tunnel). Two other tracks stayed on the surface all the way to the Ferry. These two subway tracks were joined by two more down a ramp from McAllister Street. From the drawings, we infer that this portal would serve both MSRy’s busy 5-McAllister line and its 21-Hayes line. 

Market Street subway dreams
BARGAIN BASEMENT—M.M. O’Shaughnessy’s $21 million Market Street Subway concept, presented in 1931, was certainly no-frills. The pedestrian mezzanines had only eight-foot ceilings, and the tunnels scant clearances for the streetcars. Its four-track section was designed not for express operation but to increase the number of lines that could use the subway. By this time, though, streetcar ridership in the City had already passed its peak. Eric Fischer Archive on Flickr

The four-track subway stretch marched east, joined at O’Farrell Street by tracks that descended into their own subway at Larkin Street. These were for Muni’s Geary lines. At Sutter, two of the subway tracks ramped up to the surface, finishing the trip to the Ferry Loop next to the MSRy’s Sutter line tracks, the only stretch of four tracks retained on Market’s surface. The other two subway tracks terminated underground in a loop where Bush, Battery, and First Streets met Market. This anticipated the construction of the Transbay Transit Terminal a block south. O’Shaughnessy said trying to dig a subway east of that point would be ruinously expensive because of poor landfill, old ships, and a high water table. (He was proved right.)  

Subway stations were spaced very close together, at Third, Fourth, Sixth, Ninth, and Van Ness. 

Unfortunately, his work was for naught, since by the time the plan was released in 1931, voters had already approved extending Market Street Railway’s franchises another 25 years. The private company thus held a veto over the big capital project, as they didn’t have to invest a dime in it, and it wasn’t feasible without incorporating MSRy lines. (Remember, at this time, MSRy carried 75% of the city’s transit passengers, more than three times Muni’s share.) 

But the subway dream lingered. A consultant’s report in 1935 recommended a more extensive system, with a two-track Market Street subway running from Fremont to Church, surfacing to let the J and N lines out, and then continuing on the surface to the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The report also called for a subway line through the Mission District, surfacing at the Bernal Cut (later BART’s alignment) and one under Geary Street from Divisadero to Market, then turning under Montgomery to Columbus, linking the B and a relocated F-Stockton line. It retained surface operation of the outer ends of the existing streetcar lines, like Muni Metro, but pledged it would be designed to allow an eventual upgrade to true grade-separated subway operation. 

Unlike O’Shaughnessy’s 1931 study, this plan made it to the ballot in 1937, with a price tag just under $50 million. The City’s Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, promoted it with the promise of construction jobs as the Depression lingered, and the fear of losing out to the suburbs. “With [the new San Francisco-Oakland and Golden Gate] bridges increasing traffic and providing easy outlets to suburban areas, the adoption of this rapid transit plan is vital. It is needed to build industry, stimulate growth, and prevent the loss of population and industry. It is needed to protect realty values and safeguard tax revenues.” 

Market Street subway dreams
EAST END—Detail of the underground loop, ramp, and first station at the east end of O’Shaughnessy’s 1931 subway plan. Eric Fischer Archive on Flickr

The bridges were indeed flooding city streets, including Market, with commuters’ cars, causing growing traffic jams. Yet voters still turned down the bond issue that would have funded the three subways. With the bridges’ openings, ferry service withered, and lower Market Street businesses with it. Most streetcars were diverted to the Transbay Transit Terminal at First and Mission Streets, which opened in 1939. Though the automobile was already cutting into rail ridership around the nation, the new Bridge Terminal started with three privately owned interurban passenger rail companies serving it, including the Sacramento Northern, much of whose right-of-way through Contra Costa County would later be used by BART. But within two years, economics forced two of the three companies off the bridge, with the last one, the Key System, hanging on until 1958, when its tracks on the bridge were replaced by more automobile lanes. 

More plans without results

As Muni prepared to merge with MSRy in 1944, the Board of Supervisors asked City PUC boss E.G. Cahill what his plans were for improving the combined systems. Having been beaten at the polls on his 1937 subway plan and facing strong labor opposition on reducing rail crew size, he knew how to respond, saying there would be no proposals “for subways, elevated railways or other types of grade separation…until, by the employment of modem equipment, the most efficient use is made of the City’s street surfaces.” Instead, Muni won voter funding in 1947 to buy hundreds of trolley buses to convert streetcar lines. 

That goal accomplished, subway dreams resumed. A 1949 subway study by De Leuw, Cather & Co. for the city planning department included an underground loop to serve Transbay Terminal. Modernized PCCs would be used to start. There would be stations every block on Market between Second and Fifth. A second subway started from its own tight loop close to Transbay Terminal under Second Street and Post Street, to replace the Geary streetcars. 

Market Street subway dreams
STILL STREETCARS—While the 1937 plan rejected by San Francisco voters was dubbed “rapid transit”, the Market Street section simply put two of the four surface tracks underground, leaving the other two in place. Eric Fischer Archive on Flickr

This plan likewise went nowhere, but just three years later, at the request of Mayor Elmer Robinson, the City’s Public Utilities Commission, which then oversaw Muni, commissioned yet another study, this one entitled, “Rapid Transit for San Francisco: Monorail, Elevated, Subway? A Report of Possibilities”. It was authored by consultant Marmion D. Mills, infamous among Muni history buffs for savaging the streetcar system in the late 1940s and recommending a plan, which succeeded, to cut the cable car system in half in 1954. Mills’ plan, too, called for terminating the system at Transbay Terminal, and considered alternatives to a subway. It apparently wasn’t taken seriously (we couldn’t find anything in a newspaper search of that period), but how about those cool drawings?

And then, BART

Probably the main reason the Mills study went nowhere was the blossoming of a bigger dream: an integrated Bay Area-wide rapid transit system. After World War II, the counties around San Francisco boomed in population. The city itself didn’t, at least in terms of people who slept there every night. But the number of workers and shoppers—and the cars they drove—jammed the downtown area, leading to one-way streets feeding new parking garages in the city (and helping doom the O’Farrell cable car and Geary streetcar). 

Regional planners and business leaders in the 1950s assumed that downtown San Francisco would remain the epicenter of the Bay Area white-collar employment and retail business. They revived yet again the dream of a Market Street Subway, but on a far grander scale, as part of a high-speed passenger rail network ringing the Bay Area.

After politics, costs, and squabbles caused Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Marin Counties to drop out, Bay Area voters passed a $792 million bond issue in November 1962 to build the 75-mile, three-county Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, using what was billed as space-age train technology. (The initial system ended up costing twice that).

To lure San Franciscans’ votes, the subway under Market Street would have two levels, BART on the lower, Muni on the upper; an underground echo of the old “Roar of the Four” surface tracks. In February 1962, BART officials and San Francisco Mayor John F. Shelley’s “Transportation Council” agreed that the subway level constructed for Muni would allow all five existing streetcar lines to use it. So, San Francisco voters who approved BART believed single-seat streetcar rides downtown would continue, with faster service in the new subway.

“What do we do now?”

In the 1972 film The Candidate, a California Senate candidate played by Robert Redford, who had vacillated between various positions during the campaign, comes from behind at the last minute to win. With a dumbstruck look on his face, he turns to his campaign manager and utters the film’s final line: “What do we do now?”

In the real world, Muni leaders and city politicians found themselves asking that same question, over and over, after the voters approved BART at the end of 1962. 

Market Street subway dreams
MARKET STREET EL?—At a time when Manhattan had already torn down most of its elevated railways, a 1952 study by San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission actually considered the feasibility of an “El” above Market Street! This drawing shows a PCC train on what looks like a cast concrete structure. As a variation, a suspended monorail was offered (the cars hanging beneath a single overhead beam, like Germany’s 1901 Wuppertaler Schwebebahn). Eric Fischer Archive on Flickr

The BART district had complete control over the design and construction of its system, including the Muni subway level, which, as approved by voters, allowed all five existing streetcar lines to access it. The bond issue extended the subway on the west beneath West Portal Avenue to surface at St. Francis Circle. BART would own the subway and designed Muni’s level to be convertible to BART trains in the future if needed.

In the voter-approved plan, the easternmost San Francisco station, for both BART and Muni, was Montgomery Street. Like every subway plan made since the Bay Bridge opened, BART designers scorned lower Market Street and the Ferry Building area (by then cut off by the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway and economically deteriorating). They did include an underground track loop east of Montgomery to allow single-end Muni vehicles to turn around.

But while BART would design the Muni subway and stations, it had nothing to do with what kinds of vehicles Muni would run, nor would it pay for them. And BART had no say in how Muni would operate it. Frankly, Muni didn’t know either.

The Simpson-Curtin Report

Transit leaders on both sides of the Bay recognized that the building of BART would greatly impact all existing transit operations. They commissioned a detailed study of all aspects of transit affected by the advent of BART, which was undertaken by the Philadelphia firm of Simpson & Curtin. Early on, the project team recognized that the plan to operate all five Muni streetcar lines in the new subway was problematic.

Citing existing surface-subway streetcar operations in Boston and Philadelphia as examples, the Simpson-Curtin Report stated:

Where street cars are operated both on surface and below grade, headways between vehicles are not dependable inasmuch as they are a function of peak hour traffic congestion for the surface portion of the service. This characteristic is particularly significant during rush hours where the combination of street traffic and the need for close headways cause a progressive deterioration in the transition from sur- face to private right-of-way—scheduled speed is reduced accordingly.

– “Coordinated Transit for the Bay Area, Now to 1975”, Simpson and Curtin, p. 120

The report clearly stated that to keep the subway from backing up with congestion, streetcars on the individual lines had to run at least 7 1/2 minutes apart, “a considerably lower quality service than presently is being operated on the streetcar lines at grade.”

In its initial assessment of how to operate the new subway level, Muni planners looked at using its existing single-end PCC streetcars in the subway, running left-side so their right-hand doors could use the center platforms. The turning loop BART promised at the east end of the line made this option feasible, so long as the platforms were built at a low level (which, however, would have made the streetcars inaccessible to wheelchair users. This option also would have required a dangerous crossover for the streetcars somewhere to get them to the opposite track of the subway.

Though the Simpson-Curtin report was still in preparation, Muni and City officials knew that its recommended approach would be to scrap the existing streetcar system in favor of a completely grade-separated subway system, like New York’s. This, the experts on the team said, was the way to truly transform Muni’s rail transit. It should include replacing the M-Ocean View with true subway trains running underground all the way to San Francisco State College, replacing the N-Judah with a subway extension to 19th Avenue and Irving Street, and replacing the rest of the streetcar network with feeder buses connecting to the subway. The report would also propose a new subway under Post Street to Cathedral Hill, continuing under Geary Boulevard to 45th Avenue, to serve Muni’s highest-ridership corridor. (This last measure provided partial atonement for ripping out the B-Geary line in 1956.)

Believing the Simpson-Curtin team’s recommendation to be the best solution, the Board of Supervisors unanimously put on the November 1966 ballot a $96.5 million bond issue to fund the subway extension to San Francisco State, plus the construction of a new maintenance and storage facility nearby, and purchase of new high-level subway-style trains. The bond issue also dangled the prospect the N-line and Post/Geary subways as part of an overall vision, but did not fund them. Almost 58% of voters said ‘yes’, but it needed 2/3 approval, and so failed. Thus, when the Simpson-Curtin report was finally issued publicly in 1967, its key recommendation to make the Muni subway work well had already been rejected by San Francisco voters.

Back to the Drawing Board

As Muni planners regrouped after the 1966 bond issue defeat, a powerful member of the Board of Supervisors, John Barbagelata, led the fight to scrap the already-funded subway extension under West Portal Avenue, to avoid construction disruption on the street where his real estate office was located. He won, and that money was shifted to build an additional BART-Muni station under Market near the waterfront. (Embarcadero Station proved transformational for lower Market, and it is hard to see how Montgomery Station could possibly have handled rider volumes on its own.)

The bond issue defeat meant no money for new equipment, sending Muni back to the PCC plan until a new mayor, Joseph Alioto, decreed early in 1967 that Muni would buy European-style trams that could be operated in trains and load from either side in the subway. This led to Muni’s acceptance of a proposal by BART, under extreme financial pressure by now, to build a simple “stub-end” terminal for Muni railcars at Embarcadero Station rather than the turnaround loop promised and funded in the initial BART bond issue. That was the end of any talk of putting PCCs into the subway, since double-end vehicles would now be required. 

Market Street subway dreams
LOOKING DOWN ON THE FUTURE—From the roof of the Palace Hotel, Muni photographer Marshall Moxom captured PCCs 1116 and (preserved) Torpedo 1006 inching along their track detour above the Montgomery Street BART/Muni subway station excavation in February 1970. SFMTA Archive

Analysis of the failed 1966 bond issue indicated that many users of the existing streetcar lines didn’t want to give up their single-seat ride to get downtown. This was no surprise to Muni leaders. In the late 1940s, an attempt to replace J-line streetcars with trolley buses on Church Street flopped when Noe Valley residents made it clear they wanted the streetcars to stay. And budget-cutting moves to replace K, L, and M streetcars with feeder buses west of the Twin Peaks Tunnel nights and weekends in 1951-52 aroused rider ire.

Muni management still explored multiple options, but by early 1969, finally committed to putting all five lines in the subway.

Reinventing the streetcar

To fit all five lines into the subway, Muni’s consultants, Louis T. Klauder and Associates (LTK), recommended having single cars run on the outer ends of the lines, and then couple together into trains at the subway portals to go downtown: the K, L, and M lines at West Portal Station, the N and J lines at Duboce and Church. LTK also repeatedly advocated for an underground loop to be built near Embarcadero Station, believing (correctly) the stub terminal would prove inadequate.

Market Street subway dreams
FIRST DRAFT—The initial design of Muni’s new light rail vehicle, by LTK, before compromises were forced on Muni by the federal government to accommodate Boston’s 1897 streetcar subway. In this design, all three doors on each side would have worked in the subway. Much of this design, though, was reused in helping design the Boeing-Vertol LRVs. SFMTA Archive

To carry this off, Muni needed new streetcars that could be coupled into trains, were double-ended, and could load from either high or low platforms, an unprecedented combination for an American-built streetcar. When Muni put LTK’s initial design out to bid in 1971 (a design that relied on PCC-type motors and some other components), bids came in at twice Muni’s estimate, unaffordable. 

Boston needed to buy new streetcars, too, and wanted a Düwag model designed for Hanover, Germany’s subway-surface Stadtbahn. But the Nixon Administration wouldn’t fund any of it, instead pushing a “Buy American” program that would help repurpose factories producing materiel for the Vietnam War. The Urban Mass Transit Adminstration took the LTK Muni design, worked with Muni and Boston to adjust it, and dubbed it the “US Standard Light Rail Vehicle”, wanting to leave the term “streetcar” behind. 

The design was skinnier than Muni wanted and had a slanted front end, both required to navigate the 1897 Boston trolley subway. This made the front doors unusable in Muni’s subway and limited boarding to two doors per car, on both sides. The bid was won by Boeing-Vertol, the helicopter division of the aircraft maker. 

Market Street subway dreams
DREAM ON—Part of the 1966 ballot measure to create fully grade-separated Muni subways, with long subway trains loading at high platforms, was a potential route under Post and Geary as far west as 45th Avenue. But the ballot measure only provided funding for upgrading the M-Ocean View like this as far as SF State, not for the “future” Geary and N-line subways. Voters said no. Eric Fischer Archive on Flickr

It must be noted, San Diego, building its own light rail system from scratch, passed up the lure of federal funding and purchased proven German vehicles from Düwag (later acquired by Siemens). Those Model U2 vehicles remained in service for 40 years with a mean-distance-between-failure rate fifteen times lower than Muni experienced with the Boeing cars. (Many of San Diego’s U2s have gone on to a second life in Argentina.)

But given the parsimony of San Francisco voters in supporting Muni capital programs, federal money (strings and all) seemed the only way Muni could get new vehicles for its new subway.

Delays in vehicle procurement, along with other factors, pushed back the projected opening date for the Market Street Subway again and again. The subway itself was physically finished by early 1975, but it took five more years to begin service. The aging PCC fleet soldiered on, the venerable streamliners kept operating beyond all expectations by a dedicated maintenance crew, using the Twin Peaks Tunnel and “temporary” ramps (still there) to surface at Market and Castro, and a detour via 17th, Church, and Duboce to avoid the cut-and-cover subway construction on upper Market. And one of the PCCs, Work Car 1008 (today fully restored to its original 1948 passenger condition), pinch hit for the late-to-be-delivered LRVs in testing out the subway clearances and wiring, using a newly-installed pantograph.

Market Street subway dreams
OVER TO YOU—In the first days of operation of Muni Metro in February 1980, Boeing LRV 1250 heads out the N-Judah line after emerging from the Duboce subway portal just to the east. The other streetcar lines still used the surface of Market Street via a detour that avoided subway construction on upper Market (by this time already completed for five years). PCC 1134 will jog around the subway portal to reach Market. Thirty of the PCCs received mini-overhauls, including the new Landor livery, to keep them going during the long delay in opening the subway. SFMTA Archive

The need to keep the PCCs running precluded redeveloping the PCCs’ Geneva Division for the new LRVs; a good thing, since it was too small anyway. Instead, Muni converted its ramshackle Elkton streetcar shops and Ocean Division bus yard across the street, next to BART’s new Balboa Park Station, into a new light rail maintenance and storage facility, later named for Muni general manager Curtis Green.

The way Muni navigated through the process of preparing for the Market Street Railway was, in the words of Anthony Perles, author of the definitive Muni history, The People’s Railway, “convoluted”.  

Indeed it was. What would happen when they actually tried to operate it? Here’s that story.

Monorail mania

Market Street subway dreams
The Seattle Monorail, 2008. Wikimedia photo by Klaus-with-a-K

Lest you think the 1950s Muni-monorail-above-Market was wacky, it should be remembered that it was seen in many places as the sexy new technology that would lure people out of their automobiles.  Walt Disney thought so, and partnered with Alweg of Germany to design a system for Disneyland. Monorail was briefly considered early on as the technology for the regional system too. As with the Muni study, consideration of monorail technology for what became BART was encouraged by San Francisco business leader Marvin Lewis, a driving force on mid-century Bay Area transportation issues (and grandfather of Salesforce Founder and CEO Mark Benioff, whose company’s name is on the sleek replacement for the old Transbay Transit Terminal). At the end of the day, only one monorail transit line was built in North America: in Seattle, for its 1962 World’s Fair. It’s still operating.

We at Market Street Railway not only work to preserve and support historic transit in San Francisco, we also research and write about how transit has shaped our city in the past – for better or worse – so that these lessons might be applied to make informed decisions for the future. We would appreciate it if you could join or donate to our nonprofit.

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Welcome back, F-line!

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

Hoodline published a comprehensive look at the celebration, including great boat pix and videos. Here’s a link to the Examiner’s coverage, including a photo of the all-but-invisible protective operator barrier on the PCC. Finally, a link to Channel 2’s coverage, including video of the whole celebration.

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

Welcome back, F-line!

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.

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Renting the street

Renting the street
FRANCHISES IN MOTION—Cable cars pass a horsecar on Market Street while another horsecar has just crossed from Third Street to Kearny, passing Lotta’s Fountain. It’s the 1880s, and transit franchises are hot properties in San Francisco. The stripes you see crossing the streets were granite crosswalks, but many pedestrians ignored them. SFMTA Archive.

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. 

Renting the street
FIRST FRANCHISE—A drawing of Hayes Valley in 1864, probably at Hayes and Gough Streets, showing the steam dummy and trailers of the first transit franchise to operate in San Francisco, the Market Street Railroad Company, awarded to (surprise!) Thomas Hayes. SFMTA Archive.

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. 

Renting the street
HORSES RULE ON MARKET—After noisy steam dummies were banned from Market Street in 1868, the first franchisee converted its lines to horse-drawn streetcars like this one. The cobblestone pavement provided sound footing for the horses, but made the wagons and buggies they pulled bounce, attracting many passengers to the smooth ride of horse-drawn rail vehicles. Market & Post Streets, about 1870. SFMTA Archive.

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. 

Renting the street
FIRST CABLE FRANCHISE—Andrew Hallidie’s Clay Street Railroad Company had its eastern terminal at Portsmouth Square, Clay and Kearny Streets. SFMTA Archive.

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.

Renting the street
FIRST ELECTRIC FRANCHISE—The San Francisco & San Mateo Railway Company opened in 1891, running from the site of our San Francisco Railway Museum on Steuart Street just south of Market all the way to Daly City. This early electric car is much like preserved “Dinky” 578, built just five years later. SFMTA Archive.

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.

Renting the street
GO BIG OR GO HOME—As quickly as it could afford, United Railroads upsized the streetcars on its electric lines to gain more revenue from its busiest franchises. Car 1352 was built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1904, part of a class of 125 cars of this type that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and played a key role in the city’s recovery. SFMTA Archive.

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.

Unequal service

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. 

Renting the street
FAIR COMPETITION—United Railroads was struggling financially in the 1910s, and the rise of the new Municipal Railway didn’t help. The City backed Muni’s expansion with several new lines that directly served the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District. These United Railroads streetcars on Market near Haight can only offer riders transfers to reach the fair. (This is obviously a posed shot, with the mystery man in-between the 7-Haight and 8-Market & Castro streetcars possibly demonstrating the clearance between the tracks). John Henry Mentz photo; SFMTA Archive.

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.

Renting the street
END OF THE LINE—Barely a month before handing the system over to Market Street Railway Company, a final indignity for United Railroads on February 21, 1921: a cave-in of its tracks on Stanyan Street between Frederick and Carl Streets, near the corner of Golden Gate Park, swallowing an auto. Luckily, these tracks were connectors to the Haight carbarn and didn’t carry cars with passengers. The 6-line car will turn east on Carl Street, later sharing trackage there with Muni’s N-Judah line. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

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). 

Renting the street
FREELOADING ON THE FRANCHISE—A jitney, at left on Market at Front Street, looks to grab the nickels of riders for a trip in direct competition with United Railroads’ 9-Valencia line. By the time of this 1914 photo, Muni’s Geary streetcars, including the D-line car to the right, were running all the way to the Ferry, providing more competition for URR. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

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). 

Renting the street
BARELY CONTROLLED CHAOS—This still frame from the famous 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” film shows a streetcar, cable cars, buggies, automobiles, a large dray wagon, and lots of pedestrians filling up the intersection of Fourth and Market.

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.

Renting the street
PART OF THE COST—Street railway franchise holders were required to properly pave the tracks and the space in between, even if the city hadn’t paved the rest of the street yet. Here we’re looking east on Clement Street from 30th Avenue on the 2-line in 1914. Note the Belgian block flanking the rails, the San Francisco standard for track installation. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

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.

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Rise and Fall of United Railroads

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.

Rise and Fall of United Railroads
The amazing Ferry Terminal near the end of the United Railroads era. At the south terminal, 10, 11, 35 and 36 cars are awaiting their respective departure times.  The loop is full of cars while the North terminal has a 16 car and a Muni E car in the distance.  Click on the photo for a large version, then enlarge it and look around. You’ll see some people wearing masks for the 1918 flu pandemic, some great businesses and ads, and of course, streetcars bearing route numbers still used by Muni today. Is it any wonder that this terminal, with its ferryboats and streetcars was the second busiest intermodal passenger terminal in the world after Charing Cross Station in London?  Photo by John Henry Mentz, URR #U07146, Courtesy, Western Neighborhoods Project # wnp100.10021

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.

Rise and Fall of United Railroads
Here we see a typical street scene on the 5 McAllister line looking east from Webster in April 1920.  This line was roughly the same as today’s 5-Fulton trolley coach.  McAllister Street’s buildings in this area were 40-50 years old already and passing their prime.  Indeed, by this time McAllister Street was settling into its role as “Second-Hand-Row”, with its proliferation of thrift stores and the like lining the street from Octavia to Fillmore.  This was indeed “The City That Was” too, as everything in this image was destroyed for redevelopment in the late 1960s. Click to enlarge and look at the storefronts.  Photo by John Henry Mentz, URR, Courtesy SFMTA Archives # U06974

Everything Changes

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.

Rise and Fall of United Railroads
One of United Railroads’ worst defeats came in 1918 when Muni finally was able to have its rails reach from Castro to the Ferry, creating the famous four-track “Roar of the Four” on Market Street.   True city competition had arrived on Market, ending the transportation monopoly that URR and its predecessors had enjoyed on San Francisco’s main street for over a half a century.  Already crippled, URR would soon find its collapse, under the tragic circumstance of a horrible wreck in Visitacion Valley that year.  In this 1918 photo, only the J and K lines were in Muni service on Market Street, leaving those outside tracks looking pretty empty, a far cry from the conga line of continuous URR cars on the inside tracks. Click to enlarge and look around this intersection of Fourth Street, Market, Stockton, and Eddy, all of them served by streetcars then.  Courtesy Emiliano Echeverria / Randolph Brant Collection, Western Neighborhoods Project # wnp30.0143

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.

Rise and Fall of United Railroads
We’re looking north on Fillmore in 1920. That’s Sutter Street crossing just ahead. This was one of the busiest transfer points in the whole URR system.  Here, Line # 3 Sutter – Jackson cars turned off Sutter onto Fillmore and turned to Jackson Street where the line served residents of Pacific Heights.  Within a few Months URR was no more: Market Street Railway arose from the ashes of URR.  (And those decorative arches are no more either, of course, torn down in a World War II scrap metal drive.) Click to enlarge, and check out the Uber-predecessor jitney looking to steal streetcar riders at left, parked behind an electric delivery truck, both proving that old ideas can become new again. Photo by John Henry Mentz, URR, Courtesy SFMTA Archives # U06961

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.

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Streetcars to buses

See gallery at end of story 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… — Read More

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F-line 25th anniversary merch!

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

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