The people’s road: Muni 1912-1941

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
FIRST OF ITS KIND—A new era in American urban transit began on December 28, 1912, with the opening of the Municipal Railway of San Francisco on Geary Street, the first publicly owned big city line in the u.S. Some 50,000 San Franciscans turned out to cheer for their ‘Muni’, as it soon came to be called. SFMTA Archive

NOTE: This is the second installment of our history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, covering Muni’s first three decades of operation. Click here to learn how America’s first big city publicly-owned transit system came to be.

“The People’s Road.” The simple phrase Mayor James Rolph, Jr. used to describe the San Francisco Municipal Railway on its opening day carried more emotion and power than today’s observers might think. For while it’s hard to believe today, there was a time when every big city in America was served only by privately owned transit companies, focused first on profit. They were often owned by utility conglomerates that also supplied electricity. And, in some cases, they were corrupt, doing what they needed to—legal or not—to protect their government-issued franchises.

San Franciscans were the first to change that. It started with a new city charter in 1900, calling for eventual public ownership of all utilities, including transit.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Muni’s first operation, on Geary Street, carried four lines—the A, B, C, and D—for various distances. Here, a C-line car poses headed west at Geary and Divisadero in 1923. This historic part of Geary was cleared in the 1960s for “redevelopment”. Market Street Railway Archive

Making that dream come true was another matter. The city targeted the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad—a cable car line running from Kearny Street to the Richmond District—as the first municipal line, as its city-granted operating franchise was due to expire in 1903. But voters turned down a bond issue to convert it to streetcar operation, not once, but three times before finally passing it in 1909. One factor in the change of voters’ attitudes were the transgressions of privately owned United Railroads, which had been involved in bribery and a protracted strike during the preceding few years.

United Railroads predictably tried to block the city’s bond sale, but failed, and in June 1911 construction of overhead wires began above the Geary cable car line. The cable cars stopped running on May 5, 1912, and in an unbelievably fast conversion, the entire cable car trackage was ripped out and replaced by new streetcar track in time to inaugurate the new Municipal Railway on December 28, 1912. It was the very first publicly owned big city transit line in America.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
The Masonic Temple, then as now anchoring the foot of Van ness Avenue, looms over Muni streetcar no. 10, crossing Market onto 11th Street, bound for Army and Potrero on the H-line, in the late 1910s. Market Street Railway Archive

Fifty thousand San Franciscans joined to cheer on that day as ten new streetcars headed west out Geary from Kearny Street. Mayor Rolph told the throng, “It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money…we must extend it wherever possible until it becomes a great municipal system…a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.” The mayor then donned a motorman’s cap and personally took the controls of the first car, preserved Muni Car No. 1, and piloted it out Geary, jammed with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on

A fair brings focus

Mayor Rolph didn’t rest on his laurels. California had led America into the Progressive Era, a time of strong belief in government’s ability to better the lives of its citizens through public investment. Accordingly, the new ‘Muni’ railway expanded aggressively. The upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District provided a strong early focus, since the fair site was underserved by transit. 

By building several new lines and acquiring another, a network of Muni streetcars was in place in time to serve the world’s fair, with direct service from the Ferry Building, Downtown, North Beach and the Potrero District, with connections from other points around town. 

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
The City opened the Stockton Tunnel under Nob Hill in 1914, primarily for the streetcars of Muni’s original F-line, which was initially designed to connect the Union Square retail district to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at Harbor View (what’s now the Marina District). This was part of a frenzy of expansion after Muni opened its first lines on Geary. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Muni streetcars used the new Stockton Tunnel to connect Market Street and Union Square to Chinatown in a few minutes. They also served Fort Mason and the Presidio and reached all the way from the Ferry Building to Ocean Beach on the B-Geary line. Construction also began on a Muni streetcar line out Church Street, but United Railroads objected to sharing its 22-line tracks between Market and 16th on Church, delaying Muni service there until 1917.

But the biggest project was yet to come. Under the leadership of City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, the city dug the world’s longest streetcar tunnel, two and a quarter miles long, from Castro and Market Streets to an expanse of scrub and sand dunes west of Twin Peaks. The four million dollar project was funded by assessments on the largely empty property it would benefit.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
The east portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, shown here in 1935, was very simple in design to facilitate a future connection with a streetcar subway under Market Street, not built until the 1970s. The inside tracks belonged to Market Street Railway’s 8-line, which ended a block south on Castro and 18th, connecting to a cable car that climbed over to noe Valley. Market Street Railway Archive.

Shortly after the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened on February 3, 1918, homes began springing up in this barren district, suddenly accessible to downtown offices and stores. United Railroads was interested in using the new tunnel, too, but the Board of Supervisors, which then directly governed Muni, nixed the idea by a narrow margin. Muni eventually ran three streetcar lines through the Twin Peaks Tunnel. 

Because of San Francisco’s unusual downtown street grids, the spine of any transit system had to be Market Street. But United Railroads already had streetcar tracks on Market all the way from the Ferry Building to Castro and was not anxious to share them. So the city built its own tracks flanking those of the private company. The four sets of streetcar tracks on this broad boulevard were nearly unique in America, and the rumble of the heavy streetcars as they moved along Market gave birth to the term, ‘Roar of the Four’.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Muni’s first bus line crossed Golden Gate Park after streetcars were blocked from doing so. At Tenth and Fulton Streets with an A-line streetcar, 1918. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Buses make their debut

Before World War I, motorbuses were rare in America, though they already dominated transit systems in such cities as London (where the double-deckers of the day went to war in Europe carrying troops and medical supplies). Muni’s first bus line was, in a way, a sign of surrender. City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy planned to extend Muni’s first streetcar line from 10th and Fulton across Golden Gate Park to serve the southern Sunset District. But this mighty builder met his match in another titan of San Francisco municipal history, John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park, who said no to more overhead wires in the park (United Railroads’ 7-line tracks and wires already skirted the western edge of the park). After a bruising intramural battle, McLaren triumphed, leaving Muni to substitute a bus instead.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
After Muni’s L-Taraval streetcar line made it to Ocean Beach in 1923, the 2-Ocean bus line connected riders to the outer end of the B-Geary line on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Wide-open spaces at 48th and Taraval on May 15, 1925 with a White Motor 25-seat bus, probably newly delivered No. 012, not yet equipped with Muni logo. SFMTA Archive

Several other bus lines followed in less populated areas of the city, either to connect Muni streetcar lines or serve as extensions of them. Unlike the downtown streetcar lines, these lost money from the beginning due to low ridership. Some were subsidized, like a line that opened in 1926 from the Peninsula train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, to Fisherman’s Wharf along the Embarcadero. The port, then a state agency, underwrote the service to move workers along the busy docks when the business of the waterfront was shipping.

A streetcar city

But in the 1920s and 1930s, buses were a sideshow in San Francisco transit. Streetcars ruled the streets, especially Market Street, where a typical evening rush hour saw almost 900 streetcars traverse the triple loop to terminate at the Ferry Building, for a time the second busiest transit terminal in the world (after London’s Charing Cross). Car loaders from the competing operations, Muni, and the Market Street Railway Company (which had taken over United Railroads in 1921) called like carnival barkers to attract passengers, the Muni men often yelling “ALL the way out Mah-ket” in the San Francisco accent of the era.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
This detailed cartoon, by Al Tolf in the old San Francisco News, captures the detail of the incredible Ferry Building streetcar operation shared by Muni and Market Street Railway in its heyday. MSR Archive

In 1928, Muni opened another streetcar tunnel, under Buena Vista Park, connecting Market Street to Ocean Beach primarily via Judah Street. The Sunset Tunnel, like the Twin Peaks Tunnel, was built by assessing property owners along the route. The alignment was not a slam-dunk. Merchants near Castro and Market fought unsuccessfully to have the new tunnel branch off from the Twin Peaks Tunnel just inside its east portal, hoping to deposit lots more riders on their doorstep.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Given how many streetcars switched onto and off of Market, there are relatively few photos of accidents. This one, at Market and McAllister, was a doozy, with the switch onto the 5-line somehow throwing after the front wheels of the 7-Haight car had passed through, derailing the Market Street Railway car, blocking the Muni tracks and drawing a crowd. Philip Hoffman collection, MSR Archive

The opening of the Sunset Tunnel marked the last new Muni streetcar line for more than a half-century. The year before, San Franciscans defeated a proposed $4.6 million bond issue that would have built a new Muni streetcar line on Balboa Street (ultimately constructed by Market Street Railway in 1932), another line from Castro and Market along Eureka and Hoffman Streets to 29th Street (never built), and an extension of Church Street service to Geneva Avenue via San Jose Avenue (finally opened in 1991). Ominously, Muni’s finances were fraying as well.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
The Ferry Building’s transit heyday ended with the opening of the Bay Bridge and the subsequent completion of the bridge railway, carrying interurban trains from the East Bay to First and Mission Streets. Here, a Muni D-line streetcar and a Market Street Railway 5-line car cross Mission on First, about to climb the streetcar ramp to the terminal, which was demolished in the past year. Walter Vielbaum Collection.

The basic fare, five cents, hadn’t changed since 1912. With transfers, riders could cross the city on a nickel. But, of course, labor costs had increased, more so for the two-operator streetcars than the single-operator buses. If the line was busy enough, like Muni’s Geary lines, a profit could still be delivered. 

But along streetcar routes that ran through almost empty land, like the area that’s now Stonestown, San Francisco State, and Parkmerced, the red ink was already flowing. The same was true for most of the bus lines, even with their lower labor costs, because passengers were few, and the route often existed as a public service pushed by elected officials to serve constituents. By comparison, the private Market Street Railway had fixed routes with service levels dictated by demand, not political pressure.

Depression and deficits

The 1930s were difficult times for transit providers in San Francisco. The Depression cut work-related ridership and tight finances discouraged discretionary travel for many families. Muni ridership declined 19 percent between 1929 and 1933. Market Street Railway lost 22 percent of riders in the same period, even though it had regained the public confidence lost by its predecessor, United Railroads, and won a 25-year extension of its operating franchises in 1930, with the proviso that the City could buy them out by vote of the people at any time. (A 1925 buyout proposal had failed by a margin of 7-1 at the polls; the price was considered way too high. A similar attempt would fall flat in 1938.) 

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Click to enlarge.

Muni responded to the ridership drop with a raft of economy measures, including shutting down some bus lines, eliminating every other streetcar stop in outlying areas and encouraging motormen to reduce the amount of electricity used to operate their streetcars. Losses continued to mount, but with Muni now part of the city’s new Public Utilities Commission, which also included profit-making water and electricity operations, there was enough financial flexibility to retain the five-cent fare. 

Meanwhile, Market Street Railway, up against the wall financially, won an injunction against a city ordinance requiring two-person crews on streetcars and, starting in 1935, converted eighteen of its streetcar lines (though not its busy Market and Mission Street routes) to single-operator cars. Higher courts reinstated the two-person streetcar requirement in 1938, which coincided with a fare increase from five to seven cents by Market Street Railway. Even at the higher fare, the private company could not afford to staff vehicles with two operators on more lightly traveled routes, resulting in the conversion of some such lines to buses beginning in 1939.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Time was running out for the M-Ocean View streetcar when this shot was taken at St. Francis Circle in 1939. Within weeks, this shuttle line was discontinued, but the track and wires were left in place and service resumed in 1944, running all the way to the Ferry Building. Subsequent development along southern 19th Avenue have made the M one of Muni’s busiest lines today. San Francisco Public Library Photo.

Muni never tried to reduce streetcar crews to one person in that era, nor did they match Market Street Railway’s fare increase. Though a boost from five to seven cents seems trivial today, those two pennies represented a 40 percent fare increase, and it affected the transit riding choices of many families stretched to the limit by the Depression. For example, some riders would forsake the Market Street Railway cars on Sutter or Eddy for the Muni cars on Geary, even if it meant walking another block or so on each end of the trip.

Muni took its fare-based fight against Market Street Railway to new turf as well, taking over one of the company’s expired (and unprofitable) streetcar franchises on Howard Street and South Van Ness Avenue and replacing it with a new trolley coach line in 1941, which could legally be operated by a one-person crew. This new line pilfered some business from the two-person, seven-cent-fare streetcars Market Street Railway ran on Mission Street. (Market Street Railway had started its own trolley coach line in 1935, converting the 33-line streetcar that ran on 18th Street and over Twin Peaks to take advantage of the single-operator opportunity.)

First modern streetcars

Trolley coaches aside, Muni’s electric fleet was aging. The vast majority of its streetcars were at least a quarter century old by 1939. They shared a common boxy look with open platforms that made them drafty and cold when fog draped the city. Owners of many remaining private streetcar systems around the country had come together earlier in the decade to form a Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) that designed a sleek, streamlined streetcar they hoped would compete with buses and the increasingly popular private automobile, and, importantly, could be safely operated with a single-person crew, like a bus. The first PCC streetcars appeared in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Boston, and Pittsburgh in 1936; other cities soon followed, including Los Angeles and San Diego in California.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
Muni’s first modern streetcars, purchased in 1939, drew stares wherever they ran. Here, no. 1002 is on display at the original F-line terminal on Stockton at Market. The modern cars never actually ran in service on the old F-line, spending most of their time on the L-Taraval in the early years. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Muni, however, had little funding available and poor prospects of winning approval from voters for more. (A proposed $49 million bond issue to build streetcar subways under Market, Mission, and Geary Streets garnered only 41 percent of the vote in 1937, far short of the two-thirds requirement.) Muni scraped together enough for five modern streetcars, but the city charter prohibited payment of patent royalties, which covered several innovations in the control systems of PCCs. 

So, instead, Muni ordered PCC-style bodies with a mish-mash of different non-patented components (such as hand controllers instead of foot pedals) from different suppliers. While not authentic PCCs, these so-called ‘Magic Carpet’ streetcars, delivered in a stunning blue-and-gold livery instead of Muni’s traditional battleship gray, gave San Franciscans their first taste of modern streetcars, even though they were operated by two-person crews.

The people's road: Muni 1912-1941
When tough economic times hit in the 1930s, Market Street Railway tried converting many of its two-operator streetcar lines to a single operator. Trying to squeeze the private company and preserve jobs, the city promoted a ballot measure requiring two-operator streetcars “for all time.” The measure passed, but was finally repealed in 1954 after almost killing Muni’s surviving streetcar lines. John G. Graham Collection, San Francisco Public Library.

(Market Street Railway would have loved to acquire streamlined streetcars too, but only got as far as blueprints before economic realities set in. That dream finally came true in 2012, sort of, with the debut of rebuilt PCC 1011 for the F-line fleet in the streamlined Market Street Railway livery, a tribute to the private company.)

On the cusp of change

By late 1941, the stage was set for change in San Francisco transit. Muni had ordered more trolley coaches, intending to convert its Union Street streetcar line from the small two-operator ‘dinkies’ to the one-operator electric buses. Similarly seeking to cut labor and maintenance costs, Market Street Railway had converted its cable car line on Castro Street to buses and was planning to do the same with its Sacramento-Clay line. For the same reasons, motor buses had replaced most streetcars on Market Street Railway’s 19-Polk and the busy Third and Kearny lines. Talk of consolidating the two systems and modernizing them was on the rise again in the city by the Bay.

But on December 7, 1941, the world of San Francisco transit, like the world as a whole, was dramatically changed by an event halfway across the Pacific.

Coming soon: Muni at War

  • by Rick Laubscher
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Streetcars in the Sunset

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

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower.

The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically the largest district in the City, and, with almost 90,000 residents, the most populous as well. It was also the last major chunk of town to be developed. That’s where Muni, its former competitors, and streetcars come into the picture.

Sand dunes and scrub

When people thought of San Francisco in its first 75 years of existence, they thought almost exclusively of the bustling port, downtown, and posh residential districts, all near San Francisco Bay. This made sense, as our unmatched natural harbor generated much of the city’s commerce. The city effectively turned its back on the mighty Pacific Ocean, so much so that the 11 square miles on the city’s oceanfront was known as the “Outside Lands”.

Streetcars in the Sunset

In 1870, inspired by New York’s then-new Central Park, the city engaged William Hammond Hall to design a similarly grand public open space cutting east to west across the Outside Lands. A street grid for the western part of town had been laid out, still mostly on paper, and the city claimed the four-block-wide swath of land between D Street (now Fulton Street) and H Street (now Lincoln Way) for the park, starting at Stanyan Street and running westward to the breakers of the Pacific. Residential neighborhoods were rising east of Stanyan, accelerated by the advent of direct-to-downtown cable car service on Haight, Hayes, and McAllister Streets. in 1883.

That same year, 1883, Southern Pacific interests, including Leland Stanford, effectively extended their Haight Street cable line westward by opening the Park and Ocean Railroad, using a steam train, from the Stanyan Street turntable to the doorstep of the already popular Cliff House. The steam line followed H Street/Lincoln Way almost to Ocean Beach, then turned north through the western edge of Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond District, ending at B (Balboa) Street. The first weekend, 10,000 people reportedly rode that steam train to the beach. (San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya has a wonderful write up on the backstory of the Park & Ocean, linked here, but behind a paywall for some.)

From steam to electric

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

This steam route was electrified in 1898, and by 1902 was operated by conventional streetcars, though not really for residents — because there were hardly any. The northern end of Ocean Beach, where the Cliff House and Adolph Sutro’s grand bathing palace were located, were a prime Sunday recreation destination, soon attracting a fast growing amusement park called Chutes-at-the-Beach as well (renamed Playland in 1926). The Lincoln Way route to the beach was faster for San Franciscans from the Mission District and other working class neighborhoods south of Market and on Sundays, and United Railroads (which had consolidated several private companies in 1902) would add streetcars from other lines to the Haight/H Street line to handle the crowds.

Streetcars in the Sunset
Dumping “Street Sweepings” in Golden Gate Park, 1905

Having the streetcar tracks right up against the park had a side benefit. The city contracted with United Railroads to carry ‘street sweepings’ (horse manure) to fill in sandy gullies in outer Golden Gate Park. The company had special work cars with tilting bins that did the deed, using temporary trestles built from into the swales in the park. So in a way, streetcars built the Sunset’s park before they built the Sunset itself.

Carville

The few residents in the Sunset early in the 20th century were concentrated near Ocean Beach and generally lived what was called a Bohemian lifestyle. They turned discarded horsecars and cable cars into beach cottages.

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

In his book Carville-by-the-Sea, San Francisco historian Woody LaBounty says the retired railcars were used as “residences, vacation homes, clubhouses, restaurants, and even churches.” Famous people, including Jack London and poet George Sterling, visited. Gradually homes were built around the railcars and they disappeared from view, but LaBounty says at least one, a shingled box on Great Highway, has “a unique living room created from two cable cars while the bedroom is an intact horsecar.”

Streetcar startup service

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

Carville residents used the Lincoln Way streetcars, which came to be numbered the 7-Haight line, but there wasn’t much else in the way of residents out west then. A developer subsidized a United Railroads (URR) subsidiary called Parkside Transit Company, running a line on 20th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Taraval Street, then west on Taraval to 33rd Avenue and south to Sloat.

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

In 1916, URR used the Parkside Transit trackage to run a new line, the 17- Haight & Ingleside from the Ferry alongside the 7-Haight & Ocean line, then cutting across the Sunset on 20th almost all the way to Sloat, jogging over on Wawona to 19th Avenue (back then then a regular-width, sleepy street) to go around what became Stern Grove and reach Sloat. There, the 17-line met up with the 12-Mission & Ingleside line that came down Mission Street from the Ferries, then across Ocean Avenue. The 12 then ran in the middle of extra-wise Sloat Boulevard to the Beach. But for decades, these lines traversed what were truly the “Outside Lands”, with few houses to serve at and no ‘built-in’ attractions like the beach amusements in the Richmond District (the Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool at Ocean Beach and Sloat) didn’t open until the 1930s).

The 12 and 17 lines were roundabout routes because Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro separated the Sunset from the developed part of town. Coming in from Haight or Mission Streets was a slow ride and did not do much to attract people to live under the blanket of gray.

Muni burrows its way in

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

Enter the Municipal Railway, the City-owned streetcar system opened in 1912 on Geary Street. Real estate developers saw a potential gold mine in the Sunset, and encouraged politicians to extend fast Muni service to the district by means of tunnels and agreed to assess themselves to pay for it.

For ‘can-do’ City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, that encouragement fit right in with his own vision. In 18 months, he holed through one of the longest streetcar tunnels ever built, from Castro and Market under Twin Peaks to the middle of nowhere. When it opened on Feb. 3, 1918, with Mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph at the controls of gray-and-maroon car No. 117, 10,000 turned out to cheer. Here’s a comprehensive look at how the Twin Peaks Tunnel came to be.

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

New upscale neighborhoods soon appeared because of the fast tunnel service to the downtown business center. Forest Hill spread out around the station in the middle of the tunnel; indeed, real estate developers helped pay for the tunnel. Just beyond and south of the tunnel’s West Portal, the ritzy St. Francis Wood grew up.

But here, we concentrate on the development of the expansive sand dunes that formed the flat part of the Sunset District. So we won’t discuss two of the three lines that Muni established through the Twin Peaks Tunnel: the K-Ingleside, which shared tracks with URR’s 12-line on Junipero Serra and Ocean Avenue, and the M-Ocean View, which ran through sparsely settled land southeast of the tunnel, but later grew important with the development of Parkmerced, Stonestown, and San Francisco State University.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel line that made the big difference in developing the southern Sunset District (which many call the Parkside District, though its nowhere near Golden Gate Park) was the L-Taraval, which opened in 1919 as a shuttle from West Portal and was extended through the tunnel in 1923. The L was originally planned for Vicente Street, but instead shared the tracks of the URR’s Parkside line from 20th Avenue to 33rd Avenue. See our centennial celebration of the L-line here for more detail on the L.

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

Sunset Tunnel

Ten years after Twin Peaks, Muni tunneled again, this time under Buena Vista Park to create the N-Judah line from the Ferry Loop to a loop at Ocean Beach. The N made the parallel MSRy 7-line on Lincoln Way seem poky, what with all its stops on Haight while the N zipped through the tunnel.

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

The L, and N, running parallel ten blocks apart through the Sunset, facilitated a building boom in the 1930s, further fueled by low-interest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. Developers such as Henry Doelger and Standard Building Company (“Sunstream Homes”) came to dominate the district, focused on working-class families.

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

Consolidating Sunset service

Expansion of Muni to the Sunset was a deliberate act of public policy. The investment in tunnels was made knowing Muni’s private competitor couldn’t afford to match it, and would lose competitive advantage. The City wanted that: its goal was to municipalize–take over–all transit services, which it did by buying out the old Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and the Cal Cable Railway Co. in 1952.

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

Lack of money blunted Muni’s expansionist fervor, though. After the takeover of Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni could have rebuilt the worn-out track of MSRy’s 7, 12, and 17 lines and routed them through the Muni tunnels to speed those lines’ riders downtown. But voters had only funded purchase of the MSRy’s decrepit assets Instead, Muni ripped out the tracks and either discontinued parts of the routes or put buses on. Nor did Muni leverage its tunnel investment by adding additional lines on streets built extra wide to accommodate transit, such as Noriega.

Buses make their mark

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

However, Muni did take advantage of wide Sunset streets for bus service. Muni opened a pioneering bus on Noriega Street in 1941 that connected to the N at 22/23 Avenues and Judah. (This was extended downtown at the end of the 1940s to become the 71-Haight-Noriega with rush-hour extra service on the 16x-Noriega Express.) Another Haight Street bus, the 72-Haight-Sunset, ran down Sunset Boulevard (built in the 1930s as an automobile thoroughfare between 36th and 37th Streets) to Sloat. And after 19th Avenue was widened in 1937 to carry Highway 1 between the Peninsula and the Golden Gate Bridge (which forced the cutback of the southern terminal of the 17-line streetcar), Muni established its 28-line in 1949, still one of its most important crosstown lines, now running from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge and then all the way south to the Daly City BART Station.

Real estate was so cheap in the Sunset back in the day that Muni’s private competitor bought two entire blocks to serve its streetcar operation (even though it had few lines out there). It owned the block bounded by Lincoln Way and Irving Street, Funston and 14th Avenues, originally intending to build a massive car barn there. Tight finances led them to turn it into a “boneyard” for out of service cars. Streetcars in the SunsetStreetcars in the SunsetThe 1943 photo above shows a billboard at the boneyard promising to sell the land for housing if voters would approve purchase of Market Street Railway. (They finally did, the following year.) Of lesser value, but still important to Market Street Railway operations, was the block bounded by Pacheco, Ortega, and 21st and 22nd Avenues. The sand dunes there were “mined” by a conveyor belt on rails and loaded onto a differential dump car, which accessed the lot via a spur on Pacheco Street from the 17-line, delivering the sand to streetcar barns for use in helping stop streetcars when tracks were wet. Streetcars in the SunsetThis shot was taken in the late 1930s, after MSRy had already sold the strip at the right of the photo along 21st Avenue for new houses. Streetcars in the Sunset

Other Muni bus lines connecting the streetcar trunk lines included the 18-Sloat, which took over the outer 12-line when streetcars were abandoned there after World War II and then crossed the Sunset on 46th Avenue, and the 66-Quintara, a lightly ridden route that serves now as a feeder for the N, but formerly ran rush hour service downtown via Haight Street. Today, Quintara is mainly served by the 48-line, another “Bay to Breakers” route that runs from Third Street in Dogpatch over 24th Street, Portola Drive, West Portal, and Quintara, with the distinction of connecting all six Muni light rail lines. In the past decade, heavy demand on the N-line led Muni to add peak hour express bus service to the N between Ocean Beach and Downtown.

But for the narrowness of the Twin Peaks Tunnel and (to a lesser extent) the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, M, and N streetcar lines might have been converted to buses too, instead of being put into the Market Street Subway in the 1980s with modern light rail vehicles. By the 1950s, transit managers around America were bus-crazy, and operating costs of Muni’s old style streetcars, which required two operators by city ordinance, led Muni to cut streetcar service way back, even substituting a bus line called the 48- Ingleside-Taraval for K and L streetcars nights and Sundays in the early 1950s.

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

Muni Metro era

Fortunately, though, voters repealed the two-operator requirement for modern streetcars in 1954, enabling Muni to replace its original streetcar fleet by 1958 with the streamlined “PCC” (like the F-line’s colorful daily fleet). The 1962 passage of the BART bond issue included a new subway under Market for Muni. To complement it, Muni planned major upgrades on its streetcar lines in the Sunset for faster operation. The deteriorating N-Judah trackway was rebuilt as a raised right-of-way in the mid-1970s, but opposition from residents over more difficult access to their driveways kept the trackway from being extended to the beach or from being implemented on the L-line. Fitfully and over significant resident opposition, Muni has been able to make incremental operating improvements on the N and L lines since then.

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

The PCCs gave way to shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles as the J, K, L, M, and N lines migrated into the new Market Street subway by 1982.

Remnants of streetcars past

Today, by looking carefully, one can catch glimpses of the early transit investment that spurred the Sunset to life: the spur of the L-line on Taraval from 46th to the Beach, now the oldest (1923) surviving streetcar trackage in town; the wide median running the length of Sloat, put there to carry the old 12-line; and Railroad Trail behind the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, the route of the old steam trains, and later the 7-line streetcars, discontinued through the park in 1947. All part of the legacy of streetcars in the Sunset.

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

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

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Boat from “Beach to Beach” May 6

UPDATE, April 6 — This event SOLD OUT in record time. We’ll announce future excursions through a blog post here or in our monthly email newsletter. To subscribe to either or both, click here.
Boat from
We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary year of the Twin Peaks Tunnel with a special excursion along the streetcar lines it created. Though we’d love to go through the venerable tunnel itself, the overhead wires were converted years ago to allow only modern light rail vehicles. But we still found a way to make the trip unique: we’ll use Muni’s “convertible” — open-top 1934 Blackpool, England Car 228, known to all as the “boat tram”.

The boat will sail from Cameron Beach Yard at Geneva & San Jose Avenues, across from the Balboa Park BART station (and the J, K, and M line terminals) at 1:30 p.m. sharp on Sunday, May 6, for a two-hour jaunt along the M-Ocean View (opened in 1925), the L-Taraval (opened in 1919) to the Zoo terminal near Ocean Beach. There’ll be a photo opportunity at the Zoo. Then back on the L to West Portal, and along the first tunnel line, the K-Ingleside (opened in 1918) back to Cameron Beach.

So you can say you’re going from Beach to Beach and back to Beach when you take this special ride.

See more details here. Don’t miss this very special excursion.

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Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel February 3, 1918, brought mobs of San Franciscans way out west to St. Francis Circle, which was as far as the Muni K-line went then. (The crowd is listening to Mayor Rolph speak, out of frame to the right.) Soon, an agreement would be reached with United Railroads to extend the K over its Ocean Avenue tracks. SFMTA Archive

Though it sits on the western edge of North America, San Francisco had always looked eastward – to its bay, rather than the vast Pacific. Its magnificent protected harbor had driven the City’s economy, and its population, since the Gold Rush of 1849. Residential neighborhoods gradually fanned out from the downtown core in the decades that followed. With the jobs clustered around the waterfront, residential growth followed the early transit lines that connected homes to those jobs.

Improvements in transit technology helped. Horse-drawn streetcars were eclipsed by cable cars, twice as fast. By the end of the 1880s, cable cars ran from the Ferry Building halfway to the Pacific, even to the end of Market Street and then over the Castro hill into Noe Valley.

Then came the electric streetcar, twice as fast as the cables. By 1903, these high-technology vehicles ran all the way south to San Mateo, 20 miles from downtown. The 1906 earthquake and fire decimated most of the City’s remaining cable system along with much of its housing stock and business property. Still blessed by its harbor, the City quickly began rebuilding. But many San Franciscans had been forced to Oakland and other close-in East Bay cities by the shaking and flames. They found their new surroundings attractive, and fast and frequent ferry service coupled with streetcars and interurban trains that met the ferries on the Oakland side made their daily commute to the City faster than even some San Franciscans enjoyed—and at the same price: just a nickel!

Envisioning Speed

While the northeastern quarter of San Francisco was densely packed with residents by 1910, the western half of the city was still sparsely settled. Except for the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at Land’s End, the city’s seven-mile Pacific shoreline seemed deserted. An exception: a collection of discarded cable cars and horsecars festooned among the dunes along the beach south of Golden Gate Park. Pioneers turned them into modest homes and dubbed it Carville.

Streetcars had reached the beach by this time, but only where they could skirt the giant pair of hills that bisected the city – Twin Peaks. The 5 and 7 lines of United Railroads framed Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, and the 12-line ran down Mission from the Ferry, then out Ocean Avenue and Sloat Boulevard to the ocean. But commuting from the ends of those lines, especially the 12, often took longer than taking a ferry from Oakland, where the weather was better anyway.

But what if you could go under Twin Peaks with fast streetcars? An area of 16 square miles would then be within reasonable commute distance of downtown.

Tunnel Vision
Construction of the eastern end of the tunnel, starting at Castro Street, was cut-and-cover for several blocks. Early 1915. SFMTA Archive

The idea was attracting public debate at least as early as 1908, even before the bond issue that created Muni. When Muni opened its first lines, on Geary Street at the end of 1912, excitement about a Twin Peaks Tunnel grew, and the idea was at the core of a city transit plan prepared by famed consultant Bion J. Arnold in 1914 and strongly endorsed by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and powerful city engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy. What cinched the tunnel was the willingness of large property owners who would be served by the tunnel to pay for it. It ended up costing $4 million.

While several locations were initially considered for the east portal of the tunnel, the obvious choice was the end of Market Street, a wide boulevard that already had streetcar service by United Railroads as far as Castro Street, where the ground started climbing up to Twin Peaks. The City paid for the tunnel by assessing property owners who wanted it and would benefit from it. That included those looking to develop residential neighborhoods that came to be known as Forest Hill, West Portal, and St. Francis Wood.

Construction on the tunnel started at the end of 1914, clawing through the very soft ground near Castro, which caused the eastern end of the tunnel to be built with a “cut-and-cover” method. A small station was built at Eureka Street, just inside the Castro portal, even though there was a surface stop at Castro. O’Shaughnessy wanted to make it easy to connect the tunnel to a future streetcar subway under Market Street, which he was confident would have to be built soon. As this part of the tunnel was completed, with each track in its own concrete box, new streets were created above, including an extension of Market Street and a short street, Storrie, which the tunnel’s contractor named after himself.

Tunnel Vision
Forms for the concrete façade of the West Portal are already being erected on March 12, 1915, even though the digging of the tunnel had barely begun. Mule-drawn wagons hauled away the dirt; the sign promotes a real estate development. SFMTA Archive
Tunnel Vision
Real estate developers heavily promoted the new tunnel and its Forest Hill Station. Not surprising, especially since assessments on their land paid for the tunnel and station. MSR Archive

The bulk of the construction was deeper tunneling, with a single bore spanning both streetcar tracks. Just east of the tunnel’s midway point, a second station, named for the nearby lake, Laguna Honda, was installed at the deepest part of the tunnel. Elevators, manned by Muni operators, took riders to and from the platforms. Soon after the tunnel opened, a new neighborhood, Forest Hill, sprang up, and the station eventually took the neighborhood’s name.

The tunnel itself was completed in July 1917, though tracks and wires had not yet been installed. At a dedication ceremony on July 25, 1917, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph rather grandiloquently stated, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” (though streetcar service through the tunnel was still seven months away).

The Board of Supervisors fought about whether the private United Railroads, which already reached the West of Twin Peaks area by roundabout routes, would be allowed to share the tunnel with the Municipal Railway. Answer: no. Instead, Muni built its own set of tracks along Market Street from the Ferry to Castro Street, flanking the private company’s “inside tracks.” The sound of competing streetcars rumbling along Market side by side on the quartet of tracks became known as “the roar of the four”.

Tunnel Vision
Automobiles have made it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel on rare occasions (usually with an inebriated driver), but only once did autos parade through the tunnel legally. On June 15, 1917, an authorized motorcade climbed over Twin Peaks and entered the West Portal for a bumpy underground ride on a bed of temporary ties to reach Castro Street. Arthur Spaulding photo, SFMTA Archive

The 12,000-foot Twin Peaks Tunnel was the longest streetcar tunnel in North America until eclipsed in 1998 by the Robertson Tunnel in Portland. The original West Portal of the tunnel was monumental, dominating the new neighborhood shopping street named for it. That imposing façade was demolished in the 1970s to build a station inside, when the long-wished-for subway under Market Street was finally built and connected to the tunnel at Castro. (That connection wiped out the Eureka Street Station, whose ghostly platforms can still be seen by riders traversing the tunnel.)

Tunnel Vision
San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. pilots the first streetcar through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, February 3, 1918. Ten years had elapsed since the idea of a streetcar tunnel to open up the southwest quadrant of the city had started to gain traction. The tunnel itself took three years to build. SFMTA Archive

The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened for service February 3, 1918, with Mayor Rolph personally piloting the first Muni streetcar, No. 117, all the way through. A huge crowd turned out. The first line to serve it, the K-Ingleside, originally ran just a few blocks from West Portal to St. Francis Circle until an agreement was reached with United Railroads to share that company’s trackage on Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

The following year, the L-Taraval line opened as a shuttle from West Portal to 33rd Avenue. It reached Ocean Beach by 1923 and fostered growth for blocks in each direction through what became known as the Parkside neighborhood.

In 1925, another shuttle, the M-Ocean View, opened from West Portal to Broad and Plymouth Streets, running through open country in a narrow right-of-way bounded by empty residential lots, then following the alignment of 19th Avenue before turning east.

 
Tunnel Vision
The East Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel at Castro Street, August 19, 1935. The middle tracks that turn left onto Castro are for the 8-line of Muni’s competitor, Market Street Railway. SFMTA Archive

These same three lines run through the tunnel today, transitioning underground to the Market Street subway under Castro Street, but oh, how their surroundings have changed, especially the M’s.

While new homes sprang up along the routes of the K and L in a steady progression, the M saw much higher density growth – but not for decades. In fact, the M was so poorly patronized that streetcar service was suspended for five years starting in 1939.

Tunnel Vision
Forest Hill Station in the middle of the Twin Peaks Tunnel was austere to say the least, and always had a distinctive musty smell. Here, on February 26, 1948, “Magic Carpet” Car 1001, built in 1939 and outbound on the L-Taraval, passes vintage-1914 “Iron Monster” 129, inbound on the K-Ingleside. SFMTA Archive

The end of World War II brought many returning soldiers and sailors home to San Francisco and attracted many more who had passed through on their way to and from the war and liked the city they saw. The GI Bill gave benefits to these veterans including help buying homes and attending college. San Francisco State College mushroomed in size, growing a large campus on empty land along 19th Avenue at Holloway. Just south, a massive apartment complex named Parkmerced sprang up, and to the north, the City’s first large suburban-style shopping center, named Stonestown. The M-line served all these developments, and ridership steadily grew.

Tunnel Vision
M-Ocean view “Iron Monster” Car 150, built in 1914, meets L-Taraval “Magic Carpet” Car 1001 at West Portal, June 1, 1951. MSR Archive

Coulda, Shoulda

There have been thoughts about altering or extending the Twin Peaks Tunnel several times, going back to the earliest planning stages, when one proposal called for a branch heading northwest from a point between the Eureka Valley and Forest Hill stations, to serve the central Sunset District, perhaps along Noriega Street. The Sunset Tunnel, completed farther north under Buena Vista Park in 1928, addressed this need instead, with the N-Judah line.

A later proposal came much closer to reality. The 1962 BART bound issue included money to extend the Twin Peaks Tunnel under West Portal Avenue to St. Francis Circle. When building the tunnel, the City could have made West Portal Avenue as wide as it wanted, since there was nothing but sand where the tunnel daylighted. As the shopping district developed outside the tunnel’s western entrance, drivers parking their automobiles slowed down the streetcars along the street. But the merchants on West Portal Avenue wanted that easy automobile access and opposed the disruption to their businesses the underground subway construction would pose. Muni ended up “trading in” the money set aside for a West Portal Avenue extension of the tunnel to help finance an additional Muni Metro/BART station at Embarcadero.

Tunnel Vision
As part of the Market Street Subway project, the monumental West Portal was demolished to make way for a new station. In this August 21, 1978 view, PCC 1158 threads its way across the newly replaced switches for the L-Taraval line at Ulloa Street. MSR Archive
Tunnel Vision
The conversion of the Twin Peaks Tunnel into an extension of the Market Street Subway required work at both ends. While the new Castro Station was being built underground, Muni PCC streetcars had to access the tunnel via scary temporary trestles and tracks that wags dubbed the “Collingwood Elevated,” named for the adjacent street. August 22, 1973. SFMTA Archive

Second Century: More Important

If anything, the Twin Peaks Tunnel will become even more important in its second century. The connectivity provided by the M-line was a key factor in the city approving increased density for Parkmerced, where 5700 additional housing units are planned. Muni expects enough ridership growth there to be actively planning projects to speed up the M-line, including undergrounding the tracks under West Portal Avenue. The tab could reach $3 billion if all of the M-line from West Portal to Parkmerced were undergrounded. This, in turn, would allow a true subway-style operation of the M, with trains of up to four cars.

Tunnel Vision
West Portal Station, July 14, 2015. SFMTA Archive

The passage of time has proven the value of the vision its boosters had for the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

We thank the wonderful SFMTA Archive for the use of most photos in this story, and we invite you to visit their great gallery of Twin Peaks Tunnel photos.

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Magic Carpet Ride

San Francisco’s first streamlined streetcars arrived in 1939. The outsides looked like the modern “PCC” streetcars popping up in many North American cities at the time, but San Francisco’s were different inside, because the City Charter of the day forbade the payment of patent royalties for some reason, and many components of the PCC were patented. So Muni ordered five cars that looked like this, numbered 1001-1005, with a mix of trucks, motors, and other components. All, though, had a… — Read More

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