Van Ness and McAllister, Nov. 1, 1917

This photo from the SFMTA Archive was taken exactly 100 years before the date of this post, on November 1, 1917. No streetcars in the picture, but we do see important infrastructure: the poles that hold up the wires that bring power to the streetcars.

We’re at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, looking northeast across Van Ness. City Hall, then new, sits on the southeast corner of this intersection. Across Van Ness, we see an apartment building with ground floor retail that’s still there. If you click the photo, at left center at the corner of Redwood Street, you can see a shop offering vulcanizing services (presumably for tires). Van Ness is so wide, and so devoid of traffic, that automobile drivers felt free to park perpendicular to the curb — or parallel, whatever they wanted.

On the left, we see a metal pole with a metal cap belonging to the privately owned United Railroads, used for the 5-McAllister line that ran essentially the same route as today’s 5-Fulton bus.

On the right, a concrete pole belonging to the Municipal Railway, then less than five years old. Van Ness, one of the city’s widest streets, hosted the H-Potrero streetcar line on this stretch of the street (replaced in 1949 by the 47-Potrero trolley bus).

Muni generally preferred concrete poles for their streetcar lines. They used streetcar rail for reinforcement. The poles on Van Ness were installed in 1914 without streetlights. Those were bolted on in the late 1930s, as Van Ness was readied for an increased flow of automobile traffic from the new Golden Gate Bridge.

Bringing the light pole story up to date, the metal poles came to Muni with the rest of the private company’s infrastructure in 1944, when the city took over. The metal poles on lines that were converted to trolley coach, many are still in use.

As for the concrete poles, they have badly deteriorated, as would be expected after a century. In planning the new Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, SFMTA (Muni’s parent) proposed replacing the old concrete poles with modernistic metal ones. They felt this was necessary not only because many of the old poles were structurally unsound, but also because the poles needed to be taller because the trolley bus wires were being moved from the curb lanes to the center right-of-way.

But at the last minute, after repeated public outreach and hearings, a group of influential people in Pacific Heights demanded that the old poles and lights be retained or replicated. After negotiations, they settled for getting rid of the modern lights and substituting some old-timey looking lights that have no history in San Francisco.

But hey, those concrete poles lasted a century. The one is this picture is still there (although the metal pole on McAllister has been replaced, probably when the State of California was built a quarter-century ago on the spot occupied by the bar in the photo offering Golden State Beer for a nickel).

And oh, by the way, traffic on much of Van Ness was diverted today to clear two lanes for sewer replacement, one component of the BRT project.

Thanks as always to SFMTA for preserving the photographic history of transit in San Francisco.

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Van Ness H-line Poles Becoming History

H-2e car 131 painted Coast Guard on Van Ness at Eddy  1948   copy

One of the last significant remnants of Muni’s “H” streetcar line appears doomed. The concrete light standards along Van Ness Avenue, which also held up the H-line’s overhead wires (shown above, left at Eddy Street in 1948) have been cleared for replacement after a ruling by the city’s Board of Appeals validated SFMTA’s plans for the new Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project.

The concrete poles, with ornate streetlights attached, were installed with the original H-line tracks in 1914. The H-line was part of a flurry of Muni construction aimed at linking city neighborhoods to the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at Harbor View, now the Marina District.

We have an extensive exhibit about transit to the 1915 Fair currently running at our free San Francisco Railway Museum (but it will close soon, so don’t delay getting down there).

The H originally ran up Potrero Avenue from Army Street (now Cesar Chavez St.) across the eastern edge of the Mission District, then via Division and 11th Streets to reach Market, where it jogged onto Van Ness. The H turned west at Bay Street and ran through Fort Mason to reach what was the eastern edge of the 1915 Fair at Laguna Street. A passenger waiting shelter (below) still stands in Fort Mason along the old H-line route, across from what is now the headquarters of the Golden Gate National Recreation area. (Thanks to Emiliano Echeverria for sharing both photos.)

H-1d car 88 at Ft Mason  1947  RMcV small

Market Street Railway is working to return vintage streetcar service to Fort Mason, using a historic railroad tunnel under Fort Mason (also built for the 1915 Fair) to connect to the F-line tracks at Fisherman’s Wharf. (That project has cleared the environmental process, but is hung up on unrelated issues that we will discuss here soon.)

The concrete poles still run the length of Van Ness, and since 1950 have been used to hold up wires for the trolley bus lines that replaced the H.

Those who appealed the approval of the removal also objected to the removal of trees in the median of Van Ness, which was created when the streetcar tracks were taken out. The new BRT lanes will go in the middle of the street, right where the streetcar tracks once were. They’ll be trolley buses, so new poles will replace the old ones.

Preservationists urged that the poles be rehabilitated and retained for their historical value, but SFMTA successfully argued that that was not feasible for century-old concrete poles. However, four of the original poles are to be retained — two in front of City Hall, two across the street in front of the War Memorial, with a plaque to interpret their historic significance. We don’t know whether they’ll be expected to still hold up wires, or whether they’ll be allowed to rest and just be ornamental after a century of work.


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