Second of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
(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.
- by Rick Laubscher
Installments in this series: