Vintage transit stories

San Francisco stories from every era and many neighborhoods

We’re regularly adding new stories here, and updating some of the older ones with more photos you can click to enlarge. So check back often.

Stories about how transit built individual neighborhoods in San Francisco:

  • Streetcars in the Sunset
    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… — Read More
  • The Castro’s rich transit history
    Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years. What the heck is a steam dummy? That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator.… — Read More
  • 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… — Read More
  • Positively (Twenty-)Fourth Street
    Okay, the headline reference is anachronistic, because this shot goes WAY back beyond Dylan. So evocative, though, we couldn’t resist the reference. Few are still around who remember streetcars on 24th Street, now the cultural center of the City’s Latino community and known to many as Calle 24. But here we are in 1938 (based on the streetcar and the automobile license plate) looking east on 24th at York Street, staring at a 35-Howard line streetcar. It has just descended… — Read More
  • Third Street Memories
    When Muni’s T-Third light rail line opened in 2007, we asked Market Street Railway’s historian, Phil Hoffman, to share his childhood memories of the old Third Street streetcar operation, along with some history of the lines that ran there. By Philip Hoffman (1930-2011) Far from busy Third Street and its two streetcar lines, my childhood was spent in a quiet section of Cow Hollow which was “Dinky territory”, with center-door Municipal Railway E-line cars and the Market Street Railway Co.… — Read More

Stories on the history of individual transit routes in San Francisco, especially ones you ride today:

  • What might have been: Geary
    Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it. Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least… — Read More
  • When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars
    In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars. Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was… — Read More
  • One “L” of a Streetcar Line
    On April 12, 1919, the first L-Taraval streetcar hit the rails, overcoming obstacles to begin a century of service that continues today. The Twin Peaks Tunnel had opened fourteen months before, bringing fast streetcar service from downtown to the nearly empty southwestern quadrant of the city. Initially, there was just one line, the K, but property owners in the areas above and west of the tunnel, who had paid for its construction, expected – and demanded – more. So, Muni… — Read More
  • 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… — Read More
  • Third Street Memories
    When Muni’s T-Third light rail line opened in 2007, we asked Market Street Railway’s historian, Phil Hoffman, to share his childhood memories of the old Third Street streetcar operation, along with some history of the lines that ran there. By Philip Hoffman (1930-2011) Far from busy Third Street and its two streetcar lines, my childhood was spent in a quiet section of Cow Hollow which was “Dinky territory”, with center-door Municipal Railway E-line cars and the Market Street Railway Co.… — Read More
  • What Might Have Been
    In our last post, we looked back on the last days of streetcar service on the B-Geary line. In this post — an updated version of a story that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track — we take a broader look back at the demise of streetcars in San Francisco in general, including the original F-line. Van Ness Avenue hosted Muni streetcars until 1950. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice collection. It was all a… — Read More
  • What Might Have Been: Geary
    A recent post over at the Transbay Blog on the old B-Geary streetcar line inspired us to republish and update the following story from our Fall 2002 member newsletter, Inside Track. In a previous issue, we had looked at the decisions made — and not made — that doomed streetcar service on the original F-line (today’s 30-Stockton bus) and the old H-line (on Van Ness and Potrero Avenues). Their demise at the beginning of the 1950s left San Francisco with… — Read More
  • How the F-Market & Wharves Line Came to Be
    June 27, 1983, then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein had just finished running car No. 1 from Castro to the Transbay Terminal, officially opening the first San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival. The Mayor is pictured with Muni’s Reno Bini, Chamber of Commerce Chairman Gordon Swanson and Festival Project Manager Rick Laubscher. If you’re of a certain age, it was like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie. Or, if you’re of a certain younger age, it was like Disney’s High School Musical.… — Read More

Features about events and personalities in San Francisco transit history:

  • What might have been
    Streetcars survived in San Francisco when they died out in most American cities after World War II. Here’s why we have the rail service we do today, and how we might have saved more.
  • Ding Dong Daddy: The real story
    One of San Francisco’s most famous characters in the 1940s was a streetcar conductor with more than a dozen wives. This is the real story of Francis Van Wie.
  • Two transit pandemics
    Comparing the impact on San Francisco transit of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Jubilation — and riots — on Market Street 75 years ago
    The celebrations marking the end of World War II in San Francisco had a very dark side that received little media attention at the time. A Muni inspector was killed and dozens of streetcars damaged by rioters.
  • Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”
    We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to… — Read More
  • When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars
    In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars. Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was… — Read More
  • “My City, My Game”
    By doing a little sleuthing of our own, we can extract some valuable clues into how San Franciscans like Hammett — and his creation Spade — relied on the rails to get around our town in the 1920s.
  • Vehicles of Recovery
    San Francisco on the brink of disaster On April 17, 1906, San Francisco was the West’s grandest metropolis. Four companies provided the city’s street railway services. San Francisco’s largest transit provider — with 139 route miles out of the city’s total of 154 — and its only city-wide street railway system was United Railroads of San Francisco (URR).
  • The Octopus Moves the Mail
    Editor’s note: Our organization’s namesake, the Market Street Railway Co. (of 1893), consisted of the Market Street Cable Railway and many smaller competitors that its Southern Pacific owners had voraciously gobbled up. This and other business tactics won it the unflattering description of ‘Octopus’ in a San Francisco Chronicle article of February 19, 1895. Six years later, Frank Norris took the term ‘Octopus’ as the title of his classic muckraking book about the Southern Pacific Railroad. An easy transference in… — Read More
  • Ding Dong Daddy: The real story
    The scene January, 1945—newsboys at the Ferry Loop screaming headlines about the Battle of the Bulge and MacArthur closing in on Manila, their voices competing with screeching streetcar wheels and boat whistles. Open the paper—San Franciscans on casualty lists every day. Turn to the ads—the hot movie is Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland singing “Clang clang clang went the trolley.” An instant hit. But many newspaper readers were engulfed in a different part of the paper—the local… — Read More
  • “Fair, Please”: Streetcars to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition
    During the first weeks of 1915, Pancho Villa proclaimed himself in charge of Mexico. Germany began open submarine warfare in the Atlantic as the Lusitania prepared to sail to England. California’s only active volcano, Mount Lassen, was erupting–spewing ash for hours at a time. And as bad weather pelted San Francisco, workmen toiled ’round-the-clock on the city’s northern shoreline to complete preparations for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Initially conceived in 1904 to occur upon the completion of the Panama… — Read More
  • A Streetcar Named Undesirable
    Editor’s Note: This article, by Marshall Kilduff, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 15, 1979. Maurice Klebolt went on to become a board member of Market Street Railway and one of the forces behind the Historic Trolley Festivals from 1983-87 that led to the permanent F-Market and Wharves vintage streetcar line. A German streetcar was trundled on the back of a flatbed truck to the front steps of City Hall yesterday where city officials fashioned a reluctant welcome… — Read More