Vintage transit stories

San Francisco stories from every era and many neighborhoods, including transit companies, routes, controversies, and personalities who defined our transportation history

We’re regularly adding new stories here, 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.

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  • 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.

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  • Tunnel Vision

    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.

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  • Positively (Twenty-)Fourth Street

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  • 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.

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Stories on the history of individual transit routes in San Francisco:

  • Forty frustrating years underground

    The idea of a transit subway under Market Street goes back to the first years of the 20th century, but it took more than 70 fitful years to become reality. That’s a complex and fascinating story we tell in this companion post, which explains the compromises that harmed Muni’s subway operation from the get-go.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • Tunnel Vision

    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.

    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.

    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.

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  • 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 just seven streetcar lines, down from a high of around 50. And the clock was ticking for two of them…

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  • 1980s Trolley Festivals paved way for F-Market streetcar line

    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. You know, “Let’s get the kids together and put on a show”—the innocence of youth not understanding the challenges that could get in the way, but cheerfully conquering those that did.

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Features about events, issues, places, and personalities in San Francisco transit history:

  • Coming to town

    San Francisco has been a magnet for travelers for 170 years. The beauty of its setting on one of the world’s great natural harbors is unquestioned. Yet San Francisco’s front door once was ugly.

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  • Memories of the Market Street Railway

    By Bruce L. Battles, Market Street Railway Member

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  • Cars of many colors

    Visitors to San Francisco today frequently comment on the multi-colored fleet of streetcars on Market Street. But it’s not the first time that’s happened.

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  • Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012

    Final installment of our six part series on Muni’s birth and first century.

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  • Modernizing Muni: 1963-1982

    Fifth of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century

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  • Rails to rubber: Muni 1946-1962

    Fourth of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century

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  • Muni at war: crushloads & consolidation 1941-1945

    Third of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century

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  • The people’s road: Muni 1912-1941

    Second of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century

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  • How Muni was born: 1900-1912

    First of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century

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  • Forty frustrating years underground

    The idea of a transit subway under Market Street goes back to the first years of the 20th century, but it took more than 70 fitful years to become reality. That’s a complex and fascinating story we tell in this companion post, which explains the compromises that harmed Muni’s subway operation from the get-go.

    Read More…
  • Market Street subway dreams

    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.

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  • Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story

    The revered poet and novelist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) has attracted growing attention for a job she briefly held as a teenager: streetcar conductor in San Francisco during World War II. Much of what gets tossed about in social media is untrue or only partly true. Here, we turn to her own words from her books and interviews to provide the fullest story possible and correct common misperceptions.

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  • Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

    There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

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  • Take a 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” with experts

    April 18, 1906, a date forever seared into San Francisco history. The cataclysmic earthquake and fire divided eras and impressed unforgettable memories on all who experienced it.

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  • Play Ball…the Muni way!

    Today is Opening Day at home for the San Francisco Giants, the first time in 18 months they’ll play in front of fans at Oracle Park. Often, sporting events like this feature a live band, though we’re probably not far enough in our reopening for that. But we can look back to such days, not just for the Giants, but for another San Francisco institution: Muni.

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  • Renting the street

    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. 

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  • St. Patrick’s Day, 1906

    Workers of Irish extraction played a major part in laying and maintaining track for United Railroads in 1906. Here’s a crew at work on tracks along Fourth Street, looking north from Bryant. It’s dated March 17, 1906, one month and one day before the earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco.

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  • Powerhouse goes to the dogs (and cats)!

    Another artifact of San Francisco’s transit history has gained new life for a worthy cause. The Market Street Railway Company powerhouse at Bryant and Alameda Streets in the Mission District, build in 1893 and expanded in 1902, opened on March 8 as the city’s new Animal Care & Control Center.

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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.

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  • End of (last original) track

    When street railway companies laid tracks in San Francisco streets, they were responsible for maintaining the area around the tracks. That’s part of the reason it was customary to lay a row of basalt pieces right next to the outer rails. The dense, heavy, gray stone is correctly called Belgian block or sett though often mistakenly called cobblestone. (Cobbles are more egg shaped.)

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  • Streetcars to buses

    See gallery at end of story

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  • Market Street 1932: Wowza!

    Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes.

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  • What might have been

    Editor’s note: A version of this story, by the late Cameron Beach and MSR President Rick Laubscher, appeared in a 2003 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.

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  • Ding Dong Daddy: The real story

    By Grant Ute, Friends of SF Railway Archive

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  • Two transit pandemics

    The Bay Area’s transit agencies are slowly restoring service after deep cutbacks triggered by the shelter-in-place orders imposed in mid-March. Muni, for example, dropped from about 80 lines to just seven, with all rail service, including the historic streetcars and cable cars, suspended. San Franciscans have been ordered to wear masks whenever they’re in public places. (We have history-inspired masks at our store.)

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  • Jubilation — and riots — on Market Street 75 years ago

    When President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, ending World War II, celebrations erupted around the world. As the primary port of embarkation for US troops headed to the Pacific, San Francisco’s revelry was especially intense.

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  • 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 get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)

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  • 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.

    Read More…
  • “My City, My Game”

    “This is my city and my game…You birds’ll be in New York or Constantinople or some place else. I’m in business here.” – Sam Spade

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  • The Octopus Moves the Mail

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  • “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 Canal, this event had become a celebration of the rebirth of San Francisco following the devastating Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Millions of dollars went to develop the site and to promote San Francisco as the host city. When San Francisco was selected for the Fair over New Orleans, President William Howard Taft stated, “San Francisco knows how.”

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  • 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.

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Histories of San Francisco’s Transit Companies: