Watch out for the wet

Streetcars and water don’t mix well. Electric motors don’t work when they’re soaked. Water coming down from the heavens – rain – no worries. But water coming up from beneath – flooded streets – not good.

Watch out for the wet
Looking northeast over the intersection of Market and Church Streets, around 1940. Safeway and its parking lot now occupy the spot where the buildings, center, were. The US Mint looms in the background. Randolph Brandt photo, James Adler Collection, MSR Archive

For streetcars, the most famous water trap, historically, has been the intersection of Market and Church Streets. It sits in a natural trough, and has flooded numerous times over the decades, stopping streetcar service, uh, dead in its tracks when it happened. The City has made a number of attempts to improve drainage, including when the Muni Metro subway and Church Street Station were constructed beneath the intersection in the 1970s, but even so, Church Street Station today remains the biggest water-intrusion headache for Muni during big storms.

Since electric streetcars came into use starting in the late 1880s, there have been numerous instances of unexpected extreme flooding that have wreaked havoc with these otherwise sturdy transit vehicles, most recently in 2005, when a levee failure during Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans’ fleet of 24 replica streetcars serving Canal Street, requiring total replacement of their propulsion systems. (Fortunately, New Orleans historic 1923 fleet of Perley Thomas streetcars, part of the National Historic Landmark St. Charles line, stayed dry on higher ground.)

Watch out for the wet
United Railroads electric streetcars 770 (left) and 552 (both identical to preserved Car 578, the oldest streetcar in Muni’s heritage fleet) take a dip on 16th Street between Folsom and Harrison, shortly before the 1906 earthquake and fire. This line was numbered as the 22-Fillmore in the early 1910s and still runs past this spot today, albeit with trolley buses. Seals Stadium would later rise at the top of the hill in the background. Philip Hoffman collection, MSR Archive

Another San Francisco area under flood threat in big storms was (and still is) the swale along the former course of Mission Creek, twisting through the Mission District before draining into what’s now China Basin. The was covered and houses built on it by the 1870s. These houses were among those most damaged by the 1906 earthquake when the filled ground beneath shifted. As the photo above shows, standing water could disrupt streetcar operations as well.

Watch out for the wet
Muni Metro Subway construction cave-in and flooding on Market Street just west of Van Ness Avenue, March 12, 1971. Car 1039, first in the queue, is one of a half-dozen PCCs that Market Street Railway reacquired for Muni decades after they were sold off. Those streetcars are now stored for future possible restoration and return to service if the need arises. SFMTA Archive

San Francisco has learned lessons from past floods, and has invested billions to handle rain runoff better. Unlike most cities, San Francisco does not have separate pipes for sewers and for rain runoff from streets. Until the late 20th century, rain from big storms, added to the usual sewer flow, would overwhelm wastewater treatment plants, leading to discharges of raw sewage mixed with rainwater into the Bay or ocean. Now, huge underground holding tanks, including beneath Great Highway, store excess storm runoff until it can be processed. But deluges of historic proportions still test the limits of what San Francisco can do to hold back the waters, from streetcars and everything else that uses our streets.

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