San Francisco Transit History
by Phil Hoffman
Of all the cities in the United States (if not the world), San Francisco probably has one of the most interesting transit histories. Starting in 1873 when a hilly horse car problem was solved by the invention of the cable car by Andrew Hallidie, one no longer had to walk up Nob Hill or Russian Hill. The first electric streetcar ran in 1892. Streetcars were replacing all non-hilly cable lines when the 1906 earthquake struck. In one fell swoop all five Market Street lines and Sutter, Polk-Larkin and Union cables were electrified.
The N Judah line streetcar in 1957
The worst streetcar strike in the United States hit in 1907. It involved San Francisco’s United Railroads, lasted four months and resulted in three deaths and 30 injuries. The URR won, but many of the discharged strikers joined the infant San Francisco Municipal Railway in 1912. (Muni’s first car – #1 – is the grand dame of the historic fleet.) With the Muni up and running, the URR, with many of its franchises due to expire, was no longer interested in opening new lines.
The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in the future Marina District required new lines and Muni was happy to oblige. New lines (D, F and H) opened on Van Ness, Chestnut and through the Stockton Tunnel.
In 1918 Muni made the future Sunset District and West Portal Avenue more accessible by opening the Twin Peaks Tunnel and four-tracking Market Street (“the Roar of the Four”) from Castro to the Ferry. A shorter Sunset Tunnel for the N-line opened in 1928 giving San Francisco three streetcar tunnels. Muni purchased the much larger Market Street Railway (URR’s successor) in 1944. A completely unified San Francisco transit system was achieved with the purchase of the California Street Cable Railroad in 1951.
The streetcar in the U.S. rapidly disappeared in the post-war years as many street-widening and freeway projects had no plans for rail transit — the jumbo GM diesel bus was the solution. By 1964 San Francisco was the only city west of El Paso that still had streetcars.
When BART was built under Market Street, a sub-surface level was set aside for Muni Metro above BART. The N-line went Metro in 1980, and all five lines were running in the Metro by 1982. While the cable cars were shut down for overhaul in 1983, it was decided to use the unused Market Street surface tracks as the nucleus of a historic trolley line running from Castro down Market to the Ferry, and then to the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf. Year-round service on the F-line began in 1995 from Castro to the Transbay Terminal. In 2000 the line was extended down Market to the Embarcadero and along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The F-line has over 20 vintage streetcars honoring many cities including eleven Milano 1928 Peter Witts and three Muni “Iron Monsters” It also has cars from Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Russia and Portugal. Muni also runs 150 light rail vehicles on six lines, 40 cable cars, and has the largest trolley coach system in the United States.Guest contributor Phil Hoffman is a member of the Market Street Railway.
Photos, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
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