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San Francisco Tunnel History and Miscellany

by Susan Saperstein

San Francisco is a city of hills (over 50 by one San Francisco Chronicle count), and consequent-ly a city with many tunnels.

There is a tunnel running from Aquatic Park under the Fort Mason bluff, built in 1914 and now abandoned, which was constructed to haul materials for building the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). The tracks ran from South of Market along the Embarcadero into the Presidio for the State Belt Line Railroad. The tunnel was closed in the 1970s.

PPIE construction began in 1912 in an area called Harbor View, known today as the Marina District. Around this time the Civic League of the Improvement Clubs of San Francisco created a Tunnel Committee to promote tunnel building around the city. The fair would be located far from downtown hotels and many residential neighborhoods. In an era when the masses did not have cars, public transportation routes were needed to make the fair successful. The committee distributed a pamphlet to gather support and, more importantly, funds to build five tunnels: Twin Peaks, Stockton, Broadway, Fillmore, and Fort Mason. According to their promotional material, the Fort Mason Tunnel was considered the most important in order to get the fair construction started. The other tunnels were for the needed transportation routes for streetcars to the fair, and to open up real estate in outlying areas of the city. The Stockton Tunnel under Nob Hill was completed in December 1914; Twin Peaks Tunnel was completed after the fair, in 1918; the Broadway Tunnel was not built until 1952; and the Fillmore Tunnel, which was to run under Fillmore Street from Sutter to Filbert, was never built.

In their pamphlet, the Tunnel Committee declared that the opening of the Panama Canal "means a tide of immigration" to the city, and building more housing would be necessary. "Men of San Francisco, Why Wait for the City of the South to show the way?" read their appeal, referring to the Los Angeles Third Street Tunnel opened in that city's downtown area in 1903. The pamphlet promised that the Fort Mason Tunnel would pay for itself in two years because the military agreed to pay a $10 toll per rail car for freight going to Fort Mason. The Committee also noted that real estate values in the city would increase up to 1000 percent by having the tunnels create routes to other areas of San Francisco. The rail track on the Embarcadero was built by the State of California in 1889. Waterfront land at that time was owned by the state and not the city, because when the first survey of San Francisco was created, this land did not exist––it was later created by landfill.

Originally, trains from around the Bay connected to the State Belt Line tracks using ferry slips on the Embarcadero. There was a ferry slip at Fisherman's Wharf, and the PPIE had its own ferry slip at the fair location. The State Belt Line Rail connected through the Fort Mason tunnel to the PPIE's Exposition Railway, with 11.5 miles of track on the site for building. It was not until 1913 that the train's rail lines connected to the Southern Pacific tracks at Townsend and Berry Streets. Around this time the railroad also built a roundhouse at Lombard and Embarcadero for train servicing. This semicircular building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is used today as an office building.

After the fair, the Army took possession of the tracks and extended them to Crissy Field. During World War II it moved material and soldiers though the tunnel to Fort Mason and the Presidio. As shipping operations moved out of San Francisco and across to Oakland, San Francisco's railroad business diminished and the tracks north of the Ferry Building were not used. The State Belt Line Railroad stopped operations on the waterfront in the 1990s The Fort Mason Tunnel, 1500 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 22 feet high, is presently boarded up on both sides. The City is currently considering reopening the tunnel for streetcar service to Fort Mason by a new route called the E (Embarcadero) Line. The plan is now making the governmental rounds of environmental analysis, which will lead to public hearings and then funding proposals. This may take several years.


Reference material in the SFPL History Center: Panama Pacific International Exposition, Building an Exposition Tunnels, Gateway to the Greater San Francisco.

Thanks to City Guide Tam Tran for information on current environmental analysis plans for the tunnel

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