MUNICIPAL RAILWAY CENTENNIAL
1912 - 2012
Birth of the Municipal Railway—1912
In 1911 San Franciscans went to the polls and authorized, among other progressive measures, a municipally owned and operated transportation system, what would become known as the Municipal Railway of San Francisco. This was accomplished through approving a bond issue to buy the Geary Street cable car operation, a heavily traveled line. City voters had adopted a new city charter in 1900, and a provision of that charter committed the City to a policy of municipal ownership of public utilities. The Hetch Hetchy water project and O’Shaughnessy Dam would also be covered under that mandate.
However, it was a municipally operated public transit system that was a pressing concern for San Franciscans. For roughly forty years the City had seen privately-owned transit companies running horsecars, cable systems, and electric streetcars, all of them competing for a share of the patronage pie. Problems with declining revenues, rising costs of operation, and a hodgepodge of different gauge tracks and routes all led to a steady deterioration in the quality of service. City officials proposed consolidating all lines into one system with universal transfer privileges that would serve San Franciscans efficiently and smoothly.
During most of 1912 service on the Geary Street line was suspended while workmen replaced cables with overhead electric wires and the roadbed was reconstructed. The new municipally owned Geary Streetcar line opened on December 28, 1912, extending from 39th Avenue in the Richmond District to its terminus downtown at Kearny and Market Streets. A second bond issue for $3,500,000 was approved by voters in 1913, to extend the Geary line west to Ocean Beach, as well as improving service to the former marshlands bordering the Golden Gate, where the Panama-Pacific Exposition was under construction, slated to open in 1915.
The Early Says of The Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad
The nucleus of the new Municipal Railway was the cable car line that traveled on Geary Street from Kearny and Market Streets out to Central Avenue (Presidio) in the sparsely inhabited Western Addition of the 1880s. Here passengers transferred to a diminutive train pulled by a box-like steam locomotive called a steam dummy, or steam motor. This tiny train would proceed west along Point Lobos Avenue (Geary Boulevard). At 1st Avenue (Arguello Boulevard) the line turned south to D Street (Fulton), eventually terminating at a small depot at 5th Avenue and D Street. In this manner the Geary line served San Franciscans who wanted to travel out to the cemeteries then located in the outlying areas of the Western Addition. Its route also ran through the heavily developed area extending out from Market Street through the Union Square Area and into the newly growing district west of Van Ness Avenue. Development followed the line and San Franciscans moved westward to find more inexpensive housing, traveling downtown to work on the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad cable car line. It was such a popularly traveled line that in 1887 the Market Street Cable Railway assumed a controlling interest in the system, although it continued to operate under its original name.
1892—The System is Reborn
Total control of the G, P & O RR by the MSCRY was prevented by a pair of recalcitrant shareholders, Robert Morrow and Adam Grant. This however did not stop the MSCRY form embarking on a general upgrading of the system. The original plank conduit and the fabricated wood and angle iron yokes were replaced by similar members made of iron and steel, in addition to converting the line to standard gauge track and switching its grip from the Epplesheimer bottom grip (used on today’s surviving cable car lines) to the simpler Root side grip then employed by cable cars on the Market Street lines. To facilitate the use of the MSCRY’s large combination cable cars on Geary Street and allow them to operate to the 7th Avenue entrance to Golden Gate Park, three curves were installed at the intersection of 5th Avenue and D Street, thus connecting the Geary Street line with the new Market Street Railway Co.’s McAllister line and the entire Market Street Railway system.
A Tale of Two Car Barns
The powerhouse for the G, P & O RR was situated in a two-story ornate wooden building at the northwest corner of Geary and Buchanan Streets, an historic Japanese neighborhood and the present site of the Japanese Culture and Trade Center. At the time the system was rebuilt, a new two-story brick car house was constructed at the northwest corner of Geary and 1st Avenue. It still stands on the same corner, easily identifiable as a former carhouse by its large windows and clock on the front façade. During its construction it was believed that this imposing structure would include a new and perhaps larger powerhouse as well, but for some unknown reason the winding machinery would remain in its original location in an old largely vacant building. The new Building would continue to be a large under-used car barn with only a paint and blacksmith shop in it.
The Events of April 1906 and “The United” Steps In
At its Geary and Kearny Streets terminus downtown, the line had a large double track turntable, powered by a unique gearing arrangement, which apparently was very noisy, as M.H. DeYoung, who had an office in the abutting Chronicle building, sought to have it removed as a nuisance.
The Geary Street cable car survived the Great Earthquake and Fire in fairly good shape, with its powerhouse and carbarn located outside the zone destroyed by fire. It resumed service in a little over two months after April 18, 1906, in late June. Thirteen large combination cars were obtained from the United Railroads of San Francisco, having been declared surplus by the electrification of the former Market Street cable lines. These new cars replaced the old dummy and trailer arrangement, and the Geary Street line continued to provide reliable, yeoman service to San Franciscans. The company’s franchise was due to expire in 1912 however, and so this line was chosen to become the nucleus of the newly created Municipal Railway of San Francisco. The cable line would be abandoned though, and when service resumed under Muni auspices it would be as an electrified streetcar. The end of the line for the old G, P & O RR arrived on May 5, 1912.
The San Francisco Chronicle noted that another signpost of the old, pre-Quake City was passing with the disappearance of the Geary cable car.
Tonight the machinery will stop, the trundle of the cable in the Geary
Street slot will no longer be heard, and the blue cars of the “before
the disaster” type will join the memories of the days—
When Chinatown was greasy and Market street was wood,
When half the town was restaurants and all of them were good.
Municipal Railway Service Expands
With the expansion of the Geary Streetcar out to the beach, the Municipal Railway purchased the electrified Presidio & Ferries line, once a cable car route before the 1906 Quake, for service to the new Marina District, which was hosting the 1915 Fair. The “E” line provided service for fair-goers to the Scott Street Gate and was a great success. The Muni tried to buy out the United Railroads, which owned most of the other transit lines in the City, but failed in negotiations over the asking price. They also failed to come to an agreement over use of United Railroad’s tracks. Therefore, the Muni laid down their own streetcar tracks on heavily traveled Market Street, parallel to those of the United Railroads. Thus, for many years, the “Roar of the Four” was heard on busy Market Street, as Muni streetcars competed with first the URR, and later the successor company, the 3rd Market Street Railway.
As the western portions of the City grew, so did the municipal system. Service expanded outward to the outer Richmond and Sunset Districts over the next two decades. The Twin Peaks Tunnel was constructed in 1917 to facilitate streetcar traffic out to the western portions of the City, and reduce the time necessary to travel there from downtown. The Municipal Railway continued to expand in the first half of the 20th Century, taking over private lines by purchase or as franchises expired. In 1944, Municipal Railway bought out the struggling Market Street Railway and incorporated its lines into the Muni, including the Powell Street cable cars, two of the four remaining cable car lines in the City. In 1952, Muni purchased the California Street Cable Railroad’s California Street and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines, bringing the entire system of public transit in San Francisco under municipal control.