Streetwise - Ghost Streetcar Lines

by Frank Dunnigan
September 2016

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Every time that I walk or drive down certain streets in the Richmond and Sunset Districts, I’m reminded of the ghost streetcars lines that once criss-crossed the entire western part of San Francisco. Some lines just faded away, others were planned but never built, and many disappeared following the 1944 merger of MUNI and the private Market Street Railway.

Also, in the post-World War II years, miles of tracks were torn up and replaced with bus lines in many cities in the United States. Although several of these San Francisco routes were gone before my time, it remains easy enough to envision them today if you know where to look.

First electric street car as the Park & Ocean former steam engine line, 49th Ave. (now La Playa) circa 1900, circa 1900 - (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

One of the first transit lines built in the Sunset District was established in 1883 by the old Park and Ocean Railroad. That company built a steam railroad from Haight and Stanyan Streets, which connected with the Haight Street cable car line that transported passengers from the Ferry Building, up Market Street, and out Haight to the end of its westernmost block where it intersects with Stanyan at Golden Gate Park. From there, the Park and Ocean line proceeded along Lincoln Way (then called H Street) all the way to the Pacific Ocean before entering Golden Gate Park and continuing to Balboa (then B) Street. Prior to 1906, the line was electrified to accommodate conventional streetcars, and it eventually became one of the many public transit lines serving “Chutes at the Beach,” later known as Playland.

Extra-wide streets are often a clue that a streetcar line once existed or was planned for a particular location.

Grading for Parkside Transit Company streetcar line on 20th Avenue about 1906., 1906 - From a brochure courtesy of Pat Buscovich

For example, 20th Avenue, from Lincoln Way to Wawona Street, was deliberately built wider than standard because it was home to the #17 line of the Market Street Railway from 1916 to 1945. My grandmother, who lived for decades on 21st Avenue near Rivera Street, only had to walk a flat half-block to the corner of 21st and Rivera and then another short, flat block to 20th Avenue to reach the #17 streetcar which whisked her off to her favorite destination, Market Street and the Emporium, via a circuitous route over 20th Avenue and then along Lincoln Way, Frederick, Stanyan, Haight, and onto Market Street. Returning home with bundles required no uphill climb from MUNI’s L-Taraval line for Grandma—just retracing her steps on that flat block of Rivera Street from 20th to 21st and then to her home mid-block on 21st Avenue between Rivera and Quintara. Also, prior to the 1937 extension of MUNI’s L-Taraval line all the way to the San Francisco Zoo, the #17 continued on from its regular terminus at 20th and Wawona, up Wawona to 19th Avenue, then right onto 19th Avenue to Sloat Boulevard, where it proceeded west all the way to the zoo on weekends.

In addition to 20th Avenue, other streets in the Sunset were also built wide enough to accommodate streetcar lines that were never built, such as 30th Avenue and Noriega Street. At one point in the early 1970s, MUNI even considered adding a streetcar line to the then recently re-landscaped Sunset Boulevard, but the public was against the plan because it would have marred the beauty of the grassy center divide. If only they could see what has become of Sunset Boulevard landscaping today!

Market Street Railway 12-line streetcar on Sloat Boulevard near Ardenwood Way, circa 1948, circa 1948 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany

The widest street in San Francisco is NOT Market Street, but rather, Sloat Boulevard, running from St. Francis Circle to the Great Highway at Ocean Beach, built to accommodate the streetcars of the Market Street Railway’s #12-Mission/Ocean line. After the post-World War II conversion of the #12 streetcar line to a MUNI bus line, the route was cut back to a terminal at Ocean and Phelan Avenues near City College, and the tracks along Sloat Boulevard were removed, as the wide street was reconfigured to accommodate three lanes of traffic in each direction—now rearranged to include two vehicle lanes plus a bike lane on either side of the median. Today, when an occasional photo showing an old streetcar with a background of the still-familiar homes along Sloat Boulevard around Junipero Serra Boulevard or perhaps 34th Avenue, it jars the imagination to think of the old green-and-cream streetcars, tracks, and overhead wires along that wide street.

North of Golden Park, several MUNI lines traversed the Richmond District. One of the most popular was one of MUNI’s first lines, named the B-Geary/Ocean line. From downtown all the way to Playland, the B-line was one of the longest single streetcar rides in the city, and for decades, the cost was a mere five cents. Meandering along Geary, at that time a standard-width street, through the Western Addition, then climbing uphill from Divisadero to Masonic (the Geary-Masonic tunnel/underpass being a relatively recent addition in 1974), the line then continued through Geary’s commercial corridor in both the inner and outer Richmond District, until it finally reached Playland—a very long ride in both length and running time. This line remained in service until December of 1956, when it was converted to the #38-Geary motor coach service, with all the tracks along Geary removed, and the installation of trees and ivy along the concrete center median from Masonic Avenue westward. Today, urban planners are trying to devise a means to improve transit service along Geary and into downtown by…possibly reintroducing streetcars!

The Sutro Railroad began in 1896, running along city streets to the old Sutro Depot on Point Lobos Avenue. In 1905, the old Ferries and Cliff House steam train that originally began running along a route to Lands End in 1888, with a spectacular view of the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the hilly route (Listen to Outside Lands San Francisco podcast episode #186, Lands End Station, for more information), was converted to electric streetcar operations. It was eventually designated the #1-California line of the Market Street Railway and, along with the #2-Sutter line that ran along city streets, both lines reached the Sutro Terminal at Point Lobos Avenue and Merrie Way. While #1 line passengers were treated to scenic views and a small station along the way, those riding the #2 line saw only city streets by way of tracks running along Market, Sutter, Presidio, California, Euclid, Parker, Arguello, Clement, 33rd Avenue, Geary Boulevard, and then a private right-of-way.

Interior of streetcar barn terminus east of Sutro Baths, about 1936. 2 Sutter-Clement car on right. Hot dog stand run by the Hountalas family., 1936 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

The Sutro Terminal was a cavernous wooden building with a large sheltered waiting area that also offered indoor food and beverage service, and was just a short stroll to Sutro’s and the Cliff House. Sadly, in 1925, landslides during a February storm destroyed large portions of the #1 line tracks, and all streetcar service around Lands End ceased, with streetcars continuing to run to Sutro’s but re-routed along less picturesque city streets instead.

Sutro’s old barn of a terminal building burned to the ground in February of 1949, and was never replaced, with the remaining streetcar operations discontinued in July of that same year to be replaced by buses. Ironically, that same area of San Francisco has been home to numerous other fires: the 1907 blaze that destroyed the Victorian Cliff House, plus the 1963 fire that destroyed many attractions adjacent to the Cliff House, leading up to the spectacular fire in June of 1966 that destroyed Sutro’s itself just after its final closure.

Car #222 of the 4 Sutter-Sacramento streetcar line at Arguello and Lake streets. March 5, 1940. Temple Emanu-el behind., 1940 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

Market Street Railway’s #4-Sutter streetcar line commenced in 1935, connecting the downtown area with the inner Richmond District, with tracks running along Sutter and Sacramento Streets, then Arguello Boulevard, Lake Street, and 6th Avenue to Fulton. It’s strange today to think of a lumbering streetcar making that turn in front of Temple Emanu-el at Arguello and Lake, but streetcars did just that for 13 years. In 1948 (a big year for streetcar-to-bus conversion), the line was replaced with a trolley bus, but even that was eliminated the following year, 1949. Bus service was eventually resurrected 30 years later in 1979, with some re-routing, but then canceled again after yet another 30 years of service, in 2009.

Another project in the “never built” category was BART service in the Richmond District. BART’s approval by voters in November 1962 offered an opportunity for significant transit improvements in the western neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the withdrawal of both Marin and San Mateo Counties from the BART district even before the election put a damper on plans involving BART in the Richmond District, since that line was primarily designed to provide access to Marin County. When a San Francisco—Marin BART line was still on the drawing boards, there would have been a rapid transit tunnel built from the downtown area, beneath Geary Boulevard, with trains surfacing and continuing west to about 25th Avenue before turning north to Marin (via either a new lower deck on the Golden Gate Bridge or an underground tube). Years later, a MUNI-only streetcar tunnel was also considered, and that would have provided high-speed service to thousands of downtown workers living in the Richmond District. For a variety of reasons (cost, technological, planned ridership), it was never built—though the images from that design remain intriguing even today.

MUNI subway proposal cutaway at Geary and Park Presidio, from Coordinated Transit for the San Francisco Bay Area, 1967.., 1967 - Courtesy of Eric Fisher

Planning is currently underway for running either buses (or possibly even new Geary streetcars) on a private right-of way, adjacent to the median, and into downtown. MUNI is also giving serious consideration to a subway tunnel for the M-Oceanview streetcar line from the West Portal area to an underground station at Stonestown/Parkmerced/SF State in order to speed up travel times and provide for greater passenger safety at the accident-prone 19th Avenue and Holloway stop. (West Portal merchants from decades ago were vigorously opposed to an underground MUNI line from the Twin Peaks Tunnel to St. Francis Circle at Sloat and Junipero Serra Boulevards, fearing years of business disruptions similar to those encountered in the construction of the BART/MUNI subway on Market Street.)

The most ambitious plan of all is a possible BART expansion that would involve construction of a second transbay tube, with trains stopping at several of the existing downtown stations before proceeding west under Geary in a new subway tunnel that would include stops at Van Ness Avenue, Fillmore, Masonic Avenue/USF, then turning and moving south, with stops at Golden Gate Park-Museums, Judah, Taraval, and Stonestown/Parkmerced/SF State, before rejoining the existing BART line at Daly City and moving south to BART’s Millbrae terminal.

Bus-only rapid transit lanes are also being planned along the length of Van Ness Avenue where US 101 runs to/from the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, construction is progressing on a new downtown transit center that will soon replace the old Transbay Terminal, offering passengers the ability to walk from a MUNI streetcar into a station that will someday include a stop for California’s new high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The next 30 years will be lively times, indeed, for mass transit in the western neighborhoods and throughout the rest of San Francisco as well.

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Page launched 10 September 2016.

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