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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 12: Richmond District Streetcars?

Guest Paul Rosenberg talks about the source of rails recently uncovered on Balboa Street.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Mar 29, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 12: Richmond District Streetcars? Outside Lands Podcast Episode 12: Richmond District Streetcars?

(above) Geary near 32nd Ave, Dec 22, 1956

[12-22-56 Geary near 32nd Ave] B-Geary line streetcar #83. Golden Gate Bridge behind. Golden Gate Nursery on corner at 6726 Geary.


Podcast Transcription

WNP12 – Richmond Streetcars

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco. It's the podcast by the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: I'm David Gallagher

Woody: And we have a special guest star with us today.

David: We sure do.

Woody: Mr. Paul Rosenberg, who's been a lifetime resident of the Richmond District. Right?

Paul: That's true.

Woody: Are you living in the house that you actually were a kid in?

Paul: Yeah. Part of my childhood. Yeah. So, we call it the family farm.

Woody: The family farm in the avenues. But you weren't one of the original dairy farmers out here or anything like that?

Paul: No, that was before my time.

Woody: Okay. All right. But we're actually going to talk about one of Paul's areas of expertise.

David: Not only is he a farmer.

Woody: No, he was never a farmer.

David: Oh, no, sorry.

Woody: But one of his areas of expertise, because you were at one point, the [00:01:00] president of the Market Street Railway, weren't you?

Paul: Yeah. Back in the late ‘80s.

Woody: Okay. So, we're gonna talk a little bit, recently there was some construction work done on Balboa Street, David. And what did they find?

David: Well, they tore up the street and they found some old streetcar rails.

Woody: Underneath the pavement.

David: Underneath the pavement? Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And that people were surprised that there used to be a streetcar line on Balboa.

David: That’s right.

Woody: But Paul's gonna tell us that there was, I think.

Paul: Right. In fact, there was, it was the very last new line that the private Market Street Railway conducted, constructed. And it used very special cars, the same cars that ran down the Peninsula on the old 40 line.

David: Oh, some great big cars. Were they big?

Paul: You're think you're thinking about the big subs. They were ultimately replaced by regular looking streetcars, drop platform. And you wouldn't have, they looked just like anything else, but they really had [00:02:00] good power. And part of that was because of the dip between 22nd and 24th.

Woody: Right. The Balboa dip.

Paul: The Balboa dip.

Woody: Because if you're driving on Balboa and you're going west, you get to about 23rd Avenue? 22nd, I guess. And then, all of a sudden, it just goes straight down and then right back up the other side to 24th.

Paul: Yeah. And it, it was sort of ruined it for drivers back when they put the stop sign in at 23rd because you try and go down the hill, let off the gas and see how far you could go up the next hill before you had to reengage. It was a fun thing growing up when you were just starting with your car, but…

Woody: It is kind of hard to imagine a streetcar though, doing that. But they, they were able to, huh?

Paul: Yeah. I was part of a group called the Northwest San Francisco Rapid Transit Extension Study back in the, in ‘73 and ‘74. BART funded it to see whether BART should extend to the [00:03:00] Richmond. And to see if BART doesn't, what should happen. And this was because of the language in the original BART legislation. And the first thing they decided was it would be inappropriate to run BART out to the Richmond, because BART essentially is a high-speed interurban system and the ideal spacement, space between stops is, when you're not in a downtown area, it's about two miles. So that means, considering Geary is about six miles long, you would be building this system just for maybe three or four stops.

Woody: Right.

Paul: So, BART was impractical. So, they looked at a number of options from do nothing. Slight enhancements of what we have. A streetcar system that looked like a pitchfork system that would run street cars on California and Balboa that would meet at Arguello, and then [00:04:00] have more tracks on Turk and California that would again, meet around Presidio, like the double pitch fork we called it.

Woody: So, they would fan out into the Richmond.

Paul: Exactly. And Geary would be the trunk line. And they also talked about a $375 million subway project.

Woody: And the Balboa dip, was this a problem with the…

Paul: Balboa dip was an issue because one of the negatives on the pitchfork plan was, they said that streetcars wouldn't be able to negotiate the dip. I pointed out, well, there used to be streetcars there.

Woody: Right.

David: Well, so my question is, so, that's in the ‘70s they said, oh, let's, one of the things we could do is put streetcars back on the street where there used to be streetcars. Well, how come there, what happened in between? Why did the streetcars get torn up in the or covered over in the case of the Balboa?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Why did they [00:05:00] go away? He's very distant. Like, oh, that's a long answer coming.

Paul: That’s like who shot Roger Rabbit. San Francisco, the only, let's take it from another point. Why do we still have streetcars?

Woody: Right.

Paul: And the reason we still have streetcars is because only streetcars can negotiate the Twin Peaks tunnel and the Sunset tunnel. And that's why we have streetcars.

Woody: Because yeah, there were street car lines all throughout the city and they were replaced by bus lines, but the ones that went through the tunnels couldn't be replaced by buses.

Paul: Exactly.

Woody: Yeah.

Paul: Exactly. Let's take a real step backwards. In the history of the United States, municipal streetcar lines run by the municipal government, less than half the history of this country. The Muni was the first real large city operation. [00:06:00] And last December it celebrated its 100th anniversary. There were many traction lines. The city, city government in the 19th century was essentially a franchising operation. And the closest we have to a franchise in 2013 is the garbage franchises. They're like…

David: So, franchising operation means that they allowed other, other operators…

Woody: Private companies.

David: Private companies to run the buses and the streetcars.

Woody: Yeah. They say you have this particular line for 30 years or something.

Paul: Exactly. There were many companies, some companies would just run one line. Other companies, there were consolidations and deconsolidation.

David: Right. Like the cable car companies were all different companies at one time.

Paul: Exactly, exactly.

Woody: Let's go back then, to the Balboa then. So, the Balboa is the last new line that's put in by one of these companies, the Market Street Railway.

Paul: [00:07:00] Correct.

Woody: And that's in 1930?

Paul: Gosh, ‘31 or so.

Woody: ‘31 or ‘32.

Paul: And so, the 31-line went from 30th and Balboa, down Balboa over Church, down to Market. And depending, it would go to the East Bay Terminal at times, which became the TransBay Terminal, and then the Ferry Building   depending on whatever. And it had the really good high-powered streetcars, essentially, so they could make the Balboa dip.

Woody: And did it always end at 30th or did it actually get extended at some point?

Paul: The streetcar line only ran to 30th. And when it was replaced by the 31 Balboa Motorcoach line, it was extended to 33rd, so it could loop in front of Washington High.

Woody: Right, right.

Paul: So, and then like in the ‘70s, it, on weekends, the 31-line ran to [00:08:00] the Legion of Honor.

Woody: Wow.

Paul: And then…

Woody: That was before it was an electric bus line then, I guess.

Paul: Oh, much before.

Woody: That was when it was a gas or a diesel motorcoach.

Paul: Yeah, it was a diesel first. First it was white buses then gasoline buses. Pancake engine. Fascinating vehicle. And then it became the diesel 31.

Woody: So, it's funny though, we talk about this. It was the last streetcar line. The Market Street Railway opened and, not operated, but at least started. And then, it ended only maybe 17 years after. Right? Something like that?

Paul: Exactly.

Woody: So, it only ran for about 17 years. It ended in the late ‘40s. And then it's been a bus line ever since.

Paul: Right. After, first thing is, the city did not get a lot with its purchase of the Market Street Railway.

David: When did that happen? They…

Paul: 1944. Election in May of 1944.

Woody: But when the Market Street Railway, the Muni buy, the city buys the Market [00:09:00] Street Railway, they get all these lines.

Paul: They got all the lines and a decrepit fleet.

Woody: Right.

Paul: In fact, school kids were told not to ride on the platforms, the front end and the back end. Because occasionally, they'd fall off of these vehicles.

Woody: Wow.

Paul: One of, one of the serious problems, Market Street Railway is twice as large as the Muni. And…

David: So, Market Street Railway had all the, is this right, they had all the numbered lines and the, and the Muni had the lettered lines?

Paul: Correct.

Woody: But if you talk about, like, say the Richmond district where we are. You have, nowadays, you would have these buses, you would have the 1 California and the 2 Clement, and the 38 Geary and the 31 Balboa and the 5 Fulton. But all those, excluding the 38 I guess, were Market Street Railway, streetcar lines at one point.

Paul: They certainly were.

Woody: Right. Okay. Yeah.

Paul: Richmond district was a real transit heaven. Because one could go anywhere. But the Market Street [00:10:00] Railway fare was 5 cents. Muni fare was 7 cents. So, Muni was fairly well maintained. It could afford itself. But Market Street Railway was losing money hand over fist. And there were some who really advocated, let Market Street Railway go out of business and just have the city take it over. Franchises were due to expire, and it was really quite controversial. Like, five, six, seven times the voters rejected taking over the old Market Street Railway. And while all this was going on, there were about four or five, six elections to have the city take over PG&E.

Woody: Right.

Paul: And the question is, why did the city take over the money loser instead of the money maker.

Woody: Right.

Paul: But that's a political issue.

Woody: That's a whole other thing, right?

Paul: It's not a transit issue.

Woody: Now, I said at the beginning you were once president of the Market Street Railway. We're not talking about this giant transit [00:11:00] company that you were president of, right?

David: You really made out on that sale, didn't you?

Paul: The Market, the corporate Market Street Railway went out of business finally in 1956. Because it's necessary for a corporation to stay a while, make sure any liability issues are taken care of. It essentially ceased operations September of ‘44. And, it went out as a corporation in ‘56. Well, there was this wonderful, wonderful man named Harold Perazo, who managed to preserve streetcars. He, he worked out of the boneyard at Funston and Lincoln.

David: We have a page on that on our website.

Woody: Yeah. It's where they had the old sort of decrepit streetcars lined up.

Paul: He had the two tracks on 14th Avenue. He placed one vehicle from each of the series out there and his dream was to preserve them.

David: So, an example of each kind of car.

Paul: [00:12:00] Exactly. A Williamsport car. A Chicago car. One of the cars built up the Elkton shops. They were all out there, but he could, you know, it's hard for a guy to take a streetcar home, especially when there, when there aren't tracks in front of his house and his garage isn't big enough. So ultimately, he bought vehicle 776, a Maron Harrington, seven window trolley coach, seven windows between the doors, and got the Muni to take it over. But you know, like what's a guy gonna do with a trolley coach? So, he got a number of people, seven people to form a nonprofit, and the name Market Street Railway was available. So, they bought the name from the Secretary of State and put together this nonprofit group that had seven trustees. One of them was an attorney by the name of Steve Taber, who did all the corporate work. He later became president of the California [00:13:00] Historical Society. And I was invited to join the Market Street Railway because I could take minutes. And I'm not mechanically inclined, but I like to be an insider, so I was happy to be a member. The cable cars were shut down for 22 months during the rebuilding from 1970, or 1982 to 1984. Well, for the tourists, the summer of 1983 when there were no cable cars, Chamber of Commerce put together the Streetcar Festival.

David: Right.

Paul: And then the next…

Woody: And the Market Street Railway already existed at this point?

Paul: Yeah. We existed as a seven-member corporate group.

David: And there were still…

Paul: To preserve one trolley car.

Woody: One trolley car, yeah. Okay.

David: And there were still rails on Market Street at that time?

Paul: Yeah. And there was a fight because the Market Street plan of the ‘60s was gonna take out the rails. And [00:14:00] Jim Finn, who was one of the transit managers, a man of great foresight, said we should have them just in case. You never know when the subway that's gonna be built might break down. We might need those rails. So 1984, the cable cars were back, but we had an All-Star game. We had a Democratic Convention. So, the Chamber of Commerce said, well, let's keep the Streetcar Festival going for another year.

Woody: And we didn't really say what the Streetcar Festival was, but essentially, they had old streetcars on those rails on Market Street.

Paul: Right. We got a car from Mexico. We got a loan from Minneapolis. We got cars from, the Minneapolis car never operated. It was too far gone. But we got cars, Council Chris car from Portland. We got cars from all over, and some of them we were, we had to return, some of them we were able to retain. So, we had Streetcar Festival.

David: That's a precursor to [00:15:00] the historic F line that we have today.

Paul: Exactly. September of ‘95, the F line began. And then we started pressing for, well there's still state belt tracks on the Embarcadero. Why not move it up? So, in 1999, we got the words included. And now we have plans that are underway to go to the west end of Fort Mason through the tunnel that still exists.

Woody: At Black Point, right?

David: Right.

Paul: Absolutely. Black Point is the last real coastline of San Francisco, that hasn't been altered in any way.

Woody: Right.

David: And there's a, and we're talking about the tunnel that goes right under from Aquatic Park out to kind of where the Marina Safeway is there.

Paul: Correct.

Woody: So the, in a nutshell, the Market Street Railway forms with the idea, as a nonprofit, to save this one trolley coach.

Paul: Exactly.

Woody: [00:16:00] And use it in some way with Muni. And then the cable cars close in the early ‘80s, and so a streetcar festival is formed with historic streetcars on Market Street to replace as a tourist attraction the cable cars.

Paul: Exactly.

Woody: The cable cars come back. There's enough momentum and will behind to keep the old historic streetcars running for another few years. And then, they come back in full glory as the F line in the mid 1990s, which again is such a success that it has been extended. It goes all the way out Market, down to Fisherman's Wharf now, and may even end up over in the Marina.

David: And maybe even on those buried tracks on Balboa Street.

Woody: Well, that's my question. Is there any plan in the future now to have rail service return to the Richmond?

Paul: There is and there isn't. There's currently a project called Bus Rapid Transit. This is actually for, for bus traffic transit, which would be separated from main [00:17:00] transit. It would probably be in each direction, in the middle of the street with stations. And, it's very controversial, but in order to qualify for funding, it has to be rail ready. Which means that it has to be configured in such way that there could be rails added at some time.

Woody: So, this is like a dedicated bus lane to kind of be an express route through these busy corridors.

Paul: Exactly. But it would, it doesn't qualify as rapid transit because there would still be cross streets. And to be true rapid transit, it has to be grade separated. And that is not part of the plan.

Woody: But to get federal funding, they have to make it so that it could transition to a, a rail line at some point.

Paul: Exactly, yes.

Woody: So that has to be approved, that has to be dealt with and kind of managed and engineered. And then, even then, it may never turn into a streetcar [00:18:00] line.

Paul: Correct. Yeah, and Balboa is not a target.

Woody: Ah, so, bully to Geary.

Paul: It was ruled out back in the ‘70s.

David: So, the only way we're gonna see rails on Balboa is to follow the construction project that is currently going on there.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And we just saw, we just saw them expose…

Woody: We just saw them. So, they just bury the rails right over again with the new paving.

David: So, get out to Balboa Street.

Woody: Well, we could talk to Paul about a billion things, because he knows lots about everything, including politics for sure. Right? Richmond District history, you've known so many colorful and interesting people over your life here in the Richmond.

Paul: Oh, I know Dave and Woody.

Woody: You even know that friends call him Dave. Not many people know that. But this has been great and thanks so much for joining us this week, Paul. We love having special guests.

Paul: A pleasure.

Woody: All right, so we'll see you next time. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And [00:19:00] this is the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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