Vin­tage trams bring her­itage alive in San Fran­cisco

Vin­tage jour­ney is a di­rect line to the past

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - JUSTIN FRANZ

When Rick Laub­scher was six years old, he rode a street­car to the cir­cus. The San Fran­cisco na­tive is pretty sure he saw the li­ons and tigers and all that comes with it, but he wasn’t left with much of an im­pres­sion.

“I don’t re­mem­ber the cir­cus,” he says six decades later. “But I re­mem­ber that street­car ride.”

So started a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with San Fran­cisco’s streetcars that even­tu­ally led to Laub­scher play­ing a key role in the cre­ation of a vin­tage trol­ley line through the heart of the city, al­low­ing vis­i­tors and com­muters alike to ride the rails just as they did a cen­tury ago. While per­haps not as rec­og­niz­able as the city’s famed ca­ble cars, the F-Line of the San Fran­cisco Mu­nic­i­pal Trans­porta­tion Agency (also known as Muni) of­fers a unique way to take in the sights. Ev­ery day, up to two dozen vin­tage streetcars, many built be­fore the Sec­ond World War, carry peo­ple from the Cas­tro Dis­trict to Fish­er­man’s Wharf.

“San Fran­cisco’s past isn’t just frozen in an old pic­ture or sit­ting in a mu­seum,” says Ed Reiskin, the trans­porta­tion agency’s di­rec­tor of trans­porta­tion. “You can ac­tu­ally get on and ride these streetcars from an­other era.”

Reiskin says that Muni is unique be­cause it has two vin­tage types of tran­sit in­te­grated into its oth­er­wise mod­ern sys­tem. The fa­mous ca­ble cars date from 1873 and were de­signed to climb the city’s steep hills by con­nect­ing to a ca­ble that moves be­neath the street. The 1906 earth­quake de­stroyed many of the city’s ca­ble car lines and most were re­placed with more mod­ern streetcars, which re­ceive their power from an over­head wire.

As it did in many cities, the street­car spurred a huge amount of de­vel­op­ment in San Fran­cisco. By the 1930s, 50 trol­ley lines con­nected ev­ery neigh­bour­hood, in­clud­ing four sets of street­car tracks right up the mid­dle of Mar­ket Street.

“Streetcars built the ur­ban Amer­ica that we know to­day,” Laub­scher says. “The elec­tric street­car helped stretch the bound­aries of our cities.”

Street­car rid­er­ship across the coun­try be­gan to de­cline with the ad­vent of the au­to­mo­bile. In the 1950s, dozens of street­car routes were re­placed with buses in San Fran­cisco. In the 1970s, the city be­gan to mod­ern­ize its rail sys­tem and re­placed its old streetcars with mod­ern light rail ve­hi­cles. It also put its Mar­ket Street route be­neath the main thor­ough­fare. In 1982, the last vin­tage streetcars were put into stor­age. To mark the end of rail ser­vice on Mar­ket Street, Muni rolled out one of its old­est streetcars for a fi­nal ride.

It was that ride that gave Laub­scher, then chair of the San Fran­cisco Cham­ber of Com­merce’s trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee, an idea to or­ga­nize a vin­tage trol­ley fes­ti­val that would of­fer rides up and down Mar­ket Street on week­ends. The cham­ber took the idea to then-mayor Dianne Fe­in­stein, who sup­ported it, but cau­tioned she did not “want to see any junk out there.” The first fes­ti­val was an over­whelm­ing suc­cess that was re­peated for five years, set­ting the stage for a per­ma­nent vin­tage trol­ley line through the city. On Sept. 1, 1995, the F-Line opened for ser­vice.

The F-Line starts at the in­ter­sec­tion of 17th and Cas­tro streets, in the heart of the vi­brant Cas­tro Dis­trict, and heads to­ward down­town on Mar­ket Street. Head­ing east, the trol­leys pass the U.S. Mint and within a few blocks of land­marks such as City Hall (which fea­tures the fifth largest dome in the world) and Union Square. Near the in­ter­sec­tion of Mar­ket and New Mont­gomery streets, the F-Line passes in front of the Palace Ho­tel, where pres­i­dent War­ren Hard­ing died in 1923.

Af­ter skirt­ing the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict, the F-Line rounds a curve to­ward the small San Fran­cisco Rail­way Mu­seum run by Mar­ket Street Rail­way, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for and sup­ports his­tor­i­cal tran­sit in the city. Next stop is the Ferry Build­ing, which was com­pleted on the city ’s water­front in 1898 and is known for its clock tower that reaches 245 feet (75 me­tres) into the air. From here, the F-Line fol­lows the water­front all the way to Fish­er­man’s Wharf, a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion. Along the way, pas­sen­gers can take in views of the bay and Coit Tower, a con­crete ed­i­fice ded­i­cated to fire­fight­ers who per­ished in some of the city’s worst blazes.

Streetcars built the ur­ban Amer­ica that we know to­day. The elec­tric street­car helped stretch the bound­aries of our cities.

While the more-mod­ern light rail ve­hi­cles in Muni’s fleet may of­fer a smoother and qui­eter ride, the ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing one of the vin­tage cars is much more mem­o­rable. In­stead of cold plas­tic seats, the vin­tage cars have wooden benches and the only air con­di­tion­ing is an open win­dow. While Muni has up­graded the cars with ameni­ties such as GPS and backup cam­eras — all stan­dard on more-mod­ern streetcars — you would be hard­pressed to find any­thing else from the 21st cen­tury when you board.

Emma González has been at Muni for 20 years and has been work­ing on the vin­tage streetcars since 2008. She says it’s hard not to fall in love with the old cars, which come in a va­ri­ety of shapes, sizes and colours.

“I feel like a movie star” op­er­at­ing the old streetcars, she says. “Peo­ple come from all over the world to ride them.” Her favourite street­car is No. 578, af­fec­tion­ately called the “Dinky.” The car was built in 1896 and looks nearly iden­ti­cal to the hill-climb­ing ca­ble cars. In to­tal, Muni has more than 50 his­toric streetcars, many from across the United States, but oth­ers hail from Eng­land, Italy and Aus­tralia. The bulk of the fleet is made up of Pres­i­dents’ Con­fer­ence Com­mit­tee streetcars, or PCCs, stream­lined cars that date from the 1930s. More than 4,500 PCCs were built and used in 33 cities. While some of the PCCs are painted in Muni’s vin­tage green and cream liv­ery, most are painted in trib­ute to dif­fer­ent cities that used PCCs, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, Bos­ton, Chicago and Philadel­phia.

“It’s a riot of colour, pat­terns and de­signs rep­re­sent­ing all of the dif­fer­ent tran­sit agen­cies,” Laub­scher says.

Main­tain­ing cen­tury-old streetcars is no easy task, Reiskin says. Be­cause of their age, Muni fre­quently has to make its own parts to keep them in ser­vice. How­ever, the agency re­ceives plenty of help from Mar­ket Street Rail­way; Laub­scher is the group’s pres­i­dent.

Over the years, Mar­ket Street Rail­way has ad­vo­cated for the ex­pan­sion of his­toric street­car ser­vice, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of the E-Line in 2015 that goes from the Ferry Build­ing to­ward AT&T Park, home of the San Fran­cisco Giants.

There are dozens of mu­se­ums across Amer­ica ded­i­cated to streetcars. Some cities have fol­lowed San Fran­cisco’s lead and recre­ated their own vin­tage lines. How­ever, Laub­scher says none of them is quite like the F-Line in San Fran­cisco, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the streetcars are still a crit­i­cal part of the city ’s tran­sit sys­tem, one that in ad­di­tion to car­ry­ing vis­i­tors takes com­muters to work and school.

“It’s not enough to just pre­serve ma­chines like these as static dis­plays; you have to let peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence them,” he says. “San Fran­cisco rel­ishes its tran­sit his­tory, but we also put our his­tory to work.”


San Fran­cisco’s his­toric Ferry Build­ing, known for its clock tower, is among the stops on a vin­tage trol­ley tour through the city.


A street­car painted in vin­tage green and cream liv­ery passes peo­ple square danc­ing in the fa­mous Cas­tro Dis­trict of San Fran­cisco.


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