The greatest streetcar museum in America

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, July 31, 2018

MUNI PCC No. 1050 at the Ferry Building. Photo by Justin Franz
There are numerous museums in America dedicated to the history of urban transit. Many of them feature world-class collections and I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few, including the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa. and the Seashore Trolley Museum in my native Maine.

But for me, the greatest place to enjoy historic transit is in the streets of San Francisco. Every day, up to two dozen vintage streetcars leave Cameron Beach Yard before dawn bound for the F-Market Line, a 6-mile route stretching from the Castro neighborhood, along Market Street, to Fisherman’s Wharf. From dawn until well after dusk, the vintage streetcars, many of them PCC cars built around the 1930s and 1940s, zip up and down Market Street intermixed with cars and trucks in a fusion of 20th and 21st century technology. It’s almost as if Doc Brown transformed a streetcar into a time machine instead of a ten-wheeler.

The roots of this spectacle date back to a celebration 35 years ago this summer. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the San Francisco Municipal Railway, better known as MUNI, was upgrading its system and replacing its fleet of vintage PCCs with Boeing light rail vehicles. It was also preparing to put its route along Market Street underground, just above the newly built BART system. To mark the end of streetcars on Market Street, MUNI rolled out its oldest streetcar for weekend runs through downtown in the fall of 1982. Those runs gave Rich Laubscher, then chair of the Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee, an idea. The following year, the city’s famous cable car lines would be shut down for 20 months and San Francisco would be without one of its most famous attractions. What if the city leased some more vintage streetcars to move visitors up and down Market on weekends? The Chamber of Commerce took the idea to Mayor Dianne Feinstein (yes, that Dianne Feinstein, who is now one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate) who immediately endorsed it with one caveat: “I don’t want to see any junk out there.”

MUNI PCC No. 1077 in the Noe Valley. Photo by Justin Franz
MUNI and the Chamber started combing the nation for streetcars it could lease for what was dubbed the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival. By early summer 1983, MUNI had gathered enough vintage cars (including a few of its own PCCs that had been put in storage the previous year) to start moving locals and visitors up and down Market. On June 27, Municipal Railway car No. 1 led a parade of vintage streetcars through downtown to kick off the service. From June until late September, the vintage cars ran five days a week, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The summer service was a huge success and Feinstein asked MUNI to do it again every summer in 1987, even after the cable cars returned. The success of the annual trolley festival also convinced MUNI officials to dig out some old plans about establishing a permanent vintage streetcar service on Market. On Sept. 1, 1995, more than a dozen PCCs, painted for different transit agencies around the country, paraded up Market Street on the opening day for what had become the F-Market Line. Ridership skyrocketed and in March 2000 the F-Line was extended down to Fisherman’s Wharf. In 2015, a second vintage street car line, the E-Embarcadero Line, was added.  

The Market Street Railway, the non-profit organization that supports MUNI’s F and E lines, calls the fleet of vintage streetcars a “museum in motion.” But to simply categorize the city's streetcars as museum pieces is disingenuous. Everyday, upwards of 25,000 people ride the historic cars and despite the cars’ advanced age they are not coddled. The fleet of 50 or so cars are just as important to completing MUNI’s mission of moving people safely and effectively as the modern LRVs that rumble below Market.

MUNI PCC No. 1056 on Market Street. Photo by Justin Franz.
If you’re a fan of vintage streetcars, I only have one message for you: Go to San Francisco. Go wander the Noe Valley before dawn and watch a parade of PCCs through the fog on their way to the F Line. Go stand in front of the Ferry Building on a warm July afternoon and watch streetcars come from every direction, each one packed to the gills with passengers. And after the sun goes down, go board a PCC for a ride down Market as the city lights illuminate the way home.

MUNI’s streetcars look like museum pieces, but don’t for a second think they’re static.

For more information, visit https://www.streetcar.org/

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