Trolley Folly

From the late 1800s until WWII, streetcars were the dominant means of transportation in many cities. Known as trolleys or trams in some locales, streetcars are basically single car trains that run on rails and are powered by overhead electrical wires. By the early 1980s, virtually all of America’s streetcar/trolley lines were gone, a casualty of our pervasive car culture. Cities around the country ripped up the rails, sold-off or paved-over the right-of-way, and scrapped their streetcars. The folly of this is now revealed as city after city attempts to rebuild vintage lines.

San Francisco at one time had hundreds of streetcars running on dozens of lines, but the city retired its last streetcar in 1982. Fortunately, however, they did not rip up the tracks on Market Street and a preservation group called the Market Street Railway stepped-up efforts to bring back the streetcars for a Historic Trolley Festival. The first festival took place in the summer of 1983, and it was very successful.

The timing of the festival was also remarkably fortunate because in 1982 San Francisco needed to shutdown its world-famous cable cars to completely rebuild the underground cable system. The underground cables are what make the “little cable cars climb halfway to the stars” and the ancient system, which dates back to 1873, was shot. San Francisco’s cable car system is the only one left in the world. It’s wildly popular and wildly profitable. Taking it out of service for nearly two years was a blow to the city.

The Market Street Historic Trolley Festival helped fill the cable car void, and it was hugely popular with tourists and locals alike. The festival returned year after year and eventually, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a long talked about plan to permanently restore the Market Street line. On Labor Day 1995, the new F-line opened. Initially, the line ran from Castro to First and Market Streets. Over time, it was extended to the Ferry building and then along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf – six miles in all 

It’s remarkable enough that the system runs all vintage streetcars. What’s even more remarkable is that no two cars are alike. You never know what will come along the tracks next. San Francisco’s Muni acquired a variety of streetcars from around the country and world. They purchased several 1920s Peter Witt trams from Milan, Italy, and several 1940s era streamlined art deco PCC streetcars from Philadelphia and Newark. They have also acquired several antique cars including a whimsical boat-shaped tram from Blackpool, England, and two antique cars from New Orleans that actually plied the Canal and Desire lines. Yes, San Francisco has a real “Streetcar Named Desire.”

08) Car 1815 Milan (FZ28-2-121)

Car No. 1815 - Milan, Italy (Built 1928) »»»»

09) Car 1895 Milan inside (FZ28-2-423)

Inside one of the Milan trams »»»»

01) Car 952 Vintage New Orleans (FZ28-2-391)

«««« Car No. 952 - New Orleans “Desire” (Built 1923)


San Francisco’s Muni operates three categories of cars on the F-line: the Milan trams, a fleet of antique cars (including the two “Desire” cars from New Orleans), and numerous art deco PCC cars. Many of the PCCs have been repainted in livery that commemorates lines from around the country. For example, Car 1076 is originally from Minneapolis, but Muni’s paint shop gave it the livery of Washington DC. Car 1007 is a San Francisco original, but it has the livery of Philadelphia’s long gone Red Arrow line, and Car 1052 (originally from Philadelphia) now sports the orange and yellow livery of the Los Angeles Railway Company.

06) Car 1076 Wash DC (Z28-12-703

Car No. 1076 - Minneapolis & Newark (Built 1946) - in Washington DC livery »»»»

03) Car 1007 Philly Red Arrow (FZ28-2-468)

«««« Car No. 1007 - San Francisco (Built 1948) - in Philadelphia Red Arrow Line livery

04) Car 1052 LA Railway (scan)

Car No. 1052 - Philadelphia (Built 1948) - in Los Angeles Railway livery »»»»

The Market Street Railway Preservation Group operates a small museum and store just off Justin Herman Plaza. It’s more store than museum, but it’s free and worth a quick look. They also have a really nice website, and it includes a great section cleverly called “The historic streetcars of the F-line fleet.” It provides photos, descriptions, and histories of all the vintage cars.

Among other things, the Market Street Railway Preservation Group raises money to help acquire and restore vintage streetcars. Without their considerable effort, our city would not be blessed with these beautiful rolling museums. As the group states on their website, “Without Us, It Would Be a Bus.”


© Virginia E. Vail 2012