The San Francisco Municipal Railway is celebrating its 100th birthday Friday by giving its customers a present – free rides for one and all.
The free rides are a contrast to the Muni’s first day of operation on Dec. 28, 1912, when everyone – even Mayor James Rolph Jr. – paid a fare. Rolph dropped a shiny new nickel in the fare box, made a short speech, and took the controls himself for the first ride on the first car of the first publicly owned big-city transit system in the country.
“It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money,” he said.
On its first day, the Muni had only 10 streetcars and one line that ran from Geary and Market streets out Geary to 10th Avenue and then to Golden Gate Park. But Rolph was thinking big.
“I want everyone to feel it is but the beginning of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city,” he said.
As it turned out, Rolph was a prophet. The new Municipal Railway became both the engine of progress for the city and San Francisco’s biggest political problem.
Though Muni officials like to point out that passengers board Muni vehicles on an average of 673,196 times every weekday and that 90 percent of all San Franciscans live within a block or two of a Muni line, it is clearly the city’s least favorite public service.
“It may be the system people love to hate, but what would we do without it?” said Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, a volunteer group that is the Muni’s partner in historic preservation.
Laubscher’s organization had a big hand in bringing back historic cars to the city streets, and loves to point to Car No. 1, the first car. Carefully restored, it will be back to work on the streets Friday after 100 years.
Car No. 1 is a reminder of a time when the Municipal Railway was the pride of the city, especially when compared to its privately owned competition, the original Market Street Railway and its predecessor, United Railroads.
In fact, the Muni was formed because of the poor track record of the URR, which ran streetcars, cable cars and even a horsecar line on Market Street. The United Railroads had multiple problems, including obsolete equipment, poor service and a terrible reputation.
Two of United Railroads’ top managers had been indicted on corruption charges in the graft trials that followed the 1906 earthquake, and the company had gone through a huge streetcar strike in 1907.
“It was one of the most violent strikes in American history,” said Emiliano Echeverria, a transit historian. There were street riots – strikers against strikebreakers with passengers caught in the middle. More than 20 people were killed and hundreds injured.
The birth of Muni
The company broke the strike, but it was a fatal victory. The strike, coupled with the sorry service offered by the URR – “a rambling wreck of a railroad,” Echeverria called it – swung public sentiment toward establishing a city-owned transit system.
“It was toward the end of the gilded age, the attitude of ‘the public be damned,’ ” Echeverria said. “It was thought that the people could do it better.”
So the Muni was born. The editors of transit industry magazines looked on with alarm – “San Francisco tries Socialism,” one headline read – as Muni grew with amazing speed.
Within six months, the Geary line was extended to the Ferry Building. Two years after the first car, the Stockton Street Tunnel was opened, and not long after that the railway had six lines and was carrying 20 million passengers a year.
Work had also begun on the new Twin Peaks Tunnel. More than 2 miles long, it was the longest streetcar tunnel in the world and a game-changer for San Francisco.
It opened up the western half of the city, until then a sparsely inhabited area of vegetable farms and sand dunes. There was some rail service offered by United Railroads to the area, but it was a roundabout route, out Haight Street and Lincoln Way or by way of Mission Street and Ocean Avenue. “It took forever,” said Laubscher.
When the tunnel was being built, real estate promoters put up a sign next to the new West Portal: “Seventeen Minutes to Kearny Street.”
Mayor Rolph drove the first streetcar through the tunnel on Feb. 3, 1918, and the West Portal and St. Francis Wood and Parkside districts grew up around the streetcar lines.
The year before, the Muni’s J-line had climbed over the hills to reach Noe Valley and the Mission District and, in 1927, the Sunset Tunnel, the last major project of that era, opened to cars on the new N-Judah line.
Rolph provided the political capital and city engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy provided the engineering muscle. The two had transformed San Francisco. Much of what people see now, everything from the Municipal Railway to the Great Highway at Ocean Beach, happened on their watch.
The city took pride in its city-owned railway. The streetcars were immaculate, and the system made money.
It was the days of the fondly remembered four streetcar tracks on Market Street – the private company’s cars on the inside tracks and Muni on the outside. The noise of the clanking, rumbling streetcars was tremendous. “The roar of the four,” it was called.
The bleak years
World War II nearly wrecked the transit system. Gasoline and tires were rationed, and the city was full of war workers, soldiers, sailors and Marines. The combined Muni and Market Street Railway carried 272.5 million passengers in 1944, the most ever.
That year the voters passed a bond issue to buy out the private, and much larger, Market Street Railway, and the systems merged. What the city got for $7.5 million was 440 elderly streetcars, 197 miles of track, 154 motor buses and nine electric trolley buses. Nearly everything was falling apart.
Starting in 1948, the Muni pretty much junked the old streetcar system, a process that went until 1956, when the last B cars ran out Geary to Playland-at-the-Beach.
In 1947 came the cruelest blow of all: Mayor Roger Lapham planned to junk the cable cars. The word leaked out in Herb Caen’s column in The Chronicle and caused a huge uproar.
The cable cars were saved, but nearly all the streetcar lines were scrapped: only the six from the early day were left, and those were spared mostly because buses couldn’t fit in the tunnels.
The Muni system by 1953, losing $4 million to $5 million a year, was pretty much an orphan with little political support. But a citizens’ revolt against a proposed citywide freeway system, with highways through the parks and along the waterfront, helped swing the pendulum the other way.
In 1973, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution giving priority to Muni and other transit vehicles on city streets – the famous “transit first policy.”
Nearly a decade earlier, in 1962, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties’ voters approved a bond measure to begin BART, which included a San Francisco subway.
Construction was a huge mess, and Muni planning for the subway was a muddle, but in 1980, the Muni Metro opened, and the system was transformed again.
And now the Muni has come full circle, critics and all.
The system’s latest project, the hugely expensive Central Subway, now under construction from South of Market to Chinatown, is still being described as a politically motivated boondoggle.
“They are ignoring their 75 existing lines and are being distracted by sexy building projects,” said Gerald Cauthen, a former Muni executive turned critic.
The Market Street subway, he said, is not operated efficiently so that at rush hour the trains are far too crowded. “They are just jammed,” he said.
The bus service on Stockton Street, he said, “is an insult to Chinatown.”
“I think the system is pretty weak now,” he said.
But Muni, even critics agree, is more than rail cars, cable cars and buses. “It’s the face of government in San Francisco,” said Laubscher. “Even if you don’t ride it, you see it every day if you are a motorist, or a pedestrian or anyone in the city.
“And when you ride it, you see a microcosm of San Francisco in the people on the Muni – all the good and bad of the city, all riding inside what is a big tin can.”
San Francisco Municipal Railway by the numbers
Dec. 28, 1912 Date of first operation
5 cents First fare
$2 Adult cash fare today
$64 Fast Pass (not including BART)
673,196 Current average weekday boardings
75 Transit routes
1,050 Transit vehicles
506 Diesel buses
313 Electric trolley buses
151 Light-rail vehicles
40 Historic streetcars
40 Cable cars
71.5 Miles of single light-rail track
8.8 Miles of cable car track
Carl Nolte is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org