Trolleys Haul Full Load

Times Staff Writer

This city by the bay prides itself on many things: fine restaurants, a dramatic skyline, a cosmopolitan life style and good public transportation.

You can get almost anywhere on the BART trains, the light-rail vehicles (modern streetcars), regular transit buses, trackless trolleys (electric buses) and, of course, the fabled cable cars. They give riders a varied and efficient way to go.

What then, you wonder, are those old streetcars doing--rattling, squeaking, groaning and clanging their way up and down Market Street?


They’re the colorful stars of San Francisco’s Historic Trolley Festival, a summer event that started inauspiciously two years ago as a fill-in for the cable cars, one of the city’s most popular and enduring attractions.

The cable car system had been shut down for a complete overhaul and restoration, you’ll remember, and the old trolleys were rolled out--literally from around the world--to appease disappointed tourists.

Here to Stay

They proved so popular that San Francisco decided to keep them around. Not even the beloved cable cars, when they started running again, could bump the old trolleys back into oblivion.

And oblivion, as well as many faraway places, is where these vintage streetcars came from.

How about a ride on a trolley that saw its best days in Melbourne, Australia? Or a spin on the Red Baron from Hamburg? Or on a “boat” trolley--the English call them trams--from Blackpool, England?

Just hop aboard at any of the regular transit stops on Market Street. If the Melbourne or Hamburg car has just passed, there will be another along soon from Italy; Veracruz, Mexico; Portugal; St. Louis, or Portland, Ore. Or an ancient car from the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s own fleet, including Car No. 1, once the pride of the system, might just happen along.

Back to ‘20s

For 60 cents--the same fare that riders pay on Muni’s sleek, new light-rail vehicles, buses and trolley buses--you can join hordes of tourists and the city’s regular commuters on a ride reminiscent of the 1920s when streetcars were at the peak of their popularity. In those days they were the principal way to get around most medium-size and large cities.


Since late May, when Mayor Dianne Feinstein took the controls of Muni’s 73-year-old Car No. 1 to open this summer’s Trolley Festival, 15 streetcars from other years have been plying a two-mile route up Market Street from the Transbay Terminal to 17th and Castro.

An Old Route

The route ranges from the canyons formed by the financial district’s glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers to upper Market’s Eureka Valley neighborhood--a path streetcars have followed for 125 consecutive years. The city claims it is a record for continuous trolley service on a main street.

Barring any breakdowns by the creaking old-timers, the festival streetcars run daily from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., a schedule they will follow until mid-October.

Clearly the festival has caught on. Not only are the relic trolleys showing their stuff every day, compared to a five-day week last year, but the mayor, dispelling any doubts about the trolleys’ future, has promised that they will be an annual Market Street attraction.

This year the city, with the support of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which conceived the trolley gathering, is putting up $673,000 to keep the old streetcars running. In fact, the historic fleet has become part of Muni’s regular transit system. The number of trolleys also has grown. There were only 11 last year.

The acknowledged leader, of course, is old No. 1, built in 1912 when the municipally operated system was just getting started. Decked out in fresh paint and new rattan seats, the double-ended, cowcatcher-equipped car still sports its original Morris Supreme Oleomargarine and Fels Naphtha soap advertising cards above the windows.


But perky No. 1 has competition. Transit experts say this summer’s fleet comprises one of the world’s most unusual and diversified collections of working trolleys. Under the direction of Rick Laubscher, a Bechtel Corp. executive and the festival’s volunteer manager, San Francisco begged, borrowed and dug into its own trolley graveyard to assemble the old-timers.

On Market Street

The patriarch is a stubby 90-year-old once operated by the privately owned Market Street Railway Co. For many years the company’s trolleys competed with the municipal railway’s streetcars for passengers on San Francisco’s busy Market Street.

The festival fleet also has two “youngsters,” both built in 1952 but in widely separated parts of the world.

One is a PCC trolley, so named for the Presidents’ Conference Committee, a transit officials’ group formed many years ago. San Francisco’s PCC streetcar was turned out by the St. Louis Car Co. and is the last of 4,500 such cars the company built for a short-lived revival of the nation’s urban transit systems during the 1930s and 1940s.

The other is the trim Red Baron, a survivor of dozens of powerful tram cars that Hamburg built to resurrect the city’s streetcar system, which was devastated by World War II bombs. When the German city’s last tram line shut down in 1978 the long, narrow car was donated to San Francisco. Forgotten in storage, it eventually was put back into shape by Muni workers who had sharpened their skills on intricate restoration jobs on San Francisco’s cable cars.

The favorites of most riders, though, are the festival’s two Blackpool trams. Topless and with waist-high sides, they resemble elongated whale boats as they roll up and down Market Street. When San Francisco’s fog rolls in, though, it is almost as if they are back home again in the English seaside city.


These twin open-air trolley “boats” were built in 1934 and for many years helped perpetuate the tradition of sightseeing excursions along the coast that Blackpool tourists have enjoyed since 1885.

Despite their ages and years of hard use, the festival’s streetcars are clean and well-maintained.

The Melbourne trolley, for example, is a 1930 jewel with polished wood interior, shutter-like roll-up windows and center boarding platforms. The car served for more than 50 years on Melbourne’s extensive tramway system before it was retired from service last year and shipped across the Pacific to join the festival fleet.

A Portuguese Trolley

Another international favorite boasting even more years of service is the tiny trolley from Porto, Portugal. About the size of a San Francisco cable car, it operated along the coastal Portuguese city’s narrow streets, which aren’t wide enough for standard streetcars, for 70 years. The car underwent a complete overhaul 50 years ago, but its mahogany and oak interior and decorative scrollwork still retain some luster half a century later.

Like all the festival trolleys, the little car from Porto is getting a workout. A festival official says they’re all carrying “swinging loads.” In transit talk, he says, that means they’re full.