Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.co

Old Curiosity Shop for Sept. 2019: Bobby Boy’s Adventures in MuniLand

Back in August 1967, I came home from work one day and my [first] wife greeted me with, “I just told Sharon (a classmate at LA State College) that you would drive a truckload of her furniture to her new home.”  Needless to say, I was not pleased at being “volunteered” without being asked, but calmed down when she told me, “Sharon is moving to Berkeley.”  Oh! That put a whole new light on the situation.  For some time I had been hearing from fellow electric railway fans about the Municipal Railway in San Francisco and how it still had electric streetcars running on five different routes.


In 1967, we had blonde young ladies in Southern California, but the only streetcars were the few survivors at Orange Empire Trolley Museum.  This photo was given to me by a fellow railfan who had been to MuniLand the previous year.

But in the 1960s, I was “financially challenged”, and San Francisco might as well have been on the far side of the moon.  Sharon’s college transfer was my free ride and place to crash when I got to the Bay Area. My first task was to rent a 14’ box truck from Simon Rents in Monrovia.  As I recall, it was a GMC with a V-6 gasoline engine and a stick shift.  After going through the rental process, I drove it over to Sharon’s home near the college, and left it to be loaded.  The next morning, Rosemary drove me over there, and Sharon, her two small sons, and I headed west, then north.  Part of the deal was that I got to stop at railroad locations for photos.  First stop was in Santa Maria.  One of my memories from driving to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1958-59 was going north on Broadway (this was before the bypass freeway was built) and crossing a railroad track.  But in the late 1950s, my interest in railways was very mild, and I was usually in a hurry to get back to the campus, so I went on by and didn’t stop to investigate.  This time I could follow up on my curiosity and turned east along the track and found the Santa Maria Valley RR yard and engine house.  Although their last steam locomotive had been retired several years earlier, they still had the standpipe and water tower in place.

SMVRR hauled sugar beets, other agricultural products and supplies, and building materials.  This scene has vanished-- the yard and buildings were one big vacant lot the last time I came through here a few years ago.  The railroad was still running, but was cut back to tracks between the west side of Santa Maria and the Union Pacific connection at Guadalupe.

From Santa Maria we continued north to my old college town of San Luis Obispo.  I had hoped to get photos of the Southern Pacific roundhouse, but it had been torn down a few years after I left "Cow Poly."  I did get photos of a rare Fairbanks-Morse diesel switcher, and chatted with an SP man who remembered the old narrow-gauge railroad that ran between San Luis and Los Olivos until 1940.  The switcher used an engine that was originally developed for submarines, and it and its mate were usually kept in the Bay Area, where SP had some engine mechanics who had been in the US Navy during the war and knew all about F-M diesels.  The cars behind the locomotive were old wood-sided gondola cars with extended wooden sides for carrying sugar beets.  Although wooden freight cars were becoming scarce, these were kept in service because all-steel cars tended to “cook” the beets.  Sugar beets used to be a major crop in California until economic conditions changed and made them uneconomical, and some of the fields were taken over by housing developments.

After this side trip, it was heading north to Berkeley.  We arrived late in the day, and just unloaded enough to camp out in the house.  Next day we started to unload furniture and other household good, and got everything into the house except the refrigerator.  Getting this heavy appliance up the several steps of the front porch was more than Sharon and I could manage. She said she’d call some people she knew up here and get some help.  I took advantage of the break and went to the Southern Pacific tracks a few blocks away for some train watching.  By the time I got back, two young men in colorful attire (remember, this was Berkeley in 1967) were getting the fridge moved in and all was well.  This was back when one would see bumper stickers reading  “IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE POLICE, NEXT TIME YOU’RE IN TROUBLE CALL A HIPPIE”.  This wasn’t a police matter, and the “hippies” were very helpful.  Just goes to show, everybody has a place in this world.

Now it was time to begin the main reason why I was so delighted to undertake this task-- San Francisco Municipal Railway, known to the locals as “Muni.”  Although there weren’t nearly as many streetcar lines as there were in the 1920s, Muni still had five very busy routes.  Sharon’s house in Berkeley was less than two blocks from San Pablo Ave., which had frequent service by the AC Transit 72 bus, which replaced the Key System 72 streetcar line in 1948, and still runs today.   Another survivor from the Key System is the F bus, which crosses the Bay Bridge and in those days went to the now-vanished East Bay Terminal.  Note that the BART system would not open for another five years.  The 72 and the F got me to San Francisco, where I had seen the cable cars in 1959, but was unaware of the electric streetcars.  In those days, all Muni trolley lines started at East Bay Terminal.  When I got off the F bus, I went downstairs, but went a level too far, and came out through a tunnel at street level.  I looked up and saw the streetcar loading area, walked around and boarded the first car that was open. This was Muni 1007, one of ten cars that had opened the PCC streamliner service on Muni car lines.  I rode it out Market Sreet and into the Twin Peaks Tunnel. I noticed blue and white lights flashing and was later told that they were a speed control system to keep motormen from running through the tunnel too fast.  Some years later when the music group Three Dog Night recorded Shambala, the line “How do the lights shine, in the halls of Shambala..” reminded me of this unique experience.

When we got to West Portal, the outer end of the tunnel, 1007, stopped and passengers were instructed to catch the next car, because it was being turned around and would head back downtown for more passengers.

Note that 1007 was built as a double-ended car (like all of the cars that ran on Pacific Electric) but was modified for single ended operation in the 1950s.  The headlight at what became the rear end was converted into a third tail light,

After backing around onto the L line, which branches off at West Portal, the car goes forward and heads back into the tunnel.

Considering that this photo is from over 50 years ago, we can presume that the dapper gentleman on the left is no longer with us, and the little girl is now middle-aged.

After taking in the scene at West Portal, it was time to get on board the next car, which happened to be going out on the M line.  When I rode this car to the end of the M, I was as far south as one could go on a full time electric railway west of El Paso, Texas.

When I took this photo, I was standing in front of Furlough’s Tonsorial Parlor-- in San Francisco, even the neighborhood barber shop adds a bit of class.  I later learned that the streetcars in the 1100 class were second hand from St. Louis, Missouri, where the last trolley line had been abandoned the year before.

Another aspect of life in SF was the suburban rail service operated by Southern Pacific between San Jose and The City.  Locally known as commutes, these trains were the only local service of this type west of Chicago.  Not until 1992 would Los Angeles see suburban rail passenger service return in the form of Metrolink, and the San Francisco operation, now run by Caltrain, still has more frequent service.  Most of these trains were powered by 2400 horsepower Fairbanks Morse diesels, big brothers to the switcher I had seen in San Luis.  The cars were a mix of old coaches from the 1920s and modern gallery cars with seating on two levels.

No business casual here!  Properly dressed commuters head for the electric bus loading area for the short trip to the financial district.  Rush hour commute trains could carry hundreds of passengers.  Note the ads for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and for horse racing at Bay Meadows.  The racetrack lasted until 2008, when it was demolished and the site was redeveloped with commercial, office and residential buildings.  Another horse racing track that was served by this line was Tanforan, but it was already gone, destroyed by fire in 1964.

During the midday hours, the locomotives for the commute trains would rest in this yard south of the SP station, waiting for rush hour, when trains would be leaving The City at 10 to 20 minute intervals.  Back in the 1960s, there was one train that left SF around 5:20 pm and ran non-stop to California Ave., the next stop beyond Palo Alto.

The shape of things to come in the Bay Area was revealed when I found this tunnel-boring machine that was built for the BART project. 

I’ve always been fascinated by railway work cars, and running the PE tower car and LARy derrick car at Orange Empire have been some of my most memorable experiences.  Muni has line car 0304 that was built in 1900 as a streetcar and converted into a line car in 1907.  It has been modified several times over the years and at last report still runs.  I found it at the Geneva Car House on Labor Day and learned that it would be out late that night for work inside Twin Peaks Tunnel.  Joined by two other rail fans and an off-duty Muni motorman, we hung around West Portal after midnight, and watched this relic come out of the tunnel to clear the “owl” streetcars.  At one point I took an owl car into the tunnel, got off at the Forest Hills station, and asked the line car motorman to sound the Pacific Electric-style air whistle when he came out of the tunnel for the fan who brought a tape recorder.  Finally the crew wrapped up the late night tasks.  One of the members of our group had his car at West Portal, so we followed 0304 back to the barn, soaking up the sounds of iron wheels on steel rails. By the time 0304 was tied down, some of the first streetcars for the morning runs were pulling out.  I had an all-day Muni pass that was good until 5:00 AM the next day, so I boarded a pull-out car at 4:50 and headed back to East Bay Terminal.  I caught an AC Transit F bus, expecting to get off at San Pablo Ave., but the all-nighter had been too much and I fell asleep halfway across the Bay Bridge, and didn’t wake up until we reached the end of the line in downtown Berkeley.  Time for Plan B-- I caught a University Avenue bus that would get me within walking distance of Sharon’s house, went there, packed my bags and went to the nearby SP station, just in time to catch the eastbound San Joaquin back to Los Angeles.  We must have gone around the Tehachapi Loop, but I was in the “organism dormant” mode by then.

The reason for the all-nighter-- vintage Muni line car 0304.  Note the red barn lanterns that could be deployed around work area.

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