SAN FRANCISCO — 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.