In San Francisco, people sometimes rub their eyes when they see an almost century-old streetcar signposted “Milan” hurtling toward them.
Seeing it, or its brethren marked “Melbourne” or “Zurich,” may make you feel you’ve really, really lost your way. But the city’s 30+ vintage streetcars from around the world are truly museums in motion.
If you’re lucky, you’ll ride a Caribbean-colored turquoise streetcar with an orange stripe, signposted Washington D.C. Transit, whose façade notes it’s an affiliate of Trans Caribbean Airways. Or a seafoam-colored streetcar with a red stripe, marked El Paso-Juarez, whose front depicts US and Mexican flags. Perhaps a canary-yellow black-striped streetcar marked Cincinnati, dubbed the “Cincy Bumblebee,” or a bold red and orange streetcar named Los Angeles, a city not known for public transit.
Streetcars Named Undesirable
Streetcars once ran in dozens of North American cities during the 20th century. No more. After World War II, an exodus to the suburbs and urban transit economies spelled doom, as buses and subways replaced streetcars almost everywhere else. But not in San Francisco, which acquired and refurbished old streetcars from North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.
Most were built in the 1940s, some in the 1920s. All were given up by their home cities, destined for the junk heap. But they found new life in San Francisco, the greenest city in the U.S., notes the Siemens U.S. and Canada Green City Index, the first to require recycling and composting for all homes, businesses and events.
How the city of San Francisco acquired its vintage streetcars is an astounding story (and a lesson on just what a bunch of activists long on vision but short on money can do). Most streetcars were purchased, some at a purely nominal fee, by the city’s transit agency (San Francisco Municipal Railway, MUNI for short) or by a nonprofit that champions historic transit in San Francisco, called the Market Street Railway. Others were free.
Rick Laubscher, the long-time Market Street Railway president, once persuaded Australia’s state of Victoria, who had a trade office in San Francisco, to donate a Melbourne streetcar in 2009, and finagled free shipping from FedEx. (The city already had one Melbourne streetcar, which his nonprofit purchased for $5,000.)
Later, he convinced officials in Blackpool, England, a seaside resort, to donate an unusual 1934 boat-shaped open-air streetcar in 2013. He then persuaded Bechtel, the construction firm he worked for, to ship it free.
Maurice Klebolt, a travel agent, part-time MUNI operator and full-time advocate for acquiring foreign streetcars for his city, just showed up on the steps of City Hall in 1979 lugging a Hamburg, Germany streetcar on a flatbed truck, and presented it to Mayor (now Senator) Dianne Feinstein as a surprise gift.
After convincing Hamburg officials to donate it since they were installing a new subway, he raised the money to ship it home from Germany (including $1,500 of his own money), getting a discount rate on the Hapag-Lloyd shipping line. The silver-tongued Klebolt even persuaded the Soviet Union to donate and ship a streetcar in 1986 in the name of world peace.
“We try to be creative. We’re a lean, volunteer-run group with no paid employees, and some generous donors,” says Laubscher, whose nonprofit is supported entirely by member dues and donations, and receives no government funds. “We’ve alerted MUNl to opportunities for 45 years – for example, when Newark was retiring its streetcar fleet – and keep up with industry news. When the time comes, we’re ready.”
He adds, “We try to create a win-win situation. We tell them our city is one of the most-visited in the US, whose citizens cheer old streetcars on, and that it’s a good promotional tool for their destination.”
F for Fabulous
Called the F line, the vintage electric streetcars run from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro District, on Market Street downtown and the Embarcadero next to the bay. The steel streetcars run on tracks with overhead wires, cost the same as any bus or light-rail streetcar in the city’s system, $3, and are often taken by locals.
After five years of annual Historic Trolley Festivals in the city in 1983-87, featuring old-fashioned streetcars loaned by cities around the globe, which drummed up public enthusiasm, the F began running in 1995. It resumed running in May 2021, after a 13-month COVID-induced hibernation, when the city’s Mayor rode the Blackpool “boat tram,” where a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag waves from a rope.
Some vintage streetcars are from the same city whose sign is displayed, like 10 Milan streetcars built in 1929. Others are “tribute streetcars,” like the streetcar from Minneapolis-St. Paul marked Toronto, which honors the city that once had the most PCC streetcars in North America.
The PCC, a streamlined design faster, quieter and more comfortable to ride, was named for the Presidents Conference Commission transit executives who developed it to improve streetcars that were often slow, noisy and drafty. Eventually, 4,500 PCC streetcars ran in 33 North American cities.
Ironically, the last city to get them, San Francisco (not until 1952), fell in love with them, ending up running streetcars abandoned by their hometowns. If you hanker to ride a specific tram, like the tropical-hued D.C. Transit gem, a real-time map shows where each streetcar is located at any given time.
The San Francisco Railway Museum
The free San Francisco Railway Museum tells the history of the city’s streetcars and cable cars. (Cable cars are very different. The wooden cars, invented in 1873 in the city, move by gripping underground cables between the tracks, powered by an engine in a central warehouse, and climb up and down steep hills. The only ones of their type left in the world, they’re the first mobile National Historic Landmark in the U.S. Beloved by tourists, they cost $8.)
The museum, located, very fittingly, at an F stop across from the Ferry Building (which has, as well as ferries to Sausalito and other towns, artisanal food vendors, restaurants and a Farmers Market on the bay), is operated by the Market Street Railway.