The Market Street Railway

Historical Essay

by Isabelle Lemon

Recently, local historians have been enthralled with a video showing a streetcar traveling down Market Street toward the Ferry Building a short time before the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. As it moved slowly toward the Bay, pedestrians, cyclists, delivery vehicles, motor cars and horse-drawn trolleys criss-crossed its path.

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Trip down Market Street, 1906. This extremely rare footage of San Francisco was taken on April 14, 1906, only four days before the earthquake and shipped by train to New York for processing. This film was originally thought to be from 1905 until David Kiehn with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum conducted extensive research to fix the date. He determined this from New York trade papers announcing the film showing, to the wet streets from recent heavy rainfall and shadows indicating time of year and actual weather and conditions on historical record.

Video: Prelinger Archive

That film offers a fascinating look at transportation in San Francisco at the turn of the last century. The vehicle was part of the Market Street Railway that began operations in San Francisco 150 years ago, under a franchise granted by the California Legislature to Thomas Hayes, a local landowner after whom Hayes Valley and Hayes Street are named. Market Street was graded and the car pulled by steam dummies and later horses. It was the first railway on the Pacific Coast, developed by Francois Pioche.

Born in Paris, Pioche was secretary to the French Consul in Santiago, Chile, when he decided to join the Gold Rush to San Francisco in 1848. Once here, he became an importer of wine and by the mid-1850s, had established a reputable mercantile and banking house on the north side of Clay Street, just off Portsmouth Square.


This replica of the famous “White Front cars” is on display at the Market Street Railway Company Museum. The white front is one of the most remembered features of the Market Street Railway, which painted the fronts of their streetcars, cable cars and buses white so they could be seen in the fog.

Photo: Panorama

In 1851, he returned to Paris to boost San Francisco and its future. Coming back with about six million francs to invest, he proceeded to channel the money into many successful enterprises, becoming one of the primary builders of San Francisco.

His capital constructed one of the first railroads in California from Placerville to Folsom in 1856 and San Francisco’s first streetcar line, the Market Street Railway Company in 1857, resulting in the first car rolling down Market Street three years later to 16th and Valencia streets. The company operated both a horsecar and steam train line.

In 1868, Southern Pacific Railroad Company (SP) bought the Peninsula Railroad Company which included the Market Street Transit Company, purchased by Peninsula in 1868 in a foreclosure sale. SP had been given congressional approval to construct the western link of a transcontinental railroad.

A year later, the Central Pacific’s “Big Four” – Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford – purchased SP and all of its holdings, including the Market Street franchise. It wasn’t long before seven competing horsecar lines were in operation in San Francisco.

In 1873, with the advent of the cable car invented by Andrew Hallidie, cable-driven cars replaced the horse and opened up new routes. In 1882, Leland Stanford and Associates gained ownership of the Market Street Railway, renaming it the Market Street Cable Railway Company, and converted to cable with the first cable lines on Market Street in 1883, giving rise to the nickname of “The Slot” for Market Street and “South of the Slot” for the area toward Mission Street.

In 1893, SP acquired several city railway companies and consolidated them into the Market Street Railway Company, one of many transit companies operating in the city, often without regard for passenger or pedestrian safety. In addition to the Market Street Railway, there was also Metropolitan Railway and the Omnibus Company, among others.

With the invention of the electric streetcar, SP began converting all lines to electricity, except Market Street. In their infinite wisdom, city fathers deemed overhead lines on Market as ugly.

The conversion from horsecars to cable cars to electric cars gave rise to the development of “Carville-by-the-Sea,” as horsecars were moved to the western–edge of the city and some were converted to housing, saloons and clubhouses. It was around this time that citizens campaigned for public ownership of utilities with a successful vote in 1898, the new charter taking effect in 1900. This led to the creation of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) in 1912, formed to compete with United Railroads of San Francisco (URR). URR had consolidated many of the city’s railway lines and owned 404 streetcars, 374 cable cars, 77 horsecars and six steam locomotives.

Muni immediately began a massive building campaign, resulting in the Stockton Street and Twin Peaks tunnels. The first day of Muni service was on December 28, 1912, as 50,000 turned out for the celebration. The A line operated from Kearny and Market to Fulton Street at Golden Gate Park while the B line provided service on Geary from 10th to 33rd avenues. In June of 1913, the Geary line began service from the Ferry Building to Ocean Beach.

The competition for rail supremacy ended in 1921 when United Railroads, marred by corruption and passenger dissatisfaction, was acquired by the city and renamed the Market Street Railway. The Market Street Railway Company continued to operate until 1944 when a successful bond issue enabled Muni to purchase the little Market Street railroad that could and did for so long.

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Silent footage scenes from the 1920s of streetcars on Market Street, turning around at the Ferry Building, and the state-run Belt Line Railroad as it emerges from a pier and steams along the waterfront.

Video: Prelinger Archive

The name, Market Street Railway, lives again today in the nonprofit volunteer organization that works to preserve the story of the city’s historic transit past. Founded in 1976 by preservationists, the group’s most visible accomplishment is “Museums in Motion,” finding and restoring vintage streetcars for use in everyday transit. Today, Muni owns 85 historic streetcars, trolleys and trams from around the world. Of these, approximately 33 are currently operable, 14 are actively under restoration, and the remainder are being held for possible future restoration. They are a colorful reminder of our rail legacy and help Muni, the seventh largest transit system in the nation, serve approximately 700,000 riders daily.


View west on Market Street from top of Ferry Building, Oct.13, 1953.

Photo: SFMTA

Rick Laubscher, board chair and president of the Market Street Railway, was instrumental in the establishment of the F-line historic streetcars on Market Street when he was with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. He is currently working on a complete history of the Market Street Railway.

Market Street Railway has more than 1200 dedicated members and 75 active volunteers who cherish San Francisco’s storied transit history and work to preserve the historic streetcars, the cable cars and the fascinating history of rail service in San Francisco. You can learn more about the Market Street Railway Company by visiting the San Francisco Railway Museum, featuring artifacts, displays, photographs, and audio-visual exhibits. It is located at 77 Steuart Street behind the Hotel Vitale. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

This article originally appeared in Panorama, April-June, 2010 Vol. 22, No. 2, the newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.