For more than a century, streetcars have rumbled down San Francisco's streets whisking locals to and from work and home and delighting visitors from around the globe. They've influenced much of the city's development and connected many of its neighborhoods. Every car is a work of art and nearly every foot of track is laden with history. And all of you have to do to experience it, is hop on board.
Well, over the years, trolley cars, municipal railway cars, have had a long rich history in American cities and right here in San Francisco. In fact, one car that still runs here was purchased in 1912 by San Francisco Muni and it is the very first municipal railway car in America.
Each trolley has a story to tell and Rick Laubscher knows their stories well. He is the president of Market Street Railway, a non-profit group whose mission is to preserve and promote San Francisco's trolley history. Unless you hear the rumble, you feel the vibration under your feet, you hear the bell and see it run in its natural environment, you don't have a full appreciation of it," says Rick.
Rick loves to ride the rails any chance he gets. He says it's a great way to see the city and that there's more historic sites within a short walking distance of this line than any other transit line in America.
Today, Rick is taking me on the F-line which runs six miles along Market Street and the Embarcadero down to Fisherman's Wharf. Muni operates 32 historic streetcars from all over the world and no two look the same. Rick shows me a seat on a trolley that flips around to allow passengers to face forward in either direction. He also points out the little touches in each car including the bullet eye glasses and little lights in a 1930's Los Angeles streetcar. You can learn about each car's design and history by reading the signs posted on the walls.
Rick points out on one historic car, you could be riding the very same streetcar your great grandfather or your great grandmother may have ridden. As we roll along, Rick shows us landmarks and neighborhoods that he says exist because of these streetcars.
"This is our richest history is the history of our urban environment and San Francisco transit built that environment because none of this would exist without the transit lines that came here first," says Rick.
In the 1920's the ferry terminal was once of the busiest transportation hubs in the world. According to Rick, six or seven hundred streetcars would go around big loops in front of the ferry terminal during rush hour. The influx of people brought in by ferries and streetcars turned this area into a bustling business center. These days, only one of the 50 streetcar lines remain. But it's still as busy as ever.
Francesca Tapia is a streetcar conductor whose been shuttling people to and fro since 1997. She explains that two bells means "go" and one bell means "stop" and a whole bunch of bells means there's an emergency. Francesca loves working the cars, meeting the passengers and helping to carry on a San Francisco tradition. She says the best part is driving a piece of history down Market Street and hearing the passengers admire the beauty of each car.
And keeping these cars beautiful is no easy task. It takes dedication, skill and plenty of hard work. At the railway yard near Market and Duboce, volunteers spend hundreds of hours piecing together each cars' past. We stroll through an international array of cars in various stages of disrepair, each with its own fascinating history.
One car Rick shows me came from Russia, as a cold war gift to the city of San Francisco. According to Rick, they believe it was once used to shuttle Russian soldiers to and from the front during World War II.
Another work in progress includes this car built in San Francisco in 1924. At one point, this car was transformed into an office building. Now, it's being restored once more to ride the rails. Rick shows me the hand-cut sign above the driver that shows some of the places the car used to serve such as Daily City and Colma.
Although the streetcar routes have changed over the years, the cars themselves have not. They are still an integral part of San Francisco, whisking us around the city and into a piece of San Francisco's past, anytime we take a ride.