SAN FRANCISCO'S PIONEER ELECTRIC RAILWAY
SAN FRANCISCO & SAN MATEO RAILWAY COMPANY
By Walter Rice Ph.D. and Emiliano Echeverria
It was a day characterized by drizzling rain. February 2, 1888 Frank
Julian Sprague successfully proved the electric streetcar was both
technically and economially feasible. By the summer of 1888 Sprague's
Richmond, Virginia experiment had heralded the start of a new industry.
Horse cars, urban steam dummies, and cable cars were now obsolete. By
the turn of the century, there were approximately 100,000 trolley cars
in service in the United States compared with twenty-two thousand horse
cars before the introduction of electric traction. Trolley cars had
created millions of dollars in real estate values as they had opened up
to development neighborhoods in great metropolitan centers and small
Behrend, Isaac and Fabian Joost had extensive property holdings in the
then isolated Sunnyside area of south western San Francisco. To the
brothers Joost, Frank Sprague had provided the method whereby they
could transform Sunnyside into a successful real estate venture. Why
not? San Francisco had grown 28 per cent in the decade of the 1880s. Expansion
was the mood of the times.
The Joosts attraction to the electric car is easy to understand.
Streetcars had greater speed and capacity than other urban transport
modes allowing for more passengers per hour and greater revenues, and
streetcar lines typically had much lower construction and operating
San Francisco's pioneer electric railway, the San Francisco & San Mateo
Railway Co. (SF & SM Railway) was incorporated in 1890, only two years
after Sprague's Richmond success. The Joosts and their associates were
the incorporators. Behrend Joost was the initial company President,
while his brother, Fabian served as Vice President. J.W. Hartzell, who
was later to be a builder of the "Napa Valley Route" interurban,
served in the capacity of Secretary and General Manager.
The SF & SM Railway was destined to be responsible for two of San
Francisco's most interesting trolley car operations, namely, the "San
Mateo Interurban" No. 40 Line, and the "18th and Park" No. 33 Line.
The 33-line was famous for its Upper Market Street switchback that
enabled the line to climb the lower slopes of Twin Peaks. A curve at
Market and Clayton would be too sharp for cars to negotiate.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors granted the required franchise to
operate in San Francisco on December 23, 1890. By July 29, 1891, track
was completed to the San Mateo county line. San Mateo county granted
franchises for the railway to build from the county line to Holy Cross
Cemetery. Later the SF & SM (in late 1893) extended trackage to
Baden (South San Francisco). The S.S. Construction Company, the
contractor, was closely associated with the SF & SM Railway. Both
companies had the same Boards of Directors.
April 27, 1892, was opening day. The line ran from near the important
Union Ferry building at the foot of Market Street via Steuart,
Harrison, Fourteenth, Guerrero, San Jose Avenue, to 30th Street.
Inbound to avoid the steep grade on Harrison at Third Street, which
electric cars could not reliably climb, the route was via Harrison,
Eighth, Bryant, Stanly (later Sterling) to Harrison.
At 30th Street, passengers transferred to continue their journey via
30th, Chenery, Diamond, and San Jose Avenue to the county line. From
the county line the railway followed the side of the old San Jose Road
to Daly's Hill (Daly City) and then the side of the "Old Mission Road"
to Holy Cross Cemetery.
S.S. Construction used fifty-pound T and girder rail to build the
line. The route was doubled tracked to 30th Street. At first,
beyond 30th Street the line was single-track with turnouts. This was
gradually double tracked. Double tracking was completed by the end of
An impressive engineering feature of the line was the high trestle on
Harrison Street over Second Street. It was a joint project of the
company and the City of San Francisco. The purpose of the trestle was
to bridge the Second Street Rincon Hill cut (today, the hill is gone).
In 1868, the Second Street cut had been excavated to provide commercial
access to the southern waterfront from the center of the city. A
counterweight system was installed to slow the descent of outbound cars
to Third Street. A weight, hung from the trestle at Second Street,
designed to counter the effects of gravity was attached to passing cars.
The weight was soon deemed to be superfluous and was removed by 1893.
Another large trestle bridged the canyon on Diamond Street between
Bosworth and Chenery, in the Glen Park area.
The line's initial rolling stock consisted of two classes of cars.
All cars were "California" type cars with very short open section at
both ends and a center closed section. They featured deck roofs with
"Bombay" windows on the ends. Twenty-six feet long single truck
cars ( Nos. 1-15) were used as far as 30th Street. A San Francisco
product, O'Brien & Sons built Nos. 1-15 at their Golden Gate Avenue
plant. Twenty-eight feet long double truck cars (Nos. 16-27) made the
run to Baden. Likewise a San Francisco product, John Hammond built
them, at his plant on Fremont near Market. They had Thompson-Houston
motors, and McGuire trucks.
The power house and adjacent car house were at the corner of Sunnyside
(now Monterey Blvd.) and Circular Avenue, a block off San Jose Road.
Electric power was supplied by General Electric dynamos and motors
powered by coal fired Corliss type stationary steam engines, built by
Risdon Iron & Locomotive Works at their factory at Howard and Beale
Streets. (Corliss type steam engines had a single cylindrical
horizontal oscillating valve.) The Superintendent's office was at
102-30th Street, the corner of San Jose Avenue. Other offices were in
the Chronicle building at the corner of Kearny and Market.
The explanation of the circuitous San Francisco routing was that rival
companies already had the franchises on major streets, such as Valencia
and Mission Streets. Unfortunately for management, none of the San
Francisco streets traversed by the SF & SM generated sufficient
traffic to render the line profitable. Subsequent trolley operations on
these streets were consistent money losers, even during the economic
heyday of the San Francisco streetcar, the 1920s.
After the SF & SM came under the control, in 1902, of the United
Railroads of San Francisco (URR) management, the interurban line was
extended thirteen miles from Baden to San Mateo and routed directly to
downtown San Francisco via the populated Mission Street corridor. The
result of these changes was that the San Mateo line became one of the
system's most profitable.
During 1892, average monthly revenues were $18,000, or $216,000 on an
annualized basis. By 1894, annual revenues had declined slightly to
$210,000. Revenues and ridership patterns during the initial period of
operation were "stable." Average daily ridership was 11,560; or
4,200,000 annually, all on a five-cent fare. Even so, earnings did not
meet expenses. This was partially because two-thirds of the route, the
section beyond 30th Street, was sparsely settled. Behrend and Fabian
Joost found their Sunnyside area lot sales slower than anticipated.
Financially the SF & SM Railway was a disappointment both as a railway
and real estate development.
The SF & SM poor safety record only worsened the line's precarious
financial situation. The SF & SM had a reputation for "mishaps."
Particularly dangerous locations were the steep downgrades on Harrison
Street between Second and Third Streets, and Chenery Street between
30th and Diamond Streets. Unlike the Harrison Street counterweight
system, the Chenery Street grade received no attention to slow the
descent of the trolleys. It was the scene of several grisly run-a-ways.
This problem persisted until the company relaid the curve with an easier
radius, equipped existing cars and the cars that began arriving in 1894
with better brakes. Opening day in 1892, a boy was seriously injured
on Chenery Street, while on January 27, 1894, 21 people were injured
when a car ran away on Chenery Street Hill. Barely nine months later,
on August 27, 1894, car No. 21 sped down the Chenery Street Hill trying
to avoid being struck by an out-of-control funeral car. One woman was
killed and two injured.
A month earlier cars Nos. 30 and 32 met head-on at Holy Cross
Cemetery. A Howard Street cable car collided with car No. 5 at Howard
and Steuart Streets also in July. On December 7, 1899, car No. 27
ran away down the Harrison Street Hill and hit a freight wagon fatally
injuring a passenger and seriously injuring three others.
By July 1894, six new cars arrived from the Carter Bros. plant in
Newark, California. SF & SM Railway intended these cars for their new
18th Street branch. Built in 1892 and opened by the fall of that
year, this line ran on 18th Street from the main line (Guerrero) to
Douglass. The route was the first phase of a line designed to offer
direct competitive service from the Mission District for the lucrative
Golden Gate Park trade. The new Carter Bros. cars, however, were
assigned to serve the cemeteries' trade. They provided through service
from the Ferry to Baden, eliminating the 30th Street transfer. Numbered
28 through 33, they followed the standard SF&SM California design
with two open sections and an enclosed center section. The cars were
equipped with a single Brill 21-E truck with "K" type controllers.
They had the distinction of being San Francisco's first streetcars to
have front windows.
By May 19, 1894, the 18th & Park branch had reached Frederick and
Ashbury Streets, five blocks short of the Park. The line could go no
farther to tap the potentially profitable Park traffic because the
rival Market Street Railway was determined to maintain its monopoly.
The Market Street Railway controlled the franchise on Frederick
Street. The City Railroad horsecar company had built cable car tracks
on Frederick Street in 1891 (a company controlled by the Market Street
Railway). These tracks were never used and the franchise was about to
expire due to lack of use. Market Street Railway had other plans.
They strung trolley wire over the unused cable car tracks and created
the little-known Page and Frederick Street line. This action blocked
the SF & SM Railway's access to the Park.
By the middle of August of 1894, this track and wire were ready, and
service with one car was established on August 20. This was the first
trolley operation of the Market Street Railway, two weeks in advance of
the Market's purchase of the Metropolitan (San Francisco's second
streetcar company) and three weeks before the September 15 opening of
the Market's Mission Street streetcar line. A car was borrowed from the
nearby Metropolitan Railway, whose power house supplied the electricity.
Ironically, the car used was one of the cars that was originally
intended for use on the abortive Frederick Street cable car line. The
car was re gauged to standard gauge from the Metropolitan's 5' gauge to
operate on the formerly unused cable car tracks.
Financial pressures proved too much, and by the end of May 1894, the
company went into receivership. The court appointed, as receiver,
Sanford Bennett of Dunham, Carrigan, & Hayden Co. (DC& H), a major
creditor. DC& H had supplied the electrical apparatus for both the cars
and the power house. In September, the employees sued for $12,000 of
On October 16, 1894, Samuel B. McLenegan on behalf of the receiver sent
a letter to the management of the Market Street Railway asking
permission to use the Frederick Street tracks the two short blocks
from Ashbury to Clayton. Permission was granted and the completed 18th
& Park line opened on November 25, 1894. The change in SF & SM
management to one that had a more prominent place in the world of San
Francisco finance was partially responsible for the Market Street
The new line was characteristically constructed as a single track line
with turnouts. By 1897 it was double tracked. The route was as
follows: From Guerrero Streets via Eighteenth, Caselli, Falcon (Market),
Caselli (Clayton), Park Road (Ashbury and Clayton Streets), Ashbury,
Frederick, Clayton, Waller to Stanyan Street.
Management found a new source of revenue in 1893. September 17 of that
year was the first day of funeral train service to the Colma
cemeteries. Express motor No. 32 pulling the trailer "Cypress Lawn"
made the initial journey. Almost a year later, August 27, funeral car
service began as the SF & SM had modified the "Cypress Lawn" into a
motor car. It was later to become funeral car No. 1. The Great
Earthquake of 1906 destroyed the "Cypress Lawn," at the 29th & Mission
SF & SM funeral cars would transport mourners and the deceased to the
grave site at Mt. Olivet, Holy Cross and Woodlawn cemeteries via
connecting trackage owned by the cemeteries. The cemeteries provided
still further SF & SM revenues, since its cars carried throngs of
Sunday mourners (who would often make an outing of the trip) paying
their respect to the dead.
The receiver reported on May 11, 1895 the road had earned "from
operations $24,435" during the prior twelve months. The problem was the
current interest owed on the outstanding $1,100,000 first mortgage
bonds was more than double this amount. Despite the performance of the
receiver, the economic burden of the mortgage bonds was too great to
permanently forestall foreclosure, sale and reorganization.
SAN FRANCISCO & SAN MATEO ELECTRIC RAILWAY
On April 11, 1896, the bondholders sold the line. On May 1 the new
group of investors assumed ownership. They included Adolf B. and John
D. Spreckels, John Buck, Nicholas Ohlandt, and W. D. K. Gibson. Adolph
Spreckels became President, and John Buck became Vice President. The
investor group consisted of prominent San Franciscans from the city's
social and financial elite. Adolf Spreckels' wife Alma, for example, was
largely responsible for San Francisco's beautiful Legion of Honor and
its great art collection. Importantly, the privately held (all of the
capital stock was owned by the directors) new company had no funded
debt. The reorganized company adopted the name San Francisco & San
Mateo Electric Railway.
The new management made several improvements. Fifty pound girder rail
was replaced with 85-pound rail in 1897. Two years later, the
private-right-of-way beyond the county line was renewed with 58-pound
T-rail (except for paved streets, where rapid wearing out of the
pavement next to the rail will occur, T-rail provided streetcar
operators most economical rail investment).
During 1898, the new company added four Carter Bros. built cars to the
roster Nos. 34-37. These were single truck California type cars with
Brill 21-A trucks and K-10 controllers. This order was followed in
March 1900 by an order of ten carsNos. 41-50 delivered from J.
Hammond. Also, California type cars they had steam coach style
roofs. They were twenty-eight feet long, making them along with Nos.
16-27 the smallest double truck electric cars run in San Francisco.
This class had an interesting history. In 1905 two of these cars
became Post Office (closed-pouch) cars. Both burned in 1906. The
underframe of one of these became derrick car No. 0131, which the Muni,
in 1956, finally scrapped. One car was sold to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery
Association as their No. 2, while another car became Reno Traction
Company No. 3. Yet another car became United Railroads (URR) wrecker
No. 0673 in 1907, then line car No. 0304, in 1910. This car is still in
service on the Muni in 2000. In 1919 four of these cars were rebuilt as
Pay-As-You-Enter (PAYE) cars. URR Nos .727-730 were assigned. Except
cars No. 0131 and No. 0304, all of the surviving cars were scrapped
In 1901, the company made its last, and largest, purchase of cars.
Built by St. Louis Car Co., numbered 52-70, this order was not only the
largest streetcar order by an independent San Francisco company, but
at a length of 44' 8" these were the San Francisco biggest cars
purchased to date. As was company standard, they were of classic
California type design. These St. Louis products had steam coach roofs,
a seven-window center section, and McGuire trucks. W. L. Holman Co.
built an earlier car, No. 51, later URR No. 681, as a prototype for this
series, but it was four feet (one window) shorter than the rest of this
series. They were primarily assigned to Baden service.
Soon after the URR take over in 1902, car No. 61 was rebuilt into a
luxury private party car, the "San Francisco." At the same time car No.
67 was rebuilt into a funeral car and assigned the No. 2. Still later it
was rebuilt again, this time it became the "Sierra" a private party car.
The "San Francisco" lasted into the late 1940s being used by the URR's
successors the Market Street Railway and the Muni. Today the body of the
"San Francisco" is at the Western Railway Museum awaiting restoration.
During 1897 the company began a successful lobbying campaign with the
San Mateo County Board of Supervisors for the necessary franchises to
complete the line to San Mateo. Surveys of the proposed route were
conducted during 1899-1900. The final franchises for the City of San
Mateo were granted on May 12, 1900. Construction of the extension to
San Mateo began on January 25, 1901. The pace of the construction
effort, however, was slow.
In addition, during 1900 and the early URR era, there was talk of
extending the route to San Jose via Mayfield and Mountain View.
Nothing became of these plans.
By 1899, the original power and car house at Sunnyside were regarded
as inadequate for the company's needs. To this end, they purchased
the land at Geneva and San Jose Avenues to construct new facilities.
Work began on the new car barn on July 15, 1900.
Power would now be purchased from the Independent Electric Company
plant in the Potrero. Electricity would feed it to a transformer
building at the south end of the new property. Four 400 k.w.
Westinghouse transformers were installed. The Sunnyside Power Plant
was replaced by the new transformer building December 22, 1900. On
January 4, 1901, a fierce gale blew the roof off the old Power House.
The new imposing brick San Mateo car house was completed on April 22,
1901. Service commenced from there the following day. At this time
Sunnyside was closed as an operating division. However, the buildings
at Sunnyside were used for another decade and a half for storage of
obsolete cars and other company materials. This new building, known as
the "Geneva Car House" after September 16, 1909, was in use until closed
by the Municipal Railway during September of 1982. As of 2000, the
office building of the old Geneva car barn is still standing, despite
the fact it was heavily damaged it in the 1989 earthquake. It faces an
The five director owners of the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric
Railway were apparently handsomely compensated for their investment.
Since the company was privately held there were no public financial
statements. On May 12, 1901, their company was purchased by the
"Baltimore Syndicate" for $1,650,000. The purchase was financed by
Brown Bros & Company, 59 Wall Street, New York City. It was extensively
rumored, at the time, that the Syndicate was looking for other electric
railway properties in the Bay Area. The new owners accelerated the
extension to San Mateo, and, quietly, began negotiations with the
Southern Pacific to purchase the Market Street Railway.
On March 20, 1902, under the organizational structure of the United
Railways Investment Co., of San Francisco (a New Jersey corporation) all
San Francisco street railways were consolidated with exception of the
California Street Cable Railroad Company, Geary Street, Park & Ocean
Railroad and the Presidio & Ferries Railroad (the Union Street line).
This new amalgamated corporation became the United Railroads of San
At the time of the Syndicate purchase the San Francisco & San Mateo
Electric Railway had 36 miles of track (single track) and 75 motor cars,
including non-revenue equipment. Just before becoming part of the URR,
service was operated on the main line from after five in the morning to
after midnight. The exception being Baden service, which did not
start until after 8:30 a.m. The last outbound Baden trip left the
Ferry approximately 5:20 p.m. When cars did not run to Baden, service
ended either at Colma or Holy Cross Cemetery. The last 18th Street
branch car left for the Park at 11:43 p.m. and returned from the Park at
midnight. A Danvers only (switchback) trip ran at 12:35 p.m
The URR rushed to completion the San Mateo extension. This was completed
with the standard single track with passing sidings trackage by January
1, 1903, to fulfill San Mateo County franchise requirements. The first
car to arrive in San Mateo was line car 0301 that arrived on December
26, 1902. Service began as a shuttle operation between Baden and San
Mateo on New Year's Day, 1903, with single-truck car No. 572 having the
distinction of making the first revenue trip. The successful San Mateo
Interurban (the 40-line) under the managements of the URR, the Market
Street Railway (1921-1944) and San Francisco Municipal Railway
(1944-1949) lasted until January 15, 1949.
The 18th & Park branch became San Francisco's first trolleybus line in
1935. Certain trips of the 8-Market operated streetcar service on 18th
Street between Castro and Caselli Avenue until December 17, 1944. City
routes 10-Sunnyside and 26- Ocean View operated over the old Guerrero,
Fourteenth, Chenery, Monterey Boulevard and San Jose Avenue segments of
SF &SM. The 26 was abandoned in 1938, but was replaced for
approximately one year, by a branch of the 9-Valencia south of 30th
Street. Partial 26-line service from Mission and Onondaga to Daly City
Hilltop was restored briefly at the end of World War II. After 1940,
the 10 line operated as a rail service only during the rush hours. This
service was abandoned in April 1942. Other trackage abandonments of the
former S.F.& S.M. included Harrison, 8th Street, 14th Street (east of
Mission) and Sterling Streets in 1935 and Bryant Street in 1948.
14-Mission and 40-line pull-outs and pull-ins used the track on San Jose
Avenue between the Geneva car house and Daly City "hill top" until
their January 1949 abandonment. The track on Ocean Avenue, east of San
Jose Avenue and Onondaga, lasted until October 1952 as the outer end of
the Muni extended K-Ingleside line.
This left, until 1979, only a two-block segment on San Jose Avenue,
between Ocean and Niagara Avenues, as the last SF & SM Railway trackage
alignment still in use. This trackage enabled Muni's "last" five
remaining streetcar lines to use the former San Mateo line car house. In
that year, the Muni resurrected part of the original SF & SM alignment,
from Geneva Avenue down San Jose Avenue to Broad Street, for the
M-Ocean View extension. In 1991 for the J-Church extension, still
more SF & SM Railway trackage was resurrected along San Jose Avenue
between Baden (immediately west of today's 280 freeway) and Ocean
Avenue. The J-line extension traverses the old Southern Pacific grade
through the Bernal cut to San Jose Avenue, to 30th Street, to Church.
The section on 30th Street between Chenery and San Jose is also on the
site of the San Francisco & San Mateo main line.
Today with San Francisco again expanding its streetcar network, coupled
with the nationwide light rail movement, urban transit clearly is still
in the debt of Frank Julian Sprague and the pioneer streetcar
entrepreneurs who showed the economic feasibility and desirability of
Risdon Iron and Locomotive Works.
The Risdon Iron and Locomotive Works, the supplier to SF & SM of their
Corliss type steam engines, was San Francisco's fourth largest
manufacturer of heavy machinery. Founded in the early eighteen fifties
as the Coffey and Risdon Boiler Works, at the corner of Bush and Market
Streets. The company grew steadily over the next ten years, expanding
from boiler making into machinery building and the manufacture of cast
and sheet iron pipe.
In 1872 the company became known as the Risdon Iron and Locomotive
Works, and relocated to the corner of Howard and Beale Streets. At this
location car wheels for the Southern Pacific Railroad and its street
railway subsidiaries were a major product.
Sensing the end to the mining equipment business, Risdon further
diversified by supplying the needs of emerging electric railways by
fabricating Corliss type steam engines, condensers, overhead wire
hardware and poles. Corliss engines of 500 and 1,000 horse power were
sold to, besides the SF&SM, the Metropolitan Railway Co. (San Francisco)
and the Oakland, San Leandro & Hayward Electric Railway.
Thanks to: Don Holmgren
Go to San Francisco Streetcar Index.
E. Rice, Ph.D., is the Chair of the Board of Directors of "The Friends
of the Cable Car Museum." The Museum is at the Washington-Mason cable car
barn in San Francisco. Walter, a native San Franciscan, has written many
transportation articles dealing with cable cars, streetcars, and railroads.
He coauthored, Of Cables and Grips, San Francisco's Cable Cars and The
Saga of the Overfair Railway Pacifics, From Panama to Poly. He resides
in San Luis Obispo, California.
J. Echeverria is a San Francisco transportation historian. His large personal
collection of San Francisco transportation artifacts reflects his broad
knowledge, love and enthusiasm for the City and its transportation legacy.
He is currently assisting in the production of a San Francisco 1940's-1950's
streetcar video entitled The Roar of the Four. Emiliano worked for the
Muni's cable car division. He resides in San Francisco.
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