San Francisco is a city full of nicknames — City by the Bay, the dreaded Frisco or San Fran, Paris of the West and Baghdad by the Bay, to name but a few.
Another one, long out of fashion, was coined before the Panama-Pacific International Exposition 100 years ago by President William Howard Taft. While visiting, he learned firsthand how San Francisco citizens helped pave the way for that world’s fair, calling us The City That Knows How.
One reason Taft bequeathed San Francisco as such was the immense amount of civic support that went into building the expo grounds for the world’s fair. As San Francisco celebrates the event’s centennial this year, much focus has been on the city within a city that stood for much of 1915, and was largely lost to history save for the Palace of Fine Arts and some other artifacts.
But there is another major contribution from the expo that continues to impact the lives of tens of thousands of residents every day.
The world’s fair helped birth Muni.
HOPE BURNS ETERNAL
The 1906 earthquake was devastating in its own right, but the fires it sparked are what really destroyed half of The City. Amid reconstruction in the years that followed, San Franciscans found renewed optimism. Adding to the upswell of hope, on Jan. 3, 1911, Congress announced that The City would host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, or world’s fair, in 1915.
“It was a time when San Franciscans really came to embrace what was possible,” Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway historical group, told The San Francisco Examiner.
Despite all the good cheer, one major problem loomed for hosting the world’s fair. At Muni’s inception in 1912, the agency owned just 10 streetcars, which ran from the Ferry Building and down Geary Boulevard. The cars ran east-west, but not north-south.
“Muni was a dwarf at the time,” Laubscher said.
The fair was certain to draw millions and so public transit was going to be a necessity.
At the time, few train lines stopped near the fair’s future site at Harbor View, which today is Cow Hollow.
Horses trotting down Market Street were a much more common site than automobiles or trains. Overpriced jitneys, or taxis, rolled for the rich. Neither of these options would be sufficient for fair visitors.
And those famous cable cars? The City did not consider new cable lines for the expo because of the expense of the infrastructure and the obsolete technology, Laubscher said. It was cheaper to do things like build the Stockton Tunnel, which San Francisco still uses today. That resulted in a far faster trip to the Marina from Market and Stockton streets than cable cars could have provided.
The final decision was that San Francisco needed to expand its streetcar fleet.
Thus, City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy drafted street-rail plans to transport as many as 8.4 million visitors, according to transit historian Grant Ute’s “Fair, Please: Public Transportation To and Through San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.”
The City first approached the privately owned United Railroad, or URR, a fierce competitor to Muni at the time. But public sentiment was against URR.
For one thing, two streetcar workers died during a 1907 strike against URR for fair wages, which became known as “Bloody Tuesday.” And as San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency historian Robert Callwell told The Examiner, URR allegedly bribed mayors to get overhead lines built in The City.
“Absolutely, people hated URR. There’s no doubt about that,” Callwell said.
So when URR pressured The City to make outsized concessions in exchange for expanding toward Harbor View, Laubscher said, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph Jr. and the Board of Supervisors made a decision.
The sentiment, as Laubscher put it, was: “Screw it, we’ll do it ourselves.”
MUNI’S GREAT EXPANSION
Rolph lobbied “10 city groups a day,” Callwell said, and the result was a bond approved by San Francisco voters to expand city-run rail. Muni blossomed in 1914, creating six new train lines, purchasing a seventh and building the Stockton Tunnel.
The first four lines directly served the world’s fair. A flat steel gray with red accents, the new Muni streetcars rolled out across The City.
The D-Van Ness ran from the Ferry Building to Geary Street, Van Ness Avenue, Union Street and then its end point at Chestnut Street at the edge of the fairgrounds. The F-Chestnut was known as the Fort Mason Loop, running along Stockton Street, Columbus Avenue and Van Ness Avenue.
The H-Potrero ferried folks from Potrero Avenue and 25th Street north to Bay Street.
San Francisco also purchased a line from URR and renamed it the E-Embarcadero, which ran from the waterfront to the Presidio along Columbus Avenue. This summer, the SFMTA said it plans to restart the line, which would run through a tunnel under Fort Mason by Aquatic Park.
Three other lines were also created and temporarily served the world’s fair before being rerouted — the G-Stockton-Union-Exposition ran along Union Street, the I-33rd Avenue-Exposition ran along Geary Boulevard and the J-Columbus traversed Columbus Avenue, but has no relation to the current J light-rail line.
This being San Francisco, hills had a significant impact on the infrastructure design. A pernicious one along Stockton Street, for instance, stood in the way of laying new track.
“Streetcars are far too heavy to climb hills,” said Brian Leadingham, manager of the San Francisco Railway Museum.
The City opted to just cut straight through the rock, creating the Stockton Tunnel that today is exclusively used by automobile traffic.
All of this infrastructure, Laubscher said, “was a game-changer.”
On the opening day of the world’s fair, Muni operated 177 train cars, a far cry from its initial 10-strong fleet. Those trains carried more than 80,000 people in its inaugural run to the glittering lights and vast wonders of the expo.
The ghosts of Muni lines to the world’s fair linger today, historians say.
“If you ride the 30-Stockton bus,” Laubscher said, “you’re riding a line that came into existence for the Pan-Pacific International Exposition.”
The 41-Union, 47-Van Ness and other north-south bus routes were created thanks to the existing streetcar lines, Laubscher said. Also, he added, the fair generated “public enthusiasm” to burrow into Twin Peaks to create Muni’s K-Ingleside, L-Taraval and M-Ocean View light-rail lines.
Laubscher lamented how much public perception around mass transit has shifted since then. San Francisco’s optimism helped spark an explosion of mass transit in 1915 that the region relies on heavily even still, he said. But in 2015, the public finds massive investments like BART or high-speed rail controversial and large-scale projects become mired in political fights, leaving the public to keep paying at the pump to get around.
Birth of Muni
To learn more about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s influence on the birth of Muni, visit the exhibit at the San Francisco Railway Museum and Gift Shop at 77 Steuart St. near The Embarcadero or visit www.streetcar.org.
From the Examiner