When Steam Ran on The Streets of San Francisco

Part - III

By Walter Rice Ph.D. and Emiliano Echeverria

Note: This is the final part of a three-part series. In Part I (Live Steam, November/December 1999) Harbor View, Ocean/Beach and Lands End operations were chronicled. Part II (Live Steam, January/February 2001) dealt with Market Street steam operations.

"The Great Sand Waste" or the "Outside Lands" were the names San Franciscans of the 1880s called the area west of Central (Presidio) Avenue. This area, approximately one-tenth of today's San Francisco, which is bounded by roughly Golden Gate Park on the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Presidio and west of 25th Avenue the Sea Cliff District and Lincoln Park to the north, and Central Avenue in the east became known as the Richmond District in 1890. Since 1917, the Inner Richmond officially has been known as Park-Presidio, but the name still in common usage is the Inner Richmond.

Richmond was the name of an estate of an early settler from Australia named Marsh. Marsh felt the "Outside Lands" reminded him of his birthplace in Australia -- Richmond, which in turn was named after the English Tudor Castle on the river Thames. The new name would be much more attractive to potential settlers.

The Richmond's three big early draws of civilization, after strawberries and potatoes, were the legendary ocean-beach Cliff House, since 1863, the Point Lobos Toll Road from 1865, now known as Geary Blvd. (named for San Francisco's first mayor) and Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park, particularly the Inner-Richmond side near 5th/7th Avenues and “D” Street (Fulton), offered the nearly 300,000 San Franciscans of this era many recreational diversions and pleasures. At the site of today's tennis courts a band shelter offered concerts, horticulture was highlighted in the still standing Conservatory of Flowers, the children had a playground the first of its kind in the country, and many walkways offered secluded picnic tables and shelters. At this time the Park was only about one-third complete. Close by was the Bay District Race Track (known as "Golden Gate Park" from 1868 until 1871) to add to the enjoyment.

From the opening of the cemeteries at nearby Lone Mountain, Central Avenue (originally called Cemetery Avenue) became first a major transit destination, and then later a major transfer point. At first, horse drawn omnibuses served the area. The Central Railroad began horse car service in April 1864, followed by Sutter Street Railroad's horse cars in 1870.

By April 1888, four cable car companies -- the California Street Cable Railroad Company (1879), Sutter Street Railroad (1879), Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad (1880) and the Ferries & Cliff House Railway Company (1888) -- used Central Avenue as their most western point. The whistle of steam engines began echoing in the sand dunes of the Richmond in 1880, when the "steam motors" of the Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad began their journeys to the Park.

Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad

The Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad (GSP&O), an enterprise of Charles F. Crocker and associates, traversing San Francisco's principal east-west thoroughfare was typical of most of the City's cable car companies -- a success from its opening. While the cable line was under construction in 1879, the company obtained an additional franchise to provide "steam motor" service west of Central Avenue to Golden Gate Park. Both the cable line and the connecting steam line opened for business on February 16, 1880, as five-foot gauge roads.

Economics argued against a cable car service west of Central Avenue. Population density was too sparse and traffic too subject to seasonal variations (expected to be mostly Sunday and holidays) to justify the initial large investment required of a cable car system. Steam operation could commence for a fraction of the investment cost of cable technology. The strong Sunday ridership pattern of the line was reflected in the road's schedules -- twenty-five percent more cable car service was operated Sundays compared with weekday schedules.

At Central Avenue passengers transferred from cable to steam power. The 1.9 mile double-track line ran from Central Avenue via Point Lobos (Geary), First Avenue (Arguello), and along the north side of "D" Street (Fulton) to 5th Avenue, stopping beside the Park. The company built a small wooden station at this location.

Four 0-4-0T steam dummies were purchased. Being tank engines, they carried their own water supply. A wooden car body, designed to resemble that of a horse drawn streetcar camouflaged the locomotive's boiler. Neither horses nor the local populace was fooled. Horses were still frightened. Locals ultimately convinced the company to replace the "noisy, sooty and smoky nuisance" steam dummies with an extension of cable car service.

Philadelphia';s Baldwin Locomotive Works built three of the line's four steam dummies in October 1879. Baldwin finished No. 4 in May 1880. The Baldwin Locomotive Works was very proud of these steam dummies or "steam motors" as they called them. All had 31" drivers. Nos. 1 and 3 had vertical boilers, whereas Nos. 2 and 4 were equipped with horizontal boilers. Cylinders were 10" x 12", except No. 4's cylinders were 10" x 14."

The powerhouse for the 2.1 mile Geary Street cable line was at the approximate midpoint of the line, Buchanan Street. This was often the practice for cable roads. Occasionally when the cable west of the powerhouse would go down the steam dummies would venture as far east as Buchanan Street, operating on what was usually cable trackage. For a steam dummy, the 9.2 per cent grade between Baker and Lyon was quite steep. This fact was not lost upon by the Baldwin Locomotive Works who placed ads in many trade papers promoting the tractive power of their products. Motor No. 2 was generally featured in these trade publications.

Nine cars were acquired for the Park steam line. Six cars, "A " through F" were twelve windowed, double truck passenger coaches of that era with clerestory roofs. These cars were used to meet the heavy Sunday traffic. Three cars, "6" through "8" were eight window two axle cars former horse cars apparently built by Stephenson. Typically, these three cars made up the sole weekday train set.

During February 1885, the Ocean Beach Railway (OBRy) was chartered, and shortly after that obtained a franchise to operate horsecar service along Point Lobos Road to the beach. The line was originally built from First Avenue to 24th Avenue. It was soon extended to 33rd Avenue, where beach bound passengers transferred to a horse drawn omnibus to complete their journey. The GSP&O steam dummies connected with the OBRy at First Avenue. Importantly, this connection generated intially significant traffic for the steam dummies.

During April 1887, controlling ownership passed from that of the original owners -- the Charles F. Crocker interests -- to that of the owners of Market Street Cable Railway (along with the horsecar lines of the Central and City Railroads). The ownership of the Market Street Cable Railway at this time was identical with that of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The Geary line, nevertheless, continued as a separate company. The reason was that 40% of the GSP&O stock was held by Robert Morrow, President of the parallel Sutter Street Railroad. Morrow had no interest in relinquishing his holding to such a powerful competitor. This situation continued until Morrow sold his railroad holdings to the Brown Brothers, who in 1902 created the United Railroads of San Francisco. Since the GSP&O franchise was about to expire, the company continued as a separate entity. The end came on May 5, 1912 when the City took over the Geary Street cable road to convert it to the first electric lines of the Municipal Railway.

During January of 1891, the new management accepted the protests against the steam dummies, promising that when the city laid the sewer system on Point Lobos Avenue to 5th Avenue, they would extend the cable line. Simultaneous with the extension construction, the entire Geary Street cable line was to be rebuilt to Market Street technology standards. This included converting the track to 4'-8˝.” The line was out of service most of the summer of 1892, while this construction occurred. The rebuilding of the GSP&O as a cable line was somewhat surprising since San Francisco already had two electric railways in operation.

Steam dummy service continued on First Avenue between Point Lobos and "D" Street during the construction, but was abandoned on Point Lobos. The Market Street Cable Railway had extended its McAllister line from Stanyan via "D" Street to between 7th and 8th Avenues in early 1892. The truncated steam dummy service permitted passengers to use the McAllister cable car and transfer at First Avenue to reach the cemeteries. The GSP&O retained a single set of equipment for this service. Cemeteries during this era were an important source of revenues, since it was common to have throngs of Sunday mourners (who would often make an outing of the trip) paying their respect to the dead.

By the time the steam dummy line had ended on Point Lobos Avenue, the Ocean Beach Railway’s connecting horsecars had been abandoned without replacement. It had been made redundant with the opening of the Ferries and Cliff House direct to the beach "Cliff" steam line.

Although some poles were erected along the old horsecar line in anticipation of electric service by the successor Market Street Railway, no replacement rail service was operated west of 5th Avenue on Point Lobos (Geary Blvd.) until the opening of the Municipal Railway in 1912. The sole exception was after 1896, the Sutro Railroad';s electric line that ran west of 33rd Avenue.

Cable car service began operating from Market and Geary Streets to Golden Gate Park via 5th Avenue, instead of First Avenue, on August 7, 1892, and with it the First Avenue steam line was closed. A new brick cable car barn was opened on the site of the former steam car barn at Point Lobos and First Avenue (this building is still standing).

Although now an exclusive cable operation, steam was still important to the GSP&O since steam powered the line's cables. The company's powerhouse remained in the original two-story wooden building at the northeast corner of Geary and Buchanan Streets. Power equipment consisted of two batteries of boilers, each 208 horsepower and two 250-hp high pressure O'Neil type Corliss steam engines with 18 x 48 inch cylinders. The manufacture was the Union Iron Works of San Francisco.

The abandoned First Avenue steam tracks became the subject of a legal battle for their removal. The unused track had soon fallen into a state of major disrepair creating a hazard for wagons. Even before abandonment spotty maintenance characterized the steam dummy trackage. Since the streets in the Richmond were paved at best with gravel but were typically just sandy mud, the gauge and alignment of the tracks often suffered. One day in 1890, there were four recorded derailments at Point Lobos and First Avenue due to track deterioration! Finally in 1895, the City forced the Market Street Railway (the majority owner) to remove this abandoned trackage.

In 1893, the company's now surplus steam dummies were sold. No. 3, and possibly the other vertical boiler dummy No. 1, were sold to the Douglas Street Railway, Douglas, Arizona Territory. No. 2 became No. 4 of the Crescent City & Smith River Railroad Company, a common carrier railroad operating out of Crescent City, California. No. 4 was sold to the Navarro Mill Co. for which it was converted to standard gauge and resold in 1910 to the Glen Blair Redwood Co. becoming No. 3 In 1947, it was purchased by the Union Lumber Co. becoming No. 1. Today, this ex-GSP&O steam motor is on display at the Lumber Museum at Fort Bragg, California.

Golden Gate Park via 7th Avenue

The April 1887 change in the controlling ownership of the Geary Street Park & Ocean Railroad to that of the Market Street Cable Railway (Southern Pacific) provided an additional incentive to build the 7th Avenue branch for the rival Sutro interests. Adolf Sutro, owner of much ocean front property, had been locked in a struggle with the Market Street owners over the issue of the Market's policy of charging a ten-cents fare to reach Ocean Beach. Sutro advocated a five-cents fare to attract larger crowds to his operations.

Ultimately, Adolf Sutro successfully prevailed on his fellow capitalists, notably his cousin the financier Gustav Sutro, to build the new Powell-Jackson cable line to Central Avenue with connecting steam lines. He was also successful in having the new Ferries & Cliff House Railway Company (also called the Powell Street Railway) adopt a fare policy of charging only five cents for a combined cable-steam trip from downtown to the ocean front properties he owned. Cable car service started April 5, 1888, and the connecting steam trains began in July of that year. The company began running a second cable car line to Central Avenue and California via Jackson -- the Ferries & Cliff House line or Sacramento line, starting that September 30.

Besides the main three-foot gauge steam line that ran from Central Avenue to Lands End -- the "Cliff Line" (refer to Part I (All Aboard to the Water "Playgrounds" of San Francisco)) -- the company built a one-mile branch to Golden Gate Park. This line left the main California Street line at 7th Avenue, ran south on 7th Avenue to Golden Gate Park at "D" Street (Fulton). The branch ended the Market's monopoly on the lucrative Richmond District Park trade. Adolf Sutro had found still another way to pay back the Market’s owners for not offering a five-cent fare.

Golden Gate Park 7th Avenue trains began their trips at Central Avenue and California Streets. Seventh Avenue, like the mainline on California Street, was a double track operation. The tracks converged to a single track at "D" Street, crossed "D" Street and entered a station within the boundary of Golden Gate Park. The peaked roof station building is still in existence and still proudly displays its "Powell St. R.R. Co. Park Entrance" sign, after one-hundred and eighteen years.

Eight Baldwin built 0-4-2T locomotives were acquired by the Ferries & Cliff House Railway between 1887 and 1889 for its steam operations (see Part I for locomotive details). These engines were not configured as steam dummies. Being tank engines they were easily bi-directional. Large headlights and pilots were found on both ends. Because the railway did not have any turntables other than at the roundhouse, the engines were operated cab first inbound to Central Avenue. Upon reaching a terminal the engine was uncoupled, run around the car(s) and reattached to the train set for the return trip.

Sixteen passenger cars built by Mahoney Bros. of San Francisco provided the line's passenger stock. The locomotives serviced both the main line and the 7th Avenue branch, but combination (open and closed sections) cars Nos. 12 through 16 were assigned to the Golden Gate Park service. Service was frequent and well patronized from the beginning.

Despite the company's success, Gustav Sutro was unable to fund out of operating revenues the large fixed charges he had incurred in the form of bonded indebtedness. The inevitable happened on October 14, 1893 when Sutro sold all his railway holdings, including his interest in the Ferries & Cliff House Railway to the Pacific Development Company, a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific. The result was the merger of the Ferries & Cliff House Railway with the Market Street Cable Railway, Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company and two horsecar companies under the name Market Street Railway.

Gustav Sutro was not alone in suffering financial reversals -- 1893 was a year of financial depression for San Francisco. To turn the depressed economy around, M. H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, decided that San Francisco was in need of its own world's fair. De Young immediately began to rally public enthusiasm for such a fair. Soon he convinced the Golden Gate Park Commission to grant Concert Valley near the Inner Richmond as the site of the exposition. Only five months after the ground breaking the California Midwinter International Exposition opened on January 27, 1894. A theme of the fair was to remind visitors that California, even in January was an exotic land of sunshine! When the fair closed on July 4th "San Francisco Day", more than 1,300,000 visitors had come to see the buildings and exotic exhibits, laid out on the leveled sand hills of the park. Most of the fair goers had arrived by cable car. Many had enjoyed a journey on the 7th Avenue steam line.

At the time of the Midwinter International Exposition "D" Street near 7th Avenue consisted of a notorious conglomeration of business establishments known as "Beertown." "Beertown" had sprung up during one of San Francisco's periodic "cleanup campaigns." These politically inspired moves seldom eliminated vice, however they did tend to relocate it --; in this instance to the Richmond District.

The combination of the new ownership and the Midwinter Exposition changed forever the 7th Avenue steam line. During January of 1894, the line was extended from 7th Avenue west on "D"; Street to 24th Avenue. Golden Gate Park was being developed farther west. A "casino" and a speedway were further incentives for the expansion. Unlike 7th Avenue, the new trackage was a single track line located next to the northern boundary of "D" Street. An intermediate stop was made for the "Boat House" (which was located within the Park).

During March 1894 the Market Street Railway built a depot at 7th Avenue and California Street. Both the Cliff and Park steam dummy lines after that used as their eastern terminal a location between 6th and 7th Avenues, instead of Central Avenue. Passengers to and from the downtown now had to use the Market Street's Sacramento cable at 6th Avenue. Previously, patrons of the California Street Cable Railroad could transfer free (under an agreement with previous management) at Central Avenue to either the Cliff or Park Steam dummy lines. The effect on this change was to create a monopoly for the Market Street Railway for both the Cliff and Park trade. Many complaints followed.

Despite the extension and the Midwinter Exposition, the 7th Avenue line required no additional locomotives or cars. This was because the Market Street Railway decided to handle the Exposition crowds by expanding cable car service. Sixteen ex-Omnibus Howard Street cable cars were reassigned to the McAllister cable. On November 2, 1891, the Ferries & Cliff House Railway had opened Sacramento-Clay line from the Ferry via Clay, Larkin, Sacramento to Walnut Street (return via Sacramento direct to the Ferry). A little more than twenty-seven months later, on February 19, 1894, the Market Street Railway extended this line from Walnut Street via Lake and 6th Avenue to "D" Street to serve the Exposition. Twenty new combination cable cars from Carter Brothers were added to the fleet (although extensively rebuilt, some of the current Powell Street cable cars were part of this order).

After the Exposition ended, the Market Street Railway soon realized it could not economically justify a cable car line on 6th Avenue and a steam line one block west on 7th Avenue, both serving the same destination. On November 17, 1894, the Golden Gate Park steam branch was reduced to a Sunday only shuttle on "D" street between 9th Avenue and 24th Avenue, the site of a new "casino." Trains left 9th Avenue every half hour from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fares were not collected in either direction. No train service was operated on 7th Avenue except the Sunday pull-outs and pull-ins from and to the California and Laurel roundhouse, and one daily round trip in the early mornings that served to hold the franchise. Many in the Richmond District felt that the Market Street Railway had invalidated its franchise for lack of service.

This service pattern remained in effect until August 16, 1896. On that date, the Sunday only trains began operating between 7th Avenue and 18th Avenue at twenty minute intervals, from noon until 6:00 p.m. Fares were now collected and free transfers were issued to and received from the Geary Street, McAllister and Sacramento Street cable lines.

This unusual "D"; Street Sunday only steam train operated (with various terminals ranging from 7th Avenue to 24th Avenue) for more than a eight years. After the Market Street Railway came under the control, in 1902, of the United Railroads of San Francisco management the "D" Street steam line was almost immediately discontinued. During fall of that year the last whistle of the shuttle was blown.

Meanwhile in November 1901 both the McAllister and Geary Street cable car lines were extended to a terminal between 11th and 12th Avenues to service a company owned amusement park, the Chutes. The first half of 1902 saw the Sutro Railroad extend its electric line from "D" street and 8th Avenue using the rails of the McAllister cable line to 11th Avenue. By the summer of 1903 the electric line reached 24th Avenue.

The initial replacement service for the steam shuttle was a lone streetcar shuttle from 11th Avenue to 24th Avenue (Stowe Lake). The Eddy & Fulton streetcar line that reached the Park from Downtown via 8th Avenue replaced the shuttle. After the 1906 Earthquake service was provided by newly electrified McAllister line that was soon extended to 36th Ave to serve the new Cairns Hotel. "D" Street was now often called "Fulton Street Extension." The word "Extension" was soon dropped. The name was not officially changed until 1909.

The scattered resorts along outer Fulton Street during these early years are forgotten and with one exception gone -- the Cairns Hotel. Today the southern Richmond District is an integral part of the city by the Golden Gate.


The legacy of the Midwinter Exposition was to provide San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with a permanent series of world class recreational and educational facilities including a Music Concourse, the de Young Museum, Academy of Science, Hall of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden. Both the First and 7th Avenue steam lines and the cable car and later electric lines that once served this part of San Francisco help make these facilities possible by providing economical and convenient public access.

Today the City of San Francisco is seriously evaluating the feasibility of providing direct rail service to this area of the Park. The proposal, known as the "G-Line," would create another heritage streetcar line (San Francisco already has the highly successful "F-Line") which would connect Fisherman's Wharf, Downtown and the Park via mostly existing trackage. Perhaps steel wheels running on steel rails will again provide economical and convenient public access to Golden Gate Park.

The authors wish to “thank” Don Holmgren for his invaluable suggestions.

Company Rosters


No. Type Cyl. Dr. Boiler Type Builder Date C/N
1 0-4-OT 10x12 31 Verical Baldwin 10/1879 4803

Sold to (probably) Douglas Street Railway, Douglas, Arizona Territory

No. Type Cyl. Dr. Boiler Type Builder Date C/N
2 0-4-OT 10x12 31 Horizontal Baldwin 10/1879 4827

Became No. 4 Crescent City & Smith River Railroad Company

No. Type Cyl. Dr. Boiler Type Builder Date C/N
3 0-4-OT 10x12 31 Verical Baldwin 10/1879 4817

Sold to Douglas Street Railway, Douglas, Arizona Territory

No. Type Cyl. Dr. Boiler Type Builder Date C/N
4 0-4-OT 10x14 31 Horizontal Baldwin 5/1880 5115

No. 4 was sold to the Navarro Mill Co., resold in 1910 to the Glen Blair Redwood Co. becoming No. 3 In 1947, it was purchased by the Union Lumber Co. becoming No. 1.Currently No. 4 is on display at Fort Bragg, California.

Note on Douglas Street Railway -- This was a standard gauge operation approximately two miles long, connecting smelters and Douglas. Only one steam motor was operated from approximately 1902 until 1906, when the line was electrified. The motor was nicknamed the "Peanut Roaster."

Note on Crescent City & Smith River Railroad Company - Hobbs Wall & Co., a San Francisco based company, built the Crescent City & Smith River Railroad to connect its logging camps with its milling operations at Crescent City, California. The first rail was laid in 1884. Over its operating history the line ranged in length between twelve and 19 miles. In 1908, Hobbs Wall & Co. organized the Del Norte Southern Railroad. The creation of the Del Norte Southern, as a separate company, was a legal move by Hobbs Wall to reorganize the railroad as a common carrier. The purpose of the reorganization was to use eminent domain to obtain the right-of-way for a 10-mile extension to Mill Creek. The railroad ran sporadically through the Great Depression and a series of labor disputes. On Feb. 22, 1939 all employees were laid off. Operations were never resumed. Rail was removed for the war effort in the early 1940s. On July 24, 1941 the line's remaining locomotives were sold to Arron Ferer& Sons Company, and were scrapped. (thanks to Joe Lacey)


Refer to end of When Steam Ran on the Streets of San Francisco, Part 1.

Published in two-parts, Live Steam Magazine Jan/Feb issue and March/April 2002 issue.

Go to Part I (All Aboard to the Water "Playgrounds" of San Francisco)

Go to Part II (San Francisco’s Main Stem -- Market Street)

Go to Part IV (From the Mission District to the Pacific Ocean - "Reaches the Beaches")

Go to SF cable car lines in detail

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Copyright 2002-2005 by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria. All rights reserved.

Last updated 01-Sep-2005