A Brief History of the San Francisco Trolleys

Does anyone else remember the Rice-a-Roni “The San Francisco Treat” commercials from the 70s? I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Rice-a-Roni or even know what’s happened to the company, but I remember the trolleys from the commercials and always wanted to ride one.

So, this was one of the first things I did upon arriving in the city. I took one of the historic line cable cars up Powell to Fisherman’s wharf… and back. They’re slow, bumpy and amazing considering it’s a cable system that pulls these machines up the massive San Francisco hills. And, when it’s time to turn the car around or switch routes, each cable car is turned manually by a human.

Trolleys came to San Francisco in the 1870s to put an end to the practice of using horses to pull streetcars up the steep hills. Often these horses would slide on the wet cobblestones… sometimes backwards to their deaths. I don’t believe any of the cars from that era are still in active service (the oldest seems to be #578, an 1896 car built in San Francisco); many were built later to look like the old trolleys. To see cars from 1870 you can visit the Cable Car Museum.

There are two types of trolley systems in SF: the Cable Cars that run as part of the historic street network between Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. These are slow, plodding beasts that rule the touristy parts of town. The cost per ride is $6 if you pay onboard.

The Street Car system runs along the F-Line of the MUNI. These cars come from around the world and travel along Market Street, and from the Ferry Building (Embarcadero) to Fisherman’s Wharf. I love these Streetcars because they span the historic decades and come from around the world… my favourites are the “green & cream” 1940s rounded top style.

To see a really detailed and indepth write-up of each trolley (and even view the F-line live), go to the Museums in Motion section of the Street Car website.

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