San Francisco History

Early Street Railroads

Street Railroads in San Francisco

One of the important improvements of modern civilization, and one of the latest in its origin, is the street railroad, or, as it is called in England, the city tramway. A car or wagon used for carrying ore or dirt from a mine is called a tram, and the tracks of iron or wood laid down for them are called tramway, and from that usage the word has been applied to the city railroad. The English word has the advantage of being different from the name used to designate the structure ordinarily known as the railroad. If we adopt the American phrase, “City Railroad,” we must give the name of “Country Railroad” to distinguish the other kind of road. In New York, they call the rail used for tramways the “avenue rail,” the other, the “prairie rail.”


The city railroad belongs entirely to the second half of this century. City cars were used on the Harlem railroad, within the city limits of New York, previous to 1849, but the first road which was built exclusively for city travel went into operation in that city, in 1851. The experiment proved to be a great success. It not only astonished people by the profits paid to the stockholders, but by its influence on business. It increased the value of property in the northern part of the city, and attracted to the road and its vicinity great numbers of people who wished to use the cars. No private carriage could equal it in convenience; no omnibus could compete with it in speed, cheapness, and comfort. The car was always ready, the door was wide, the step low, and the body of the car large. The feelings of passengers were not outraged by seeing horses driven to death, cruelly beaten, or seriously injured by falling in attempts to draw loads too heavy for them.

The conveniencer, benefits, and profits of the street railroad were so evident that there was immediately a great rush for them in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore; and now their aggregate length is several hundred miles. It is said that the sum of $2,000,000 could be obtained for the franchise of a road through Broadway, New York. The omnibus is almost obsolete. It was not until ten years after the complete success of the American experiment that city tramways were opened for public use in Liverpool and London, and the American proprietor or manager of the first street tramway in the British metropolis was indicted, tried, and convicted for nuisance. It is not the first time that a public benefactor has been punished by being ahead of the people among whom he has lived. There is, we believe, no street railroad as yet in any city of Continental Europe. In this respect, San Francisco is ahead of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.


The differences between the city tramway and the country railroad are many. The latter has an upright rail, weighing usually 65 lbs. to the yard; it has steam engines, weighing from six to twenty tons; the engine draws a train of from ten to twenty cars, weighing several tons each; the trains go at speed of fifteen or twenty miles per hour, often more; and most of the cars are used for freight. The city railroad, on the other hand, has a flat rail, weighing 45 lbs. to the yard; the cars are made exclusively for passengers, and are lighter, lower, and more elegantly finished; each car runs separately, is drawn by two horses, and has its own driver and conductor; the cars, instead of starting in long trains half a dozen times a day, start at intervals of a few minutes; and the low speed and the use of horses permits the turning of sharp corners.


There are now two street railroads in operation in San Francisco—the Omnibus Road and the North Beach and Mission Road. One other, the Central, is being built. One Company, commonly known as the Rowell, has been organized to build another road; and franchises for other roads were granted by the Legislature, but the companies to construct them have not yet been formed.


The ordinary cars have seats for twenty passengers, but there is standing room for as many more. The cars cost about $1000 each and weigh a ton. With rails weighing forty-five pounds to the yard, eighty tons of iron are required for a mile of single track. Two years ago the iron cost $33 per ton in New York, now it costs $77 in legal tender notes. The cost of iron per mile, laid down here is, at present prices, about $4500 in gold. The timber used for stringers and ties may cost $1000 or $1500 per mile. The space between the rails is filled with cobbles, and 700 tons of cobble stones, costing $4.50 per ton, are required for a mile. Where the road runs through a street previously paved, it is not necessary to purchase the cobbles. The cost of making the road, after all the materials are ready, is about $2000 per mile of single track. The streets are already graded, so one of the principal expenses of constructing railroads is saved. The total cost of  a single track of road may be $9000 to $10,000 per mile, exclusive of cars, horses, buildings, etc. Counting everything, the cost of roads in San Francisco may be put down at $25,000 per mile.


The business is very irregular. We have not been able to obtain accurate statistics of the number of passengers on different days and at different hours of the day. Some of the railroad men do not wish the public to know precisely how much business they do. The following, however, are a few general facts: On Sunday the travel is considerably greater than on week days—about 30 per cent, above the average of other days. The number of passengers is less on Mondays and Tuesdays—the first being usually set apart in families for washing and the second for ironing. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are nearly alike, and Saturday is second to Sunday, the best day.

The Omnibus Company uses the rail of the Philadelphia pattern, the other two companies have the Boston rail.


The first street railroad of San Francisco—that of the Omnibus Company—was opened in December last. The Company has two routes. One is two and a half miles long—-from Mission Bay through Third, Howard, Second, Sansome, Washington, Stockton, Union and Powell streets to North Beach. The other is three and one fourth miles long—from Washington street through Sansome, Second and Howard, to the Mission. Peter Donahue is the President of the Company; James O’Neill, Secretary; Wm. Sharon, Treasurer; Eugene Casserly, Wm. H. Lyons, A. H. Houston, Wm. A. Piper, Peter Donahue, Wm. Sharon and John Gardner, Directors. The last is also Superintendent. The capital stock consists of $1,000,000, in 10,000 shares. It is universally admitted that this Company’s route, from South Park to North Beach, is the best route in the city. The value of the stock in the market is now considerably above the amount paid in, so that the investment has been a profitable one. The Company employs about one hundred and thirty men, and owns three hundred horses and thirty four cars, and has, besides, sixteen more cars on the way. The cars begin to run at half-past seven in the morning, and stop at half-past eleven at night. The time spent in running over each route, in either direction, is half an hour; the round trip takes an hour. The speed, including stoppages, is five miles per hour; exclusive of stopping, it is about seven or eight miles. Each team or pair of horses makes three round trips in a day. On the South Park and North Beach route the cars start at intervals of five minutes in the mornings of week days, four minutes in the afternoons, and after 10 o’clock, P.M., at intervals of ten minutes. Throughout the day of Sunday the interval is four minutes. On the Mission route the cars start at intervals of ten minutes in week days, and of five minutes on Sundays. The fare for a ride is 6½ cents, or 5½ cents if nine tickets be bought at a time. The receipts of the Company are supposed by some railroad men to amount to about $18,000 per month. The Company owns some valuable real estate in the block bounded by Howard, Folsom, Fourth and Fifth streets, with a front of one hundred and thirty-four feet on Howard. The Depot of the Company, on this lot, has a front of ninety-four feet with a depth of one hundred and sixty, and is one of the largest buildings in the city. The second story is finished for a public hall.


The North Beach and Mission Company, the only other company which has a street railroad in operation in San Francisco, started its cars on the 31st January. This company has two routes in operation. One runs from Harrison street by Fourth, Stockton, Post Kearny, Pacific, Dupont, Broadway and Powell streets to Union; the other from Montgomery through California, Battery, First, Folsom and Fourth to Harrison. The company has a franchise for a road to the Mission on Folsom street, and is now at work on it. The North Beach and Mission route is to be extended to the water at each end, as soon as the iron arrives, and it is expected in 30 days. The officers of the company are A.J. Bowie, President; Henry Baker, Secretary; A. L. Morrison, Superintendent; and A.J. Bowie, C.B. Polhemus, Isaac E. Davis, Robert Turner, M. Skelly, T. Dame and A.L. Morrison, Directors. The capital stock is $1,000,000, in 10,000 shares. The depot of the road is on Fourth street, near Harrison. The company has 18 cars in running order, 7 incomplete, and 160 horses. There are 16 cars always running, and there are three drivers and conductors in two cars. Four men are constantly employed to clean the track. On the Kearny street route the cars run at intervals of six minutes, and the round trip is made in one hour and three minutes. The cars run from 7 A.M. till 11:30 P.M. The far is five cents. The company uses the second story of its depot as a shop, where it makes its own cars; and adjoining the stable it has its blacksmith shop, where the iron work for the cars is made and where the horses are shod.


The Central Railroad Company is making its road. The officers of the company are: President, John Middleton; Secretary, J.T. Hoyt; Treasurer, A.J. Gunnison; DIrectors—J. Middleton, J.P. Zane, Thomas Hill, P.L. Weaver, T.O. Lewis, M. Skelly, J.A. McGlynn and A.J. Gunnison. The depot is to be located for the present on Bush street, adjoining the Occidental Hotel. The company has two routes. The first runs from Vallejo through Davis, Washington, Sansome on the Omnibus Company’s track, Bush, Dupont by Post, Stockton, Geary, Taylor, Turk, Fillmore and Post streets, to Lone Mountain. The second route, a branch of the other, runs from Turk through Taylor, Market, Sixth and Brannan, to the Mission.

This road will prove a great convenience to the public, because it runs to the landings of the Sacramento, Stockton, Petaluma, Napa, Alviso, Sonoma and Oakland steamers, so that passengers can get on the cars for any part of the city. Care will be in attendance for the steamers—even for the Stockton steamer, which arrives about one o’clock in the morning. The consequence of the attendance of cars there will be that passengers arriving will be freed form the impertinence, importunity, insolence, vociferation, vexation and extortion of hackmen. If the Company should confer no other benefit on the public, they would deserve the gratitude of the city. But the route of the Company has the advantage that it crosses, and thus may be said to connect with all the other roads. It runs on the Omnibus Company’s track, from Washington to Bush, and crosses it at the intersection of Sixth and Howard. It crosses the North Beach and Mission road at the intersection of Bush and Kearny, and again at the intersection of Sixth and Folsom. It crosses the Market Street Railroad at Sixth street. Thus this road will enable a passenger to reach all the other roads.

The road is now finished from Vallejo to Washington, and the Company expects to have some cars running by the middle of July. Two ships are now unloading iron. The route to Lone Mountain is to be finished first. The road is to have a double track throughout. The Company has twenty-four cars on the way from New York, and has ordered Casebolt & Co. to make six cars of the Crystal Palace pattern, with windows of cut glass, colored.
As for the other street railroads that are to be built, we shall notice them after they get to work seriously. The Market Street Railroad, running from Battery street to the Mission, is three miles long, but as it has heavy cars, heavy rails and uses steam, it is not properly a city railroad.


San Francisco has reason to be proud of her city railroads. They are well built, well furnished, and well managed. They bear witness to the wealth of the city and the public faith in its future growth. They continue to increase the value of property, and bring the remote streets nearer to the centre of business.

Source: Alta California. 30 June 1863. 2.

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