San Francisco History

In the Days of the Horse Cars

by Walter J. Thompson

The coming of the horse cars to San Francisco was not hailed with any particular flourish of trumpets or outbursts of hurrahs. Frankly, the San Franciscans of those days of the city’s first decade did not eye them any too admiringly. They did not see any use for them. The city had not grown on an extensive scale and distances were short, and the sturdy pioneers were good walkers, or if they wanted to get somewhere in a hurry they did not mind the expense of a bus or hack. It is said that Sam Brannan, who owned half of the business section, cast a cold eye on the proposition of running a car line along Montgomery street past his own many large buildings. “It isn’t needed,” Brannan is reported to have said, “and it won’t pay. Everyone lives downtown and the city’s growing up those hills, and how are you going to get horse cars up them?” It was the Omnibus line that first connected the South Side by way of Third and Montgomery streets with North Beach, and it was Peter Donahue, the foundryman and owner of the gas works, who was behind the project, which proved highly successful. Others were soon tempted to go into the horse-car business.

The horse cars were a decided innovation and soon were looked upon as an improvement in every respect. Quite a wave of enthusiasm swept over the town when the first horse cars ran along Market street from the then bare water-front to Larkin street, and throngs rode upon them just for the pleasure of the trip past the ruins of Yerba Buena Cemetery and between the towering hills of sand where nobody lived. Soon the car lines began to multiply and to extend tracks in many directions as the city grew where the sands and chaparral had held a mortgage upon the land. The canary-colored cars of the Omnibus line no longer had a monopoly of the traffic between the South Side and North Beach. Another company, the North Beach and Mission, was organized, and it laid tracks on Fourth street to Stockton, to Geary, and thence to Kearny and out northward. It also secured a franchise for Folsom street, Missionward. Kearny street swelled up like a puff adder at the distinction conferred on it and business interests put on their best Sunday clothes and started to expand. The San Francisco pubic dubbed the new road “Skelly’s line,” after Michael Skelly, the autocratic and energetic superintendent. Skelly was always on the job and was as ubiquitous along the line of traffic as was ever Richmond at the battle of Bosworth Field. An observant patron of the line might see Skelly superintending cars, horses and men at the Fourth street barn one minute, and a few minutes later see him at the foot of Fourth street hurling verbal skyrockets at some delinquent conductor or driver, or within the same space of time behold him at the other end of the line in the midst of a gang tearing up a piece of track with his brawny arms just to show them “how to do it.” A mighty man was Skelly and he was the whole North Beach and Mission line beyond a doubt—especially on election days.

The wonderful growth of the Mission district in the late sixties and seventies led to huge extensions of the horse-car lines. The Omnibus and North Beach and Mission ran a race on Howard and Folsom streets, respectively, and the blue Market-street cars shared Valencia street with the steam cars that ran to San Jose. It also brought about the building of the City Railroad, owned principally by Robert B. Woodward, who needed the car line to accommodate the visitors to his gardens on Mission street. There were two branches of the bobtails. A string of red cars rolled down Mission street to New Montgomery street, stopping at the nobby and newly completed Grand Hotel, and a blue streak of cars ran to Fifth and Market streets. Patrons of the line seemed to enjoy the fun of poking their hands through the opening in the front door to get change from the driver, and then to watch the fare disappear in the big drop box with a glass front like a “pinny-poppy” show, through which one could watch the evolution of the fare from start to finish. And there were some who found keen enjoyment in swinging on the handle of a crowded car with half a foot on the bob-tail step and listening to the jingle of the fare-box bell operated by the driver, and urging them to deposit the fare, which they were unable to get to the box without passing it along the line of intervening passengers, which many did, while others—oh, well, never mind, it was a long time ago and the company never went into bankruptcy.

Another part of the city that began to feel the pulse of progress about this time was Hayes Valley  and the Western Addition. The Market-street company extended a line of yellow cars up Hayes street to Fillmore. Then came the Central Company, an organization that operated in a quiet and dignified and, for a while, prosperous way. Its cars ran from Eighth and Brannan streets to Front and Vallejo, with a branch along Turk street between Taylor and the steps out at Post street and Cemetery avenue (now Presidio avenue), where the big Cliff House busses started for Captain Foster’s beachside resort. The Central was an odd line. Its dark red cars ambled along always at the same staid gait and steady schedule, never in a hurry, and even the bells on the horses’ hames rang out in a sober strain like the rhythm of an angelus call.

While all this enterprising work had been going on in the southern and western ends of town, some big changes had been wrought in the northern hill section. One Henry Casebolt, a man with a passion for invention and a hobby for running street cars, organized and put into operation the Sutter Street Railroad Company, though it soon became known as Casebolt’s line, and it was. He chose Sutter street, which skirted the base of what was afterward Nob Hill, and operated his large green cars from Davis street out Polk and Broadway, where the car barns were located. As the line prospered, Casebolt ran his extension to the water front, and got another set of cars somewhat smaller than the green ones, and which had revolving oval windows, that projected above the square panes like so many car warmers. These cars were painted pink and started from Bush and Polk streets, thence out to Fillmore and by way of California to the very step of Cemetery avenue, where the Cliff House busses stopped. Later, he extended a line out Pacific avenue from Polk street. Casebolt was an indefatigable worker in the interests of his car lines. He had a large workshop out on Union street, near Laguna, where he passed much of his time turning out devices for his cars. It was here that he devised and built his famous “balloon cars,” the oddest conception in rolling stock for passenger purposes the city had ever seen. These cars were on the style of the bobtails, with one horse and a bobtail step, but the body of the car was round, with an overhanging oval roof, and it revolved on a pivot in the center of the truck. Now, Casebolt had been fairly well liked in the community up to the time of his invention of balloon cars. After that it would appear that nobody loved him. It seems the inventor failed in some way to account for the wear and tear on the pivot, and several of the little things that developed with service. The result was that in a short time every balloon car was as wabbly as a ship in trough of the sea without a rudder, and to the passengers the sensations were about the same as if they were on that ship. As developers of headaches and as contrivances conducive to the dislocation of the human anatomy the balloon cars were worthy of first merit medals. Everyone who rode in them wished them and their inventor—oh, you an imagine what they wished for; perhaps you were a wisher yourself. Among other bad habits of the balloon cars was that of straying from the track, whereupon passengers were expected to drop out and give a yo-heave-ho on the truck and set it back again. The whole affair, built of gaspipe and tin, was not heavy. One day two husky blacksmiths were called upon to perform this task, and as they had ridden far and were almost in fragments, they were in no pleasant mood. So they caught up in body of the car instead of the truck and with a herculean heave lifted it from its socket and laid the vehicle on its side in the middle of Larkin street, where it blocked traffic for several hours, reposing like a stranded buoy, after which the blacksmiths departed, saying that was all the old thing was good for.

Horse cars, other than the balloons, were now popular, and their service was appreciated. Profit in big chunks there was in their running, too. Fares were 5 and 6 1/4 cents apiece. These fares were nicely mapped off a strip of pasteboard, each fare, a quarter of an inch wide, being clipped off by a pair of scissors confined in a metal box, which held the clipped coupons. Minus a ticket and unwilling to spend a quarter for a block of four, the passenger paid over his dime for a ride.

A feature of the old horse-car system was the genial, familiar footing upon which the employes stood with the traveling public. Possibly the maintenance of this good feeling interfered with schedule arrangements as arranged by the bosses of the roads, but that made no difference. Employes were independent. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry in those good old times, anyway, and there was never a complaint lodged against them except perhaps by a “spotter.” The horses jogged along at a leisurely gait, hearing but not heeding the driver’s occasional “ck’k, cl’k,” as he flapped the reins with one hand, held the brake handle with the other and swapped jokes with some of the steady passengers who always smoked on the front platform. In the rear the conductor stood, watchful for hailing passengers, yet loquacious with his favorites as they boarded or left the cars. They knew nearly every one who rode on the cars and they catered to them as friends. Stop in the middle of the block? Sure! Wait a moment on the corner as Mrs. So-and-So wig-wagged from her doorstep that her husband would be out in a minute? Why, certainly. And a merry laugh they would have with Mr. So-and-So as he climbed aboard.

I wonder if there is any old-timer around yet who remembers old Dan Curran, who handled the relay horse of the Omnibus line at Jackson and Kearny streets. The hill was steep there and it required a third horse to get a car to Stockton street. Old Dan would swing his horse into line and hitch it on without causing a stop, and away the whole business would go up the hill like a Roman chariot. At the top of the hill Dan would turn his equine loose to find his way to the foot of the hill, and then would soliloquize as he followed it:

“D’ye know, it’s a grand thing that animal has human intelligence or there’d be murther in this alley. D’ye know he hates a Chinyman worse than whisky, but here he is in the heart of Chinytown and with Chinymin all around him, and he never tries to tromple ‘em or bust up their stands jest because he knows he’s on duty. But I want to tell you if he warn’t on duty and there was no car pullin’ that critter’d tear around here among thim haythen and I shudder to think what he’d do to thim. Don’t I know the time I had him on Third street whin that Chiny laundryman poked him in the nose with a basket of washing’? Didn’t I pay ten dollars for the washin’ and five to the Chinyman?”

And I wonder if anyone remembers the rotund, red-faced chap who used to patrol Washington street from Stockton to Montgomery keeping the track sanded? The old fellow took great pride in his work and it is related of him that one day Peter Donahue offered him a more lucrative job in the car barn and he replied: “Just leave me alone, Mr. Donahue. I’m doin’ all right here and I don’t want any other job.” Donahue left him alone and the old fellow held on for many a year. And when he died it was found that he had a choice lot of real estate, a good bank account, besides owning some stock in the Omnibus company.

It was, of course, inevitable and necessary that the old horse cars should go. The ringing of their death knell began when A. S. Hallidie overcame the slope of Clay-street hill in 1873 and ran his cable line from Kearny street to Leavenworth. The Geary and California street lines followed, and then the slash of the slot was seen in Market street and the cable car hummed its way to the ferry. The old blue horse cars were remodeled to carry a grip, the Hayes valley cars were made over and painted green. White Castro, yellow McAllister and red Haight street cars followed in a vari-colored procession. Most of the horse car men became cable experts. And the cable cars! Except on the steep slopes they, too, had their day and King Trolley came and reigned supreme.

One cannot but admire the evolution of the street car systems. Yet one cannot help sighing in looking backward and recalling those lumbering, easy-going, old horse cars with their jolly drivers, their sociable conductors, their wonderful advertising scenery, their smoky, dingy oil lamps like the kitchen lamps at home, which threw a sickly glare over the rows of passengers—thirteen to a side—and the jingling of the bells on the horses’ hames.

Another sigh! No, it is not for the passage of the horse cars, but for the scenes and incidents the recollection of them brings in its trains. And it seems so long, long ago.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 8 April 1917. 28.

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