In 1857, the California Legislature granted Thomas Hayes (after whom Hayes Street and Hayes Valley are named) the franchise for what would become the first street railway on the Pacific Coast. It opened on July 4, 1860, operating on Market Street from Third to Valencia, terminating at 16th and Valencia Streets. It was named the Market Street Railroad Company. It operated both as a horsecar and steam train line.
Thirteen years after the Market Street Railroad Company pioneered street railway service in San Francisco, Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car, with the first route opening on Clay Street in August 1873. Superior to horse-powered lines, it spurred conversion and construction of new routes. In 1882, one of the “Big Four” who had built the Central Pacific Railway across the Sierra as part of the transcontinental railroad took over the Market Street Railroad. Leland Stanford and associates formed The Market Street Cable Railway Company, and converted their lines to cable power.
The electric streetcar, made practical in 1887 by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, quickly began eclipsing the cable car as the state-of-the-art for urban American transit, except on the steepest hills. By 1893, the year of Stanford’s death, interests associated with his creation, now named the Southern Pacific Railroad, took over the business, renaming it The Market Street Railway Company, and setting out to convert its many lines (which by now ran all over the City, not just on its main street) to electric streetcars as quickly as possible. This they largely accomplished, except on the namesake street of the company. The City’s Board of Supervisors had banned overhead trolley wires in the Downtown area, including Market Street, in 1891, considering them ugly.
The Southern Pacific interests sold their San Francisco street railways to eastern capitalists in 1902. They were consolidated with other San Francisco lines into a giant company called the United Railroads of San Francisco (URR). URR, like its predecessor, lobbied to convert the cable car lines on Market to streetcars to no avail, at least until the great Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906, which destroyed most of the eastern half of the City.
Seizing an opportunity, the URR wangled a “temporary” permit to electrify its Market Street lines. (It was later revealed that the company had bribed many public officials to transform this “temporary” permit into a permanent operation. But, the wires stayed on Market, and the streetcars with them.)
This growing competition from the Municipal Railway, coupled with recurring labor troubles, and a 1918 accident that killed eight and injured 70 (to this day the worst streetcar disaster in the state’s history), spelled doom for URR. Through reorganization and foreclosure proceedings, the once-mighty United Railroads disappeared in 1921--its assets and operations to be assumed once again by the Market Street Railway Co., which during the URR era had continued to exist as a financial corporation holding much of the URR’s debt.
This fourth incarnation of the Market Street name is still remembered by many San Franciscans. Its franchises included many routes still operated on essentially the same routes today by Muni, including such well known lines as the 2-Clement, 3-Jackson, 7-Haight, 14-Mission, 21-Hayes, 22-Fillmore, and 31-Balboa (all streetcars then), and the Powell-Mason cable car. Market Street Railway also operated a number of famous lines that are no more, such as the 40-line interurban streetcar, which connected Downtown San Francisco with the Peninsula, running as far south as San Mateo. It also operated the original Clay Street cable car line (now part of the 1-California trolley bus line), and the Castro Street cable car line (a remnant of the great Market Street cable system that survived until 1941, now part of the 24-Divisadero trolley bus line).
Perhaps most of all, The Market Street Railway Company is remembered for a very simple idea. Noting that San Francisco’s famous fog could make transit vehicles difficult to see, they painted the ends of all their streetcars, cable cars, and buses pure, stark white. Moreover, they patented this “White Front” paint scheme on the basis that it was a safety feature. For years, San Franciscans referred to the Market Street Railway trolleys as “the White Front cars.”