San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway

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The San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway (SF&SM) was the first electric streetcar company in San Francisco, California. The company was only in business for ten years, starting in 1892 until its merger into the United Railroads of San Francisco (URR).[1]

Initial founding[edit]

Brothers Isaac and Fabian Joost were real-estate developers in the neighborhood of Sunnyside. They saw the success of Frank Julian Sprague's Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia, and determined that an electric streetcar system running through their then-isolated portion of the city would be a good way to boost property values. In 1890, the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway Co. was incorporated, and the railway opened for business on April 27, 1892. Two separate lines ran consecutively from the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street to the Baden area of South San Francisco, with a transfer required at 30th Street & San Jose Avenue. The line did not actually extend to the city of San Mateo, which lays 13 miles (20.9 km) further to the south, although it did run through part of the County of San Mateo.[2]

The route chosen by the company was rather unfortunate. After leaving the Ferry Building, the line went to 30th Street via Harrison, 14th Street, Guerrero and San Jose Avenue. They were not able to traverse any of the major streets, as rival streetcar companies already had lines on them. Furthermore, beyond 30th Street, the area of the city was not yet fully settled. With an unpopular route that led to sparsely populated neighborhoods, the company could not generate much revenue despite having nearly 4,200,000 riders annually.[2] This trend continued after the merger into URR well into the 1920s, when electric streetcars were at their most profitable.[1]

The line also gained a reputation for being dangerous. Although the company had built a counterweight system to slow cars on a Harrison Street hill between 2nd and 3rd, no such system was added to another hill on Chenery Street, which became the site of a number of runaway cars. Even an injury to a boy there on opening day did not spur the company to action. After a few such accidents, the company finally relaid the track and purchased cars with better brakes.[1]

By late 1892, the company opened a second line from the Mission District to Douglass Street via 18th Street, hoping to cash in on the Golden Gate Park traffic (the intersection of Douglass and 18th, however, is about 0.8 miles (1.3 km) southeast of the park). They were able to extend this to within five city blocks of the park, but could go no further because the Market Street Railway Company had their line on Frederick Street, which denied the SF&SM any further access.[1]

The company did find one new source of revenue, however. The SF&SM served Holy Cross, Mt. Olivet and Woodlawn cemeteries, all in Colma (via the cemeteries' own tracks). As a result, funeral traffic became a consistent source of income.

Unfortunately, this was not enough to cover the debt incurred from the line's initial construction as well as subsequent interest payments, forcing the company into receivership. The receiver subsequently was granted permission by the Market Street Railway to use a portion of their line and the SF&SM 18th & Park line finally opened in November 1894 (this eventually was converted to San Francisco's first trolleybus service in 1935). New cars, the first in the city to have front windows,[1] also arrived in summer of 1894, making it finally possible to go from the Ferry Building to Baden without a transfer.

Sale to new owners[edit]

Adolph Spreckels
John D. Spreckels
Adolph (left) and John D. Spreckels

Still, the receiver was unable to generate much of a profit and on April 11, 1896, the company was sold to a group of prominent San Franciscans, headed by brothers Adolph and John D. Spreckels. The investors paid off the debts and renamed the company to the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway. Almost immediately, the new ownership took action to upgrade the rails and added new cars to the line twice in 1898 and again in 1901. One of these cars from 1898, Car 0304, was still in service on the San Francisco Muni as late as 2000[1] (it has since been retired).

In 1901, the company was sold once more to the "Baltimore Syndicate", a group of East Coast investors looking to purchase a number of Bay Area railways. In 1902, these companies all merged to form the URR. The URR then quickly built out the line to San Mateo. This line, the No. 40 which was rerouted to use some of the major streets (made possible thanks to the consolidation of the competing companies), became one of the URR's most profitable routes, and was in existence until 1949.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Rice, Walter, Ph.D.; Echeverria, Emiliano. "SAN FRANCISCO'S PIONEER ELECTRIC RAILWAY". The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Archived from the original on December 10, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  2. ^ a b Rice, Walter, Ph.D.; Echeverria, Emiliano. "San Francisco's 40-line". The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Archived from the original on October 19, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  3. ^ Vielbaum, Walter; et al. (2005). "Introduction". San Francisco's Interurban to San Mateo. Arcadia Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 0738530085.