How Muni’s Oldest Streetcar Survived 122 Years To Turn into San Francisco’s Sweetheart
San Francisco’s oldest working streetcar is a survivor. Auto 578, sometimes called “The Dinky”, has a Cinderella story. Once the mockery of the fleet, it inspired Muni’s collection of historic cars.
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Auto 578 is adorable. It’s short and box-shaped, a cheerful yellow, and it still has its nineteenth-century woodwork. I visited it at Cameron Beach Yard, a Muni property in the Balboa Park neighborhood.
When I arrived the car was surrounded by Muni workers in blue shirts. They were excited because this antique tram doesn’t go much. The workers call it “The Dinky”.
“This car has ancient controls, so you have to be very careful with it,” says Robert Parks, a traffic manager at Muni who teaches drivers how to drive the historic trams.
Parks showed me how to drive The Dinky. He attached the mast on his roof to the electrical lines above him. As soon as the bar made contact, warm lightbulbs lit the interior of the wood. Then I went with Parks while he drove the antique through the yard.
To be honest, the ride was pretty bumpy. But there was a time when it was the smoothest and fastest way to get around town.
Let’s go back to the 1890s when streetcars first appeared in San Francisco.
The birth of Dinky
In the 1890s, all transport companies were privately owned. Today’s oldest streetcar in San Francisco was built in 1896 for one of these private railroad companies. It was given the number 578 and was painted yellow.
Emiliano Echeverria, a transit historian and lifelong rail enthusiast, says the color indicated the route, “which was very important because there were many, many people at the time who were either immigrants who didn’t speak English or people who did actually were “. Illiterate.”
Vehicle number 578 was one of many “dinkies” back then. All short, small trams were called dinkies because of their size. They were the industry standard back then.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the dinkies had already gone out of fashion and were being replaced by larger trams. Our dinky, 578, could easily have been one of the dinkies that went to the junkyard.
But then came the great earthquake of 1906. The earthquake and fire leveled most of the city. And remember – that was before cars were reliable. So for the reconstruction, the railways turned their dinkies into construction vehicles.
“There were trams to carry tools, trams to tow a wrecked car, trams to carry sand,” says Echeverria, “even cars to lift tracks off the road, everything!”
Dinky’s new job
Our Dinky became a “sand car”. San Francisco’s famous hills and fog make rail traffic a little too slippery at times. As a sand wagon, Dinky’s job was to release sand on the rails to give the trams more traction. And fun fact: trams still do that today – but every car has its own sand on board.
But back to Dinky: When it went to work, it was boarded up, freed from its seats and painted dull green. There was also a change in numbers. Sand cars were assigned to all numbers in the 0600 series. As a sand car, Dinky’s number changed from 578 to 0601.
The life of a sand cart was far less glamorous than that of a passenger tram. But getting the job was Dinky’s first stroke of luck. Because old cars that couldn’t get jobs were scrapped.
Luckily our dinky had a job. Dinky worked as a sand car for decades. During World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, Dinky supplied sand. But his life was in danger again.
The figurehead of the crumbling infrastructure
In the 1940s Muni expanded and took over the last private railway companies. After two wars and a depression, these tracks and trams were in terrible condition.
So Muni put a series of Bond measures on the ballot in 1947. Proposals 1 to 7 would, among other things, replace trams with buses as the predominant means of transport.
Muni made a plan to gain support for the proposals. Echeverria says Muni was looking for “the most dilapidated, oldest looking thing” on their property and they found our dinky.
They put it in a parade, painted it with a slogan:
“My wheels are flat;
My body sags;
My upholstery is in rags.
Please ‘yes’ to 1 to 7;
So that I can get into tram heaven. “
Dinky was the figurehead of Muni’s crumbling infrastructure. It was carried through the streets of San Francisco like the bad kid in a fool’s hat.
And it worked! The props for modernizing Muni are over. But that meant more buses and fewer wagons. A sand car was no longer of use.
It looked like Dinky’s fate was sealed. The writing was literally written on his wall.
One after the other, the sand cars drove to the scraper.
Saved from destruction
But then Dinky got his second stroke of luck. It was noticed by a Muni shop foreman named Charles Smallwood. He happened to be a railroad fanatic and saw the beauty under all the years of wear and tear. He came up with the idea of restoring Dinky and a few other old work cars.
Echeverria says Smallwood hid them “in the back of the dealership” where “they were out of sight and out of mind”.
Smallwood had the cheek to hide anything bigger than an elephant until he raised the funds to have it restored.
By 1956, Smallwood had raised enough money to return Dinky to his former beauty. Muni merchants transformed what was once the dirtiest tram in their fleet into a show car.
Dinky was sent to museums and played in parades. It was even used in a presidential campaign for Richard Nixon!
Star of the trolley festival
But Dinky’s most important role in transit from San Francisco came in 1983. At that time, the iconic San Francisco cable car system was being overhauled. That meant that all cable cars (as distinct from trams like Dinky) would be out of service for nearly two years.
City officials feared the temporary failure of the cable cars would be bad for tourism. Echeverria says they had an idea.
“’Let’s run historic trams in the market from Castro to Bay Bridge Terminal. And that will meet people’s desire for historic railway equipment. ‘”
Dinky provided a special service at the Trolley Festival, which took place in the summer of 1983. It started as a one-off event.
“That damn thing was a complete success!” Says Echeverria.
The Trolley Festival delighted tourists and train fans, but reached its biggest hit with local residents. San Francisco decided to make it a regular thing. Muni ran the restored cars they had, but they needed a bigger fleet. So they started importing more historic cars from around the world.
This collection became the fleet serving the F-Line, the historic route on Market Street. And in 1995 Dinky was at the opening ceremony of the F-Line. The “F” stands for festival.
Echeverria says that Downtown looked depressed when the historic trams for the Trolley Festival started in the 1980s.
“Nobody likes to get on a drab, depressing bus or tram,” says Echeverria. “You want to wear something nice and pretty. And the F-Line shows that transit can also be fun. It can be pretty. It can be fun. “
“I think [the F-line is] really charming, ”says Norris Hung, a driver waiting on the platform in front of the ferry building. One could imagine the historic fleet as something for tourists. But Norris is a local and takes the F.
“It’s a really cool mix of what looks like a relic of San Francisco, but also practical,” says Hung.
In a fast growing city full of construction cranes, the F-Line connects us with our past. Dinky now only comes out on special occasions – it’s 122 years old! But his legacy lives on. If Dinky hadn’t been rescued and restored, we might not have an F-Line now.
Who would have thought that a dusty old sand wagon from the 1890s would inspire an entire fleet of vintage trams? Our Dinky comes from humble beginnings, but is now the crown jewel of Muni’s fleet.
Dinky will be on his annual trip to Muni Heritage Weekend this weekend, September 7-8. Learn about the historic fleet by visiting the Market Street Railway, a historic society dedicated to preserving vintage cars in San Francisco.
This story first aired in March 2019.