The Esplanade Phase I: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

Back at the beginning of the year, we told you about the makeover of Point Lobos Avenue that occurred in the early 1920s. This was neither the first nor the last road and construction work to go on in this area though. The oceanfront area to the south of the Cliff House was undergoing its own makeover before, during, and after the Point Lobos Avenue work.
 

View from Sutro Heights south at Great Highway, circa 1895.View from Sutro Heights south at Great Highway, circa 1895. (wnp4/wnpglass01.010; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

There had long been a horse road extending from the Cliff House end of Ocean Beach down to Sloat that was known as Ocean Boulevard. This was largely a sandy road, but by the mid-1890s, they were improving it with a foundation of rough stone all the way from the Cliff House to Lake Merced.1 By this time, the road was generally being referred to as the Great Highway, though we are not sure when the name may have been officially changed.
 

View north of Ocean Beach and Great Highway from Fulton, November 1, 1915.View north of Ocean Beach and Great Highway from Fulton, November 1, 1915. (wnp4/wnp4.0623; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

With the increasing popularity of automobiles after the turn of the 20th century though, San Francisco was keen to create both a better road and an attractive destination along the beach. What the City wanted was a beautiful esplanade that ran the full length of Ocean Beach. Recognizing that this would be expensive and not wanting to issue bonds for the work, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution on February 15, 1915 to do the work “one section at a time.2
 

Beginning of construction on Ocean Beach seawall and esplanade, February 1, 1916.Beginning of construction on Ocean Beach seawall and esplanade, February 1, 1916. (wnp4/wnp4.0813; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

On May 3, 1915, the Board of Supervisors appropriated $50,000 to begin the work on the first section.3 Soon City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy was preparing plans for a seawall beginning at the bottom of the Sutro Heights hill with the area behind the wall to be filled in and beautified.4 After a hiccup with the original winning bidder for the work withdrawing, the contract for the initial work was awarded to J.D. Hannah on November 19, 1915.5
 

View north at Ocean Beach Esplanade construction, August 11, 1916.View north at Ocean Beach Esplanade construction, August 11, 1916. (wnp4/wnp4.0832; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

There was some early controversy regarding the placement of the seawall. An engineer hired by the Park-Richmond Improvement Club filed a report that the seawall was too close, 150 feet, from the high tide water mark and that it should be 300 feet.6 The City replied that if the beach was 300 feet wide, there would be insufficient room for the road next to it and they would have to buy beachfront properties to account for it. The work commenced per the City’s plans and progressed through much of 1916. The large seawall included bleacher seats at the bottom that are largely covered by sand today.
 

View north at esplanade and Great Highway construction work, 1916.View north at esplanade and Great Highway construction work, 1916. (wnp4/wnp4.0628; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Soon after this work began, San Franciscans began petitioning for the City to extend the esplanade even further south. On March 18, 1916, the Recreation League asked Supervisors to extend it to at least where the Beach Chalet was located.7 The Golden Gate Park Federation of Improvement Clubs took this one step further and asked Supervisors to appropriate $100,000 for extension of the esplanade.8 The Civic League seconded this request.9 Supervisors, however, only appropriated an additional $25,000.10 The contract for that work was again awarded to J.D. Hannah, though he was not the lowest bidder, because his company had proved to be a responsible contractor during the first part of the construction.11
 

View north at completed first portion of Ocean Beach esplanade construction, 1917.View north at completed first portion of Ocean Beach esplanade construction, 1917. (wnp4/wnp4.0627; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

O’Shaughnessy announced the completion of the first part of the esplanade work on November 10, 1916.12 He turned over this section to Park Superintendent John McLaren for landscaping work. After McLaren finished his work, a large dedication was held on April 29, 1917.13 With World War I raging half a world away, the speeches of Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph and others at the ceremony tended toward the patriotic, with Rolph urging everyone to “do our bit.”
 

View south at completed first portion of Ocean Beach esplanade construction, circa 1918.View south at completed first portion of Ocean Beach esplanade construction, circa 1918. (wnp4/wnp4.0817; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Mere weeks after the dedication, however, the Board’s Finance Committee eliminated further appropriations for the esplanade construction as they reduced the City budget.14 Despite calls from improvement clubs and newspapers for the esplanade work to continue, the City would not budge even when it received $392,000 from Southern Pacific as part of a land exchange.15 As we know today, the work would eventually be restarted. We will have that story soon.
 

Notes:

1. “At The Park And The Cliff,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 16, 1895, p. 12.

2. “Supervisors Favor Beach Esplanade,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1915, p. 2.

3. “City’s Tax Rate To Be Increased,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 1915, p. 4.

4. “Esplanade Plans To Be Ready Soon,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1915, p. 12.

5. “Beach Esplanade Will Soon Be Underway,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 20, 1915, p. 15.

6. “City Engineer Makes Reply To Critic of Esplanade,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 1916, p. 8.

7. “Want Esplanade Extended,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1916, p. 18.

8. “Thousands Asked For Improvements,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1916, p. 40.

9. “United States Is Asked For Bridge,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1916, p. 2.

10. “$15,656,090 Budget Is Adopted by Supervisors,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1916, p. 30.

11. “Esplanade Construction Award To Be Contested,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 1916, p. 8.

12. “Work On Esplanade,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 1916, p. 10.

13. “Beach Esplanade Is Dedicated By Patriotic Crowd,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 1917, p. 11.

14. “City’s Budget Reduced Over Half Million,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 1917, p. 11.

15. “Raids Begun On $392,000 Fund By Supervisors,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 1917, p. 10.

D-Day Crash: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces launched Operation Overlord by landing troops on six Normandy beaches in northwest France. It was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe that would lead to the German surrender the following May. Although D-Day is a common military term for the day when a military operation is launched, if you mention D-Day today, most people will believe it to be a reference to June 6, 1944.

Back here in San Francisco, there was the beginning of a different kind of end happening on June 6, 1944. Before we get to that day, however, let’s backtrack with a little streetcar history.
 

31 Balboa streetcar at end of the line at 30th Avenue and Balboa on opening day, May 15, 1932.31 Balboa streetcar at end of the line at 30th Avenue and Balboa on opening day, May 15, 1932. (wnp5.50856; John Henry Mentz, photographer – United Railroads / Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
 

On May 15, 1932, the Market Street Railway Company opened the 31-Balboa streetcar line. It was designed to compete with Muni’s Geary streetcar operations two blocks away and actually did a good job of it for some time. The 31-Balboa line ran from the Ferry Building down Market Street to Eddy Street. The streetcars then ran west on Eddy, then briefly south on Divisidero before heading west again on Turk Street. At the intersection with Arguello Boulevard, the tracks made a slight jog to the north to Balboa Street and continued on Balboa to 30th Avenue. It was the last new streetcar line constructed in San Francisco.
 

31-Balboa streetcar headed east on Turk Street near Parker, June 1949.31-Balboa streetcar headed east on Turk Street near Parker, June 1949. (wnp14.1406; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Part of the 31-Balboa route on Turk Street took it over Lone Mountain where the University of San Francisco campus sits. Between Masonic Avenue and Arguello, the 31-Balboa streetcar climbed the hill to USF and then descended down the other side. It is not the worst grade among San Francisco hills, but it is a sustained grade. At the bottom of the hill on the Arguello side, there was a Standard Oil Products station on the southwest corner which can be seen in the image above. Because of the slight jog from Turk onto Balboa, streetcars coming down the hill had to slow to 5-10 mph to safely traverse the intersection.
 

31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking west, June 6, 1944.31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking west, June 6, 1944. (wnp67.0508; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

You have probably figured out where we are headed. On June 6, 1944, streetcar #981 was headed down the hill from USF towards Arguello. Somewhere on that stretch, the operator lost control and, moving too fast, the streetcar jumped the tracks at Balboa and crashed into the Standard Oil Products station. The streetcar knocked one of the support columns in a covered service area askew. Fortunately, there apparently were no serious injuries or deaths. A crowd did gather to gawk at the errant streetcar.
 

31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking north, June 6, 1944.31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking north, June 6, 1944. (wnp5.50940; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

What caused the accident? We haven’t found a report that pinpointed the cause, but it was likely one of two reasons. It might have been operator error or it might have been faulty brakes. Either explanation was an indirect result of World War II. During the war, many experienced streetcar operators and maintenance men quit their jobs with the Market Street Railway for higher-paying jobs at the suddenly in demand shipyards. The Market Street Railway was forced to hire people with little to no experience. This resulted in poor maintenance of the streetcars with some vehicles even listing to one side. The streetcars began to look dusty and grimy as cleaning got shortchanged. And who knew if the operator had received enough training to navigate safely through the system.
 

31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking northeast, June 6, 1944.31-Balboa streetcar accident at Standard Oil Products station at Arguello and Balboa looking northeast, June 6, 1944. (wnp67.0509; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The lack of experience and maintenance created a dangerous situation and streetcar accidents became far more common during the war years. The California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) even ordered the Market Street Railway to reduce their fares from seven cents to six cents because the CPUC said their service wasn’t worth the price. Perhaps as a result of the poor service, the City had voted to authorize Muni to purchase the Market Street Railway.1 Over the course of the summer of ’44, all the required approvals and payments were made and the unification of the trolley lines finally occurred on September 29, 1944.2 The end of the line for the Market Street Railway had arrived.
 

We gratefully acknowledge the material contributions of local Muni expert, Emiliano Echeverria, to this post.
 

Notes:

1. “Trolley Purchase Piling Up Lead,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 17, 1944, p. 1.

2. “Trolley Lines Merge–Little Confusion,” by Don Cleary, San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 1944, p. 1.