Images of San Francisco’s Historic Railroads Tell a Story of Life, Death, and Rebirth

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And at least one photograph in the archives of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirms this assumption.

In the fall of 1903, a teenage girl watching an aerial performance over Golden Gate Park died in a tram accident almost at the same moment that the man she was watching, a high-flying daredevil, fell to his death. A report in the San Francisco Call describes the tragic events.

On that fateful day, Sunday, October 11, 1903, performing aeronaut William H. Beal fell from his parachute. Madge Henney – “a pretty 17-year-old girl living at 1252 Folsom Street” – was on a tram. and leaning out of the car to look at Beale when she hit her head on an electric pole next to the tracks. Both died as a result of their injuries.

David Gallagher spends a lot of time thinking about photos like the one the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority took as part of its investigation into Henny’s death.

The SFMTA documented a tram in Golden Gate Park following a fatal crash on October 11, 1903. | Courtesy of SFMTA Photo Archive

Long before Central Highway or Interstate 280 was built for driving, San Francisco residents traveled the land by rail—in streetcars, cable cars, and trains. These days, much of the city’s rail infrastructure has been dismantled or abandoned, but Gallagher, founder of SF Memory, a public history project focused on municipal infrastructure, says there are many interesting stories to uncover by closely examining photographs of the city’s old rail tracks. .

The centerpiece of SF Memory is a complex map of geotagged photos from the SFMTA archive. Gallagher told The Standard that he became interested in SFMTA’s vast archive of photographs, videos and other ephemera while working with OpenSFHistory, a public history initiative of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

“Nominally we are talking about transit, but in reality what is in the fields is what ordinary life was like at that time,” he said.

Although the images in the archive were geotagged with location information, searching through the collection was not as intuitive as it is now that Gallagher, in collaboration with SFMTA archivist and photographer Jeremy Menzies, has taken the time to place more than 15,000 photos on a Google map. interface which can be found on the SF Memory website.

Gallagher said that because the SFMTA’s photo archive is focused on building transportation infrastructure, its map offers a sideways look at everyday life, especially after the gold rush, a period of rapid development when rail lines began crossing San Francisco.

A steam engine emerges from a tunnel at Land’s End, circa 1905. | Courtesy of the SFMTA archive

What are some of his favorite moments like this? He said he liked to discover old photographs of the 7-Haight streetcar line that ran along Golden Gate Park and ended across the sand dunes of Ocean Beach. Many of the photographs on Gallagher’s map tell the story of a sleepy town on the edge of a continent that is growing into a booming metropolis.

“I love seeing areas that have grown up around tram lines, things that aren’t there and things that are left over,” he said.

As for historical relics, Gallagher has created another page on his website dedicated to what he calls street memorials. He collects photographs of old manholes, water caps, and San Francisco Fire Department phone boxes—small artifacts with names, dates, and other clues that connect lines from the city’s past to its present. He said he most often posts photos on his Twitter account to share these street monuments with fellow San Francisco residents and history buffs.

“These photos explain some of the oddities we see in the city,” he said. “People love being given context to their lives and hopefully we can look at these old photos and create something new in the future.”

Sarah Holtz can be reached in [email protected]

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