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How Muni’s Oldest Streetcar Survived 122 Years To Become San Francisco’s Sweetheart

San Francisco’s oldest working streetcar is a survivor. Car 578, sometimes called “The Dinky,” has a Cinderella story. Once the laughingstock of the fleet, it went on to inspire Muni’s collection of historic cars. 

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Car 578 is adorable. It’s short and boxy, a cheerful yellow, and it still has its nineteenth century woodwork. I went to visit it at Cameron Beach Yard, a Muni lot in the Balboa Park neighborhood.

When I arrived, the car was surrounded by Muni workers in blue shirts. They were excited because this antique streetcar doesn’t get out much. The workers call it, “The Dinky.”

“This car, it’s got an ancient controller, so you have to be very careful with it,” says Robert Parks, a transit supervisor for Muni who teaches operators how to drive the historic streetcars.

Parks showed me how he drives “The Dinky.” He attached the pole on its roof to the electrical wires overhead. The instant the pole made contact, warm incandescent bulbs lit up the wooden interior. Then, I rode along with Parks as he drove the antique around the yard.

To be honest, the ride was rather bumpy. But there was a time when this was the smoothest, quickest way around the city.

Let’s go back to the 1890s, when streetcars first hit the scene in San Francisco.

The birth of Dinky

Back in the 1890s, the transit companies were all privately owned. What’s now the oldest streetcar in San Francisco was built for one of these private rail companies in 1896. It was given the number 578 and painted yellow.

Emiliano Echeverria, a transit historian and lifelong rail fan, says that the color indicated its route, “which was very important because there were many, many people at that time who were either immigrants who were not familiar with English, or people who were actually illiterate.”

Back then, car number 578 was one of many “dinkies.” All short, small streetcars were called dinkies, because of their size. They were the industry standard at the time.

By the early 1900s, the dinkies were already going out of style—getting replaced by bigger streetcars. Our Dinky, 578, could have easily been one of the dinkies that went to the scrap yard.

But then came the great earthquake of 1906. The earthquake and fire leveled most of the city. And remember—this is before automobiles were reliable. So to rebuild, the rail companies turned their dinkies into construction vehicles.

“There were streetcars for carrying tools, streetcars for towing a wrecked car, streetcars for carrying sand,” Echeverria says, “even cars for lifting track out of the street, everything!”

Dinky’s new job

Our Dinky became a “sand car.” San Francisco’s famous hills and fog make rail transit a bit too slippery at times. As a sand car, Dinky’s job was to release sand on the rails to give passenger streetcars more traction. And fun fact: streetcars still do that today—though now, each car carries its own sand on board.

But, back to Dinky: When it went to work, it was boarded up, stripped of its seats, and painted a dull green. It also got a number change. Sand cars were all assigned numbers in the 0600 series. As a sand car, Dinky’s number changed from 578 to 0601.

The life of a sand car was far less glamorous than that of a passenger streetcar. But getting this assignment was Dinky’s first lucky break. Because old cars that didn’t get a job were scrapped.

Luckily, our Dinky had a job. Dinky worked as a sand car for decades. Throughout World War I, the Depression, and World War II, Dinky plugged away delivering sand. But its life was about to be threatened, again.

The poster child of crumbling infrastructure

In the 1940s, Muni was expanding, and took over the last of the private rail companies. After two wars and a depression, those tracks and streetcars were in terrible shape.

So in 1947, Muni put a bunch of bond measures on the ballot. Propositions 1 through 7 would, among other things, replace streetcars with buses as the predominant form of transit.

Muni hatched a plan to gain support for the propositions. Echeverria says that Muni looked for the “most decrepit, most ancient looking thing” on their property, and they found our Dinky.

They put it in a parade, painted it up with a slogan:

“My wheels are flat;

My body sags;

My upholstery is in rags.

Please ‘vote yes’ on 1 thru 7;

So I can go to street car heaven.”

Dinky was the poster child of Muni’s crumbling infrastructure. It was paraded around the streets of San Francisco like the bad kid in a dunce cap.

And it worked! The props to modernize Muni passed. But that meant more buses, and fewer rail cars. There wasn’t much use for a sand car anymore.

It looked like Dinky’s fate was sealed. The writing was literally written on its wall.

One by one, the sand cars went to the wrecker.

Saved from destruction

But then, Dinky got its second lucky break. It caught the eye of a Muni shop foreman named Charles Smallwood. He happened to be a rail fanatic, and saw the beauty underneath the years of wear and tear. He got the idea to restore Dinky, and some other old work cars.

Echeverria says that Smallwood hid them ”in the back of the car house” where “they were out of sight, out of mind.”

Smallwood had the gall to hide something bigger than an elephant until he raised the funds to have it restored.

By 1956, Smallwood had raised enough funds to restore Dinky to its former beauty. Muni shopmen transformed the street car that was once the dingiest in their fleet into a show car.

Dinky was sent to museums, and it starred in parades. It was even used in a presidential campaign for Richard Nixon!

Star of the Trolley Festival

But Dinky’s most crucial role in San Francisco transit came in 1983. At that time, San Francisco’s iconic cable car system was being overhauled. That meant all of the cable cars (which are different from streetcars like Dinky) would be out of service for almost two years.

City officials were worried that the temporary loss of cable cars would be bad for tourism. Echeverria says they came up with an idea.

“‘Let’s run historic streetcars up and down Market from the Castro to the Bay Bridge terminal. And that will satisfy people’s desire to ride historic rail equipment.’”

Dinky ran special service in the Trolley Festival, which ran during the summer of ‘83. It started as a one-time event.

“The darn thing was a blasted success!” says Echeverria.

The Trolley Festival pleased tourists and rail fans, but made its biggest hit with 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 all over the world.

That collection became the fleet that services the F-line, the historic route on Market street. And in 1995, Dinky was there for the opening ceremonies of the F-line. The “F” stands for festival.

Echeverria says that when the historic streetcars started running for the Trolley Festival of the 1980s, Downtown had a depressed look about it.

“Nobody likes to get on a dreary, depressing bus or streetcar,” Echeverria says. “You wanna get on something that’s nice, pretty. And the F-line shows that transit can be fun. It can be pretty. It can be enjoyable.”

Dinky’s legacy

“I think [the F-line is] really charming,” says Norris Hung, a rider waiting on the platform in front of the Ferry building. One might think of the historic fleet as something for tourists. But, Norris is a local, and he takes the F from time to time.

“It’s a really cool mix of something that seems like a relic of San Francisco, but also practical,” Hung says.

In a rapidly growing city that’s covered in construction cranes, the F-line connects us to our past. Dinky only comes out for special occasions now—it’s 122 years old! But its legacy lives on. If Dinky hadn’t been rescued and restored, we might not have an F-line now.

Who would’ve imagined that a dusty old sand car from the 1890s would inspire a whole fleet of vintage streetcars? Our Dinky came from humble beginnings, but it’s now the crown jewel of Muni’s fleet.

Dinky will be out for its annual ride for Muni Heritage Weekend this weekend, Sep. 7-8. Learn more about the historic fleet by visiting Market Street Railway, a historical society devoted to the preservation of vintage transit in San Francisco.

This story first aired in March of 2019.