looking back

‘Looking Back’: GG Park’s Train Stop

By Kinen Carvala

A once privately-owned steam train stop from an era before public transit still stands today at the edge of Golden Gate Park at Fulton Street and Seventh Avenue.

In the 1870s, shifting sand dunes in western San Francisco became less desolate with more privately-owned transportation connections for San Francisco’s explosive growth after the 1849 California gold rush and 1859 silver Comstock Lode discovery in Nevada. 

The Powell Street Railroad Company built its “Park Entrance” stop at Fulton Street and Seventh Avenue in 1889. It was part of a branch line that connected Golden Gate Park to another rail line, running along what is now California Street. Photos by Eloise Kelsey.

Adolph Sutro, who made his fortune in the Comstock Lode, developed a western Richmond District recreational complex in the 1880s containing Sutro Heights and Sutro Baths, according to the National Park Service. Sutro developed a new rail line – where California Street is today – for the masses to not only reach his complex by the Pacific Ocean, but a branch line also went along Seventh Avenue to Golden Gate Park, where the Bay District Racing Track along Fulton Street led to the growth of a cluster of nearby bars which became known as “Beertown,” according to Katie Dowd writing for SFGate. 

Sutro sold the new line in 1887 to the Powell Street Railroad Company on the condition that passengers from downtown to Sutro’s complex would just pay a five-cent fare. The Powell Company’s new Cliff House and Ferries Railroad placed its branch terminal inside a shelter at Fulton and Seventh Avenue labeled as the “Park Entrance.” Because the railroad charged 10 cents instead of five to reach Sutro Heights, Sutro opened a competing line, only to sell all his railway holdings during the economic depression of 1893, according to “When Steam Ran on The Streets of San Francisco,” by Walter Rice, Ph.D. and Emiliano Echeverria. Sutro and the Powell Company were not the only transit games in town as eight cable companies, 22 lines, and more than 600 cable cars served the City in the 1890s, according to Robert Callwell’s “Transit in San Francisco: A Selected Chronology, 1850-1995.”

San Francisco businessmen looked to encourage investment in California during the depression and decided on having an exhibition to draw attention to the region. The 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in the park’s Music Concourse provided enough passenger traffic for both Sixth and Seventh avenues to have their own streetcar lines to the park. The end of the Exposition and the merger of private transit companies left the Market Street Railway owning both lines. 

The Bay District Racing Track (closed in 1896) hosted soldiers instead of races starting in May 1898 due to the start of the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, so the racetrack became Camp Merritt. The soldiers were prominently exuberant among Beertown’s clientele until Camp Merritt closed later in 1898 when the war ended.

After the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, bars were rebuilt not around Beertown but in other parts of the City instead. Post-earthquake reconstruction provided an opportunity for the privately-owned transportation lines running on steam or horsepower to be rebuilt as electric lines. Streetcars led to the development of “streetcar suburbs,” neighborhoods farther from downtown, like the Western Addition, according to the documentary “Moving SF.” As downtown San Francisco got crowded, real estate development would benefit the streetcar companies as they were landowners. Transit expansions created decentralized business areas and gathering places which is why retail neighborhoods are sprinkled throughout San Francisco. (Another activity to raise post-earthquake spirits was Jan. 1, 1912, Cross City Race, today known as Bay to Breakers.)

In 1902, the Market Street Railway came under the control of the United Railroads of San Francisco. United Railroads of San Francisco attempted to establish a transit monopoly in the City but ran into financial difficulties after the 1906 earthquake and after Mayor Jim “Sunny” Rolph’s mandate to create public transit in San Francisco. 

A new 1900 city charter included transit as a public good and the formation of Muni, San Francisco’s publicly owned Municipal Railway which today includes buses, light rail trains, streetcars, and cable cars. San Francisco voters on Dec. 30, 1909, approved $2.02 million in bonds for a municipal street railway from the Ferry Building to the Pacific Ocean along Market and Geary streets, according to the San Francisco Call. Muni served its first passengers on Dec. 28, 1912, making San Francisco an early leader in publicly owned transit before many other major American cities followed in the the1930s and 1940s. (Though Monroe, Louisiana, and West Seattle, Washington had publicly owned transit in the 1900s before San Francisco.)

Muni already had 10 streetcar lines when the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened on Feb. 20, 1915, according to the nonprofit organization Market Street Railway. Muni’s first permanent bus line in 1917 connected the Inner Richmond and Inner Sunset districts by running through Golden Gate Park. City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy wanted Muni to run streetcar service through GG Park but was blocked by park superintendent John McLaren.  Muni completed the acquisition of the remaining private rail companies in 1951, according to the Western Railway Museum.

Muni averaged 700,000 boardings every weekday before the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced ridership. Weekday boardings averaged 400,000 in April 2022, according to SFMTA’s website. In 2016, then-District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar said, “the 38-Geary carries more than 52,000 transit riders every day, making it one of the busiest bus corridors west of the Mississippi.”

The Powell Golden Gate Park stop/shelter was constructed in 1889 according to the National Park Service.  It has a gable roof. The walls on the western and eastern sides are of wood, concrete, and brick. The northern and southern sides are not walled but gated.  Benches line the interior walls, but the benches today are behind locked gates. 

The roughly 20-foot-tall shelter is at the intersection of Fulton Street and Seventh Avenue.

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