By Amy O’Hair
Although a sparsely populated neighborhood during the decades around the turn of the last century, Sunnyside had both a streetcar—San Francisco’s first electric car—and the Southern Pacific San Francisco-San Jose steam train running along its eastern border. The two lines crossed at an oblique angle, just south of Monterey Boulevard at Joost Avenue—an area now disappeared by the excavations for I-280. It was referred to as the Sunnyside crossing, and was a notorious site of fatalities and injuries during these years.
San Jose Ave was tunneled under the freeway during construction in the 1960s, so the crossing point is now about here (image Google Streetview):
No Franchise, Plenty of Hazard
The Southern Pacific steam line ran both passenger and freight trains from downtown SF, cutting across blocks in the Mission, to points south of the City. The electric streetcar—the San Francisco San Mateo Electric Railway—ran from downtown on city streets, down Guerrero St, through Sunnyside, to San Mateo County. There was a passenger stop just south of the Crossing. (There are some links at the end of post.)
Southern Pacific didn’t actually have a franchise from the City to run this line, as was revealed later when efforts to get rid of the menace picked up in 1899. It didn’t matter much while the neighborhoods it passed through were less populated, but as they got denser in the late nineteenth century, deaths and injuries increased–as did the protests.
The Gates and the Gatekeeper
Maintenance and safety measures were poor on the part of Southern Pacific, as documented often all over the Bay Area at this time; when other factors such as fog or dusk were part the mix, it was a deadly combination. There was a gatekeeper’s house at the crossing, but as the reports for one crash in 1899 showed, a man waving a lantern and shouting were hardly enough to prevent a speeding train from crashing into a hapless horse cart on the tracks when that train came barreling up the hill.
Reports from passengers and witnesses in several incidents suggest the crossing gates were little used. In the aftermath of the 1899 crash, it was revealed they had been disabled for repair work two weeks earlier and were still out of commission. While SP employees regularly denied it, witnesses attested to the lack of bells or whistles being used in the moments before a crash, something train drivers were supposed to do before all crossings.
The bulky, powerful Southern Pacific steam trains were in large part responsible for injuries and deaths at this spot, as everywhere their tracks ran in these days. Although the San Francisco San Mateo electric line had its own long list of deadly crashes due to safety oversights, dating from when it began running in 1892, it was overwhelmingly the passengers on the streetcars, or drivers and passengers in horse-drawn buggies, who were the losers in any collision involving a SP train.
Death of a Policeman
In 1895 a retired and well-respected police officer, Patrick Slevin, was driving his buggy on the road here and was struck by a SP train. His son James P Slevin was a newspaper man, so the fatal collision was well-publicized.
The Chronicle ran a scathing article about the incident entitled “No Regard for Life,” blaming the powerful Southern Pacific Company for a long bloody list of deaths and injuries. “The trains run at a very high rate of speed, and no effort is ever made to slacken their speed….The Mission people think it is high time the Octopus should be compelled to have some regard for human life.” (SF Chronicle, 18 March 1985, p.5.)
The Chronicle also noted how residents of the Mission district had long asked that SP implement safety measures at the many points where their tracks crossed city streets. Children had been killed at the Randall Street crossing on their way to Fairmount School. “The big Corporation had always seen fit to ignore the mandates of the city fathers.” Slevin’s son James sued SP for $20K ($575K now). The following year a dairy woman was hit south of the Crossing, in what is now Balboa Park (more here).
‘Train Leaves a Bloody Trail at Sunnyside’
In October 1899 the Chardella family were coming home from a family picnic with relatives in San Mateo county. Their horse car was hit from behind, and the father and daughter killed. The mother and infant son were thrown fifty feet and survived. The supposed speed of the SP train was fifteen miles per hour, but the throw distance of fifty feet suggests the train was moving faster than that. The engineer of the SP train was initially charged with manslaughter, but then exonerated (SF Call, 22 Oct 1899, p.22).
That incident was also followed by outraged calls for increased safety measures. The Chronicle headline: “The Safety of the Public: No Provision for it on City Railroad Tracks” (SF Chronicle, 15 Oct 1899, p.32.). The impunity with which SP operated was called out: “[S]o far as the Southern Pacific is concerned, this is a ‘wide-open town’.” There were regulations in place, but SP flouted them at every crossing. The Los Angeles Daily Times carried an editorial that referred to “the dark red record of the Southern Pacific Railroad” (LA Daily Times, 4 Oct 1899, p.4).
Tear Up the Tracks
Earlier that year a concerted and well-publicized effort to rein in Southern Pacific had been mounted by the Federation of Mission Improvement Clubs (also called ‘Mission Federation of Improvement Clubs’), a consortium of groups from a number of neighborhoods then considered to be extensions of the Mission District–Fairmount, Sunnyside, Holly Park, Ocean View, West of Castro Street (now part of Noe Valley), and Five-Mile House (now Visitacion Valley). These areas were growing fast during this time, but all lacked basic infrastructure; residents joined together in efforts to secure City money for needed improvements.
The executive committee of the Federation was led by Gustave Schnee, a Sunnyside resident who lived at 66 Joost Ave. He was also president of the Sunnyside Improvement Club. The Federation was successful in fighting off SP’s bid to run double tracks through San Francisco earlier in 1899. (The tracks had always been single.)
Flush from this victory, the group pushed hard in June to get the megacorporation to remove its tracks altogether from city streets. Construction of the Bayshore Cut-Off—the route that the current Caltrain line runs, going through four tunnels on the east side of the City—had been talked about for years. Track opponents got pretty strident.
“We have been lenient enough,” Schnee was quoted in the Chronicle, “only radical measures will bring this corporation to terms. The only way is to force it to go around the Bay Shore. To do that I would suggest people tear out the crossings.” (SF Chronicle, 5 June 1899, p.10.) Direct action!
Construction on the Bayshore Cut-Off—a more efficient, less hazardous route that had been planned since 1881—did not begin until 1904; the project was completed at the end of 1907. That new line greatly reduced the number of SP trains running on the old route through city streets, and thus through the Sunnyside crossing. Yet some trains still ran on those city tracks for years, the last one in the early 1940s. The SP tracks were not actually completely removed until the I-280 freeway was constructed in the 1960s. (More here.)
The Mission Tracks Must Go
Back to 1899. Candidates for the Board and Mayor James Phelan were amenable to the Federation’s appeal to remove the dangerous tracks, but after the election in December 1899 nothing was done. Schnee returned to the Board of Supervisors in January 1900 to remind them of their pre-election promise (SF Call, 21 Jan 1900, p.18).
As if to underscore the reality of this hazard to residents, two weeks later a toddler in Sunnyside crawled through the broken fence near the third block of Circular Ave, and was hit and killed by a SP train.
The tragedy tugged at the heartstrings of many San Franciscans (that story is part of my Early Years history walk). More outrage followed in the paper, and the company was censured at the inquest.
The fight picked up force. Mayor Phelan and the Board of Supervisors, surely buoyed up by public sentiment, went against the Octopus, and by May 1900 had passed an ordinance that required SP to remove the tracks. The train company threatened them with a long and expensive legal fight. The following year the Superior Court ruled that SP “had no legal right to run trains on…Mission tracks” (SF Call, 24 Aug 1901, p.12). Victory at last? Not quite.
Steam Meets Electric
There might have been movement at the governmental level, but on the ground, those big trains continued to barrel through the Sunnyside crossing. In September 1902 the SP steam train crashed into an electric streetcar, destroying the streetcar and injuring the passengers on it, several severely.
This provoked renewed outrage, even occasioning articles in the Los Angeles Daily Times and the Oakland Tribune. It was a foggy morning and the crossing gates were not in use.
This incident brought forth a scathing editorial from the SF Chronicle: “Indifference to Municipal Law.” Rather than taking to task the enormous company’s habitually lax safety practices, the paper lectured the streetcar workers. During the inquest they had attested to the fact that the gates were rarely if ever used. “The men were so accustomed to seeing the gates up at the Sunnyside crossing when they ought to have been down that they thought nothing of the matter until a serious accident jarred them.” (SF Chronicle, 6 Sept 1902, p.6.) They should have said something earlier!
One of the injured, Francisco Pisacreta, attempted to get compensation from the giant company to the tune of $10K ($276K now), but he received only $750 ($20K now). (SF Call, 17 Feb 1904, p.16.)
In 1904, the crossing was photographed during some track improvements. This photo was taken from a point near the gatekeeper’s house, looking toward the northeast, up the Southern Pacific tracks.
The Fight Goes On
Between 1901 and 1904, there were regular calls for removal of the Mission tracks; the multitude of delaying tactics used by Southern Pacific kept anything from actually being done. By 1904 SP had the land and the franchises needed for the Bayshore Cut-Off, and so construction began. But the company fought all attempts at removal of the Mission tracks, saying they could use them in an emergency.
Man on Visit to Friends Dies
Meanwhile, in January 1905, a pedestrian was hit and hurled fifty feet, sustaining fatal injuries. Albert Goodman, a retired vineyardist living at the Vineyardist Home on Sacramento St had been visiting friends in Sunnyside, and did not see or hear the approaching train–strongly suggesting that the gates were not down, the gatekeeper was not alert or perhaps even present, and the train driver wasn’t using the whistle or bell.
After the Bayshore Cut-Off was finished in 1907, trains still ran down the old tracks. In a classified ad in 1908 the owner of the house at 179 Brompton Ave instructed interested buyers to get off at the Sunnyside crossing. Even as late as 1912, this spot was called the “death crossing at Sunnyside” in an article about creating a level road for cars down to the county line. (SF Call, 12 November 1912, p.5).
Long Slow Demise of a Death Crossing
The widening of Bernal Avenue (later renamed San Jose Avenue) in 1929-30 reconfigured the streets in this area and allowed car traffic to pass through the Bernal Cut. Here is the intersection near the Sunnyside crossing, in about 1930 when the work was finished.
The tracks were still there, but few trains ran on them then–you can just see a RR Crossing X sign between the San Jose Ave and the Monterey Blvd labels (see above).
In 1938 the Southern Pacific tracks are still visible (see below).
The last train would run in the early 1940s. One woman whose family lived near here during that time remembers her brother got into a bit of trouble messing around on the trestle bridge that went over the SP tracks just south of the crossing, at Santa Rosa Ave.
“One day my older brother and a friend of his (both about 12 years old) managed to get under the trestle bridge. They wanted to hear the train cross above them, and my brother slipped and fell to the sidewalk. A kind lady stopped, checked him out and brought him home. The only injury was a sprained ankle. Boys will be boys.” Thrills from another century.
- Found SF: Trains in the Mission. http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Trains_in_the_Mission
- Found SF: Southern Pacific Railroad Rolls Through the City. http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Southern_Pacific_Railroad_Rolls_Through_the_City
- Burrito Justice: Dolores Street Bridge. https://burritojustice.com/2014/01/22/dolores-st-bridge/
- Explore the photos at SFMTA’s fabulous archive. http://sfmta.photoshelter.com
- Amazing archive of photos from Western Neighborhoods Project. http://OpenSFHistory.org
- To browse archives of the SF Call listed below : http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=cl&cl=CL1&sp=SFC&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
- To browse archives of the SF Chronicle listed below (sign in with SF public card): http://ezproxy.sfpl.org/login?url=http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/search/nb?p=AMNEWS&t=pubname%3A142051F45F422A02%257CSFCB%21Multiple%2BPublications&b=pubname