Update Feb 2021: See additional new images of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, including the engine rooms
Sunnyside played an important role in the development of the first electric streetcar in San Francisco. The pioneering enterprise was initiated in 1890 by streetcar-railway engineer John Wesley Hartzell, with financial backing from millionaire real-estate speculator Behrend Joost. Before that, horse-powered and cable-driven streetcars were the norm in the city. Soon the newly introduced technology would power many of San Francisco’s many privately-held transit lines.
But the San Francisco and San Mateo Railway was the first electric railroad in the city, and central to the project, producing the electric energy to run the line, was the Sunnyside Powerhouse, located on the flatiron-shaped block at the eastern end of Monterey Boulevard, then called Sunnyside Avenue.
It was positioned about halfway between the two ends of the streetcar line: the Ferry Building downtown in San Francisco and the City of Baden in San Mateo County (now South San Francisco). The powerhouse was one of the first structures built in Sunnyside after property first went on sale in 1891, and certainly the largest ever in the neighborhood.
With a one-hundred-foot smokestack, a large condensing pond with fountains, and a conical witch’s-hat tower, it was a striking presence in an area with very little development then.
Once operating, it burned 25 tons of coal a day, and operated almost around the clock providing energy to the railway. It also housed a car barn, where the streetcars were serviced. Power went out over overhead wires hung on poles—a common sight now, but then a completely new type of infrastructure; this was many years before houses were provided with electricity.
The Sunnyside Powerhouse generated electricity for the streetcar system for just eight and a half years, going offline in December 1900. The source of power for the line was then switched to the newly built Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse at San Jose Ave and Geneva St, which still stands. The Sunnyside Powerhouse would then remain unused, except for storage, until it was demolished in the 1910s. Houses were built on the land about 1940.
The story of the first electric streetcar
The fight for the streets of San Francisco was as hot in 1890 as it is today. The current Uber/Lyft ride-hail revolution is just the latest brazen occupation of public streets by capitalist-driven private companies jockeying to profit from the universal need for transit. Towards the turn of the last century, it was private streetcar companies scurrying to secure exclusive 50-year agreements from an under-sized and under-funded city government, giving them railway rights on the major streets throughout the fast-growing city. There were numerous separate lines run by different companies servicing various sections of the city.
This new electric streetcar ran from Steuart Street downtown, along Guerrero Street to Thirtieth, then up Chenery Street, past Sunnyside, along the San Jose Road to the county line. The terminus in San Mateo County was Holy Cross Cemetery at Baden. It was the first “interurban,” meaning a streetcar going between two cities. The fare was five cents. View whole map here.
Engineer Hartzell comes to town
The mind behind the electric streetcar project was engineer J. W. Hartzell, who had built streetcar railroad systems in several cities in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois, before coming to the Bay Area in 1890.
Once here he pursued projects using the new electric technology on both sides of the Bay. In San Francisco he went into business with Behrend Joost, a millionaire real estate speculator who had grown rich selling hardware and richer still investing in land and Panama Canal dredging.
Hartzell was very proactive in speaking to the media about the project, explaining the specifications of the new type of railroad and boasting of its scope.
Early on, the Chronicle hinted repeatedly that this new line would eventually connect with the Santa Fe Railroad in the south, and thereby undermine the monopoly held by the hated Southern Pacific railroad, the “Octopus.” This was the first project aiming to get an electric railway running the length of the state and connecting with an interstate system. The boasts were big, but ultimately not realized.
Hartzell was a competent engineer and a persuasive salesman. He overcame a number of legal and practical hurdles that were thrown into the path of the project. On the day the first car went down the tracks, the SF Chronicle called him “The man whose perseverance and skill built the road.”
Unlike Joost, Hartzell earned the affection and goodwill of the men who worked under him—even being presented with a diamond ring at Christmas 1891 from appreciative employees.
His abilities and virtues were recounted in the newspapers on more than one occasion. The line was called the Joost-Hartzell Road several times during the early years of the enterprise, and news articles strongly suggest that reporters found him a friendly, reliable, sensible source of intelligence about the project.
Here comes Trouble
Behrend Joost did not have a middle name, but if he had it would have been Trouble.
Praise for Joost during his lifetime tended toward the faint; a fairly flattering contemporary biography observed that he “never placed himself in a position to be ruled by the opinion or actions of others.” Behrend Joost didn’t play well with others.
Although he had money, he lacked business acumen, social grace, and good judgment. He was a fussy teetotaler in a town that did business over a glass—a millionaire who once refused to pay his 5-cent fare on the Fillmore streetcar.
One of the few good business decisions Joost made in the course of founding this pioneer railway was to hire Hartzell. Unfortunately Hartzell resigned ten weeks after the first car ran down the new tracks in April 1892, contending as he must have with Joost’s continual refusal to take his engineering advice—resulting in injuries and deaths on the line.
In contrast with Hartzell’s good relations with employees, Joost would repeatedly stint his workers’ wages for months on end, causing them to threaten lawsuits and walkouts. (Read whole Apr 1893 article.)
Construction of the new railway
But to return to the building of the railway. After being granted the franchise in December 1890 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (overriding the mayor’s veto), and incorporating as San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway in January 1891, the company got immediately to work laying tracks and putting up overhead electrical wires.
A glitch occurred in April when the Supervisors threatened to pass an ordinance banning electric wires hung from poles. Hartzell had his crew work all night for several days to install the needed infrastructure, thus besting the Board by mere hours (read article). Many of these workers had never done this particular job before. In San Francisco overhead wires hung from poles are almost ubiquitous now—but this was long before electricity was supplied to buildings and homes, and the sight was completely novel and to some ugly and offensive.
The tracks were all completed by late July 1891, and this was celebrated with a ceremony at the county line, where Joost drove a silver spike, and Hartzell pulled it out so it could be inscribed.
The Diamond Street Trestle
To bridge the gulch where a tributary of Islais Creek ran in Glen Park, the company built a large trestle. It was positioned where Diamond Street now runs, between Chenery and Bosworth. (The gulch was filled in later.)
A large trestle for the cars was also built South of Market on Harrison Street over Second. Hartzell worked with the City on that project.
Building the Powerhouse
In July 1891, to build the powerhouse, the company purchased the block in Sunnyside bordered by Monterey and Circular Avenues and Baden Street (now Block 6768). The front of the building spanned the current houses from 117 to 159 Monterey Blvd.
That the terminus for the Railway was in the city of Baden (now South San Francisco) is likely to have been the impetus behind the naming of Baden Street in Sunnyside. (That and the plentiful number of German investors in the Sunnyside Land Company.)
The company ran into further trouble in August, when the first rumors of financial chaos began to circulate, causing Joost and Hartzell to publish this note in the newspapers for several days running to calm the public, but especially their anxious investors.
In September 1891, the cornerstone of the Powerhouse was laid with another ceremony, with a time capsule underneath the heavy stone—a treasure that is surely now lost. Read a full account of the event here.
Later that year there were two bad workplace accidents, resulting in worker injuries. This was surely related to the terrific haste with which the line was being constructed, in order to rush it towards the moment when it could start generating money, one nickel at a time, and ease the financial pressures.
The Sunnyside Powerhouse was completed in March 1892. (See photos from shortly after construction in this post.)
‘Spinning along at nine-miles-an-hour’
On 27 April 1892, the first streetcar ran down the completed tracks in an event marked by speeches and ceremony. It began downtown at Steuart Street, and began its ride toward the San Mateo County terminus at a zippy speed of nine miles an hour. That the ride lacked the characteristic jerk felt by passengers on cable cars was noted with pleasure.
The crowd of 240 people comfortably arrayed in eight cars, including many businessmen and city supervisors, rode down to the Holy Cross cemetery gates at Baden CA, then back to the Sunnyside Powerhouse, where everyone inspected the giant motors and machinery. A lunch was served, and the speeches began, with Constantine EA Foerster, Joost’s attorney and close confidant, acting as host. (Constantine Foerster was also an investor in the Sunnyside Land Company, and the source of the street name in that neighborhood.)
In June 1892, offices for the railway were built on the northwest corner of San Jose Ave and Thirtieth Street. The building also contained a waiting room, because this was the transfer point between the cars from downtown and the cars going out to the end of the line. (Building demolished when San Jose Ave was widened in the 1920s.)
Flying off the tracks
The railway was plagued with crashes. Just three weeks after the line began running in April 1892 there was a derailment at the bottom of the Chenery Street hill, at 30th Street, leaving many passengers injured. The basic danger of this steep section of the line wasn’t addressed, as surely Hartzell would have recommended before his resignation, and the incident was reprised in January 1894, with even more severe injuries resulting—a total of thirty people, by the count of the Chronicle during the two weeks that followed.
That newspaper, which had been a cheerleader for the fledgling railway, now turned into its doomsayer as the tragedies and evidence of mismanagement mounted.
Multiple lawsuits requiring compensation for those injured in crashes, or the survivors of the dead, helped drain the coffers of the San Francisco and San Mateo Railway. Joost would settle with the victims for amounts he had chiseled them down to, only to have his shareholders in turn sue the victims in attempts to recover their unpaid dividends.
In his drive to get the railroad running, Joost cut corners everywhere. Instead of needed maintenance of the tracks where he’d already been granted the franchise, Joost asked the Board of Supervisors for a great number of additional streets, even before his railway was actually profitable or functioning well. He was taken to task repeatedly by the supervisors for the poor conditions of the line, which contributed to the number of injurious crashes and derailments.
Joost was not the only major backer—although he was always the spokesman after Hartzell left—others included his brother Fabian Joost, W F Thomas, and W F Gilmore. He proved himself to be a financial bungler and criminally negligent manager of the highest order, his decisions costing his customers life and limb, and his investors much money.
With Hartzell gone as of July 1892, Joost began to work to obtain franchises from the City that ran over more profitable streets than the lonely empty roads of the Rancho San Miguel. He aimed to run his line from the Mission up over the hill to Golden Gate Park, a route that promised paying crowds on the weekends. At that time there was no recreational area for the working-class Missionites, and no way to get to the Park other than a roundabout journey of many hours. He also set his sights on service to Holly Park and 24th Street through what is now Noe Valley. He promised late-night “owl” cars. He did everything but maintain his tracks, keep his riders safe, and pay his suppliers.
In early 1893 the financial precariousness of the railway was becoming apparent, and the vultures began to circle.
The Chronicle revealed that Joost had a kind of shell game going with two “twin” corporations, the Sunnyside Construction Company and the San Francisco San Mateo Railway Company, mixing up the finances as pressures from creditors and investors closed in. This kind of practice was hardly much worse than what the big railroad boys did then, such as the Southern Pacific Railroad, but Joost did not have rich friends in high places—he was a scrappy underdog, always embattled, always fending off attacks he brought on himself.
The first domino was capitalist Claus Augustus ‘Gus’ Spreckels, who called in a $50,000 loan he had extended to the Sunnyside Construction Company. That company made no move to come forward with any cash, as it was “laboring under a state of financial depression,” By April things were spiraling out of control, with the electric railway being sued by the Thomson-Houston company of Boston, which had provided the enormous generators, and had yet to be paid for them.
The sheriff took possession of the machinery, though the line continued to function. In typical fashion, Joost had developed a vindictive feud with a partner, CC Butler, who was an investor and officer in the Sunnyside Construction Company. Their fight over shares, which they described as “treating like a card game,” became another crippling factor in the unmaking of Joost as would-be baron of the electric rails.
By July, nine of the streetcars were seized by the sheriff, and the bills were still unpaid. Joost, his brother Fabian, and another capitalist, came up with $200,000 bond, and this was supposed to hold the wolves at bay for a while, but the inevitable was on its way.
The following year the final nails went into the coffin. A judge ruled that Joost’s last-ditch attempt to extract more money from his unremunerated shareholders was illegal. Other lawsuits piled up. A receiver for the railway was named.
Even CEA Foerster, Joost’s nephew and corporate attorney—who had been at Joost’s side since he was a sixteen-year-old clerk at the Mission Street Joost Brothers hardware store—abandoned the sinking ship. Foerster went on to represent CA Spreckels in his bid to recover his money from the Joosts.
In 1896, a consortium of investors, including Adolph B Spreckels and John D Spreckels, bought up the line at a discount. In 1901 it became part of United Railroads of San Francisco.
The life of the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway was short but important. Despite Joost’s terrible management, the system set a precedent for a new type of propulsion. The new and efficient technology of electrical power for transit became the norm—until the shift to gasoline-powered buses in the 1940s.
Electric trolleys are still a big part of San Francisco’s public transit system, even as improvements in another technology, large batteries, looks set to wean buses off fossil fuels and take the whole system back to being mostly driven by electricity—as it was over a hundred years ago!
- For more about the technical aspects of the electrical system, the cars, and the tracks, read this account—though it still contains the error about “Isaac” Joost, the nonexistent Joost brother!
- Read this contemporary account of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, in Street Railways Journal, July 1893. Page one. Page two. (Google Books Source.)
- SF Chronicle archives (sign in with SF Public Library card): http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.sfpl.org/resources/search/nb?p=AMNEWS&t=pubname%3A142051F45F422A02%257CSFCB%21Multiple%2BPublications&b=pubname
- SF Call archives: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=cl&cl=CL1&sp=SFC&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
- Despite it being stated as 1889 elsewhere in accounts of the railway, the article about his resignation in July 1892 clearly says he had come to the Bay Area in 1890. “Hartzell resigns,” SF Chronicle, 1 July 1892. ↑
- “First Electric Road,” SF Chronicle, 27 Apr 1892. ↑
- Leigh Irvine (ed.), A History of The New California, New York: The Lewis Publishing Co, 1905. https://archive.org/stream/historyofnewcali01irvi#page/368/mode/2up ↑
- “Behrend Joost Arrested,” SF Call, 26 Sep 1907, p16. The scope of the present article cannot even begin to record the bread and depth of Behrend Joost’s bad behavior and public humiliations, which included fist fights with people to whom he owned small sums of money, illegal excavations of his neighbors’ property resulting in them being unable to access their houses, fencing off Corbett Road, refusal to pay many of his debts, especially small ones to individuals, intimidation in court of witnesses and victims of his streetcar crashes, and so very much more. I’ve read it all, but find the prospect of writing it all up very dismal indeed. ↑
- Contrary to accounts elsewhere, such as the error-ridden one in Wikipedia, there never was a brother named “Isaac Joost.” Fabian was a named but otherwise silent partner in the enterprise. It was Behrend, first and always Behrend. News of the incorporation lists the officers: “News of the Rail,” SF Chronicle, 23 Jan 1891, p5. ↑
- “Twin Corporations,” SF Chronicle, 8 Feb 1893, p3 ↑
- “The motors move: the law does not stop the electric road,” SF Chronicle, 3 Apr 1893. ↑