On 5 January 1911, a photographer named John Henry Mentz came out to Sunnyside to take some shots on a chilly, partly cloudy day. He was the skilled official photographer for United Railroads of San Francisco (URR, which became Muni later). His photos documented the streetcar tracks, but naturally other things were included. Thanks to the availability of high-definition scans of these three images from SFMTA, we can glimpse life on that day in Sunnyside history, complete with a family on the way to the shops and goats grazing on the railroad tracks. The photos were taken on the first block of Monterey Boulevard, near Circular Avenue. First the photos with details, then a comparison to today.
A Thursday Afternoon on Monterey
First Mentz took this image, with a large 8×10 camera and a glass-plate negative positioned squarely in the middle of the unpaved road, facing east (towards what is now Glen Park).
The electric streetcar is coming up the tracks, with a horse cart carrying two men in front of it. Three uniformed workers are nearby. In the distance on the right can be seen the twin towers of St John’s Church on St Mary’s Avenue, and the old St John’s School. Further away at the top is the first Junipero Serra School in Holly Park.
The stylish woman in the big hat and thick fur collar walking beside the fence is probably about to board the streetcar there, as this was the car stop, on her way to some point further down Monterey, the terminus being Gennessee Street. The streetcar tracks had only been extended down to the end of Monterey less than two years before this, which made it possible for many more people to live on the western end of Sunnyside.
She seems to have the attention of all three workers at the moment. The URR worker near the tracks gestures toward her or perhaps his co-workers near the fence, who face her as she come toward them. One of the men may be the Southern Pacific (SP) Railroads watchman who was stationed at this danger spot–called the Sunnyside Crossing–where the steam train tracks crossed the electric streetcar tracks (visible just above the woman’s hat). It was the site of collisions with pedestrians, streetcars, and horse carts. The watchman’s job was to make sure the gates came down when the steam train came through. (Read more about the Sunnyside Crossing.) The Gatekeeper’s house, the little hut where he kept watch, is visible just above the worker’s extended hand.
On the far right (detail below) we can see goats grazing around the SP tracks, enclosed by the wooden fence. Small-scale animal husbandry was common in Sunnyside until the 1920s, a good use of a lot of undeveloped land covered with grasses of various sorts in this part of the Islais Creek watershed. A surprising number of older women were small-scale dairy farmers in this area. (Read one story here.) Beyond the enclosure is the fence on the edge of the extensive vegetable gardens nearby. (Read more about Rock Ranch here.)
A woman, perhaps the goatherd, stoops to pick up something near the goats. Another woman walks on the SP train tracks. Usually this is a dangerous choice, but by this time the steam train ran along here infrequently, as the Bayshore Cut on the east side of the city had been constructed in 1907 (the current route of Caltrain); that change reduced the frequency of collisions at the Crossing. In the foreground, stretches of barbed wire can be seen in the fence (although this isn’t enough to keep the goats from straying, as we’ll see later).
On the left side of the image, a woman and a girl–let’s say a mother and daughter–are on their way to shop, walking along the wood plank sidewalk. Note the short bit of fence next to them, which serves as a reference point in all three photos. In front of the women is a boy of twelve or so, running and rolling a hoop along the sidewalk–blurred, as he is moving too fast for the shutter speed. He wears overalls. Because the time of day is early afternoon he may be just out of school. The building just in front of the women is Dasse’s Hall (now 54 Monterey Blvd) which during the 1890s functioned as a meeting place for the Sunnyside Improvement Club.
Both wear distinctive crocheted shawls against the chill–the circular style was known then as an “umbrella shawl,” which had a brief vogue a few years before this. The girl has hers pulled up over her head. She carries some sort of package, maybe shopping bags.
Looking closely at the mother, we can see that her boots are polished and the hem of her long skirt is clean; her hair is shiny and dark, and put up with an impressively large barrette, probably of tortoise shell. Her left arm swings freely, as if she is walking at a good pace to keep up with her son running ahead, or perhaps it is too chilly to dawdle. The mother looks to be in her forties; her daughter is maybe fifteen, an age when she could still wear her skirts a bit shorter than the length acceptable for adult women. It is unlikely the daughter attends school; hopefully she graduated eighth grade.
Who is the mother? Looking at the 1910 US Census for Sunnyside, it is likely she was born in Ireland or Germany, or in another US state, but not in California. She has perhaps five children living (though many women had eight or ten) though she may have given birth to several more who did not live. Her husband works as a laborer in a iron foundry or brewery, or as a machinist or carpenter, although there were some white collar workers who lived in Sunnyside then. If she had a son or daughter of 16 or older, they worked as well; her daughter could be a stenographer or bookkeeper, her son a clerk, delivery boy, or apprentice laborer.
The mother and her large family live in house of just four or five rooms. Their house is surrounded by vacant lots, as Sunnyside has not filled out yet. They may keep chickens or even a cow or two. Sewers for district were only approved and funded–by the residents themselves!–two months before this, so they have had an outhouse on the back of their long narrow lot. Piped water only came a few years before this, so until then their water came from a well on their property.
They are probably headed to the set of small stores that used to stand where the Glen Park BART Station is now, which was also the location of Glen Park’s library then. (Read more about that here.) Here are the shops in later photo, at the end of Monterey where it meets Diamond. This image includes an automobile (a Ford Model T) by then not a novelty, but still somewhat uncommon in Sunnyside.
Goat on the Move
For the next shot Mentz moved his camera a bit and turned it to face west. This bring the Sunnyside Powerhouse into view. (More about that lost landmark here.) That huge building stood on the flatiron-shaped block between Circular and Monterey, and wasn’t completely demolished until houses were built there in the 1940s.
The white clapboard building in front of the powerhouse was a residence hotel of sorts, which during the years the powerhouse operated (1892-1901) would have housed some of the workers.
In the middle, next to the short stretch of fence previously mentioned, we see one of those goats, which has gone astray from the enclosure on the other side of the road.
On the right is Dasse’s Hall again, looking a bit scruffy and abandoned.
Vista of Unbuilt Hills
In the last shot, Mentz moves further up the street and onto the sidewalk, and faces east. In the center, the shallow hill of Bayview is visible. On the right, the Excelsior District. Closer to the viewer are a few houses that were once wedged between the two sets of tracks, demolished when I-280 freeway was constructed in the early 1960s.
There isn’t as much human interest in this one, except on the very far left, where two of the workers have come along to see what Mentz is doing, and stand next to that same bit of fence. The Gatekeeper’s House is visible in the distance.
Old Transport Routes Never Die
Although the area has undergone many changes, it is still a hub for transportation. It began a long time ago: in the mid-1800s the El Camino ran by here because it was the way through the hills to San Jose. Then in 1864, the steam train tracks went in along the route of the old El Camino. In 1964, the Interstate 280 Freeway went in where the Southern Pacific tracks had been, followed by BART next to the freeway in 1972. The streetcar on Monterey is gone, but the transit franchise here is still used by two Muni buses today, the 23-Monterey and the 36-Teresita.
The present street here is now much wider, having been widened a few years after these photos were taken, requiring the demolition of some buildings such as Dasse’s Hall. This whole stretch of Monterey was actually called Circular Avenue until 1920; the rest of our part of Monterey Blvd was called Sunnyside Avenue until the name was changed that same year.
Then and Now
Here are the three photos for comparison, with shots from the same vantage points taken recently, followed by maps and some background on the photographer, Mentz.
Photographer John Henry Mentz
John Henry Mentz Jr (1872-1959) was born in California to a German mother and a Russian father. In 1893 he began work as a machinist and electrician for the Market Street Railway. In 1903 he became the official photographer for United Railroads of San Francisco, which that same year was formed of four SF railway companies.
He worked photographing the streets and tracks of SF for over forty years, and his legacy is a huge body of consistently well-made images that document a critical period in the history of the city and its transit system.
Browse the astonishing 5675 images taken by John Henry Mentz on the SFMTA photo website here.
Then enter “mentz” in search box.
My thanks to Katy Guyon of SFMTA Photo Archive, and Kathleen Laderman of Mission Terrace, for help on research for this post.
1 thought on “1911: Snapshot of life on Monterey Boulevard”
Thank you, very interesting.