The best laid tracks
Stories of San Francisco’s ghost stations
New York has abandoned subway stations in all sorts of configurations: never opened, opened and then closed, half-closed, incomplete — some with ghost platforms, others with doors floating in the air, not to mention a closed station that looks better than many opened ones. Chicago has politics, shutdown blocks-long superstations, carcasses of some stations used to build others, and even eleven former ghost stations: opened, closed, and then reopened again. Ah, even L.A. has a secret subway from before it sold its soul to automobiles.
And then there’s San Francisco, with only a few mildly interesting abandoned transit spaces: a tunnel in Fort Mason, Bayshore roundhouse, former (possible) transit stops on the Bay Bridge. Counting proper ghost stations gets you to… one. Well, maybe two, if you bend the rules a bit.
But they’re still our two ghost stations, so let’s spend some time learning their history and looking at some wonderful photos (some never before seen online). If you’re like me, you might be surprised to find out how much both stations have in common, and what tumultuous journeys got them to where they were.
Part I. Eureka (Valley) Station, 1918–1972
At the turn of last century, we treated Twin Peaks, one of the city’s most famous hills, as a billboard. In 1901, someone adorned it with an ad for Cook’s Water (not a proto LaCroix, as I assumed, but rather a popular resort)…
…and by 1913, with two separate big-lettered ads:
Luckily, the tradition didn’t continue for much longer — from now on, only the things on the ground and below it would multiply.
Both of the photos above point to the end of Market Street, already the city’s biggest and most important street, although much abbreviated from present day’s perspective.
Today, you can get into a car at the bottom of Market Street by the Ferry Building, and witness its five personalities without ever changing a lane: first a straight line cutting through downtown like a solidus, then a winding road that sheds most of transportation and hugs the bottom of Twin Peaks, followed by its renamed continuation — Portola Drive — sneaking by San Francisco’s most famous canyon right before the city’s highest natural point, to then morph into to a Boulevard, and eventually become an Interstate claiming to be “the world’s most beautiful,” leading all the way to San Jose.
But in 1913, Market Street just… ended. You could turn left into Castro Street and visit a brand-new Castro Theater (not the one you’re thinking of! and not as impressive!), or choose to turn right into 17th Street towards the largely uninhabited western parts of the city. Alternatively, you could stay at the intersection and visit the well-known pharmacy… or even move into the new, shining, white four-story apartment building that sprang up next to it in the recent few years.
But the last one would’ve been a bad idea. For the first steps to extend Market Street and turn it into a 60-mile ribbon would start within a year — and its first casualty would be that very building.
The plan was far more ambitious, however, than just making Market Street longer. It was to make Market Street longer twice — split it into a more impressive thoroughfare for cars, but also allow the trams already traversing the diagonal street to simply keep on going, through a streetcar tunnel that would become the world’s longest and take them all the way to the other side of Twin Peaks, considerably shortening the downtown commute of people living there.
The following maps show Market Street before the extension, the Twin Peaks Tunnel during construction, and the eventual outcome with both the tunnel and Market Street continuing southwestward: overlapping for a few blocks, then going their separate ways.
Construction on the tunnel started at the end of 1914…
…with the extension of Market Street hugging both sides of its entrance (called the East Portal), and a bunch of buildings sacrificed to create room for both:
The project was ambitious in another way. It recognized, even in the early 1910s, that the future of the already-congested Market Street was public transit running below it.
And so, at the entrance to the new Twin Peaks tunnel, the tracks dipped down sharply so they could get underground really quickly — and, in the future, the rest of Market Street would join them there.
The tunnel, called by then-mayor Rolph “the last tunnel which reveals to the eyes of the people of the East the Golden Shores of the Pacific,” opened in 1918, frequented by streetcar lines with letters — K, L, M — recognizable to any rider today.
There were two small boarding platforms just before the entrance to the East Portal but, of course, with the entire Market Street streetcar traffic soon moving underground, the stop would disappear and was meant as temporary.
Instead, not far from the entrance inside the subway, a proper station was built. Named after both the valley and the nearby street, it was called either Eureka Valley Station, or Eureka Station. (We could never truly decide.)
Streetcars entered the station via the tunnel. For pedestrians, there were four small kiosks located by the sides of Market Street, still in the process of being extended, with the tunnel running directly underneath. In the photo below, the four brand-new kiosks are clearly visible — as is a guy hanging his laundry:
The kiosks were tiny, although elegant, each one hiding stairs leading to platforms below:
In this photo from July 1919 — the kiosks and the tunnel already open — it becomes obvious how little-developed that part of the city still was (and also the apparent popularity of hanging out white laundry):
In later photos, we can watch the process of paving first the cross streets…
…and, by 1920, the extension of Market Street itself:
The diagram below shows how the kiosks connected to the subway platforms:
But the plan was even more ambitious. It wasn’t just extending Market Street for cars and public transit. It wasn’t just anticipating Market Street streetcars going underground. It was also planning for another tunnel — Sunset Tunnel, which meant to start at the same place, and Eureka Station to become a crucial connector that would send you off to your journey west, or your journey north.
Then, as you probably anticipate, life did what life does to best laid plans.
But we should finally take a look at the station itself.
We know it was simple, spartan even — so rudimentary that few bothered to take the time to describe or photograph it. A few photos of its construction remain, with the East Portal visible in the background:
There is also a short surviving video, showing the project’s officials – among them the legendary civil engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy who started this whole project:
After tons of searching, I eventually found a rare Eureka Station photo in normal use, showing a simple construction with brightly lit platforms. This could almost be a tiny subway station in London or uptown Manhattan, if not for a K streetcar promising Ocean To Phelan, its single light shining into a camera and giving us a pretty flare.
San Francisco waited to put Market Street streetcars underground for so long that streetcars themselves became obsolete. What was eventually moved underground — in mid-1970s, six solid decades after Twin Peaks Tunnel — were more advanced light railway vehicles, kind of an SUV version of a streetcar.
In the meantime, Castro Theater №2 appeared in its current location, the classic Bank of America building moved in at the corner, boxy cars and streetcars of the beginning of the century evolved into more modern equivalents, and the volume of traffic increased:
And, we invented colour photography:
Sunset Tunnel was built, too, but its entrance portal ended up located much farther to the north, shattering the Eureka Station’s dream to become a transit hub.
As the 1970s approached, the station and the tunnel faced another challenge: how to stay in operation as the East Portal was being replaced by a wholly underground connection to the newly-built Market Street subway. What transpired was the most fascinating ballet of construction work and track realignments with a singular purpose: to allow Market Street surface streetcars to continue into the old tunnel, and everyday commute to stay uninterrupted.
It started with the excavation of the area around the East Portal. In both photos below you can see the streetcars and their passengers continuing on their merry way as if nothing was happening when, in fact, literal tons of things were:
Then, temporary side tunnels were built, connecting the surface of Market Street with the underground. (Compare the two photos below.)
The rather unnerving temporary configuration of a streetcar running above an open trench earned itself a hilarious nickname “Collingwood Elevated,” a rare elevated transit line in the history of San Francisco (Collingwood is a name of a nearby street):
Eventually, the main Market Street streetcar tracks were connected to the side tunnels more directly. (Look carefully at the first photo below, and you will also see the now-gone twin-decked Central Freeway crossing Market Street):
Things went on like this for a few years, with streetcars entering the Twin Peaks tunnel from the sides, cars driving from the old Market Street straight into its extension, and the work on Market Street subway proceeding out of sight.
Finally, in 1980, the seventy-year old dream came to be. The first car — a light rail vehicle — drove all the way underground from the top of Market Street to the very end of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.
But neither that car, nor any car after, would ever stop at Eureka Station.
In the end, for all its once grand ambitions, Eureka Station was an old, tiny box with twin platforms and little else. Upgrading it to new light rail standards (which meant, at the very least, raising all the platforms) and making it more accessible would be harder and more expensive than starting from scratch. And starting from scratch had another benefit: we could do it in a more convenient place.
After thinking about it, it turned out that the simple boarding platform just by the East Portal, always meant to be temporary, was actually in a better location for many people. And so a completely new station, called Castro, was built on that very spot.
Castro Station was bigger, equipped with a mezzanine level taking care of ticketing, and more modern styling including chrome pillars, sans serif fonts, and better lights. Instead of kinked stairs inside small kiosks, it gave people elevators and escalators.
Eureka Station, now obsolete, was put out of circulation in that way that’s only possible in controlled environments: The kiosk entrances were boarded up, and streetcars started skipping it as if it was never there.
The station name survives today, although perhaps only in the minds of people working in public transit or admiring it from afar: the 1970s side entrances to the tunnel were named Eureka Portals and for a while at least have seen occasional use during special transit events.
The story of Eureka Station seems filled with ignominy. The Sunset Tunnel disappointment, the decades of waiting to have a chance to shine as a connector between the Market Street tunnel and the Twin Peaks one, and then the closure that felt like a complete surprise — as late as 1969, Herb Caen wrote about “the newly refurbished station” and the new “rainbow-hued pillars.”
The station was abandoned in 1972, even before the Collingwood Elevated. In the years after, it gained a bit of a notoriety as people started venturing down there to take drugs, party, cover the walls in graffiti.
Seeing that, the transit authority decided to double down, adding more security around the Eureka Portal entrances, and — in 1980 — destroying the four graffitied aboveground kiosks that once saw Market Street becoming what it is today.
Other ghost stations sometimes live on to get second lives: as transit museums, movie shooting locations, repurposed spaces.
Eureka Valley ended up serving a role in the end, although not a particularly exciting one: it became an entrance to the tunnel for people working in it — and as emergency exits for everybody, just in case.
Today, the whole area feels like a time machine in a shuffle mode. Market Street continues through the intersection as if it’s always done so, even though this is far from its first configuration.
The two Eureka Portals look as if they were the original streetcar entrances, now abandoned with abandon — but they’re barely half the tunnel’s age.
The Castro Station, a many-million investment, is in the exact place of the original surface stop that was meant to be there for but a few years… and itself feels old, in that weird way brutalist creations can often appear more out of time than buildings from a hundred years ago.
The two Eureka Station kiosks became two barely visible metal grates in the sidewalk. (The other pair was removed, as it ended up right above the new tracks.)
But you can still see Eureka Station — the oldest in the subway and the only one given up on — if you board a K or L or M train in Castro heading westward toward Forest Hill. Its platforms will be removed, it will whiz by quickly, and people around you won’t even notice. But it will be there.
And sometimes, when I do that, I imagine that station watching you wistfully — like it does in a photo I found in the Public Library, and which appears online for the first time:
Part II. 19th Street Dolores Park stop, 1917–1981+
By a peculiar combination of topography, San Francisco is virtually shut in on all four sides, with the exception of a narrow pass down the Mission Valley around the base of the San Bruno Range. But the possession of perhaps the finest harbor in the world is more than compensation, and the City should consider itself fortunate in not having more impassable barriers.
These were the words of Bion J. Arnold, a renowned transit specialist, who — after successes advising New York railroads and subways — was hired by the city of San Francisco to help devise a public transit strategy.
Within the city limits numerous ridges and hills interpose obstacles which not only render transportation expensive, but which inevitably result in the comparative isolation of various districts (…) whose interests have become so diverse (although, in reality, identical) as to constitute an almost insuperable barrier to wholesome municipal progress.
At that time in particular — the year 1913 — one area in dire need of public transit was “heavily-settled Noe Valley district, now requiring additional service perhaps more than any other district in the city.”
The remedy for this is quick and convenient intercommunication…
The plan for the new J streetcar line connecting Noe Valley to downtown couldn’t have been more simple. Start on Market Street, go almost all the way to its end, and then take one solitary turn to continue straight down the tree-lined Church Street — a gorgeous street passing by a beautiful sloped expanse of grass known as Mission Dolores Park, or Dolores Park (today), or Mission Park (once):
There was just one problem.
…which can hardly be achieved until these barriers are removed by means of tunnels through the intervening hills.
Church Street was steep as hell.
It was a weird time for public transit. Cable cars could traverse hills, but they were already obsolete: cramped, slow, dangerous, expensive. Buses that conquer those hills today with relative ease were not quite ready yet. And streetcars, the preferred mode of public transportation, came with heavy bodies and slippery wheels that couldn’t handle the 14.4% climb of the Church Street block that gave Dolores Park such beautiful views — let alone the 19.3% ascent two blocks later, followed by an immediate roller-coaster-like drop.
And so, Bion J. Arnold went full Robert Moses. He proposed cutting a trench inside a park to create a new street, then continue that street through a bunch of existing buildings, and then — when the going got really rough — put that street inside a popular solution du jour: a tunnel.
But the Board of Supervisors was not impressed. This felt like an expensive, drastic incision, with half of its immense cost swallowed by land acquisition from property owners. The Twin Peaks and Sunset tunnels, cutting through some of San Francisco’s biggest hills, seemed unavoidable. This one felt like overkill.
The city solicited other ideas, and a dozen ideas came. One suggested building a viaduct connecting nearby streets. Another one cutting off the top of the hill — somehow — to reduce the incline. Someone came up with an awkward cable assist proposal, or a battery of few small bridges. All of these solutions were eventually discarded, but they all needed to be looked at, and that took a long time: out of all the planned new lines, J was the only one that failed to be ready in time for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The press reported with exasperation that “another scheme for disputed railway bobs up to cause still further delay.” The official, usually dispassionate reports mentioned “considerable useless and costly conflict.”
The eventual solution to the J problem was surprising and ingenious. It was revisiting Arnold’s original idea, but multiplying it by a simple realization: a streetcar can still be a streetcar even without a street.
A narrower cut through Dolores Park for two streetcar tracks alone — no pedestrians, no cars — would be cheaper and wouldn’t compromise the park nearly as much. And for the next two blocks, having its own tracks meant the streetcar could snake through the buildings in a more complex way that would allow to smooth the grade, reduce the need for too much of eminent domain, and avoid the expensive tunnel. One solitary turn was now what seemed like a dozen, but the wavy route would not be any less safe given a streetcar is glued to the tracks and doesn’t share them with anyone else — and the whole project would be much cheaper.
After years of frustrations, everything worked out beautifully.
The map on the left shows four blocks where the route otherwise shooting straight down Church Street moves inland: the two blocks between 18th and 20th Street through the edge of Mission Park in its own cut, and the next two blocks with the streetcar snaking through people’s backyards.
(You can also see the beginning of Twin Peaks tunnel and the Eureka Station in the upper left corner, and the Sunset Tunnel — then called Duboce Tunnel — some blocks above it.)
The work to lay tracks started in 1916:
The two construction snapshots below give a hint how beautiful the ride would eventually be. They also show a small footbridge that replaced the street running through the park.
And below that bridge, a few platforms and staircases were added to create a picturesque stop, right next to where 19th Street met Church.
At the opening, on August 11, 1917, three years later than anticipated — please insert your favourite joke about J line never being on time — mayor Rolph boasted about the new streetcar going through “the new Mission, the most prosperous section of San Francisco.” (He also mentioned the Twin Peaks tunnel less than a year away from completion.)
He then jumped into a J streetcar to take it for its first spin. Among the route, the 19th Street Dolores Park Stop was the perfect place for thousands of people to come and check out the inauguration — with the only exception apparently being a guy walking away unimpressed.
(It turns out, there’s always a guy.)
But disinterest seemed rare. Finally, a brutally hilly area was conveniently connected to downtown. Many years later, in 1981, a reader of San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle reminisced the first actual ride:
I lived in a flat at the corner of 30th and Church Street, and I sat in the window with my infant son on my lap — he is now sixty-four years old — and waited for the approach of the first J-car. Eventually it came, crowded with City Hall Executives, a small band, and Mayor Jimmie Rolph at the controls.
If it was a nice stop during its opening, unique and old-fashioned, the 19th Street stop only grew more beautiful as the trees made themselves welcome around it.
Here are some early photos from the bottom of the hill, with the footbridge visible in the distance:
19th Street stop might have been as simple as Eureka, but it was infinitely more attractive — and if today we can find barely two photos of the underground station, many photographers tried to capture this one’s interplay of metal, stone, nature, and buildings in the distance:
A few photos captured kids playing around and even “nipping the fender,” as the daring/dangerous practice of hitching a ride on the back of the streetcar was once known.
“A streetcar track runs along one side of the park, under a bridge, giving the park the feel of a quaint model-train layout,” mentioned one article, and many photographers found that hard to disagree with — particularly as the park was often desolate, far away from the extreme popularity it sees in present days:
The 19th Street Dolores Park Stop was so beautiful it even made it onto the cover of a brochure in 1976, with two PCC streetcars portrayed almost as if enjoying a secret rendez-vous:
But just like Eureka Station’s new coat of paint was the beginning of the end, so this photo was the last moment of glory for the 19th Street Dolores Park stop.
As far as I can tell, the stop was removed from service in 1981 under circumstances mirroring Eureka — the J, late as usual, was the last letter line to finally upgrade to light rail vehicles. But the exact reasons are unclear to me. Perhaps it was trying to make the line faster by removing stops (after all, the J line has two nearby stops in the corners of the park). Perhaps to avoid maintenance costs of an underused stop. Perhaps the platforms were too short or otherwise inadequate for the new service.
Either way, some time in the 1980s, the scenic “backyard streetcar” — now a backyard light rail vehicle — started going from 18th Street straight to the Golden Fire Hydrant. The 19th Street Dolores Park stop was no more.
But there was one more reason that likely contributed to the closure — and it’s the same reason few people mourned Eureka Station in 1972. It was safety.
Yes, both stations saw their fair share of transit accidents.
In the 1930s, at Eureka Station, an K streetcar crashed into the L streetcar in front of it because of what seems like an unbelievable reason: the driver of the L started backing up to retrieve a 50¢ coin lost by a passenger.
In 1996, a towed streetcar detached atop Dolores Park and ran away downhill, crashing into parked cars. Just a few months later, a J light rail vehicle jumped the tracks, immediately causing millions of dollars in damage.
But transit accidents happen all over the city. What joined both stations was concerns about personal safety.
Remember that brightly lit photo of Eureka Station with a lone streetcar above? The blurry doors betray that it was an unusually long exposure. In reality, the station was dim, and the dogleg staircases created perfect spots for thieves to hide — or even throw people down the stairs. “It was a haven for muggers and rapists, a place as dangerous as any in the city,” mentioned a 1980 article, quoting one of the people living nearby as saying “It was worth your life to go in there alone.”
19th Street Dolores Park stop also felt unsafe — its sunken location and stair access made it in many ways similar to a small underground station. In one particularly tragic event in 1961, a 27-year-old teacher, William Hall, was assaulted by three teenagers who beat him into semi-unconsciousness and left on the track in the way of an incoming streetcar. The streetcar failed to stop in time, and Hall died before he could be removed from under the vehicle. (The assailants, motivated by homophobia, were eventually found guilty and convicted of first-degree murder.)
And while Eureka Station could be thoroughly removed from public presence, the aboveground 19th Street Dolores Park stop still exists. Even just a year ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “numerous residents” called the bridge “a magnet for criminal activity and homeless encampments.” Here and there, suggestions arise to remove the bridge and the disused stop altogether.
I took to aerial photos to look at the J line as it was then, and as it is today. Compared to the former terminus of Market Street, here it seemed not much has changed, and how! In a beautiful bit of historical symmetry, even the two light rail vehicles in the 2018 photos appeared in the exact same spots as their predecessors in 1938 — by the entrance and the exit of the four blocks where the streetcar said good-bye to the street — as if passing a baton through eight decades.
But I had another option that Eureka Station didn’t give me — I could go and see the 19th Street stop myself.
I did it just a few days ago. Like any lazy person, I started from the top of the hill, on 22nd Street, peeking into all the secret streetcar spaces I wasn’t allowed to see, admiring nary a straight line in sight:
I saw a great visual confirmation of how important it was to flatten the streetcar route, rather than sending it straight up the hill:
Two blocks down, I entered Dolores Park, beautiful even on a gloomy winter day, the view making it immediately obvious why people fell in love with it then, and still enjoyed it today. Indeed, even the boxy modern light railway vehicles still felt a bit like model trains.
But the abandoned 19th Street stop itself, the very place that once saw thousands cheering the mayor behind the (figurative) wheel, wasn’t particularly picturesque or welcoming.
Instead, it was rather honest in showing me some of what I understand are Dolores Park’s — and maybe even the city’s — biggest problems.
I didn’t plan to stay very long either way. There was one more stop for me, right where we started: a house on 17th Street, somewhere in between the ghosts of Eureka Station and the Dolores Park stop. Remember the four-story residential building from the beginning of this story, sacrificed to the extension of Market Street even before it turned ten? I learned later that it wasn’t demolished, but moved, a century ago — and I simply wanted to see how it was doing, perhaps starting an altogether new adventure.
But I couldn’t help myself. I turned around for the last time, and tried to imagine the 19th Dolores Park Stop’s in its idealized best moment of existence, one summer day long ago, shrubbery covering its arch, a gorgeous PCC streetcar climbing the magnificent hill that once confounded so many.
I’m glad I did this all in this order. That I spent time in libraries and online figuring out as much as I could about Eureka Station and 19th Street Dolores Park stop, before visiting them properly for the first time.
It’s possible — of course — to check out a ghost station, an abandoned building, a half-realized urban plan, and enjoy them without much introduction. Decay can be attractive. Nostalgia, even for times you haven’t yourself witnessed, potent. There is certain universal awe in how infrastructure gets a free pass: its end of life doesn’t automatically mean death.
But those two ghost stations were no longer just the above. I saw them as stories of how San Francisco felt exactly a hundred years ago, of city planners trying to wrangle the city’s complex topography, of grandiose plans gone awry and adjusted, and adjusted, and adjusted again. The fact that both stations were simple and unglamorous made this all feel even more special. It was so easy to ride past them and never even notice. But I knew now they existed, I knew where to look for them, and I knew a way to see them as neither “they don’t make them like they used to,” nor “a place as dangerous as any in the city,” but both — and so much more — at the same time.
And now, I hope, you do too.
If you liked this, I also wrote about The Phelan Building, Muni Kirkland bus yard, Paramount Theatre in Oakland, The Embarcadero Center, The Old Mint, The High Line, bridges in Chicago and New York, The Golden Gate Bridge, and a road trip following Robert Moses’s footsteps.
Main sources of research: San Francisco History Center in person (photos, books, ephemera), Eric Fischer’s archive online, SF Chronicle/Examiner archive online (SFPL library card needed), David Rumsey Historical Map collection online, Open SF History online, SFMTA Photo Archive online, Prelinger Library in person, Mr. Therkelson’s collection in person.
Massive thank you to Eric Fischer for reviewing this article, and forwarding multiple sources. Thank you to Devin Smith, Matt Braithwaite, and Western Neighborhoods Project (who forwarded me a photo that started this entire project). Additional appreciation to Peter Ehrlich, Christopher Cirrincione, and SFMTA Photo Archive for allowing me to use their photos.