the California Street Wiggle – the Lombard Street that never was…

Ironically, while most everything east of Van Ness Avenue was destroyed in the wake of the April 18, 1906 earthquake, it may have been the earthquake that saved the cable car in San Francisco. As the city continued to expand in the beginning of the 20th century, many new, and alternative modes of transportation were being considered, and in regard to the hills, tunneling and terracing started to look like a more practical solution moving forward.

Just four months before the 1906 cataclysm, on the evening of December 5, 1905, the Merchants’ Association held its 8th annual dinner at the Palace Hotel, and hosted William Barclay Parsons, engineer of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, member of the Royal Commission on Street Traffic in London, and consulting engineer of the Panama Canal Commission. At the dinner, Parsons presented a majorly anticipated report in regard to San Francisco’s street traffic problems.

William Barclay Parsons
William Barclay Parsons

The first main thrust of Parsons’s report was the suggestion to streamline San Francisco’s transit system into one uniform mode, that being the overhead trolley, or what we think of as the streetcar today (though many people of course call them trolleys, cable cars are not trolleys). To effectively do this, Parsons suggested running trolleys through tunnels in the hills, and abolishing the cable car system all together, as well as doing away with the use of steam engines and horses (omnibuses) as “motive power.” He suggested two tunnels, both through Nob Hill: one under California Street, and the other under Jackson. “In order to serve the population on top of Nob Hill,” Parsons said, “stations should be constructed in the tunnels and equipped with elevators and staircases running from the platforms to the surface of the streets.”

Even more interesting however, is the suggestion Parsons next gave in regard to getting up Nob Hill via California Street, in a carriage or vehicle: to terrace the heights. Some sidewalk space could be given up for creating a “series of inclined terraces having a width of 18 feet, sufficient for two vehicles to pass.” Furthermore, Parsons explained that “the space between the terraces on California Street, or on a wider street if one should be made, can be partly paid out with parks and made an attractive as well as a practical improvement of the first magnitude.” An illustration was presented in regard to what this would look like. Looking at the illustration today, the first thing that comes to mind is San Francisco’s world-famous crooked street, that is the Lombard Street “wiggle” atop Russian Hill, constructed in 1922. While constructed 17 years later, the seed of Lombard’s design dials right back to Parsons’s 1905 presentation.

California Street Wiggle - 1905 plan
1905 Illustration of California Street, terraced up the east side of Nob Hill from Grant to Powell, and tunneled. At the tip-top on the left is the Stanford Mansion (today the location of Stanford Court). The church on the left is pre-1906 Grace Church, which was then located on the SE corner of California and Stockton, where the Ritz-Carlton is today. (Verbage in upper left is in regard to a different photo, just FYI)

Due to the disaster that struck San Francisco four months after the Parsons report, all plans to renovate the city’s transit system were dropped, as simply rebuilding was the focus. Many neighborhood improvement associations started up. By 1910, tunneling came back into discussion in many parts of the city (for instance, there were those that wanted to tunnel Fillmore, tunnel Divisadero, etc.). The first tunnel to come to fruition, backed by the Merchants’ Association and the Nob Hill Tunnel Association, was the Stockton Street Tunnel, completed in 1914.


Main Source: The S. F. Call, Dec. 6, 1905, p. 1-2.

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