San Francisco History

City's Tunnels

The City's Tunnels
When S.F. Can't Go Over, It Goes Under Its Hills
By Kevin Wallace
March 1949

San Franciscans have always been a little proud about having twice as many hills as Rome's noted seven, all within the city limits.

On the other hand, it has often been a pain in the neck to San Franciscans, traveling over and around so much scenic majesty.

A mountain, as Samuel Johnson's dictionary defines it, is an obstruction between two cities. The local mountains, according to a Chronicle editorial of 1910, "obstruct what should be great arteries of traffic."

Today, great traffic arteries themselves are widely regarded as the main obstructions to getting anywhere fast, so it may seem that our forefathers 39 years ago were grumbling at trifles.

But they actually were hemmed in. What they wanted was tunnels.

What they got was tunnels, too, and the tunnels did their job—opening up hitherto isolated wildernesses, so that today they too are just as jammed with commerce as the rest of town.

For example:

Some 40,000 citizens of North Beach had been living serene and rural lives, north of the barriers of Nob Hill, Chinatown and the Hall of Justice, until December 29, 1914.

On that day, at noon, Mayor James Rolph opened the Stockton Tunnel, the North Beach area's new access to the downtown shopping district—or FROM the downtown shopping district (a chance the sponsoring Down Town Association took).

The West-of-Twin Peaks territory was captured, at least to the trolley trade, when the Twin Peaks Tunnel was opened on February 3, 1918. Within a week, real estate dealers consulted their business curves and called the tunnel "a complete success."

As Mayor Rolph remarked at dedication exercises on the preceding July 14: "Westward the course of Empire takes its way."

("For which," a contemporary news story says, "Mayor Rolph was rewarded with a kiss by his better half, and then the crowd dispersed.")

An alternate course of Empire, via Duboce Tunnel to the Sunset district, was opened to the Muni "N" car on October 21, 1928. Again, Mayor Rolph presided, honoring City Engineer M. M. O'Shaughnessy's third tunnel.

Those are the city's three main facilities for going through, rather than over and around, its picturesque impediments. A fourth channel is scheduled to pierce Russian Hill, via Broadway, by 1952.

The city limits also include the State's Funston avenue (Golden Gate Bridge approach) tunnel at the Presidio (1940), and the 6-lane, two-decker hole through Yerba Buena Island for Bay Bridge traffic (1936). But these are not, strictly speaking, city tunnels.

Southern Pacific bored four tunnels between Third and Townsend and the San Mateo County line, totaling 8815 feet, back in 1907 and 1908. And then there's the 1500-foot Belt Line tunnel under Fort Mason, dug by the Harbor Commission in 1914.

But these are railroad tunnels, and are almost as remote from the common man's traffic problem as the final five projects which may properly be called tunnels in our city and county—the Richmond, Mile Rock, College Hill, Vista Grande and Lake Merced sewer tunnels.

But these few results are no measure of the claustrophobic agitation which began about the time Market street became plainly obsolete for traffic, about 1860.

Five years of frenzied geopolitik [sic] maneuvering among the assessment districts preceded the emergence of the Stockton Tunnel; 8 years of the same preluded opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, and 10 years of haggling preceded what headlines gradually came to call, not too ambiguously, the "Big Duboce Bore."

But that's nothing. Eighty-five years of false starts led up to last year's $5,000,000 bond election for the project Broadway Tunnel (Abner Doble, who later made steam automobiles, had planned to build the tunnel in 1863.) [The Abner who made the automobiles was actually the grandson of the Abner who planned to build the tunnel. -editor]


And here are some other vehicular tunnels which have been "in the works" from time to time, and never officially abandoned:

A Fillmore street low-level tunnel from Sutter to Filbert (1911);
a Steiner street low-level tunnel from Pine to Union;
a Divisadero street low-level tunnel from Pine to Lombard;
a Divisadero street high-level tunnel from Sacramento to Greenwich;
a Eureka Valley tunnel, joining the Mission and Sunset under Mount Olympus;
a branch from the Twin Peaks Tunnel from Laguna Honda station to the Sunset;
a Grove street tunnel to the Sunset;
an automobile tunnel paralleling the trolley bore through Twin Peaks (estimated five years ago at $10,000,000, and so shelved).

An automobile tunnel under Buena Vista Heights, via Waller street;
a 3-tier, $75,000,000 tube, leading from the foot of Buchanan street to Sausalito, of all places (date, 1927);
a rather extensive tunnel "to connect the Richmond, Sunset, and Western Addition Districts with the Marina and North Beach" (1928);

A Lombard street tunnel under Russian Hill (very recent);
a network of tunnels going to all directions under the Bay (1928);
and, finally, a system of automobile tunnels just everywhere, to clear the surface altogether (1930).

These do not include subway plans, which in 1904 and again this year envision city-wide networks. Between these dates, most of the subway plans have concentrated on Market street, and they have been of two types:

1—Subways beneath the present Market street level, and,
2—Transformation of the present Market street level into a subway, by building an elevated highway flush with second-story windows up the street.

To date, our vehicular subway showing is confined to mere underpasses. The best known is the Embarcadero passage under the Ferry Building loop at the foot of Market street, a project which overcame seepage and opened on May 2, 1925.

All the digging up of streets that's been going on of late has, it appears, merely scratched the surface of our traffic problem. We must go deeper.

Meanwhile, here are biographies of our accomplishments to date, tunnel-wise:

THE STOCKTON TUNNEL was conceived by Dr. Hartland Law, during lunch, on January 27, 1910. He convinced the Down Town Association to back "The Open Door to North Beach," and the association convinced the city Supervisors (November 6, 1911).

Gradually, the Supervisors then convinced residents of the tunnel's assessment district. Those who were not convinced, and didn't pay up, lost their property.

(The ensuing auction somehow included a piece of City property at Powell and Clay streets, which was duly sold. This was one of several financial embarrassments which result in the memorable news report that "Mayor Rolph is wroth.")

The project was tied up in law suits during 1912. On April 11, 1913, the contract was awarded to Jacobson & Bade Company. Their "miners with little oil lamps on their caps" started digging into Nob Hill's schist and shale in June, 1913.

The 6-month construction job cost $450,000, the tracks cost $11,000, and damage suits cost $195,000. A cave-in killed one worker, the California cable tracks kept buckling overhead, the nearby Victoria Hotel sued because its guests were annoyed, and the big Metropolitan Life Insurance building on Bush street settled—and settled, expensively.

The tunnel is 911 feet long, 50 feet wide, and arched to a height of 19 feet. In 1938, civic groups began agitating for a new paint job inside. The new coat will be provided in the next few weeks.

THE TWIN PEAKS TUNNEL did more than merely integrate two districts; it created that enormous residential area which has grown up since 1918 between the ocean and those peaks whose proper name is "Los Pechos de la Chola"—"The Breasts of a Chola (Indian) Maiden."

On October 10, 1912, a Chronicle editorial made the customary allusion to downtown traffic congestion, and promised that a Twin Peaks tunnel would "multiply the city by two" and "create a new San Francisco," by opening up 7000 acres beyond the hills.

And as a matter of fact, the city's 1910 population (416,912) has indeed doubled, or nearly doubled, to date. And a good percentage of the increase did settle west of Twin Peaks, after the 1918 trolley tunnel opening.

Here are some spot population ratios of assorted sections in that area, comparing the 1940 and 1920 figures, respectively: 58:10; 64:4; 40:4; 38:1; 86:6; 70:4; 109:12; 29:6; 109:12.

Alert pioneers in the outlands pungled up $3,400,000 of the tunnel's $4,000,000 assessment. And while it was still a-building, they installed $2,808,000 worth of new roads and $3,150,650 worth of new homes.

Tenants poured in on the first trolleys, and merchants arrived to serve them. Everybody sent new taxes back across the hills to City Hall, and everybody benefited.

Everybody, that is, except a few stray autoists and pedestrians who got into the tunnel and ran into trolleys—and Presiding Municipal Judge Herman van der Zee, who claims that vibrations from the tunnel are damaging his home, overhead.

Assessed valuation, West of Twin Peaks, rose $4,000,000 in the tunnel's first six years, and $92,000 more taxes were collected. And all because the tunnel cut 20 minutes off the previous trolley time between Sloat boulevard and Kearny street.

Robert C. Storrie & Co. contracted on November 2, 1914, to take 1000 days and $3,372,000 to complete the 25-by-25-by-12,000-foot project, 8800 feet being underground.

They finished it with a month to spare.

Shifts of 500 and more workers had carved through 5000 feet of sand, much of it saturated; 2300 feet of clay and 3500 feet of rock. They dynamited a lot, and three men were fatally injured in one delayed blast.

They lined the cavern with steel and concrete, installed ventilating, drainage and lighting systems, and fixed up two stations along the way—Laguna Honda station, with steps leading 60 feet up to the surface, and Eureka station, emerging 72 feet overhead.

On July 14, 1917, the contractors turned the tube over to the city which then took seven months preparing for its first trolley. When the trolley arrived, it spent exactly six and a half minutes getting from Market street to West Portal on the other side. Mayor Rolph summed up the whole thing as "bully."

THE DUBOCE TUNNEL, also called the Sunset tunnel, was supposed to open the Sunset District to civilization. It was discussed by reluctant assessment districts for 10 years, however. By the time it was installed, the Sunset had already grown up.

The preliminary skirmishes were so extravagant, including brass bands serenading the Supervisors' chambers, that the actual building of the tunnel was rather an anti-climax. The Youdall Construction Co. finally signed a $1,247,592 contract on November 25, 1925, started digging the following June, and finished February 4, 1928. That October, the tunnel opened.

From Duboce avenue and Scott street to Carl and Cole streets, the reinforced concrete Duboce tunnel extends 4232 feet, 25 feet wide and 23 feet high. Like the Twin Peaks job, and unlike the Stockton tunnel, it is for streetcars only.

Woman had come into her own during the construction period, which was enlivened on November 15, 1926, when Miss Doris Lorentzen became "the first girl to enter the tunnel." At another point, four girls rode on a steamshovel to the area, and later, "four dainty flappers" tamped earth into place around some ties.

The tunnel inspired a Parade of Progress in 1927, publicized by photographs of "Mrs. Minnie White and a steamshovel." Mrs. White had been an ardent backer of the project.

Three workers were injured during construction, but none fatally.

THE BROADWAY TUNNEL—Well, it will be 14 months before land titles are cleared, when two years of work can being on Ole Singstad's blueprint. Two double-lane bores will carry autos on Broadway from Mason to Larkin streets. Since the city is standing the bill, there are no beefs from any special assessment districts.

But another minor obstacle has arisen. The overhead for undergrounds is going up, just like everything else. The city has set aside $5,000,000 for the new bore, and now it appears it will cost $6,000,000.

But City Engineer Ralph G. Wadsworth is confident. "We'll dig it up somehow," he says.

[The Broadway tunnel began construction on May 1, 1950 and officially opened on December 21, 1952. It was built by the Morrison-Knudsen Construction Co. The twin bores extend from Powell to Larkin streets and the tunnel measures 1616 feet from portal to portal, and 11 feet wide. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 21 December 1952. 1.]

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 27 March 1949. 1, 10.

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