Bay Area/ San Francisco
Published on December 07, 2014
How The Sunset Tunnel Became The Gateway To The WestSFMTA Photo Archives
"What is the matter with the Sunset district?" wrote a San Francisco Chronicle reader to the newspaper in February of 1921.

"We are beautifully located, have fine climate, good streets, churches and schools, but no car service.

"Every candidate for the office of Mayor or Supervisor (defeated and undefeated) who has ever campaigned in the district has always promised, if he were elected, he would endeavor to give us what he knew was our undeniable right — direct downtown car service..." 

"What has built up the Richmond District? Direct car service downtown. What will build up the Sunset District? Similar car service, through the tunnel."

The "cars" to which the author refers are streetcars. The "tunnel," meanwhile, is not the Sunset Tunnel that we know today, which stretches under Buena Vista Park from Duboce Park to Cole Valley. That tunnel did not yet exist in 1921. Instead, the author is proposing that a streetcar line should be extended from the Sunset to the newly-constructed Twin Peaks tunnel.

This was just one suggestion of many that cropped up in the early 1920s, as residents of the Sunset bemoaned their inability to easily get downtown, while neighborhoods to the north and south enjoyed efficient transit options.  

Of course, residents of the Sunset did eventually get a route downtown via the Sunset Tunnel, which today enables N-Judah riders to travel directly from Ocean Beach to Market Street and beyond. But a hundred years ago, the Sunset Tunnel was anything but a foregone conclusion. It would prove costly, face years of delays, and enrage the residents it would ultimately benefit most. In short, it almost didn't get built.

This is the story of San Francisco's Sunset Tunnel.

Photo: Andrew Dudley / Hoodline

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Sunset District was a settled, populous area, with many of its residents needing to travel downtown daily for work. But residents had to navigate through other neighborhood streets to go east. While its neighbor to the north, the Richmond District, was served by a streetcar line that stretched all the way down Geary from downtown, no such line existed south of Golden Gate Park to serve the Sunset. 

This was primarily a matter of topography. Any streetcar line connecting the relatively flat areas of the Sunset and downtown would have to overcome one major obstacle: the steep 575-foot hill known as Buena Vista Park that lay between them.

San Francisco's streetcar system was not yet under centralized city control at that time. Instead, there were separate private systems in place, most consolidated under a single enterprise called the United Railroads. In 1909, United announced a solution for the Sunset: it would extend one of its existing lines, which stopped at Masonic, through Cole Valley and out to 9th Avenue, then south as far as what was then known as M Street (now called Moraga). Though the Outer Sunset would remain underserved, the Inner Sunset would have a route to downtown, albeit an indirect one.

Judah at 8th looking west, 1917. SFMTA Photo Archive.

Residents were thrilled at the prospect of a route downtown, but they had their own solution in mind. They wanted United Railroads to build a tunnel under Golden Gate Park. They envisioned hopping on a streetcar, going north under the park, and continuing downtown on the existing Geary line.

Tunnels were enjoying something of a golden age in San Francisco during that decade. In 1912, a proposal was made to build a tunnel under Twin Peaks, to help spur development of the southwestern section of the city. A Market Street subway was also in the works. And various other tunnels were being explored to connect the Mission and the Sunset.

The Twin Peaks tunnel did get built, opening in 1918. And, as planned, it did spur development of the southwestern portion of the city, as the Chronicle reported a year later:

"San Francisco's new residential districts west of the Twin Peaks tunnel have shown marked strides of advancement since the operation of new direct street railways through the tunnel have given rapid communication with the business portion of San Francisco... This, however, leaves the great portion of the Sunset district between Lincoln Way and Moraga street untouched and rational transportation must be devised in order to permit this section to grow apace with the Richmond district to its north and the Parkside district to the south."
The Sunset was left as something of a no-man's land between two areas that were well served by transit to downtown. And its residents were getting restless. Despite the promises of candidates in the city's 1919 elections, a new decade arrived with still no direct streetcar access to the Sunset.

"It is needless for me to remind you of pre-election promises," one Sunset resident wrote to the Board of Supervisors in 1920, "because we property owners in the Sunset have had our hopes so often raised, only to meet with disappointment. But I would appeal to your good business sense, for there are big profits to be made in the development of this district... All other districts have been blessed with increased car facilities, but the Sunset has been neglected."

Finally, in 1921, the city got serious about considering options to provide transit to the Sunset. The city engineer presented several possible solutions in October of 1921, including:

  • Extending a streetcar line from Market Street west along Grove Street, boring a tunnel under Alamo Square — yes, a tunnel under Alamo Square — continuing along Grove to Masonic, heading south on Masonic to Cole Valley, and eventually west on Carl Street out to the Sunset. 
  • Extending a streetcar line along Oak Street all the way from Market to Masonic, then following the same route as above.
  • Constructing a tunnel from the eastern end of the new Twin Peaks tunnel at Eureka Valley station (now Castro station) to Clayton Street.
  • Constructing a tunnel and surface line from the western end of Twin Peaks tunnel at Laguna Honda out to 7th and Parnassus.
  • Constructing a tunnel under Buena Vista Park, from Duboce to Clayton.

Flickr / Eric Fischer

In February of 1922, the city officially settled on that last proposal: to build the Sunset Tunnel from Duboce to Clayton. It was the costliest of the options, with a total estimate of $2,467,000. But City Engineer M. M. O'Shaughnessy defended it as the best choice, as he was quoted by the Chronicle:

"The Duboce Avenue route will tap the richest territory and enable us to give faster running time to the ferry than would any other route. If we do construct this line our returns will be greater than any other line, for we will tap almost virgin territory."

But who would pay for it? The newly-formed, publicly-owned San Francisco Municipal Railway agency didn't have enough money to cover both the tunnel construction and the subsequent trackway installation. Instead, the city would be able to cover the track work, but it was determined that the cost of the tunnel should be borne by the property owners who would most benefit from it. Namely, Sunset District residents.

As you might imagine, many Sunset residents were none too happy about that decision.

SF Chronicle, February 3, 1922

Suddenly, Sunset residents who had just months earlier been clamoring for a route to downtown were organizing to stop the Duboce tunnel from being constructed.

"Twenty or more reasons are advanced by the opponents as to why the extension via a tunnel route should not be made," the Chronicle reported. "[O]ne is that the district needs sewers and streets worse than it does another car line, and another is that a vast majority of the property owners do not consider a tunnel car line necessary, either now or in the future."

Many residents didn't know whether they would be taxed for the tunnel, nor how much, because an official plan had not been announced.

So,  O'Shaughnessy came up with one. He outlined an assessment district stretching from the ocean to Cole Valley, and from Lincoln Way to Ortega. Property owners within the district would be charged between $45 and $150, to be paid over ten years if necessary. The proposal would open up the Outer Sunset to development, potentially increasing San Francisco's population by 50,000.

The Board of Supervisors approved the plan on May 31, 1922, but there were still detractors, including the editorial board of the Chronicle itself. As the paper wrote a few days after the vote:

"A costly tunnel under Buena Vista heights from about Duboce Park...would give [the Sunset] excellent service, but at fearful cost to the taxpayers of the assessment district for construction and to the Municipal railroad, already overloaded with unprofitable lines in operation. It could not possibly pay operating expenses until the road in due time is extended under the second line of hills into the Sunset district.

"That will be done some day. Perhaps twenty years hence, perhaps earlier. It will depend on how we feel a few years hence, when the Market street franchises expire and the city takes possession. If we had more money than we knew what to do with we might perhaps property build the tunnel now. But we have not. We have less than we need for pressing purposes."
Various neighborhood associations of the era also aligned against the tunnel, including the Haight Ashbury Improvement Club and the Sunset Property Owners. The preferred alternative was construction of a streetcar line on Oak Street, which would run from Van Ness to Masonic, then turn on Masonic to Waller, then turn onto Cole, then Carl, and out to the Sunset. As it did not include a tunnel, this plan would spare property owners any additional taxation. But, as current San Franciscans can imagine, it would be slowed by having to run through so much other traffic.

The Board of Supervisors agreed to consider this alternative, and several more months — stretching into three years — of studies and hearings and votes followed. Yet no surface-level route, including the Oak Street one that residents were proposing, could match the time savings afforded by a tunnel.

Ultimately the city determined that its original plan, to build the Duboce tunnel, remained the best option. And those three extra years of delays, combined with a decreased cost estimate for the route's construction, seemed to turn public sentiment in the tunnel's favor. In 1925, when the tunnel plan was again approved, Sunset residents and merchants showed little resistance. In fact, they celebrated with a parade.

A contract for construction of the tunnel was signed in 1925, and ground was broken in June of 1926.

September 1926. Photos: SF Public Library Historical Photo Archives

Before construction of the tunnel had even been completed, the promise of an easier commute downtown sparked a real estate boom in the area. 

"The progress of the tunnel [is giving] rise to real estate activity in the Sunset," the Chronicle claimed in September of 1926. Notably, developer Henry Doelger purchased 14 blocks of land between Judah and Kirkham that year. He would go on to build nearly 3,000 homes in the area by 1932.

Construction of the tunnel stretched into 1928. When it was completed, it measured 4232 feet long and 25 feet wide. The tunneling portion of the project ended up costing Sunset residents $1,200,000, well below its original estimate.

The Sunset Tunnel opened on October 14, 1928 with a lavish celebration. Mayor James Rolph and other dignitaries rode a streetcar from Duboce and Market all the way to the beach, as thousands of spectators looked on.

When the Mayor's car reached Ocean Beach, a crowd of 15,000 awaited.

"The exercises that inaugurated the new service were the most spectacular of any similar event in the history of San Francisco," a municipal report concluded. "Amplifiers erected at Forty-eighth Avenue and Judah Street carried the words of the speakers to a tremendous crowd spread over the sand dunes, the streets, housetops and the adjoining esplanade."

This also marked the official first day of service for the N line. The route earned $695.20 that day, more than almost any other line in the Municipal Railway system.

With a new path to Market Street, even the most far-flung Sunset residents were now able to make the trip downtown in well under an hour. 

"The actual running time between the ocean and the Ferry Building, both of which are at the western and eastern extremes of San Francisco, will be but 36 1/2 minutes," the Chronicle noted. (That same trip takes 38 to 40 minutes today, according to Muni timetables, proving that not everything gets better with age.)

With the N line now complete, there was talk of building additional north-south tributary routes in the Outer Sunset, "so as to open up the entire expanse of undeveloped property westward to the beach," a 1928 report proposed. Those tributary lines never materialized, perhaps because of the onset of the Depression the following year, or because of the rise of the automobile. In fact, the N would be the last new streetcar line built in San Francisco. 

But the N line — and the Sunset Tunnel that enabled it — did fulfill their purpose; they spurred development in the western half of the city, transforming sand dunes into neighborhoods, and giving residents of the Sunset a direct route to downtown. Today, more than 40,000 people ride the N line each day, making it Muni's most heavily used route. All thanks to the residents of the Sunset a century ago who fought a decades-long battle for public transit, and won.