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Centuries Old SF Images Reveal Fascinating, Forgotten Stories

Written by Sarah HoltzPublished Mar. 18, 2023 • 11:00am
San Franciscans line up along the streetcar tracks on Market and McAllister streets on May 15, 1911. Courtesy SFMTA Photo Archive

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And at least one photo in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s archives supports that proposition. 

In the fall of 1903, a teenage girl watching an aerial performance over Golden Gate Park was killed in a streetcar accident at nearly the same moment that the man she was observing—a high-flying daredevil—plunged to his death. A report in the San Francisco Call describes the tragic events.

The aeronaut performer, William H. Beal, fell from his parachute that fateful day, Sunday, Oct. 11, 1903. Madge Henney—“a pretty 17-year-old girl, residing at 1252 Folsom Street”—was riding in a streetcar and leaning out of the vehicle to watch Beal when she struck her head against an electric pole adjacent to the tracks. Both died as a result of their injuries.

David Gallagher spends a lot of time thinking about photos like the one the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency took as part of an investigation following Henney’s death.

SFMTA documented a streetcar in Golden Gate Park in the wake of a fatal accident on Oct. 11, 1903. | Courtesy SFMTA Photo Archive

Long before the Central Freeway or Interstate 280 were built to accommodate travel by automobile, San Franciscans cut across the land by rail—in streetcars, cable cars and trains. These days, much of the city’s rail infrastructure has been removed or abandoned, but Gallagher, the founder of SF Memory, a public history project focused on municipal infrastructure, says there are many fascinating stories to uncover by scrutinizing photos of the city’s bygone railroad tracks.

Central to SF Memory is an intricate map of geotagged photos from the SFMTA archive. As Gallagher told The Standard, he became interested in the SFMTA’s vast archive of photographs, videos and other ephemera when he was working with OpenSFHistory, a public history initiative of the Western Neighborhoods Project

“It’s nominally about transit, but really what’s in the margins is what regular life was like back then,” he said.

While the images in the archive were geotagged with location information, searching the collection was not as intuitive as it is now that Gallagher has taken the time, in collaboration with SFMTA archivist and photographer Jeremy Menzies, to place more than 15,000 photos on a Google map interface, which can be found on the SF Memory website.

Gallagher said that because SFMTA’s photo archive is centered on the construction of transit infrastructure, his map offers a sideways view into everyday life, particularly after the Gold Rush—a period of rapid development when railroad lines began crisscrossing San Francisco.

A steam engine emerges from a tunnel in Land's End circa 1905. | Courtesy SFMTA Archive

What are some of his favorite such moments? He said he loves to discover old photographs of the 7-Haight streetcar line, which extended along Golden Gate Park and out through the sand dunes of Ocean Beach. Many of the photos on Gallagher’s map tell a story of a sleepy town on the edge of a continent transforming into a booming metropolis.

“I love seeing the neighborhoods that grew up around the streetcar lines, the stuff that isn’t there and the stuff that there are remnants of,” he said.

As far as historical vestiges go, Gallagher created another page on his site devoted to what he calls street monuments. He collects photos of old sewer vents, water covers and SF Fire Department call boxes—small artifacts with names, dates and other clues that draw through lines from the city’s past to its present. He said that most days he posts photos to his Twitter account as an easy way to share these street monuments with other San Franciscans and history nerds. 

“These pictures explain some of the oddities we see in the city,” he said. “People like to be given a context for their lives, and hopefully, we can look at these old pictures and create something new in the future.” 

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