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History In Motion

Hooray for the J: 100 Years on the J Church

Friday, August 11, 2017

Today marks the 100-year anniversary of Muni's J Church rail line. Still looking spry for a centenarian, the J has operated since 1917, and it still essentially runs along the same route down Market and Church streets, through Dolores Park and Noe Valley.

While it’s not the oldest transit line in the city, the J Church is the oldest of Muni’s remaining original “letter lines," and it follows a unique path along its roughly seven-mile route.

black and white poto taken in 1934 on Church and 17th Streets.  A streetcar o the J line is stopped next to a fire truck and a man is standing between the fire truck and streetcar facing the camera.  The streetcar has a movie poster advertisement on the back reading "mae west"
A J Line streetcar stops next to a fire truck outside Everett Middle School on Church at 17th Street in 1934.

Most of the J Line tracks were completed by mid-1916, but it remained incomplete in key sections due to squabbling between the private United Railroads Company, the City of San Francisco and residents who lived near the new line. 

black and white photo taken in June 1916, looking south on church street from 17th at the construction of the J Line through Dolores Park.  The trackway is cut into the hillside in a serpentine fashion and workers are scattered about along the route digging and installing tracks.
A view of the J Line tracks under construction circa 1915, at the northwest corner of Dolores Park near Church and 18th streets. 

For several years, a group of San Franciscans who lived on the steep portion of Church Street over Dolores Heights lobbied for the line to be served by cable cars instead of electric streetcars in their neighborhood. But by this time, most saw cable cars as outdated and slow forms of transit, and the J prevailed as a streetcar line.

The line was, however, built with a unique route to tackle Dolores Heights. Instead of a straight path over the hill, the J line was built on a serpentine path through a cut in Dolores Park, and with "S” curves south of the park, to allow streetcars to climb and descend the grade with ease.

black and whit photo taken August 11, 1917 showing the opening ceremonies of the J Line.  A crowd of people swarms the tracks and pedestrian bridge in Dolores Park as streetcars make their way up the hill.
On its opening day of August 11, 1917, a crowd of people swarmed Dolores Park to watch the first streetcars operate on the J Church.

After the arguments and the construction dust settled, the J Church made its debut to great fanfare on Aug. 11, 1917. On a sunny Saturday, a throng of residents watched as the first streetcar, operated by Mayor James Rolph, motored up the tracks into Dolores Park.

black and white photo showing multiple streetcars waiting at end of J line on 30th and Church streets on March 13, 1940.  The photograph was taken in the evening and several people moving about the street are seen as blurs.
Streetcars lay over at the J Church terminal at Church and 30th streets in Noe Valley on the evening of March 13, 1940.

For about eight decades, the J ran from the Ferry Building to its terminal at Church and 30th streets in Noe Valley, providing a vital downtown connection for residents. Even though the J continues past 30th today, the "wye track" (a triangular track junction) used for this terminal remains on 30th Street.

black and white photo showing a streetcar passing Mission High school in dolores park.  Two teenaged boys are standing to the right of the streetcar in the grass.
Mission High School students wait for the J at 18th Street at the bottom of Dolores Park in February 1948 – still a familiar sight to this day.

An important benefit that the J still provides today is its service to a range of schools, from elementary to college. A century after the first streetcars rolled by Mission High School in 1917, its students can still be found riding the J. 

color photograph showing a Muni Boeing LRV climbing the hill in dolores park in the 1980s.  The car is stopped near the top of the hill with a view of the city skyline behind it.
A 1980s light rail vehicle stops at the top of Dolores Park on the J, one of Muni’s most scenic rail lines.

By the late 1970s, the BART system was operational, the Muni Metro system was nearing completion and Muni started planning to extend the J to the Balboa Park BART Station. This extension would provide better service and a new regional transit connection for the south-central part of the city. While an extension of the line had been studied as early as the 1920s, the job couldn't be completed until the 1990s.

The J Line extension was constructed along San Jose Avenue through the "Bernal Cut", a pathway built by the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad in 1863 to run trains in between the slopes of Bernal Heights and Glen Park.

color photo showing a Muni LRV passing by two Victorian style houses on 21st and Chattanooga streets in the dolores heights neighborhood taken in 2014.
An outbound J train passes by two Victorian houses at 21st and Chattanooga streets, as it has for 100 years.

Today, the J continues to provide a vital transit service enjoyed by locals and visitors alike as it snakes its way up Dolores Heights past ornate Victorian houses. No doubt, it will continue to do so for another 100 years.

Check out more historic photos of the J from the SFMTA Photo Archive online, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.