On a quiet Sunday in December of 1992, Bill Cassidy took pictures of the railroad tracks that once guided Southern Pacific trains down Harrison Street from the 1890s to June, 1991 – the year that freight trains left the streets of the Mission.
That year, the parent company, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, went out of business and Cassidy, a switchman for Southern Pacific until 1986, knew the tracks would vanish someday from Harrison Street. He wanted to take pictures of them before they became a dim memory.
“I was taking a photo class at City College,” Cassidy recalled the other day. “I started at 16th Street and took a picture of every corner from 16th to 22nd street.”
Southern Pacific Transportation Company’s decision to stop running freight in the city triggered a four-year lawsuit, which failed to assign an owner for Parcel 36, the last undeveloped right of way. The parcel has yet to emerge from that legal limbo..
“I knew that in the future there wouldn’t be any trace of the Old Main Line,” he said, flipping through a pile of Kodachrome photos. “I did it for historic purposes. I thought maybe someone would be interested to see what it used to look like.”
Tracks were a familiar feature in the Cassidy family. Cassidy’s father Patrick, an immigrant from Donegal, Northern Ireland, worked as a foreman for Muni. Bill Cassidy began working with Southern Pacific in 1952 after a short stint as a Marine in Korea.
He attended classes at City College in the morning and worked in the afternoon at the Southern Pacific yard, which stretched from South San Francisco to the Embarcadero. “I worked full time,” he said. “I learned by taking trips for the first two weeks with a crew.”
After that, he started switching cars from one track to another and kept at it for 34 years. “A switchman pulls a switch to put the car on the proper track for his destination. It’s like a ballet,” he said. “I was pretty agile. You have to be, to move trains. They don’t stop very fast.”
Southern Pacific was a very “dynamic” company, Cassidy said. “They’d lower their rates, force others out of business and then raise their rates again!” He made $16.82 an hour. “Old railroad guys used to tell me that working for the railroads was the Cadillac of jobs.”
Cassidy, who only suffered one industrial accident during his career as a switchman—he dropped a heavy metal plate on his left big toe—demonstrated a few hand signals that the foreman used to direct the engineer. His gestures were still precise and emphatic, necessary for visual legibility in a large site like a train yard.
Second street near the waterfront was his first assignment. “Good conditions, lotta work, lotta boxcars. It used to be a working waterfront. It was my favorite site. But I’m not gonna tell you why. Good conditions! That’s all I’m going to say. I want to create a mystery.”
Cassidy also worked on the Old Main line, which entered the Mission at Bryant and 11th, and ran down Harrison Street and out to Valencia Street to Noe Valley.
“The trains were there before the houses,” Cassidy said and then listed some of the businesses that lined Harrison Street.
“Regal Pale Brewing Company—they were on the northwest side of Harrison at 20th. I remember that. That building on the corner of Treat where it splits off from Harrison? They used to make coffins there.”
Pacific Cement and Aggregates was another site he remembered. “We’d bring ‘em sand and gravel in a car called a hopper. The bottom open and the aggregate poured through. That’s the cement that helped build the city.”
What is now the Evergreen Restaurant at Harrison and 18th was the Southern Pacific switchman’s office. “That used to be where we’d start work,” Cassidy recalled. “Clock in and clock out. We called it The Shanty. Painted yellow and brown. Now it’s a restaurant. But it still has the old concrete floors!”
Cassidy’s still tracking the changes on Harrison Street. Last year, he went and looked at the Southern Pacific Brewing Company. He came away disappointed. “I don’t know why it’s called that. It has nothing to do with SP.”
Cassidy maintains a mostly benign attitude towards the Mission’s transformation from a neighborhood of light industry to a mixed-use retail and residential district, with condominiums lining Harrison Street.. “Be fearless. What can you do? People don’t like change. But everything changes, anyway. Look at me. Most of my friends are gone. And here I am.”
The old abandoned beer factory was our playground until the police came and chased us off
Thank you, Elizabeth and everyone! It’s wild that you can still see diagonal lines at ground level too, at the Grocery Outlet, Rosamunde Sausage, behind a fence at 24th and Mission. Thanks for the oldmaps tip and this article.
glad i found this article! the line is still very visible today if you’re looking on apple or google maps via satellite view. you can still follow it through a series of park spaces or buildings that were either diagonally plopped down where the line once was (as opposed to the more grid-aligned buildings around them) or the edges of buildings / houses that were originally built beside the line. in fact, it was noticing this when looking at the area on apple maps (my kid goes to school at cesar chavez elementary) that started me wondering just what the fuck this diagonal stretch that’s been clearly built over but still visibly there used to be – went on an oldmapsonline.org deep dive and then found this article. fascinating stuff! cheers.
The five story building to the left 21st and Harrison was the old high school John O’Connell which was an old Ford Motor plant back in the 20’s 30’s and 40’s
Seems like light rail/trolley would be the way to go with would much trackage still in the street. Would be 100 times better than the diesel busses running now.
The original SP main line ran out Harrison then curved through the Mission, through the San Jose Ave. cut (which was originally for the railroad and later widened for another railroad and San Jose Ave.), along where I-280 and BART run to Daly City, then through Daly City, Colma (BART is under where it ran in the cemeteries), and South SF/San Bruno. There’s a curved street leading over to the Caltrain tracks that was one leg of the wye where the old main line connected with the one currently in use.
When I was a kid, SP still ran occasional freight trains up as far as where the BART Daly City station is now, from South SF, for a few businesses that got things by rail. The big arched bridge that crosses Mission st. near the north edge of Colma was originally the railroad bridge.
For fun: https://www.abandonedrails.com/colma-branch
Great story! (and pics).
Thank you for the pix and the article. Almost hard to recall some of those sights.
The history of rail in SF is darn interesting. You can follow the “Main” line out thru the Mission – from Harrison & 22nd, and if you go, block by block, you can see the way the parcels are cut (slanted) as the line smakes it’s curving way thru 24th & Mission past Dolores in Noe Valley to the San Jose Ave cut. Sometimes, its almost invisible. But occasionally, you’ll see a bldg and lot that is not-quite-square (cuz the RR ROW cut thru the block) and realize the effect SP had on the City and the Mission.
Fascinating stuff. And its gone (or, almost gone)
Check out the movie “The Conversationalist” (1972?) for a glimpse of the old Showplace Sq
thanks for an interesting article and pictures. i love stuff like this and wish i knew where to find more. i used to deliver mail in that area and have seen a lot of changes. i always wondered about the now Evergreen restaurant building and some of the other unusual structures. in addition to Anderson, Rowe and Buckley there was Pacific Automatic Sprinkler. nearby were Gaehwiler Construction Company and Norman Hardware, Sportsman’s Outboard Motors on 22nd Street, etc..
The Belt Railway ran freight through the Mission as late as the 1980’s. The Belt Line terminated at one point in the Beronio Lumber yard
I remember freight trains running down Harrison into the Mission in the late 80s early 90s.
The Live/Work loft at 16th and Harrison used to be a cement plant.
I remember when I was just a toddler my Dad showing us kids the trains on Harrison St. I live on Treat at 20th/21st and remember them taking up the tracks and tearing down the Cement Works. The loading ramp at UCSF building at 20th and Harrison is still sort of there. Triangle plot at 22nd is still there though being reworked right now. Harrison St. has finally been paved properly. It was a mess for years!
Southern Pacific did not go out of business in 1991, it lived on until it was merged with the Union Pacific in 1998. The headquarters remained in what is now called “the Landmark Building” at One Market Plaza until then. I was an employee there until my department was outsourced in 1994. According to Wikipedia, SP never really went out of business: “the Union Pacific Corporation merged the Union Pacific Railroad into the Southern Pacific Transportation Company in 1998; the Southern Pacific Transportation Company became the surviving railroad and at the same time the Union Pacific Corporation renamed the Southern Pacific Transportation Company to Union Pacific Railroad. Thus, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company became, and is still operating as, the current incarnation of the Union Pacific Railroad.”
Close. SP was bought out of pending bankruptcy by the Anschutz corporate empire, which owned the Denver & Rio Grande among other things (like sports teams). The merged company kept the SP name. Later, UP bought the Anschutz railroads, that is, the combined D&RG and SP under the SP name, and has now mostly extinguished traces of the SP on its active lines and has gotten rid of a lot that they weren’t interested in running. About the only thing they still have with “Southern Pacific” on it is a sort-of-Daylight-painted “heritage” diesel. The surviving company of SP+UP is in fact UP, headquartered in Omaha Nebraska.
Adding on, why was SP nearly bankrupt in the early 1990s? It’s because of the aborted merger of SP and Santa Fe about a decade earlier. The merger actually went through, briefly, but was then broken up by the federal government. As part of the breakup, the thing that made SP a prosperous railroad – its vast real estate holdings – were stripped away and eventually became Catellus which is still a big noise in commercial real estate. That left SP with just the railroad, and it couldn’t make money with that even after deregulation. During those declining years, SP shed a lot of stuff, including much of what now makes up the Metrolink (LA) and Caltrain (SF Peninsula) commuter lines. At one point, they even offered to sell the entire Coast line between SF and LA to the state for practically scrap value, but Deukmajian wasn’t buyng trains. Once the D&RG merger went through, most of the line sales stopped. The UP crowd, now, is aggressively uninterested in more line sales.
We lived betwn 21st and 22nd Street and these pics brought back memories of when we had guests who thought the trains coming down Harrison St., in the middle of the night, were earthquakes. The old, hanging, copper-tin chandeliers (which are still here and in every room) would actually sway and the house would rattle. We would sleep through it all, and would have to calm the guests down when they visited. Thanks for the memories!
Great Pictures, I remember walking on the tracks at 22nd & Harrison before they put up a fence as a short-cut to school Horce Mann Jr High late 50’s
Great article! Brings lots of memories when I went to the old John O’Connor High School. Plus lots of memories when I would seat with my friend as a kid eating ice cream watching the train go by or unloaded materials. Thanks again for the article.
These are wonderful. Rick Prelinger, who runs the Prelinger Archives and does a show every year called “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco,” would be very interested in these images. So would FoundSF. There are lots of local people and organizations who would like to help preserve these images and share them widely!