Monday, June 1, 2009

A Museum Named Railway

I stumbled onto the San Francisco Railway Museum the other day for the first time. It's only a half a block from the bustling Ferry Building but, possibly because it's tucked away in a little alley, it doesn't seem to get even a fraction of the visitors as that major city landmark.
The small museum, open just two years, is dedicated to San Francisco's surprising and fascinating long history with streetcars -- not to be confused with cable cars; that's another museum -- and occupies a space at the rear of the hip Hotel Vitale.
Its entrance is on block-long Don Chee Way, an alley off of Steuart near Mission Street. Appropriately, the historic streetcars of MUNI's F-Line rumble right outside its door.
This is the place to visit for background on all those charming old streetcars that make their way up and down Market Street and to Fisherman's Wharf.
It turns out that San Francisco has one of the most diverse collections of those vehicles in all the world -- some 90 in total, half in service at any given time. I've always been partial to the creaky orange ones from Milan (above).
The museum's exhibits include old photos of bygone places that San Franciscans love to reminisce about: Playland, Seals Stadium, Sutro Baths, Fleishhaker Pool, among them. And, if you've ever wanted to know the difference between a streetcar and a cable car, it's all described in delightful detail (hint: among the differences, cable cars do not have overhead wires and streetcars do).
I also enjoyed the one-of-a-kind merchandise, especially the postcards, notecards and posters of the streetcars that depict them in neighborhoods with landmarks such as the Castro Theatre, the Chinatown Gate and Grace Cathedral in the background. This is a terrific place to buy souvenirs -- and proceeds go to a good cause.
The museum, open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., is run by a nonprofit organization called the Market Street Railway, which promotes education and expansion of historic streetcars in San Francisco.

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