Group seeks to preserve San Francisco's rail past


San Francisco's waterfront was once the busiest port on the West Coast. It was a hub for a working class that unloaded cargo by hand for generations. Trains carried those goods from around the globe to destinations throughout the west. Gone, are some of the piers and the trains, but not the memories of the waterfront's workhorse, the State Belt Line Railroad.

"San Francisco was a very different place when they were running," author Bill Kaufman says.

Kaufman is a railroad history buff. He has written a book on the Belt Line that will be out next spring.

"There was lots of trade coming through here, and the State Belt ran in and out around corners, cut little corners, was out in the street," he says.

The Belt Line started running in the 1890s to move freight from ships docked at the wharves. It was owned by the state to keep any one business from having a monopoly. Those trains served every pier from the Presidio to what is now AT&T Park.

It chugged through the early 1900s and was key to moving freight and soldiers from to the Presidio during World War II, but its days were numbered on San Francisco's crowded waterfront. The state sold the railroad to the city in 1969.

"What really happened here was that the business went away," Kaufman says.

By 1992, the city's role as a shipping Mecca dried up. Nearly all cargo ships went to Oakland instead and the State Line Railroad shut down. There are just a few traces of the railroad left if you know where to look.

An old roundhouse on the Embarcadero is now offices. Pier 43 is a popular resting spot for tourists. Joggers and cyclist enjoy the stretch that passes Aquatic Park. A tunnel that linked the Presido to the waterfront is now passed by motorists winding their way downtown.

In an old Southern Pacific rail yard in Brisbane, people are trying to breathe new life into the old Belt-Line Railroad.

Cris Hart heads up the all-volunteer San Francisco trains, a non-profit that is trying to preserve San Francisco's rail past. State-Belt steam engine number four is its current project. It was built in 1911, making it the oldest surviving Belt-Line train.

"This particular engine was the 5th engine that the state belt railway owned," Hart says. "They actually sold this engine back in 1932 because it was not powerful enough for the freight that they were handling at the time."

The train came back to the city briefly to help create Treasure Island. It went through a series of owners before the group rescued the misnumbered train from a Utah train yard.

In its next incarnation, the group hopes to put it back to its original condition.

"It's great fun and of course it restores a very historic and also cool-looking form of engineering, the steam locomotive," volunteer Paul D'Oravio says. "It's just amazing."

They are hoping they can keep it at the last remaining brick round house in the Bay Area in Brisbane. The building was severely damaged by a fire in 2001. It is now a national historic landmark. Hart is hoping a rail museum can be included in any future development at the site. Two of the last remaining Belt Line diesel locomotives owned by the city are still working the waterfront.

"These guys could pull two or three times as much as the steamers," Kaufman says.

Purchased in the 1940s, the trains are leased by the San Francisco Bay Railroad to move cargo between piers on the city's southern end.

"For 60 years old, they are doing really well," Jacob Park with San Francisco Bay Railroad says. "We want to see them saved, not scrapped. That's one thing I'd like to see, preserve the last two built engines in existence."

These old girls are running on modern fuel, bio-diesel, producing 33 percent less pollution than the average diesel locomotive. Train buffs say keeping these trains running is preserving their historical importance.

"It's our heritage. It's part of America. It's part of the industrial nature of man," Hart says.

There are also a few traces of the Belt-Line's tracks along San Francisco's Embarcadero, but the tracks that carry the historic F-Line trolley that runs to Fisherman's Wharf were put in after the bulk of the rail tracks were tore up.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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