A Brief History of the State Belt Railroad in San Francisco

Picture at Pier 43

State Belt Locomotive #7 switching at Pier 43 near Fisherman's Wharf (c. 1940)

The State Belt Railroad of California was a shortline that served San Francisco's waterfront until the 1980's. It's tracks extended the length of the Embarcadero from south of Market Street to Fort Mason and the Presidio. Although locals nicknamed the line the Toonerville Trolley and the Wooden Axle Line, the State Belt had an illustrious career.

The first trackage of the State Belt was built by the Board of State Harbor Commissioners in 1889. At that time, the lands along waterfront were owned by the State, not San Francisco. These lands were once under water, so they were not included in the original survey of the City.

The original tracks were dual-gauged, to allow transfer of narrow gauge freight cars from the North Pacific Coast R.R. (Marin County) and the South Pacific Coast R.R. (Alameda, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz counties), as well as standard gauge cars. These first tracks did not yet connect to the outside world - all cars were ferried in from around the San Francisco Bay. Belt tracks finally connected with Southern Pacific tracks in 1913 at a small interchange yard located at Townsend and Berry Streets.

Picture of Roundhouse

The Roundhouse at Sansome and Embarcadero (c. 1978)

The State Belt built a five-stall concrete-reinforced roundhouse at Sansome and the Embarcadero. (This historic structure still stands today as an office building). This engine facility housed a modest number of oil-fired steam switchers (mostly 0-6-0's), and later, ALCO S-2 diesels. The railroad also owned four freight cars - idler flatcars that were used to prevent the heavy engines from rolling onto the car ferries.

State Belt's ferry slips were located near Fisherman's Wharf. The railroad transferred cars from the Santa Fe, the Northwestern Pacific, and the Western Pacific. In the twenties, the Santa Fe built its own car ferry operation in China Basin, and State Belt tracks were extended over Third Street and the Mission Creek drawbridge to make a connection.

Picture of Fort Mason Tunnel

Fort Mason Tunnel East Portal and Trestle in 1913

Construction at the 1915 Panama-Pacific World's Fair and traffic to Fort Mason justified the construction of a tunnel, 1500 feet long, 15 feet wide and 22 feet high underneath the Fort Mason Military Reservation. Eventually tracks were extended across what is now the Marina District to Crissy Field to serve the Presidio.

World War II generated a large amount of trans-Pacific traffic, and the State Belt contributed greatly to the movement of materials during the War. Army and Navy switchers were added to provide enough locomotive capacity. The State Belt also delivered trainloads of fresh troops to debarkation points, and picked up hospital trains and returning troops. The railroad moved 156 troop trains and 265 hospital trains in 1945 alone.

Operations slowly wound down as shipping moved across the Bay to Oakland. In 1969, with the State wanting to get out of the port business, San Francisco voters approved a bond issue to buy the Port of San Francisco. The State Belt R.R. thus became the San Francisco Belt Railroad. Later in 1973, the City offered to sell the railroad to any operator for $1. After more than half a year, a 20-year contract to operate the railroad was signed with Kyle Railways. Total trackage had fallen from 67 miles in 1950 to 58 miles in 1973.

The end of the railroad came in 1993. By then, most trackage north of the Ferry building was gone or inactive. The only activity took place at Pier 96, a newly built container facility near Hunter's Point. ALCO S-2 #23 was chosen to serve the facility, complete with the new number 49 and a new paint job in 49er colors. Engine #49 has been repainted back to its traditional black and yellow scheme and renumbered back to #23. Number 23 and #25 once again are in service together for the San Francisco Bay Railroad serving Pier 96 and the Pier 80 areas and interchanging with the Union Pacific Railroad. Nearby at the Bayshore Roundhouse, State Belt Steam Engine #4 undergoes restoration by the San Francisco Trains organization.

Text by Thomas Beutel

Links to Related Pages

  • State Belt Railroad Locomotive Roster.

    Annotated Bibliography and References

    The following sources have good information about the State Belt Railroad.

    • Arnold, Stanleigh. "The Embarcadero Limited" in The Western Railroader, vol. 15, no. 2, issue 146 (December 1951). Huntington Beach: The Pacific Coast Chapter, Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, 1951. ISSN: 0149-4996.

      This is an early history of the railroad. It includes a Steam Engine roster and photos of #1, #3, #10, and #20.

    • Brady, Matthew. "A Railway of Our Own" in San Francisco Independent, February 9, 1993. San Francisco: San Francisco Independent, 1993.

      Article discusses closing of the San Francisco Belt Line R.R. on Jan. 29, 1993. Also presents brief history and a 1906 photo looking east from Vallejo Street.

    • Dow, McMorris and Joseph A. Strapac. "A State Belt Pictorial" in The Western Railroader, vol. 51, no. 533 (February 1988). Huntington Beach: The Pacific Coast Chapter, Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, 1988. ISSN: 0149-4996.

      This is the best history of the railroad that we've found. It has many pictures and it also includes a table of locomotive statistics and builders numbers.

    • Dwyer, J. J. et al. Biennial Report of the Board of State Harbor Commissioners for the Fiscal Years Commencing July 1, 1912 and Ending June 30, 1914. San Francisco: California State Printing Office, 1914. ISBN: unknown.

      Contains descriptions of construction and maintenance, financials, pictures of Fort Mason tunnel, picture of engine house, picture of locomotive #7, and complete 1914 map of system trackage from Fourth Street to Laguna Street.

    • Nickle, Charles and Barbara Nickle, "The San Francisco Belt Line RR." in Model Railroader Magazine vol. 47, no. 6 (April 1980). Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1980. ISSN: 0026-7341.

      Contains a general history of the railroad, along with pictures and a suggestion of how to build a model of the railroad.

    • (Photographs of the State Belt Railroad). Sacramento: Photo Collection of the California State Railroad Museum, various dates.

      The museum has a collection of photographs of State Belt locomotives (nos. 1 (original), 1 (new), 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25). Some photographs also show various work scenes and maintenance of way cars.