San Francisco, California

The San Francisco Belt Railroad

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This is the west portal of the Fort Mason tunnel. Trains would use this tunnel to access the northern terminus of the SFBRR in the Presidio. Photo by Andrew Laverdiere, June 2008.

The State Belt Railroad begain in 1889 for the sole purpose of handling freight traffic along San Francisco's waterfront. Its name is derived from the fact that waterfront property at the time was owned by the State of California, and not the City of San Francisco. (When California was originally surveryed, the land along the waterfront was underwater, and thus was not included in San Francisco city limits.)

The State Belt Railroad saw traffic from both the North Pacific Coast Railroad and the South Pacific Coast Railroad; as both railroads had different gauges, a majority of the State Belt Railroad's tracks were dual-gauged to accommodate. In addition, interchange with both railroads was done by ferry as the State Belt Railroad had no physical connection with the nation's rail network; this changed in 1913, when SBRR's tracks finally joined with Southern Pacific trackage at a small interchange yard. At the height of the State Belt Railroad, 67 miles of track were in its service.

Freight service began to dwindle as shipping routes started terminating in Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay. In 1969, the State sold the water front property to San Francisco, and the State Belt Railroad was promptly renamed the San Francisco Belt Railroad. 1993 saw the railroad company come to an end, with a majority of tracks already abandoned by this time.

Parts of the former main belt line have been rebuilt as the Muni (light rail) Embarcadero line. Some of the freight piers have been refurbished as restaurants; some others are used as parking/storage facilities.

This line carried many soldiers and much war materiel during WW II. The northern terminus was in the Presidio of San Francisco, a huge Army post, and the tunnel was actually under Fort Mason, an Army post with massive piers from which many troopships departed. The former loading docks, small yard, and warehouses in the Presidio were demolished as part of the "restoral" of Chrissy Field at the turn of the 21st Century.

Eric Artman
Marin County
6/10/2009

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A pic of the Fisherman's Wharf line in service is in Trains magazine's March 2005 issue, pages 62-63. It shows ATSF boxcars and an ATSF tugboat in the background, dated 1971.

Mike Palmer
Torrance, CA
6/6/2010

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I was in this exact area a couple times over the last decade and a half visiting my uncle who lives nearby and even stood outside the tunnel, but didn't have my camera with me at the time and didn't even think to grab it and take photos. Fail. Thanks Andrew and Mike.

Kevin M. Smith
Cicero, NY
7/27/2011

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The track on Illinois Street is actually owned by the ATSF.

Jonathan
Cupertino, CA
4/14/2012

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I saw an engine at Third and Cargo way that read San Francisco Belt way chugging along. All black with white writing it. It was king of cool to see it.

Claudio Pubill
San Francisco, CA
6/21/2012

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I'm just joking of course...But what are the posts in pic 9 for? Wayward trains? Nice homework. Good job.

Paul Gronemeir
Albuquerque, NM
11/28/2013

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