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 first Diesel locomotive purchased by the Belt #20 with all of the harbor commissioners in 1943.


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.

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.

SF waterfront circa 1942.

The Ferry Building (c 1940)

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.

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.

SF Belt moving cars from the Presidio & Fort Mason along Aquatic Park (c 1946)

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.

By 1993, 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, and was given a new number (#49) and a new paint job in 49er colors. At the same time Alco #25 began a long term loan from the Port of San Francisco to the Golden Gate Railroad Museum at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Soon thereafter, the #49 was also loaned to the museum. They joined State Belt Steam Engine #4 as part of the GGRM's San Francisco Railroading Heritage collection. In 2000, the Belt Railroad was renamed the "San Francisco Bay Railroad" (SFBR), and both ALCO locomotives were sent back to the Port for restoration by SFBR. In addition to complete restoration of the #23 and #25 to their original condition, SFBR decided to convert both locomotives to use biodiesel. This made SFBR the first railroad in the U.S. to exclusively operate on biodiesel. Both ALCO locomotives continue to operate today at the Port of San Francisco.

Text by Thomas Beutel