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Getting Downtown by Shooting the Chenery Chute

This article was originally published in the (Hi)Stories of Our Neighborhoods column in the Winter 2015 issue of the Glen Park News. It is republished here with permission.

MUNI re-routing; Diamond and Bosworth reconstruction; San Jose Avenue/Interstate 280 road diet. Our traffic woes may seem like side effects of Glen Park’s recent growth in popularity, but they are really nothing new. Ever hear of the Chenery Chute?

First appearing on maps in 1864, Chenery Street became an important local transit route in 1892 when Behrend Joost’s San Francisco-San Mateo Railway, the City’s first electric railroad, began service. Bringing residents to his new Sunnyside District from downtown, the railway sharply turned to the south on Chenery at 30th, ran up the incline to Randall, and continued over the hill before veering west to Diamond. Here it turned southward, rambling over the Islais Creek trestle and on to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.

Chenery Street Hill between Randall and 30th, originally a very steep grade, quickly became a railway trouble spot. The first accident (only six weeks into service) and nearly all subsequent incidents followed the same basic scenario: Overloaded cars returning from the cemetery; passengers with “barely a foothold,” “hanging on to the ends of the car wherever they could find anything to grasp.” Upon descent from Randall, the car would become “unmanageable,” essentially popping wheelies and strewing passengers about; or, at 30th, would “round the curve with a heavy list to starboard.” Sometimes, cars left the tracks altogether and crashed. While there were many injuries, only three in 1894 were life-threatening.

This grainy image from an 1893 railway journal identifies an overloaded San Francisco-San Mateo Railway car as being “on a steep grade,” likely Chenery Street between Randall and 30th Street.

Railway management claimed car operators just needed more practice, or blamed Fairmount School students for using the track like a “toboggan,” sliding down the rails on boards and making the rails too smooth for brakes to hold. Soon, the cars were described as running “like toboggans” on the “Chenery street slide.” One newspaper commented, “If the sense of danger were absent, the passengers would enjoy the thrill.” The grade of Chenery Street Hill would eventually be reduced, but not before the “Chenery Chute” had become notorious.

Tragically, on the southern slope of Chenery Street in 1927, three young men died when their speeding touring car fishtailed at the Natick curve into the oncoming path of a 26-line rail car. Now labeled “Death Hill,” Chenery Street was noted by police as “one of the worst death traps in San Francisco.” Additionally, with its dual street car tracks, “Chenery street is a narrow and winding street. It forms the principal outlet cityward for residents of Glen Park, Sunnyside and Ingleside, and with the development of these districts within recent years, has acquired an importance and a volume of traffic all out of proportion to its original plan.”

Sound familiar?

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