A bohemian tiny-home village of abandoned streetcars once existed in San Francisco in 1900 before a housing demand sent developers knocking. Here's what it was like in Carville.

  • A neighbourhood of abandoned streetcars turned into homes and businesses once existed in early-20th-century San Francisco.
  • Carville, or Carville-by-the-Sea or Cartown, was built when the city sold its outdated horse-drawn trolley cars for under $US20, which is about $US600 in today’s dollars, and their new owners set them up in the city’s Sunset District.
  • The village became an epicentre of San Francisco bohemia until developers and realtors came hunting for more housing space.
  • Here’s what it was like in Carville around 1900.
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San Francisco’s neighbourhoods have long been turned inside out, seeing transformation after transformation as housing demand in the region increases with each passing decade.

That might go back further than we think – around 1900, a neighbourhood called Carville existed, constructed out of the city’s outdated and discarded horse-drawn trolley cars.

There were restaurants, club houses, homes, and more in the tiny-home village, and it became an epicentre for bohemians of 20th-century San Francisco.

But as the years went by and the city’s population continued to balloon, realtors and developers looked to Carville as a means to cash in on new housing that was “real.”

Here’s what it was like in Carville before the neighbourhood gradually faded away.


The California Gold Rush ushered thousands of eager gold miners into San Francisco between 1848 and 1849.

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesMontgomery Street in 1850.

Source: History


The bustling economy transformed the city and its many neighbourhoods. At the time, horse-drawn trolley cars ferried people around the city.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesSan Francisco cable car at Market, Post and Montgomery Streets in 1880.

Source: Outside Lands


But eventually San Francisco’s now-iconic electric and cable street cars hit the city scene, which meant that the Market Street Railway Company needed to get rid of the horse-drawn carriages.

Underwood Archives/Contributor/Getty ImagesA cable car in San Francisco in 1873.

So the railway company ran newspaper ads for the outdated cars, offering them up for $US20 a pop, and $US10 if they didn’t have seats. That’s about $US600 and $US300 in today’s dollars, respectively.


San Franciscans made use of the cars across the city, from North Beach to Bernal Heights, but most of them ended up in a makeshift neighbourhood near Ocean Beach.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public LibraryAbandoned trolley cars in the Sunset sometime between 1895 and 1913.

Ocean Beach sits on the entirely opposite side of the city’s bustling city centre. In addition to Ocean Beach, the western area consists of neighbourhoods like the Richmond and Sunset Districts.

OpenStreetMap/Business Insider

Source: SF Gate


Sand dunes were the area’s biggest feature. It was somewhat lovingly referred to as “the Sahara of San Francisco” or “Outside Lands.”

Source: SF Gate


While other parts of San Francisco were getting a Gold Rush-induced makeover, this part of the 49-square-mile area remained largely uninhabited and un-travelled.


It wasn’t until 1883, when a transit route was put into place running from the east side of Golden Gate Park around to the west, that Ocean Beach became a popular spot for people looking for a leisurely Sunday at the beach.

Western Neighbourhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org/wnp37.02219.jpgCarville in the distance and bathers at Ocean Beach in 1895.

Source: Outside Lands


The then-mayor Adolph Sutro also hoped to attract wealthy buyers to Ocean Beach, envisioning grand mansions populating the sand-dune expanse.

Buyenlarge/Getty ImagesThe Cliff House restaurant at Ocean Beach in 1898.

Source: Outside Lands


But that’s not exactly what happened — a friend of Sutro’s named Colonel Dailey used some of the abandoned cars to build a coffee shop, and he found eager customers in beachgoers.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: Outside Lands


Dailey’s converted coffee shop became a hit with the city’s bohemian community. Others began following suit, acquiring the discarded horsecars and setting them up in Ocean Beach.


Some cars were stand-alone establishments, and some were stacked on top of each other in creative architectural configurations.


And thus Carville neighbourhood was born.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

There were all kinds of tenants, with some being residents and some businesses. One was rented by a city judge and another by a ladies’ bicycle club called the Falcons, who ended up renting even more of the cars over the years.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public LibraryMiss Gunn’s Home Cooking Restaurant in Carville.

Source: Found SF


The Falcons would use the abandoned cars to take naps after long rides and would host dinners and parties at a table befit for as many as 28 people. They’d also go for swims in the ocean “when no one was looking.”

Source: Found SF


Another car belonged to the “Fuzzy Bunch,” a group of San Franciscan bohemian writers like Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, and George Sterling.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public LibraryNot necessarily the car belonging to the ‘Fuzzy Bunch.’

Source: Found SF and San Francisco Chronicle


And Dailey’s coffee shop car later found a new life as a clubhouse to a group of jovial, professional musicians, who dubbed their space “La Boheme” after the iconic Italian opera that debuted in 1896. They used their car for nights full of drinking and swimming in the water.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: Found SF and SF Gate


Families looking for more permanent homes started moving in, too. By 1901, there were about 100 streetcars in Carville housing around 50 families.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: SF Gate


And after the 1906 earthquake and fire, refugees filed to the bohemian beachside neighbourhood in search of a new place to live. About 2,000 people were living in Carville in 1908.

Western Neighbourhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org/wnp37.02760.jpgSt. Andrew by the Sea Protestant Episcopal Church on 47th Ave. in 1908.

Source: Found SF


But then a problem that the modern-day tech hub of San Francisco knows all too well began to encroach on the free-loving, streetcar neighbourhood: the city needed more space to build more housing, and developers turned their eyes to Carville.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: Outside Lands


And they weren’t too keen on the neighbourhood’s abandoned streetcars and bohemian lifestyle. Realtors aimed to transform the area “From Carville to Real Homes,” and preferred Oceanside instead of Carville as the district’s moniker.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Bain News ServiceA home in Carville decked out in Victorian decor.

Source: Outside Lands


Part of their objective was to take the “car out of Carville.”

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: SF Gate


On July 4, 1913, a group called the Oceanside Improvement Club ceremoniously set fire to one of the street cars, whose tenant had since moved on, with an accompanying cluster of fireworks to celebrate the July 4th holiday.

Western Neighbourhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org/wnp37.02894.jpgSt. Andrew by the Sea Protestant Episcopal Church on 47th Ave. in 1910.

Source: SF Gate


Most of the street-car homes were gradually destroyed, but some of their shells were built into new homes that went up as part of a real-estate boom in the 1930s.

Source: Outside Lands


Sometimes a remodeling project would result in finding bits and pieces of them, like wheels underneath floors.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

Source: Outside Lands


And there is one last remaining home consisting of street cars, though you could never tell from the street. The home at 1632 Great Highway was made from two old cable cars and a horsecar. According to public records, it last sold for $US280,000 in 1995.

Wikimedia CommonsThe one remaining known Carville house, photographed in February 2018.

Source: Trulia


Nowadays, the relatively affordable Sunset District is home to families, retirees, and students at San Francisco State and UCSF.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty ImagesThe Sunset District in 2017.

Source: SF Gate


It’s also popular with surfers in the city, who opt for the neighbourhood for its proximity to the ocean. And young artists have also apparently increasingly begun to call the Sunset home.

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesSurfers at Ocean Beach on June 21, 2011.

Source: SF Gate


Perhaps Carville’s legacy lives on in them.

San Francisco History Centre, San Francisco Public Library

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