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Cable Cars 1954: Bitter Loss

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at the Cala Market, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property—cable cars.


Hundreds of demonstrators surround cable car No. 51 on May 16, 1954, trying to stop it from completing the final run on the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line. MSR historian Phil Hoffman is in the middle on the roof. Phil still has a scar on his hand today from where the clapper on the roof bell whacked him as he held on.

Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history.

The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs.

Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.

Seminal year: 1954


Downtown-bound O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car No. 57 swings ‘wrong-way’ from Hyde into the oncoming traffic of Pine Street, (1954). The overhead neon sign warns motorists that an eastbound cable car is invading the one-way westbound street for two blocks, before it turns south on Jones Street. This mechanism was set up when the City made Pine one-way. Downtown interests longed to do the same with O’Farrell Street where two automobile garages were being built. The pressure for a one-way downtown street grid helped doom this fabled cable car line, which shut down two weeks after Walt Vielbaum took this great photo.

The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.

In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market. Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).


The old California line terminal at Presidio Avenue. Walt Vielbaum photo.

When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann. In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, she galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)

Cal Cable collapses

Meanwhile, the private Cal Cable company was rapidly careening downhill, financially at least. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.


In Pacific Heights, on California Street near Buchanan (note the ornate Victorian firehouse, now gone). Walt Vielbaum photo.

In January 1952, following voter approval, the City bought Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.

By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).

Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though.

In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).


Approaching Van Ness Avenue (the current California line terminal) from Franklin Street. Walt Vielbaum photo.

In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner favored abandoning all three Cal Cable lines, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell lines. Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, proposed combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. (McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.)

Cars vs. cables

There was strong Downtown opposition to the O’Farrell line, tied to the City’s desire to make O’Farrell a one-way street, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s. (The O’Farrell line already operated in both directions for two blocks on Pine Street, which had been made one way in 1941.

An elaborate set of warning lights altered motorists to an oncoming ‘wrong way’ cable car, but automobile advocates were unhappy with this arrangement.)


Car No. 51 on the O’Farrell lline at Jones & Geary Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.

An attorney, Morris Lowenthal, began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge an opposition movement. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947. The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussman and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing. At the last minute, though McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.


Fighting one-way traffic at Pine and Hyde Streets. Walt Vielbaum photo.

Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.

Dirty tricks


Notice of service discontinuation painted along the cable car tracks. Walt Vielbaum photo.

The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the City payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces. He issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E—Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”—another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.


Swinging from Jones Street onto O’Farrell. The Jones shuttle track continues straight. Walt Vielbaum photo.

When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, now MSR’s historian) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.

This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. However, the judge ruled that, “Illegal campaigning by city officials, even if accomplished, as here, by gross misrepresentations and all the tricks of the political arena, is not sufficient ground for invalidating an election by court action.” The votes stood. Half of the City’s cable car system was gone forever.

Still with us


One vanishing institution passes another on May 2, 1954. Two weeks away from the end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, Cable Car No. 57 rumbles west on O’Farrell Street past the Art Deco NBC Radio building. (That hole in the ground beyond is the site of the huge Downtown Center Garage, a big reason for pressure to make O’Farrell one-way.) NBC had been the dominant US radio network in the 1930s and 40s (actually two networks, the Red and the Blue, which was spun off to become ABC). In that era, station call letters were important marks of prestige. NBC’s two powerful stations here were originally called KPO and KGO, but the company redesignated KPO with the company initials, sending the message that NBC considered San Francisco the most important city west of the Mississippi (where stations’ first call letter was almost always ‘K’. WNBC was in New York City, then as now corporate headquarters). The building at 420 Taylor Street housed state-of-the-art NBC studios, with an artistic tribute to a goddess of the airwaves over the front door (still there today). But network radio was on the wane by 1954 as television took over America’s living rooms. Local personalities were coming to the fore in radio, including San Francisco, where the hottest was Don Sherwood, who had recently joined KSFO. NBC later assigned the prestigious ‘KNBC’ designation to its television station in…Los Angeles, renaming its once-dominant San Francisco radio station ‘KNBR’. The radio game in San Francisco has changed repeatedly since this picture was taken, but Car No. 57 still rolls on every day…on the California Cable line, right past the site of Sherwood’s KSFO studio in the Fairmont Hotel. In an interesting twist, KSFO is now the sister station of KGO, both owned by ABC/Disney. Walt Vielbaum photo.

While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.

When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus.

In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original 1906 condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now at the cable car barn as Muni’s official ceremonial cable car.

While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines—California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde—to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.

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I still shudder to consider this near-tragedy, decades later though it is — the photo of the painted “cable car service discontinued” inscription up above gave me chills!

Thanks for the history … and the drama.

What a story! Love the pics too.

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