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Celebrating Civic Activism - With a Cable Car

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Powell cable car No. 26 reenters service in its 1947 livery, November 14, 2012. On the running board, from right to left: SFMTA Chair Tom Nolan, Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman, Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, MSR President Rick Laubscher, MSR board member Bruce Agid. Frank Zepeda photo.

The news media that covered the return of Powell cable car No. 26 to the fleet a few days ago missed a major point. To them, it was just another spruced-up cable car (about which, more below). But Market Street Railway’s point in recommending that the car be painted in this green and cream livery was to celebrate the civic activism that saved the Powell cable cars 65 years ago this month.

MSR has been working with Muni for almost 20 years to add both color and historic authenticity to the Powell Street cable car fleet by painting cars in different liveries they wore in past times. (Go here and scroll to the bottom of the page. You can see the story of each livery by clicking on a cable car.) The last major unrepresented era was the early Muni green and cream livery that was first applied after World War II and lasted into the 1960s, when it was slightly modified (as shown on Car No. 3).

In painting No. 26 into this livery, we honor the early days of civic activism in San Francisco. The power structure, led by Mayor Roger Lapham, had come together to plan the scrapping of the Powell cable lines in favor of buses in early 1947. But Friedel Klussmann, a Telegraph Hill resident active in women’s civic activities of the day (such as gardening), cried foul. She was ignored by the old boy network, but persevered and build a grassroots organization, largely of women, who beat back the proposal in that November’s election. The rest, as they say, is history.

While Friedel Klussmann already has a cable car dedicated to her (Powell No. 1, constructed in 1973 for the centennial of the invention of the cable car and now under renovation), No. 26 celebrates a broader movement — of San Franciscans who stand up and advocate for better transit in general.

The ceremony to welcome No. 26 back to the fleet also included a tribute to one of the cable car operation’s own: painter Efren Bernal, who did much of the work on No. 26. Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer not long ago, he couldn’t be there personally, but his family came to represent him, and heard his work lauded by SFMTA leaders including Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin. His wife noted that Efren always signed his work, and showed us his name in tiny letters inside a yellow strip on the rear platform of No. 26, in about as inconspicuous a place as possible. That matched the Efren Bernal we got to know during the renovation of the car: modest, yet wanting to know everything he could about the original paint scheme, so he could get it right.

And so, this cable car honors Efren Bernal as well.

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