110 Years Ago: Earthquake Ends the Cable Era

April 18 1906 Hayes cable transfer

This photograph is of a cable car transfer that is part of our Market Street Railway Archives. It’s for the Hayes line (now the 21-Hayes bus), inbound (going toward the Ferry). The date of the transfer, overprinted with ink as was the custom) was April 18, 1906. The time punched on the transfer was 5:00 a.m.

We believe this is a genuine transfer, though it can’t easily be inspected more closely because it was donated to us already encased in plastic. It symbolizes the final minutes of one of the most extensive cable car systems ever built in the world.

CC 155 3rd Mkt 1905As this 1905 shot shows, cable cars ran along Market right up until the Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906. Five cable lines headed west on our main street from the Ferry, branching off at McAllister (now the 5-line), Hayes (the 21), Haight (the 7), Valencia, and Castro (now pretty much the F-line).  The earthquake wrecked the cable machinery and in some places twisted the tracks.

Market and Spear cMay 1906

The system’s corporate owner, United Railroads (a Chicago-based conglomerate) took the opportunity to “temporarily” string overhead wire on Market and had electric streetcars operating there within a few weeks, as seen above. (They had wanted to convert to faster, cheaper streetcars on Market for years, but “City Beautiful” advocates, who hated the overhead wires, had stopped them. They greased the wheels of government in the quake’s immediate aftermath with bribes, and we’ve had overhead wires on Market ever since.)

You can ride along during the last days of Market Street cable service and learn much more about the City that was by viewing our “Trip Down Market Street” video. Thanks to archivist Rick Prelinger and film historian David Kiehn, we obtained a great copy of the film made on or about April 14, 1906, just days before the quake, by pioneering professional filmmakers the Miles Brothers, who bolted a hand-cranked camera onto the front of a cable car and rode down Market Street from Eighth Street to the Ferry Building. Click below for a preview.

In the full 11 minute video, Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher, author of ON TRACK and a noted San Francisco historian, tells you what you’re seeing on every block along the way in this memorable film, including social, economic, and political history to go with the transit history. It’s all woven together seamlessly, bringing this wonderful film, “A Trip Down Market Street,” to life.

You can see the full 11 minute video free at our San Francisco Railway Museum, open daily except Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. You can view the earthquake day transfer shown above at the museum too.  For just $12.95, you can also buy your own copy of the film at the Museum, or right here at our online store (scroll down the store page until you reach the video). Remember, Market Street Railway Members get 10% off.

Finally, please take a moment to reflect on the enormous power of nature, as reflected in Ecuador and Japan during the last few days. Our condolences to all those who have lost loved ones to these terrible tremors.


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