Remembering the Cable Car Rebuild 25 Years Later

On vacation last month, we missed the 25th anniversary of the return of the cable cars to the Streets of San Francisco. But it’s still worth a look back at that memorable project, which we chronicled in the pages of our member newsletter, Inside Track, five years ago:

When the reduced cable car system reopened in 1957, it was still old. During the lengthy shutdown of the California and Hyde Street trackage, Muni focused on consolidating operations with its Powell lines, not on complete renewal. Capital funding, as usual, was in short supply, so much so that in this same period, Muni had to effect a complicated lease arrangement for used PCC streetcars from St. Louis so the last of its original streetcar fleet could finally be replaced.

Having ‘saved’ the cable cars, most San Franciscans started taking them for granted again. But the system was growing sclerotic. In late 1979, a rash of accidents shut the system down for emergency repairs that lasted six months. Muni commissioned a complete engineering evaluation of the system, which concluded that it had to be rebuilt from the hole-in-the-ground up.

A $60 Million Job

The city’s politicians and business community rallied. Mayor Dianne Feinstein took personal charge of the effort. She helped win federal funding for the bulk of the rebuilding job.

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The ‘gauntlet’ track on Jackson, between Powell and Mason, was showing its age shortly before the 1982 shutdown. Market Street Railway photo.

She recruited Chevron USA head Ken Derr to ‘tin cup’ leading San Francisco businesses to raise the required local matching funds. Market Street Railway director Virgil Caselli, then general manager of Ghirardelli Square, ran the ‘Committee to Save the Cable Cars’ that coordinated fundraising. In all, public and private contributions approached $60 million.

Time was of the essence. Major changes would trigger an environmental impact study, which would add a year or more to the process. So the only changes allowed were for the sake of improved safety, flexibility, and operability. For example, the Powell lines were engineered so that the higher capacity California-type cars could run safely on them.

The restrictions on new route trackage deferred the dream (originally proposed in 1954) of an additional cable car line using the tracks on California and Hyde Streets. The tight schedule couldn’t accommodate all the extensive connections necessary for through running of a ‘California-Hyde’ line.

Swarm of workers

Before dawn on September 22, 1982, the last passenger-carrying car bounced over the old cable car system. Soon the cables would fall silent for 21 months as workers swarmed the routes.
All things considered, the rebuilding went quite well, especially since there had been essentially no cable car engineering performed in the previous 95 years, and there was the potential for nasty surprises under streets and structures that had been little touched over that same period.
Contractors did get a big surprise when they started working on the venerable carbarn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason. Originally built in 1887 and rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, it was found that the exterior brick walls were standing largely out of habit–there was no foundation to speak of.
The plans called for keeping the exterior walls only for appearance’s sake, building a modern steel and concrete structure inside. Still, they had to devise and implement a fix for the problem.

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Headed for the home stretch of the project, brand new track frames a completely rebuilt powerhouse and car barn at Washington & Mason. Only the brick ‘wrapper’ is old. Market Street Railway photo.

The carbarn that emerged looked the same from the outside, but was completely new inside, from the cable winding machinery to a completely enclosed car storage area upstairs to better protect out-of-service cars (something the historic streetcars still lack).
On the street, 69 blocks of track were completely rebuilt with heavier rails and deeper flangeways, cable channels of concrete instead of rusted iron, and new pulleys with space-age components like Teflon for reduced friction. Curves were now banked, putting an end to the thrilling lurch around corners accompanied by the conductor’s yell, ‘cout [look out] for the curve!
The cars themselves got new, stronger trucks and improved brakes. A couple of cars were rebuilt; all were repainted. The Powell fleet received a new paint scheme derived from the 1888 Powell Street Railway livery. Car No. 3 was left in the Muni green and creme livery it had worn since the mid-1940s and dedicated to cable car savior Friedel Klussmann. (Later, some replacement Powell cars built for the fleet got other historic liveries.)

The result: a smoother-running and safer cable car system. There were some problems with some of the newly engineered features. For example, the metal pulley cover plates made a racket when automobiles ran over them, waking neighbors. But these problems proved minor, given the scope of the task.

More safety, less flavor

Perhaps inevitably, some of the flavor of the old system was lost: the clatter at Geary and Powell when the cable car passed over the remnants of the Muni B and C line streetcar tracks; the Belgian block between the rail in segments of Hyde Street; the lurch as wheels dipped into a trough in the track caused by subsiding streets. Now it was uniform, predictable, homogenized.

No question, though, that the cable car system couldn’t have gone on the way it was. It was the proverbial accident waiting to happen–perhaps a catastrophic accident that might have called the wisdom of preserving the system into question. The reconstruction project significantly lessened the chances of that happening.

On June 21, 1984, Mayor Feinstein was joined by City, Muni, and corporate top brass and thousands of other San Franciscans to celebrate the full reopening of the cable car system–just in time to host delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The cable cars were “rebuilt and ready for another 100 years of service,” according to Muni officials. We’re only one-fifth of the way there [one-fourth now] , but so far, so good.

Comments: 4

  1. I was fortunate enough to ride the first revenue car from Van Ness on the day the California line reopened. The Powell Street cars were still running with sandbags instead of passengers. I have the first day certificate and dated transfer, framed in my den.

  2. On my first visit after the shutdown, I saw some of the crumbling brickwork and rusty iron of the old structures, and agreed with the engineers that an full rebuilding was the only option to keep the cable system running into the future. Later I took pictures of the construction process, seeing modern methods make the line safe for the old-timey cars. I even saw an experimental air-operated grip at the storage barn where the cars were kept “for the duration”; apparently it didn’t “make the cut” and is now a footnote in cable car history. Not sure what today’s gripmen would say, but they’re still “taking rope” like their precessors did a hundred years ago. The Geary St. track crossing was mentioned; as I recall there were some vestigial remnants of long-gone cable line crossings, probably at Sacramento and/or Clay, on Powell also. Losing these artifacts is a small price to pay for seeing the cars still running in the 21st Century.

  3. Bob, amen to that. I didn’t mention the banked curves at Powell and Jackson which eliminated the thrill of feeling like you were going to fall off the car as it lurched left. (Of course, it also reduced the potential for lawsuits, so another worthwhile tradeoff.)

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