As I headed out from Market Street Railway’s venerable Flood Building office one day during the holiday season a few years back, I encountered a stunning site at Powell and Market.
Headed in from Castro was New Orleans No. 952, decked out in the wreaths and garlands supplied by our volunteers. Just then, cable car No. 13, similarly decorated by the cable car barn crew, rumbled onto the turntable. Since both cars are painted green and red, the holiday feeling was complete. San Francisco – car rental . Suddenly, I was transported back to my boyhood in the 1950s, and one of my fondest transit memories…Santa’s cable car.
For years after World War II, the Emporium chartered a cable car each year, decorated it, and carried Santa Claus downtown on its roof. At the turntable, he climbed down, crossed the street, and took up residence up on the toy floor (the fourth, if I remember right), just below the stairs to the roof rides. My mom brought me downtown (on a streetcar, of course) to see this spectacle a few times, and I firmly came to believe that the Emporium Santa had to be the real Santa (as opposed to Macy’s Santa) because he arrived on a cable car.
Well that little tradition vanished long ago, but I later learned from Jack Smith that it wasn’t just any cable car they used for Santa. It was always the same one: car No. 504, with a specially-strengthened roof to support not just Santa, but loudspeakers and other paraphernalia that went along with him. That car, later renumbered No. 4, was retired in the mid-1990s, but in true San Francisco fashion, it has taken on a new and useful life. Muni leased it to the San Francisco Giants, where it can now be seen from everywhere in the ballpark, sitting proudly on the centerfield concourse. Renumbered No. 24 on one end, No. 44 on the other, to honor Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, happy fans of all ages clamber over the car before, during, and after games, noting the special decal: Fare $2.00–No Dodger Fans. Some things don’t change, after all.