Clarifying the 1947 Threat to the Cable Cars

This week is the 70th anniversary of the failed effort by Mayor Roger Lapham (at left in the photo above) to “junk the cable cars.” It’s truly something to celebrate, and it has engendered several news articles, such as this badly flawed one, which confuses the cable cars with streetcars and doesn’t know how to spell “trolley” and this one recounting the fight.

Most of these accounts get a fundamental point wrong, and it’s an important one.  Lapham’s misguided effort was only aimed at the two Powell Street lines. Even if he had succeeded, the three lines run by the private California Street Cable Railway Company (Cal Cable) would have remained, and they made up more trackage than the two Powell Street lines.

The Powell lines came under city ownership in 1944, when the private Market Street Railway Company (our namesake) was taken over. Lapham, a businessman with no government experience and no sentiment for history (sound familiar?) blindly ignored the affection San Franciscans felt for the cables and roused up powerful opposition led by Friedel Klussmann, who continued her stalwart defense of the cable cars for the rest of her life. Today, the failed cable car shutdown attempt is the only thing anyone remembers about Lapham’s time as mayor.

It should be pointed out, though, that IF he had succeeded in shutting down the Powell lines, the California lines might well have died out within a decade as well. If Muni had gone out of the cable car business in 1947, Friedel Klussmann and her allies might well have been unable to convince the city to take Cal Cable over and operate its lines when the private company went broke in 1951. The combined cable system ended up getting cut in half in 1954, leaving us with the arrangement we have now: two busy Powell lines branching out to Mason and Hyde to reach two parts of Fisherman’s Wharf, and a truncated California Street line that abruptly ends at Van Ness (it used to go past Fillmore all the way to Presidio Avenue) and attracts far fewer riders because of its route.

An important remaining tangible object of that failed 1947 shutdown is one of the ten Faegol Twin Coach motor buses Muni bought specifically to replace the Powell cable cars. Lapham used these buses, which looked very modern for the era (and featured the same bodies as a fleet of trolley buses Muni bought a few years later) as props to try to convince voters to scrap the cables. One of the buses was even posed misleadingly next to a Cal Cable car, which as we said was not threatened by Lapham’s proposal (photo below).

The buses were assigned to other lines and were ultimately retired. Muni reacquired No. 0163 from a museum many years ago. Market Street Railway volunteers helped refurbish it cosmetically after it arrived in town, and we’ve asked Muni to display it this fall for Muni Heritage Weekend, the annual celebration of San Francisco transit history we co-sponsor with Muni’s parent, SFMTA. The dates for this celebration have not yet been finalized, but it’s looking like September 9-10.

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NextMuni Predictions Seemingly Better for Streetcars Now

After a spell when GPS-based predictions of when the next streetcar would arrive at a particular stop on the E- and F-line had become wildly inaccurate (when they occurred at all), things seem to have improved.

The historic streetcar fleet appears to have received new modems able to transmit location information to the NextMuni system. An excellent story by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez appears in the Examiner this morning.

Muni’s rail fleet, including the LRVs, now seems to have returned to the level of accuracy it had before the mess occurred. The bus fleet, however, may not be wholly accurate for another month, Rodriguez’s story reports. That could mean that substitute buses assigned to the F-line might not appear.

We’ll keep you up to date on this.

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Muni Arrival Times Inaccurate Right Now

Don’t try to use the live E- and F-line maps linked to this website right now. This post from SFMTA (Muni) explains why.

The maps we use, customized with icons of streetcars in the historic fleet, are really cool when they work, because they show you exactly which cars are on the line and where they are. We know people all over the world check in on these maps every day to follow their favorite vintage streetcars. The data that feeds those maps is the same that provides arrival times to electronic signs at stops for all Muni bus and rail lines. Muni is in the process of updating the way its buses and railcars communicate their position, but the process has hit a big snag, so riders can’t count on the maps or signs right now. Many vehicles are just not showing up on the database, resulting in displays of much longer wait times than is actually the case. This affects every LRV on the J, K, L, M, N, and T lines, most vehicles on the E- and F-line, and most buses as well.

Of course, when the streetcars of the E- and F-line were in their original service lives, the only database available was your own eyes, as in, “Can I see a car coming?” So just consider it a retro moment.

For reference, F-line headways (the time between streetcars) are 6-7 minutes during the day, 10 minutes in mid-evening, and 15 minutes late night. E-line headways are 20 minutes during that line’s operating hours of 10 a.m.- 7 p.m.

Here are links to the current schedules for the E-Embarcadero line and F-Market and Wharves line on 511.org.

Use the pull-down menus under the route name at the top of the page of these links to select the day of the week and inbound/outbound schedules.

 

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