Big 19 in Broad Daylight

Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 crosses Powell Street on August 6, 2019 with many of the crew that helped bring it back to life. Rick Laubscher photos.

For the first time in 77 years today, the biggest cable car in San Francisco (or anywhere for that matter) climbed “halfway to the stars” and back down again under cable power, in regular service conditions.

The cable car known as “Big 19” for its size (seven feet longer than Powell Street Cable Car 19, and four feet longer than the California Street cable cars, previously the longest in the fleet) has been on the streets twice before in recent weeks for testing, but both times at night, while the rest of the cable cars were sleeping in the barn.

Today, it ran from the cable car barn at Washington and Mason Street just as a regular-service California Street cable car would, the cable pulling it up Jackson Street and along Hyde to reach the California line, then up to Van Ness, reversing ends all the way to Market Street, and back again to Hyde, pulling onto the non-revenue (no passengers) stretch of track on Hyde between California and Washington Streets.

There, a few feet from its long-time route along Clay Street, the crew tested the slot blade, the emergency brake that brings cable cars to a quick stop when other brakes have problems. It worked fine, but under cable car rules, a car has to be towed back to the barn whenever a slot blade is dropped, so that’s how it ended today’s test.

More on the earlier testing, including a detailed history of this amazing car, first operated in 1883 — on Market Street! — here.

Crossing Grant Avenue. For 34 years, Big 19 and its 11 siblings served Chinatown faithfully via the next two blocks to the north (behind the car): Sacramento and Clay Streets.

We were invited along for today’s ride. The car handled very well throughout. It’s a little noisier than other cable cars, which shop supervisor Arne Hansen, who spearheaded restoration efforts, ascribed to the new trucks under the car. But the noise was music to the crew onboard, who have made this resurrection a labor of love.

So, no problems encountered anywhere; it fit everywhere. Because of its length, it wasn’t certain it would clear the terminal switch at California and Market while a Cal Car was “in the hole” (The extra space to store a cable car at the end of the line), but it made it with ease.

Acting Senior Operations Manager for Cable Car, Wes Valaris, a former gripman, poses on the running board of Big 19 at the California and Market terminal, with F-line PCC 1051 photobombing the shot from behind.

There’s still some paperwork to be done, but at this writing, it looks like Big 19 will be cleared to make its passenger-carrying debut on Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8, an exciting event for sure. Thereafter, it’s expected to join O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Cable Car 42 for infrequent but incredible special event service.

We’ll be posting updated information on Heritage Weekend soon, but be sure to leave time for a ride on Big 19.