For 149 years, San Francisco’s cable cars have been exemplars of craft, sculptures in wood and metal reflecting the talents of carpenters, metal workers, painters, electricians, and others. They absorb the jolts and lurches inherent in their daily operation, carrying millions of passengers over decades of daily service before their joints finally loosen and rot and rust take a big enough toll to require rebuilding.
And then, rejuvenated by a later generation of crafts workers, they return to the streets of San Francisco for more decades of service.
Craft? Unquestionably. But are they art? In the case of the latest cable car to return to service, Powell Street Car 8, there’s a strong case to be made that it’s also a work of art. And it almost didn’t happen at all.
As we reported in greater detail in the current issue of our member magazine, Inside Track (click here to join us and get it sent to you right away), this cable car was originally built in 1893 and had been partially renovated by Muni in 1958. By 2006, it was so rickety, it was taken out of service and sent to Muni’s cable car carpentry shop in Dogpatch for complete rebuilding. In most such cases, some of the original car’s body can be saved. Not this time. When the carpenters finished removing rotten wood and rusted metal, only the frame was left. A decision was made to truck that frame off to an obscure storage area and start on another car.
We came across that forlorn frame in 2017. We let the then-superintendent of the Cable Car Division, who had only recently joined Muni, that the entire Cable Car fleet was federally protected, and it would be potentially troublesome to just have a car disappear. He responded that he had a decade’s worth of other cars to do first. Some of his maintenance people were simultaneously urging him to move Car 8 to the top of the restoration list, and he changed his mind. Work restarted on Car 8 in 2018.
The Carpentry Shop is well versed in rebuilding both Powell and California Street cable cars, of course. The livery (paint scheme) had already been chosen: one of the two nearly-identical green and cream designs Muni employed on the Powell cars from 1947 into the early 1960s, differing really only in the lettering on the lower side panel: early cars said just “Municipal Railway”; later cars, represented by Powell Car 8, said “Municipal Railway of San Francisco”. (There’s a story behind that change we cover in the Inside track article.)
The heritage livery is part of a 30-year long effort suggested and aided by Market Street Railway to accurately re-present the historic liveries worn by Powell cable cars since the line opened in 1888. There are now nine such heritage liveries in the 28-car Powell fleet. (You can review each one at the bottom of this page.)
What makes Car 8 distinctive is the added touches added by the builders.
Above the internal doors, decorative woodwork.
The lever brake handle, usually bare metal, painted with a whimsical flourish.
The inside handle for the lever that flips the roof signs between Hyde and Mason.
Then, there’s just the literal finishing touches; for example choosing to clear-coat the hand-selected and fashioned Alaska cedar roof strips and the white oak carlines (arched roof supports) rather than painting them, which was the standard for a century.
These exceptional elements, in our view, rise to the level of art, or at least close to it. We put this post together, in part, to draw attention to the accomplishment of the crew that re-created Powell Car 8, because it was missing from an otherwise-excellent story on the car put together by Joe Rosato, Jr. of NBC Bay Area, with an included video that is very much worth watching.
We went along when Joe filmed his story and were delighted to see that the crew was all-female: Grip Willa Johnson and Conductor Amber Jones. They posed for us at the Aquatic Park turntable.
Their presence on the car on its first run is a reminder that 75 years ago, the then-Mayor, Roger Lapham, ordered the Powell cable cars to be replaced by buses. He even secretly ordered the buses, then had the head of Muni lie about what they were to be used for. It was a woman, Friedel Klussman, who created the civic campaign to stop Lapham, at a time when women had scant political power in San Francisco.
We will be telling this story in the next issue of our exclusive member magazine, Inside Track, with photos and facts you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re not yet a member of Market Street Railway, join now and get the current issue and the next four as well.
Don’t miss out. It’s your membership that lets us do the work we do to help keep the cable cars and historic streetcars of San Francisco great.
In its first few days in service, Car 8 has attracted admiring attention from riders and passersby alike. One look and they know it’s special.
Join us in thanking the Muni team that brought this car back from frame to fantastic!
Management & Supervision
- Wesley Valaris, Senior Operations Manager
- Arne Hansen, Superintendent Vehicle Maintenance
- Woods Cable Car Carpenter Supervisor 1, Andrew McCarron
- Special Machine Shop Supervisor 1, Harold (Harry) Stewart
- Woods Auto Body & Fender Supervisor 1, Richard Bernal
- Joseph Byrne
- Luis Ferreia
- Todd Hurley
- Keith McCombs
- Mark Sobichevsky
- Antoni (Pete) Cunha
- Michael Faulkner
- Ian Geoghegan
- He Du
- Daniel Hicks
- Henry Pegueros
Electrical Transit Mechanics (wiring, truck/brake installation)
- Kevin Lee
- Sammy Li
- Phetsamorn Khotpanya
- Lin Win
- Luis Carazo
- Jose Guzman
- Guillermo Sanchez
- Maximillian Luna
- William Werner
We’ll close by taking a spin with Car 8 — on the Powell turntable! If you can’t get down to ride it sooner, it will be operating on the Powell-Hyde line on Muni Heritage Day, June 4.
Car 8. Just great. Craft. And Art.
- Story and images by Rick Laubscher