San Francisco's World Famous Cable Cars

No.19

(S-C) Sacramento & Clay Streets (1930s livery)

The newest addition to Muni’s cable car operating fleet is also the oldest active cable car in the world. It started its third life in 2019, following a remarkable resurrection by Muni’s wonderful cable car shop workers.

Cable Car 19 (called “Big 19” to differentiate it from single-end Powell Car 19) operated on the Sacramento-Clay line from 1908 to 1942 when the line closed. But its history goes back a quarter-century before that.

Open-sided Market Street cable car (left) shown on the Haight Street line in 1886.

This cable car was originally built by the Central Pacific Railroad shops in Sacramento as part of a fleet of open-sided cable cars used on the five lines of the Market Street Cable Railway Company, which Central Pacific interests owned. These standard-gauge open cars were among the largest cable cars ever built, and were used in good weather on the five lines that headed up Market Street from the Ferry Building up Market Street and radiated west via McAllister, Hayes, and Haight Streets, and southward via Valencia and Castro Streets.

By 1906, United Railroads had consolidated most cable car operations in San Francisco, including the Market Street lines, the Powell Street lines, and a line on Sacramento & Clay Streets, which replaced the world’s first cable car line, on Clay Street (which had opened in 1873). In that year, the massive earthquake and fire ruined most cable car machinery and incinerated most of the cable cars. Electric streetcars quickly replaced cable cars on Market Street, making the surviving open cable cars surplus. Before the earthquake and fire, the Sacramento-Clay line used single-ended cable cars. Those that survived were switched over to the Powell cable car lines, where many still operate today.

As replacements on the Sacramento-Clay line, United Railroads rebuilt 12 of the surplus Market Street open-sided cable cars at its Elkton Shops at Ocean & San Jose Avenues (now home to Muni’s Green Light Rail Division). They were converted from standard gauge to the narrow-gauge trackage on Sacramento-Clay, made double-ended, and given an open-and-closed section design almost identical to the California Street cable cars. (An additional five Market Street open cars were similarly rebuilt, but left standard-gauge for the last remnant of the Market Street cable lines, an isolated route on Castro from 18th to 26th Streets, linking Eureka Valley and Noe Valley, which ran until 1941).

The restored Sacramento-Clay line was cut back from Walnut Street in what’s now Laurel Heights to Fillmore Street, and its “new” cars were stored in the rebuilt Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn, alongside the Powell cars.

 

Car 21. identical to 19, in Chinatown crossing Grant Avenue on Clay, 1942.

 

United Railroads morphed into Market Street Railway Company in 1921, and as years passed, the Sacramento-Clay line, like its predecessor on Clay Street, was outshone by its competitor on California Street, and the cable cars were replaced by buses in 1942.  In 1944, Muni took over Market Street Railway, including its cable cars.  The double-end Sacramento-Clay cars were disposed of, except for Car 19, which was purchased in 1948 by the Northern California Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society (for $50!) and kept for years in the carbarn as a static display.  After the 1982-84 rebuilding of the cable car system, it was placed in storage offsite, but in 1997-98, Muni’s cable car carpentry shop restored and strengthened the body of car 19 to meet current operating standards. In 2019, Muni’s cable car mechanics finished the restoration to meet today’s operating standards.

Sacramento-Clay cable car 19 passes the Fairmont Hotel on California Street (one block south of its old route) during tests in August 2019.

Throughout its post-earthquake history, the car has been painted dark green and for all but a few years wore red window sash. It has been restored into the Market Street Railway Company livery and logos it carried from about 1927-1937.  It looks as it did when it greeted passengers disembarking at the Ferry Building before the Bay Bridge was built, carrying them along the southern edge of the produce market, up through the Financial District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, and through Pacific Heights to Fillmore.

Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19

Built

1883, Central Pacific Railroad shops, Sacramento (for Market Street service)

Rebuilt
1907-08, United Railroads Elkton Shops, San Francisco (for Sacramento-Clay service)

Restored
1997-8, Muni Cable Car Carpentry Shop; 2019 Muni Cable Car Mechanical Shop

Length
34’0″ (10.0 meters)

Width
8’2” (249 cm)

Weight
14,000 lbs. (6,350 kg)

Track Gauge
1883-1906: 4’8.5″ (1.435 m)
1908-present: 3’6″ (1.07 m)

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