Cable cars celebrated their 150th birthday on August 2 with a lively celebration at Market and Powell Streets. The event commemorated inventor Andrew Hallidie’s first cable car trip, down Nob Hill on Clay Street, on August 2, 1873.
After a long illness, Tony Bennett has moved on to perform the Great American Songbook in the sky. It’s now time for San Francisco to immediately give him our highest honor: a cable car dedicated to him. Here’s why.
The Mayor was there. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, too. News media were there. And, thanks to “Stanford scientists”, cable car inventor Andrew Hallidie was there. Plus other civic luminaries, coming together on June 13 at California and Market Streets to kick off the celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars, organized by our nonprofit and the little cars’ owner-operator, SFMTA/Muni, supported by partners from the historic preservation, business, and education communities.
As we’ve mentioned, the civic celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars kicks off at 11 a.m., Tuesday, June 13 at California and Market Streets as Mayor London Breed is joined by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, Cable Car Inventor “Andrew Hallidie” (or a reasonable facsimile) and the oldest and largest cable car in the fleet, Sacramento-Clay Car “Big 19”, which will carry the dignitaries up through Chinatown and over Nob Hill to Polk Gulch and Van Ness Avenue, parallel to Hallidie’s original Clay Street line two blocks north. Here’s “Big 19” taking a spin on the cable car barn turntable, getting ready for its closeup.
Cable cars, a giant leap forward in urban transit technology when Andrew Hallidie invented them in 1873, dominated San Francisco streets until the earthquake and fire of 1906 decimated both cable machinery and the cars themselves. After that, cable cars were largely limited to steep hills while larger, faster electric streetcars carried the heavy loads on main routes. High operating costs gradually pared down the remaining cable car lines. In 1947, an attempt by a misguided mayor to junk the Powell Street cables was slapped down by a women-led civic coalition helmed by Friedel Klussmann, but even her heroic efforts seven years later could not avert the loss of half the remaining cable car trackage.
Innovation born in San Francisco triggered a hi-tech revolution that changed America and much of the world. We’re not talking here about the digital innovations from Silicon Valley. Nor the analog innovation by Philo T. Farnsworth, in a little building on Green Street in 1927, that gave birth to television. We’re talking about mechanical innovation 150 years ago that began a revolution in how people move around cities.
The California Street cable car line has terminated at Market Street since 1891. For the past 50 years, its neighbor has been the Hyatt Regency, the innovative hotel designed by John Portman, now iconic in its own right. When the hotel’s current management generously supported the celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars, they asked us if we had some old photos of the location.
We’ve written before of the many Black barrier breakers in San Francisco transit. These are stories that must be retold every month, not just Black History Month. People such as Mary Ellen Pleasant, Charlotte Brown, Audley Cole, Larry Martin, Welton Flynn, Curtis Green, and Maya Angelou confronted racism and resistance; all moved the needle in our City toward equity and equality, a fight that continues today.
Since 1888, a small wooden structure has stood on the southeast corner of Powell and California Streets. It’s an essential sentinel protecting the world’s only cable car crossroads. Here’s its story.
Archive: All Posts