Sadly, Covid-19 caused cancellation of the 2020 Muni Heritage Weekend, but we can still look back. The first actual Heritage Weekend was in 2013, an outgrowth of the 2012 Muni Centennial Weekend. And Market Street Railway made sure it kicked off with a bang, delivering a second Blackpool Boat Tram to Muni all the way from England, thanks to the generous support of the Thoresen Foundation and shipping help from FedEx.
We took some video of both the inspection and operation of Boat Tram 233 at the Beamish Museum in northern England, where it was on loan from its then-owner, and of its very first operation in San Francisco, a trip from Cameron Beach Yard to our San Francisco Railway Museum on November 1, 2013, for Muni Heritage Weekend.
While you can’t ride a real boat tram here today, you can share virtual rides on two continents! Click the image below and enjoy!
In the wee hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie gripped the first street cable car in history over a precipice on Clay Street. Hallidie, a Scots immigrant who had extensive expertise in “wire rope” technology to move buckets of ore above ground in the state’s mining district, had applied his knowledge to pull people in little cars up hills that horses couldn’t climb. His franchise for the line had technically expired at midnight on August 1, but there were delays, including the refusal of the gripman he hired to operate the car after taking a look down the hill. So Hallidie did it himself. Apparently, no one noticed that he missed his franchise deadline and even today, the anniversary date is commonly given as August 1. (That first operation, incidentally, was a test. Paying passenger service didn’t start until September 1.)
Hallidie’s invention soon swept the world because even with high capital costs, cable cars were twice as fast as horse-drawn streetcars even on level ground, meaning you could carry more passengers per day. Also, operating costs were lower (horses were very expensive to maintain). But the cable revolution only lasted 15 years until Frank Sprague’s development of the electric streetcar in 1888, significantly faster than cable cars and cheaper to build and run. Cable systems around the world were quickly converted, leaving only those serving steep hills. Buses ultimately took over almost all of those as well. By 1957, San Francisco’s was the only traditional street cable system left in the world. (Check out differences between cable cars and streetcars.)
Today, there’s no special bell serenade or even the clicking of the cable to mark the 147th birthday, because the cable cars are silent, shut down since March because of Covid-19. Muni officials have ruled out a comeback anytime soon, probably until an effective vaccine is deployed, because there is no way to shield the operators from passengers, as is being done on buses and light rail vehicles (and we hope soon on the shut-down historic streetcars as well). Indeed, it is possible that the silenced bells and cables could last longer than any previous shutdown.
In their entire 147-year history, there have only been two extended cable car shutdowns: one, following the 1906 earthquake and fire, which decimated cable car machinery and incinerated many cars, lasted about a year; the other, the complete rebuilding of the system from the dirt up in 1982-84, lasted about 18 months. Given the resurgence and persistence of the virus, the little cars could be off the street longer than that.
We hope not; instead we hope the 148th birthday can be celebrated on the cars themselves, climbing ‘halfway to the stars’! Meanwhile, we will be celebrating cable car history here, with a series of posts on little-known aspects of the little cars.
How old is the oldest electric streetcar in Muni’s historic fleet? So old that it regularly crossed paths with cable cars on Market Street. When “dinkies” (small, single truck streetcars) like preserved Car 578 were new, they were also novel, in that cable cars dominated San Francisco transit and had the exclusive rights to Market Street. The electric cars only saw Market when they crossed it. While they looked like cable cars, they were twice as fast and very high tech for the time, 120 years ago.
Two photographic glass plates recently found by Howard Jarvis (no, not the author of Prop. 13 for those who remember back that far) appear to make the dinkies central to the composition. The two photographs were clearly taken by the same photographer, probably within a few minutes of each other, from the same place, the second floor of a building at Ellis and Market, looking southeast across to Fourth Street. Based on other photos of the same intersection, these shots were taken between 1898 and 1900. One photograph is shifted a little to the right from the other one. We include several crops and a full image here.
In the crop at the top of the post, we see a dinky identical to Muni’s Car 578, built in 1896, crossing Market from Ellis to Fourth Street, headed south to the Southern Pacific Train Depot. (We can’t make out the full car number, though it doesn’t appear to be 578 itself but rather another in the bright-yellow fleet of Ellis-O’Farrell line cars, all built by Hammond, which also built many of the California Cable Cars still in Muni’s fleet today.)
In the close-up below, we see that the dinky is crossing behind a green Hayes Street cable car (later the 21-Hayes streetcar and then trolley bus), which is about to pass an establishment called “Midway Plaisance, Home of Burlesque” on its route to the newly-opened Ferry Building. First, though, it will roll past a small shop with a sign on its roof that says RATS in big letters and ROACHES, ANTS, and BEDBUGS in smaller ones. Really wish we could read the rest of it but we presume it’s an extermination business, located where the landmark Humboldt Bank Building rose a few years later.
The Humboldt Bank was designed more or less as a bookend to the Call Building at Third and Market, which dominates the full frame below when you zoom out (remember when “zoom” had nothing to do with quarantine communications?).
Fascinating to look at the people (you can click on the above photo to get a larger view). Scores of men and women clearly visible, but not a single bare head. Interesting signs in this image too, such as “Ohio Dental Parlors” occupying a large space on the second floor in the building at left. (Did Ohio have some kind of advanced dentistry?)
A crop of the second image, above, shifted slightly south, reveals a few additional things. First, there’s the beer wagon at the corner, passing under the store awning advertising “La Harmonia Cigars”. Beer and cigars were the most common advertisements seen in photos of this era, and by extension, presumably the most commonly consumed “vices” of the city of the day.
The dinky in this image is headed north, toward Golden Gate Park out Ellis and then O’Farrell Streets. There’s a cable car in the same place as the first photo but we can’t tell which line it’s assigned to. What can’t be missed though are the garish ads for “Original Uncle Bill Private Loan Offices”. Uncle will loan you money “from $1 up” “at the lowest rate”. And, highly unusual for that time, he’s “open Sundays”. If it’s not already clear that it’s a pawnshop, the sign “unredeemed pledges for sale” is a giveaway.
One other piece of San Francisco trivia. The second image makes it clear that the big billboard to the right is for Roos Brothers, “leading clothiers”, at 27-37 Kearny Street, two blocks away. That building, plus the one the ad is painted on, plus everything else visible in the above photo (except the Call Building), burned on April 18, 1906. But Roos Brothers survived as a family business and later relocated to a stylish store directly across the street from the billboard at Market and Stockton (shown in the Google Maps image below on the left as XXL). Then, after a merger, the firm built a new building across the street, exactly where its billboard stood in 1900 (that location is now occupied by Ross Dress for Less, the white building with the bulbed corner on the right.). The old Call Building is the only common object in the then-and-now photos, though it’s almost unrecognizable following its renovation into an Art Deco facade as the Central Tower in 1940 (it’s the white building on the right in the middle distance).
While this intersection today is eerily quiet with no streetcars on Market or cable cars a block away on Powell, it’s still some consolation to get a fresh look at pieces of the past when photos like this appear. Thanks to Mike Ahmadi, who works with Howard Jarvis and let us post these great shots. Mike runs a Facebook Group called “In Howard’s Barn”, which has other great vintage photo finds and offers very hi-res prints for sale. You can inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as wonderful as these vintage photos are, take a moment to imagine yourself there, experiencing it all in glorious color, starting with the bright yellow of the centerpiece, the Ellis-O’Farrell line dinky. We’ll help.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars.
Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs. Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.
Seminal year: 1954
The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.
In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market.
Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann.
In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, Mrs. Klussmann, supported mostly by other woman, galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)
Cal Cable collapses
Buoyed by the saving of the Powell cars, Mrs. Klussmann and her allies followed up with a ballot measure to buy the private Cal Cable system in 1948. It received 58 percent support, but fell short of the two-thirds required. But in November 1949, a revised measure that required a simple majority passed with 52 percent of the vote, allocating up to $150,000 in taxpayer money to buy the Cal Cable system.
While the City’s representatives and the company’s leaders were trying to come to agreement on a fair price, the company’s financial situation was rapidly deteriorating. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.
In January 1952, the City finally acquired Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.
By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).
Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though. In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).
In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. It was clear that the most vulnerable stretch of trackage was the inner section of the O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line, which carried cable cars through the Tenderloin District, considered dangerous and tawdry by many, to reach Union Square and Market Street. Downtown interests wanted O’Farrell to become an auto thoroughfare, one-way eastbound, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s.
In drafting options for future cable car operation, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, relied heavily on a consultant named Marmion D. Mills, a former transit bus salesman, who had led the implementation of its conversion of two dozen streetcar lines to buses over the preceding four years. Mills’ preferred “Plan A” for cable car consolidation called for retaining the Powell-Mason line and combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. The Washington-Jackson line, which at the time extended past Hyde Street, through the mansions of Pacific Heights, and past Fillmore to Steiner Street and Alta Plaza park, was protected by the City Charter, but Mill’s Plan A called for its scrapping anyway, though that would presumably require a public vote, plus formal abandonment approval from the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
Mills’s Plan A was openly pitched as the most effective arrangement to draw more tourist ridership, keeping them out of the Tenderloin, while downplaying the usefulness of cable cars to actual San Francisco residents. Eliminating all cable service that crossed Van Ness Avenue would also benefit that heavy automobile corridor, then as now US 101.
City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner disagreed with Mills’ Plan A, calling the conversion work to create a California-Hyde line too expensive and instead proposing to abandon all three Cal Cable lines completely, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines.
Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, initially supported the proposed California-Hyde line. McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.
Cars vs. cables
As arguments raged, attorney Morris Lowenthal began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge a opposition movement to save all the cable car trackage. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947.
The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussmann and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing.
At the last minute, though, McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan (Mills’s “Plan B”) to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.
Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.
The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the city payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces.
Jones issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E–Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”–another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.
When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, longtime historian for our nonprofit) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.
This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost, and the city had already torn up the tracks on O’Farrell. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. But the ballot measure results stood, and half of the city’s cable car system was gone forever.
Washington-Jackson ends, 1956
While Muni shut town all of the former Cal Cable trackage in 1954 (except California from Van Ness to Market), they kept the Washington-Jackson line running all the way to Steiner Street through September 2, 1956. Many residents of Pacific Heights, which supported the Washington-Jackson line, didn’t even know it was threatened, because it was never mentioned in the voter handbook and the Jones-led disinformation campaign claimed “every cable car on the streets today is here to stay”, but failing to mention that those assigned to the Washington-Jackson line would be shifted to the new Powell-Hyde line.
Even though voters had approved rescinding the City Charter protection for the Washington-Jackson line achieved several years earlier by Mrs. Klussmann and her allies, the city kept that line (and the shortened California line) running while designing new track curves to connect Washington and Jackson Streets to the remaining trackage on Hyde, as well as changes needed to consolidate California Street operations into the Muni carbarn at Washington and Mason Streets.
They left the track on Hyde between Washington and California and installed a pull-curve from California onto Hyde (something PUC GM Turner claimed would be too expensive to do) to enable the California Street cable cars to get to and from Washington-Mason. When the design was finished, they abruptly pulled the plug on the Washington-Jackson line September 2, 1956, and almost immediately hired a contractor to rip out the tracks west of Hyde (tracks which had been relaid only a few years before). This blunted last ditch-attempts by Pacific Heights supporters of the line to save it.
In fact, in yet another shady act by the city government, Muni leaders never took the abandonment of the Washington-Jackson line to their own Public Utilities Commission, nor to the Board of Supervisors, as required. When this was found out and publicized, the tracks were already gone.
What might have been
Looking at the available evidence, it appears clear to this writer that if the city hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the activities of consultant Jones, voters would have retained all the cable lines, or at least most of them. The Chronicle had run a poll in February 1954 which showed public support running at a ratio of 13 to 1 to retain all five cable car lines. The strongest negative influence was downtown interests who wanted cable cars off O’Farrell Street. If Mrs. Klussmann had accepted the compromise proposal that would have run the Hyde line straight down Jones Street to Market (over the shuttle route), it quite possibly would have been adopted. Tourists drawn to that scenic route might have transformed the troubled area around Jones and Market and invigorated the stretch of Market between Powell and Jones.
Alternatively, if the California-Hyde compromise had been adopted, the foot of California Street, then a dreary collection of hotels and bars, might have been revitalized sooner, and the California line cars would be packed on the trip between the Ferry Building and Aquatic Park. As it turned out, the California line, while traversing beautiful sights through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, really doesn’t have a destination. Efforts to reverse that mistake, by extending it to Japantown on California or to City Hall on Polk, have come to nothing, and today’s environmental process and extreme costs of new construction make future extensions unlikely.
Either of those alternatives would have saved the Washington-Jackson line, which would likely have transformed the surrounding blocks of Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park to visitor destinations, a mixed blessing to nearby residents to be sure.
As it turned out, of course, the 1888 Powell-Mason line was joined by the “new” Powell-Hyde line in 1957, each connecting one part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area to Union Square and Market Street, clearly enhancing retail businesses at the ends of the lines. The California line still struggles to find significant ridership, especially after Muni through-routed the 1-California trolley coach via Sacramento and Clay Streets parallel to and immediately north of California, and started charging more than twice as much for locals to ride the cable car instead of the bus.
Still with us
While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.
When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus. (Author Paul Bignardi tracked down the fate of all of them in his fleet history of all Muni vehicles, available at our museum or online store.)
In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now again part of Muni’s fleet — the only one wearing the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde livery — serving as Muni’s ceremonial cable car and carrying the public every year during Muni Heritage Weekend.
While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines–California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde–to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.
Written by Rick Laubscher. Photos by Walter Vielbaum, except where noted..
This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member magazine, Inside Track, in 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the cable car massacre of 1954. Inside Track always contains exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else (at least until much later). We depend on your support to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate. Thank you.
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