Decorated Cable Cars, Now and Then

‘Tis the season to show off holiday spirit in all kinds of ways. The San Francisco Chronicle is both reporting and demonstrating that spirit with our most iconic transit vehicles, the cable cars. You can see the publication’s handiwork on Powell Cable Car 1 (pictured in the photo by Val Lupiz above, complete with Victorian-costumed guests), one of eight cable cars decorated this year in a growing campaign led by Val, Jeremy Whiteman, and Frank Zepeda (MSR members all), and supported by Market Street Railway.

Leading the Powell Car 1 decorating for the Chronicle: columnists Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub, who teamed up earlier this year for the transit marathon they called “total Muni 2018”, meeting Val, Jeremy, and Frank in the process and getting drawn in to the web of cable car love!  As a result, Powell Car 1 features inventive decorations inside and out, including replicas of historic Chronicle front pages dating all the way back to 1865, 23 years before the Powell cable even existed! Heather wrote a great article about the decorating experience.

Not to be outdone, Peter Hartlaub, who regularly mines the Chronicle’s photo and story archives for gems of San Francisco history, came up with a “WHOA!” story, recounting a little-known Grinch moment in cable car history. Christmas season, 1951, Muni had just assumed control of the bankrupt California Street Cable Railroad Company and its California and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines. Muni celebrated by inviting including Macy’s, to decorate cars on those lines. The Grinch glitch? The city’s ownership was challenged in court, keeping the decorated cars in the barn, never to be seen by the public, and delaying their city-run operation into 1952. Well worth a read!)

We can tell from the photo above, by the Chronicle’s Art Frisch, that the decorated cable car is from the O’Farrell, Jones, & Hyde lines, though the car number is covered up. Could it be Car 42? That’s the only surviving O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line car in its original 1906 configuration and livery, the one our nonprofit rescued from a cattle ranch near Santa Maria 15 years ago and restored with Muni’s expert help. It now runs in special service on California Street and sometimes Hyde, on part of its original route).

Macy’s sponsoring an O’Farrell car makes sense, since the O’Farrell line passed right in front of Macy’s…but it’s also ironic, since Macy’s was one of the downtown merchants that successfully lobbied to make O’Farrell one way a few years later, dooming the cable car line to make more room for automobiles.  (Here’s the story about the dark end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line in 1954.)

We at Market Street Railway are very proud to support the cable car celebrations. Beyond the decorating (which includes Powell Car 12 above, wearing the famed “White Front” 1930s livery of our namesake), we collected contributions to support this year’s holiday luncheon for seniors, co-sponsored by cable car operators and Transport Workers Local 250A (photo below).  

Come on downtown to see and ride the decorated cable cars this year, and don’t forget Car 56 on the California line, shown below in this magical nighttime photo by Traci Cox.  

Finally, along the F-line, look for Milan tram 1818, decorated in festive style by our volunteers, who also put wreaths on all the E- and F-line streetcars. (Yep, another great Traci Cox photo.)

If the holiday spirit moves you, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation in any amount to our nonprofit. We get no government money; it’s your donations and memberships that make it all possible, along with everything else we do to support San Francisco’s cable cars and historic streetcars. Thanks and Happy Holidays, in the spirit of our namesake, Muni’s lively competitor before 1944!.

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Ride Hyde the Way it Used to Be!

From 1891 to 1954, double-end cable cars, almost identical to those on California Street, rambled from Market & O’Farrell streets through Union Square, the Tenderloin, and over Nob and Russian Hills to reach Hyde and Beach Streets near Aquatic Park. The City killed the inner part of that line and combined the outer part with one of the Powell Street cable lines to create the Powell-Hyde line in 1957.

Now as a special event for San Francisco history buffs and cable car fans, the last unaltered O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable car will carry passengers down Hyde Street Saturday and Sunday mornings, September 8-9. It’s the first time the car has been in regular passenger service on Hyde Street in 64 years. Expert grip (and MSR Member) Val Lupiz will be at the controls. Val supplied the vintage photo above, taken at Chestnut and Hyde, probably in the early 1950s. The modern matching shot was taken on a VIP run by Frank Zepeda.

The special car, reacquired by Market Street Railway and restored by expert volunteers and Muni pros, will operate as follows as part of Muni Heritage Weekend:

  • Leaves Washington & Mason Streets at 10 a.m. sharp each day
  • Riders must queue on the north sidewalk on Washington, just west of Mason.
  • Regular $7 cable fare will be charged for the one-way trip to Hyde & Beach
  • When car lays over at Hyde & Beach, riders will have to get off and rebound in a separate queue at the boarding area. The $7 fare will be charged again.
  • Car 42 will then depart Hyde and Beach operating via Hyde, Washington, Powell, Jackson, reverse direction on Hyde then on Hyde to California, California to Van Ness, reverse car again, then California to Drumm.
  • At that point, Car 42 will begin regular service on the California line until 5 p.m. both days.

This opportunity may not come around again. What a perfect way to start Heritage Weekend!

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Happy 145th Anniversary, Cable Cars!

August 2, 1873 — In the wee small hours of a misty San Francisco night (they didn’t call the month “Fogust” back then, but it was), a new type of transit was about to be inaugurated. An endless wire rope clattered beneath Clay Street. An odd open vehicle sat on the rails at the top of the hill. Standing by was Andrew Smith Hallidie, a Scot who had experience using wire rope in the mining business, and was part of the team promoting this new technology, aimed at making horsecars obsolete.

The operator of the little car peered out over the edge of the steep hill and decided, “No.” As the story goes, Hallidie himself stepped up, gripped the wire rope, went down the hill safely, and the cable car was born.

Some historians argue over the details of that opening run, but we’re not going to get into that here. We’ll just say that the first line, on Clay Street, became part of a longer line in the late 1880s that ran one way on Clay and the other on Sacramento Street. At that point, it began being served by new single-end cable cars without the trailers you see in this engraving from Wikimedia Commons.

On April 18, 1906, earthquake and fire wiped out identical cable cars that served Powell Street, so the cars from the Sacramento-Clay line were moved to Powell, where many still run to this day. Larger double-end cable cars took over on the Sacramento-Clay line and lasted until 1942 when the line was shut. One of the last group of Sacramento-Clay cable cars (Car 19, built in 1907) has been restored, thanks in part to advocacy from Market Street Railway, and is stored upstairs in the cable car barn at Washington and Mason Streets. Downstairs, in the Cable Car Museum, the last surviving original car from the Clay Street Hill Railroad, Grip Car 8, is on display.

 

While you haven’t been able to ride a cable car on Clay Street for 76 years, you can still ride cable cars that ran on Clay Street back in the 1890s. Current Powell cable car 11 (above), built in 1893 by Carter Brothers and recently refurbished by Muni’s shops, ran on the Sacramento-Clay line until 1906, and was recently repainted into its original Sacramento-Clay livery from the 1890s at Market Street Railway’s suggestion.

The other surviving Powell cable cars that once ran on Clay Street include numbers 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 16, 17, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27. (Thanks to Joe Thompson’s Cable-Car-Guy website for the authoritative roster.) If you climb aboard any of these cars on the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines today, you’re experiencing a connection back to the first street on which cable cars ever ran.

Happy 145th Anniversary of the first successful cable car system!

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Meet Cable Car Historian Val Lupiz July 18

San Francisco has a tradition of unique personalities who share a deep love of this special place. Nothing is more special in our special cities than the cable cars, and no one has a deeper love for our rolling National Historic Landmark than Val Lupiz.

Val just celebrated his 19th anniversary as a cable car gripman, so he knows today’s system inside out. He also knows cable car history better than almost anyone else. That photo, above, is Val’s creation: inserting himself into the grip window of a Castro Street cable car, which disappeared from the streets in 1941.

Come hear Val share stories and thoughts at the next installment of our speaker series called Inside Track – Live! 

It’s Wednesday, July 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the San Francisco Railway Museum, 77 Steuart Street across from the Ferry Building. (F-line Steuart Street stop; BART/Muni Metro Embarcadero Station; two blocks from the California Street cable car terminal.)

This event is FREE to Market Street Railway members, as part of our effort to thank members for supporting our advocacy for cable cars and historic streetcars. We request a $10 donation from non-members, but you can sign up for a membership (as low as $45 annually) on the spot and waive that requirement. (Or do it here.)

This is going to be a special evening. Don’t miss it.

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Sacramento Street on Powell!

Few people realize that most of the cable cars that run on the two Powell Street lines originally ran on Sacramento and Clay Streets. Before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the Sacramento-Clay line ran all the way from the Ferry Building to Golden Gate Park (at Sixth Avenue and Fulton). It shared ownership with the Powell lines. A number of new cable cars were locally built in 1893-94 by Carter Brothers to serve the Midwinter Fair in the Park. One… — Read More

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Kids Priced Out of Cable Car Experience?

The very good Chronicle columnist, Heather Knight, raises a provocative question today, one that we have raised before. In her column (which is behind a paywall, so we’re excerpting it below), she notes that many kids today are denied the unique experience of a cable car ride due to cost. Cable cars have fares separate from all other Muni services — and much higher. For example, to get from Downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf on an F-line historic streetcar would cost a… — Read More

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Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

One of the joys of the San Francisco holiday season 50 or 60 years ago was the arrival of Santa Claus. Not down the chimney on Christmas Eve, but weeks earlier, down Powell Street on a cable car. Along with thousands of San Franciscans of a certain age, I (Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway president) remember it well. For many years after World War II, the Emporium chartered a cable car each year, decorated it, and carried Santa Claus downtown… — Read More

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Welcome Back, Cable Car 22!

The double-deuce hits the street Wednesday, November 29 after being out of service eight years! UPDATE 11/29: Turns out the November 29 runs were for advanced testing…stand by for an announcement on passenger service. Its failing frame and rotting wood were certainly entitled to take a few years off, for Car 22 (once 522) is one of the relatively few surviving original Ferries & Cliff House Railways Cars from 1887. It started on the vanished Sacramento-Clay line, but moved over to… — Read More

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Clarifying the 1947 Threat to the Cable Cars

This week is the 70th anniversary of the failed effort by Mayor Roger Lapham (at left in the photo above) to “junk the cable cars.” It’s truly something to celebrate, and it has engendered several news articles, such as this badly flawed one, which confuses the cable cars with streetcars and doesn’t know how to spell “trolley” and this one recounting the fight. Most of these accounts get a fundamental point wrong, and it’s an important one.  Lapham’s misguided effort was… — Read More

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Hyde at 125

In 1891, the California Street Cable Car Rail Road Co. opened San Francisco’s last all-new cable car line, on O’Farrell, Jones, Pine, and Hyde Streets, linking the Tenderloin with Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and the waterfront at what’s now called Aquatic Park (then a warehouse and industrial area). Market Street Railway will be suggesting specific celebration ideas to Muni, which has operated cable cars on Hyde Street since 1952. (Photo above is from 1954, just before Muni shut down the line and… — Read More

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Red Lanes on Powell Seem to Work

Powell Street cable cars have some breathing room now, with the implementation of an 18-month test to ban private automobiles from Powell between Geary and Ellis Streets.  The SFMTA Board of Directors recently approved the plan, which Market Street Railway has been advocating for more than a year, and signage went up along with the signature red lanes San Francisco uses to denote “transit only.” While compliance with the new rules seems pretty good so far, part of that may… — Read More

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Cable Cars Get Green Light on Lower Powell

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board has voted to implement an 18-month trial that bans almost all private automobiles on lower Powell Street, from Ellis to Geary.  That two block stretch has been extra-jammed with cars in the past few years, a consequence of increased population and tourism and the closure of parallel Stockton Street for the construction of the Central Subway. We wrote about the problem recently, focusing on the wear and damage to the cable, and the… — Read More

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Better Cable Car Safety

With the strong support of Market Street Railway, Muni’s parent SFMTA is proposing an 18-month test that would remove everything but cable cars (and pedestrians) from lower Powell Street, specifically the two blocks between Ellis and Geary. Here’s a good Hoodline story with details. SFMTA recommends starting the test in November, but the Union Square Business Improvement District, led by Karin Flood, is concerned that the busiest shopping season is a bad time to implement changes, especially when seasonal shoppers will… — Read More

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Roof Job

Readers of our quarterly member newsletter, Inside Track, just got the inside scoop on the restoration of Powell Street cable car No. 1. The photo above, posted by Zach Ho to our Facebook group, shows Powell 1, in its 1888 livery, at the Bay and Taylor terminal of the Powell-Mason line. That photo inspired noted San Francisco historian Emiliano Echeverria to post the photo below, from the Louis L, Stein, Jr. collection. It’s the same cable car — er, at least a part… — Read More

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Flagship Powell Cable Car Slips Into Service

Without fanfare, the latest product of Muni’s able cable car shops has rejoined the fleet after a full restoration and makeover. And it’s a honey. Powell Street Cable Car No. 1 (not to be confused with its “cousin,” Muni streetcar No. 1), quietly slipped out of the cable car barn and went into service on the Powell-Mason line November 15, following a two-year rebuilding process. Despite its number, Powell No. 1 (full history here) is not the oldest car in… — Read More

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