Great Kickoff to Heritage Weekend

Mayor London Breed (Center, in blue) leads the ribbon cutting that returned cable car “Big 19”, originally built in 1883, back to Muni’s active fleet after a hiatus of 77 years. She was joined by SFMTA Board Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden (second from right) and the team from Cable Car Division responsible for this miraculous resurrection.

Muni Heritage Weekend got off to a great start last night (Thursday), with a VIP reception at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Upwards of 70 invited business, neighborhood, and civic leaders heard Mayor London Breed extol San Francisco’s history and the role transit played in making the city what it is today. Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher paid tribute to transit pioneers through the decades, whom he described as “fighters for equality, for inclusion, for opportunity”, and lauded the team that brought Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 back to life. They include: Project Manager Arne Hansen, the shop superintendent; Electric Transit Mechanic Dave Kerrigan, who installed a complete braking system, Master Carpenter Antoni Cunha, who repaired and strengthened the running boards; Painters Danny Hicks and Henry Pegueros, who did a masterful job of painting, polishing the brass, and detailing the cable car.

Mayor Breed addressing the gathering at the museum. MSR Board Vice Chair Antone Sabella (just to her right) looks on.

That group, and the other guests, then processed from the museum two blocks to California and Market Streets, where “Big 19” was staged on the tail track of the California Street cable car line, ready to go. After a ribbon cutting, featuring Mayor Breed, SFMTA Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden, and the car’s restoration crew, Gripman Val Lupiz, whose personal enthusiasm for the project made a big difference in moving it forward, er, moved the car forward … up California Street, “halfway to the stars”, as the song lyric goes with the Mayor and a packed car of guests happily taking it in.

MSR Board Chair Carmen Clark stands in the grip man’s position aboard Big 19, with the restoration team in front of the car, along with MSR Board Member James Giraudo (far left), who contributed the accurate 46-star American flags for the car (commemorating the 1908 date it started working the Sacramento-Clay line), along with the two Cable Car Division superintendents who greenlighted the project: Brent Jones, now acting deputy director of transit for SFMTA, to the right of the shiny brass headlight, and Wes Valaris to the left of the headlight (in hat), current acting super at Cable Car.

Climbing Nob Hill with a crush load is just about the ultimate test for Big 19, and under Val’s expert hand, it went flawlessly. The Mayor had to disembark at Grace Cathedral for her next engagement…clearly reluctantly, asking to ride at least one more block…and the rest of the guests proceeded to Van Ness, where “Big 19” reversed smoothly.

Gripman Val Lupiz waits for a signal to change as Mayor Breed (over his shoulder) enjoys the ride. Former MSR Board Chair Bruce Agid looks toward the mayor from the far running board.

But then the Cable Car Gods said, “Not so fast”. One block into the return trip, another cable car hit a bumper bar on the California cable, causing the cable to automatically shut down. When this happens, the cable machinery crew carefully winds the entire cable all the way through its length, inspecting it as it goes through the winding machinery at the carbarn to ensure it wasn’t damaged. If it is, the line can be shut down for hours.

And so, guests on this memorable inaugural run of Big 19 got an unexpected experience: one of Muni’s brand new hybrid buses appeared to take them back to the museum, making them the first to make that round trip on transit vehicles built 136 apart.

One more shot of Val Lupiz, on his new favorite cable car. Those who are part of our Facebook group, (Market Street Railway) know Val as a devoted cable car historian whose dedication and enthusiasm has helped both Big 19 and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 spend time on the streets.

Later, the cable was found to be fine, and Big 19 returned to the Cable Car Barn without incident. It will be out and running on Heritage Weekend with a VERY special treat starting at 10 a.m. for those who show up at the Cable Car Barn at Washington and Mason Streets: on its pull-out trip, it will go down the Hyde Street Hill to Aquatic Park, then back up Hyde, around the Washington-Jackson loop, and then over to California Street to go into service. At Heritage Weekend Central Control (the plaza outside the museum), we’ll keep track of where Big 19 is, so visitors can catch one of its several trips from California and Market to Van Ness and back.

That’s just one aspect of what’s going to be a great Heritage Weekend. Don’t miss it.

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Back On Track — After 77 Years Off!

“Big 19” on California Street, about to clatter across the Powell Street cable car tracks. Traci Cox photo.

Early this morning, a cable car originally constructed in 1883 became Muni’s oldest operating transit vehicle. Early this morning, Sacramento & Clay Sts. cable car 19 made a full trip on the California Street line pulled by the cable. It was the first time this cable car was pulled by a cable on the street in 77 years, since its retirement in 1942. This news, and these wonderful photos, come from Market Street Railway member Traci Cox who documented the event. This was the final test in a 20-year process to return a tired, sagging cable car that forlornly sat at the back of the cable car barn into a fully operable vehicle.

“Big 19” crossing Kearny Street inbound, heading toward Market Street. Traci Cox photo.

This cable car was originally built as an open car, running on one of the five Market Street cable lines before the 1906 earthquake and fire. When that event destroyed the Market Street cable system, Car 19 was one 12 such cable cars rebuilt into the standard double-end cable car configuration for San Francisco — open end sections and an enclosed center section. It debuted on the Sacramento-Clay line in 1907 and ran continuously until 1942, when that line shut down. Among the longest cable cars ever built (34 feet), the Sacramento-Clay cars couldn’t fit on the turntables of the Powell Street lines, and so most of them were scrapped, with a few becoming static displays, including the most famous survivor, Car 16, which was lifted to the roof of The Emporium, there to be clambered upon by generations of kids during holiday roof ride season, until it finally rotted away.

The cable car on the left, shown climbing Haight Street near Laguna in 1886, is the type of Market Street Cable Car that was converted following the earthquake into a Sacramento-Clay car, like Big 19. Note the identical roof, then and now. (In the current restoration, the bells were moved onto the clerestory roof to operate the same as today’s cable cars. Photo from opensfhistory.org, wnp13.236

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 was bought by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 1948 (apparently for $50), and stored in San Francisco for possible future display. In 1967, as part of the effort to create a cable car museum at the Washington-Mason power- house, Car 19 returned “home” but because of its size and weight (14,000 lbs.) was not chosen for display at the museum. Instead, it was stuck in the rear of the cable car storage area and largely forgotten for 30 years, until the car’s body showed signs of weakness.

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 in storage at Pier 80 during the cable car rebuilding in 1983, before its restoration by the cable car carpentry shop in 1997-89. SFMTA Archive.

Market Street Railway advocated the car’s restoration, and in 1997-98, Muni’s wonderful cable car carpentry shop did so — to actual operational standards, instead of just a cosmetic upgrade. No plans emerged at that time to add it to the active fleet, but some years later, fitted with new California Street type trucks, a test was made to see if it would clear the curves. It didn’t make it out of the Cable Car Barn, as the trucks hit the running boards. So, it was returned to storage.

But the car intrigued Cable Car Maintenance Manager Arne Hansen, along with Division Superintendent Brent Jones. Arne’s crack crew adjusted the running boards and made a number of tests, incrementally preparing the car for a return to service.

Car 19’s twin, Car 21, climbs through Chinatown on Sacramento Street in 1941.

Last week, “Big 19” (so-called by the master gripman, Val Lupiz, who was at the levers last night, a nickname to differentiate it from little sibling Powell 19) was towed around the Cal line by a truck and cleared every curve and hill crown. This extra-long cable car had never run on California Street before, and the entire trackage of the line was rebuilt in 1982-84 anyway, leaving at least a little doubt as to whether it could clear some of the hill crowns and curves going to and from the Cable Car Barn.

This morning, with grips installed, Val Lupiz latched onto the cable and completed the circuit of the California Street line. Big 19 must now be certified by SFMTA’s System Safety Department, and once that’s done, this unique cable car can return to service — not to Sacramento & Clay Streets of course, but certainly on California Street, and then, who knows, perhaps even on the outer ends of the Powell lines, where switches installed in the 1980s rebuilding would allow it to bypass the turntables.

We have already requested that this wonderful and unique cable car carry passengers on California Street during Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8. We’ll keep you up to date. We would expect it would take its place next to Muni’s other cable car that represents a “fallen flag” (abandoned line), O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 (which Market Street Railway acquired for Muni and helped restore 20 years ago), operating on Muni Heritage Weekends every year and other occasional special events.

Welcome back, “Big 19”, and special thanks to Arne Hansen and his crew, to Brent Jones, and to Val Lupiz, whose personal advocacy contributed greatly to this success.

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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… — Read More

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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:… — Read More

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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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