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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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 the Powell lines in 1906, after the original Powell fleet was destroyed, along with the Washington-Mason car barn, in the earthquake and fire.

One by one, most of the original 1887 cars eventually wore out, even after being rebuilt once before (in 22’s case, in 1956). Some were replaced by essentially completely new cable cars built by the Woods Carpentry Shop, with virtually nothing remaining of the original.
However, 22, along with Powell Cable Cars 17, 24, and 27, still retain significant parts of their original 1887 construction, when they were built by Mahony Brothers of San Francisco.  So this car is one of the oldest in the fleet.  (Most of the other “original” Powell cars date to 1893, and most of the Cal cars oriignally date to 1906-07.)

According to recently retired Cable Car maintenance supervisor Norbert Feyling, “All credit belongs to carpenter Mark Sobichevsky, who took on a massive rebuild that other people ran away from.” Norbert continues, “Big credit also goes to Bryant Cao, Keith and the other new carpenter hires for which this was a training ground, painters Danny Hicks and Richard Lee, Harry Stewart, John Malia and their machinists, engineer John Becker, and all the shop mechanics who completely replaced the trucks and running gear so she’ll drive as sweet as she looks. All done in house, by Muni personnel.”

We celebrate the return of Powell Cable Car 22 to the active fleet. Thanks to Russell Stanton of the Cable Car Division for posting this photo of 22 to our Facebook group.

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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 only aimed at the two Powell Street lines. Even if he had succeeded, the three lines run by the private California Street Cable Railway Company (Cal Cable) would have remained, and they made up more trackage than the two Powell Street lines.

The Powell lines came under city ownership in 1944, when the private Market Street Railway Company (our namesake) was taken over. Lapham, a businessman with no government experience and no sentiment for history (sound familiar?) blindly ignored the affection San Franciscans felt for the cables and roused up powerful opposition led by Friedel Klussmann, who continued her stalwart defense of the cable cars for the rest of her life. Today, the failed cable car shutdown attempt is the only thing anyone remembers about Lapham’s time as mayor.

It should be pointed out, though, that IF he had succeeded in shutting down the Powell lines, the California lines might well have died out within a decade as well. If Muni had gone out of the cable car business in 1947, Friedel Klussmann and her allies might well have been unable to convince the city to take Cal Cable over and operate its lines when the private company went broke in 1951. The combined cable system ended up getting cut in half in 1954, leaving us with the arrangement we have now: two busy Powell lines branching out to Mason and Hyde to reach two parts of Fisherman’s Wharf, and a truncated California Street line that abruptly ends at Van Ness (it used to go past Fillmore all the way to Presidio Avenue) and attracts far fewer riders because of its route.

An important remaining tangible object of that failed 1947 shutdown is one of the ten Faegol Twin Coach motor buses Muni bought specifically to replace the Powell cable cars. Lapham used these buses, which looked very modern for the era (and featured the same bodies as a fleet of trolley buses Muni bought a few years later) as props to try to convince voters to scrap the cables. One of the buses was even posed misleadingly next to a Cal Cable car, which as we said was not threatened by Lapham’s proposal (photo below).

The buses were assigned to other lines and were ultimately retired. Muni reacquired No. 0163 from a museum many years ago. Market Street Railway volunteers helped refurbish it cosmetically after it arrived in town, and we’ve asked Muni to display it this fall for Muni Heritage Weekend, the annual celebration of San Francisco transit history we co-sponsor with Muni’s parent, SFMTA. The dates for this celebration have not yet been finalized, but it’s looking like September 9-10.

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Hyde at 125

DG0044, Muni O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line cable car 50, Hyde bet. Francisco & Chesnut Sts, May 11,1954(Phillip Scherer) 700px wide

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 connected it to the Powell tracks to create  the Powell-Hyde line in 1957).

Our next issue of our quarterly members-only newsletter, Inside Track, will feature an original article and rare photos chronicling the 125-year history of the cable car lines that run of the most scenic transit routes in the world along Hyde Street.

If you’re a lover of San Francisco transit history, and you haven’t yet joined Market Street Railway, this is a great time. We have loyal members who have been supporting us for 30 years, and they’ve made a huge difference in our ability to acquire and help restore more than a dozen historic streetcars, and even a cable car from that O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, which you’ll be able to ride September 24-25 on the next Muni Heritage Weekend. As the photo below shows, it’s a beauty, right down to the hand lettering just as it was in 1906.

42 Hyde California 110312 TM copy

We really need your support. Please click here to join us and get our exclusive newsletter. As a special bonus, we’ll send along the last four issues of Inside Track with our compliments!  Thanks.

 

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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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