It’s Big Game week in the Bay Area. (To those reading this from elsewhere, it’s our biggest college football rivalry: University of California, Berkeley, known to all its fans as simply Cal, vs. Stanford University. ) The first Big Game was in 1892, four years after cable car service started on Powell Street, one year after cable cars started running on Hyde.
In 1947, San Francisco almost lost its Powell cable cars forever. A women-led campaign overcame male-dominated government and business interests to save them. That is a great story in itself. But there’s more to it, including lessons for today and tomorrow.
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.
For 149 years, San Francisco’s cable cars have been exemplars of craft, sculptures in wood and metal reflecting the talents of carpenters, metal workers, painters, electricians, and others. They absorb the jolts and lurches inherent in their daily operation, carrying millions of passengers over decades of daily service before their joints finally loosen and rot and rust take a big enough toll to require rebuilding.
There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season.
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.”
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.
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