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.
Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to enjoy the sound of bell-ringing from some of the champs, take a selfie, and stick around for shopping and dining. Lots of nearby restaurants, including historic John’s Grill around the corner on Ellis, are serving on newly constructed outdoor patios. And more and more shops are reopening.
Take a listen to a serenade from bell-ringing champ Leonard Oats.
Music to our ears! Speaking of which, friends are looking at adding a string quartet to the action. And when the time comes, holiday decorations. Stay tuned!
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!
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 of them was Car 511.
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the 511 was one of a couple of dozen Sacramento-Clay cable cars resting in a car barn on outer Sacramento Street. These cable cars were spared the flames that engulfed the original Powell Street fleet of identical cars at Washington and Mason Streets. Rebuilding the system in the aftermath, the Sacramento-Clay cable cars became Powell Street cable cars, replaced on a portion of that line by double-end cable cars rebuilt from cable cars salvaged from Market Street service. (Electric streetcars took over Market Street and the flatter, outer portions of the Sacramento-Clay line.)
Car 511 (renumbered to 11 in the 1970s) soldiered on for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st in different liveries (paint schemes), but when it came time last year to freshen up the 11, Cable Car Superintendent Ed Cobean asked Market Street Railway what would be an appropriate livery for this car in its 125th year of service. We suggested its original Sacramento-Clay livery of Tuscan Red with tan and white trim, with the rocker panel on the side emblazoned with the name of its original owner (which happens to be an early company that bears our non-profit’s name). Ed graciously agreed, and the cable car body shop and painters did a beautiful job on the car, which went back into service today, with Val Lupiz gripping.
Jeremy Whiteman captured this fabulous photo at the Hyde and Beach turntable. He has contributed many great photos to our organization, especially its annual calendar (we expect the 2019 calendar in our museum and online in June).
The 1890s Sacramento-Clay livery on Car 11 brings to ten the number of Powell cable cars that now wear heritage liveries seen on these cable cars over the past 130 years, since the Powell lines first went into service in 1888. Our nonprofit is proud to have taken a leading role in bringing these liveries back to life, adding authentic color to the iconic cable cars. In coming months, we’ll be talking more about advocating for further improvements to the irreplaceable cable car system.
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 on its roof. At the turntable, he climbed down, crossed the street, and took up residence up on the toy floor (the fourth, if I remember right), just below the stairs to the roof rides. My mom brought me downtown (on a streetcar, of course) to see this spectacle a few times, and I firmly came to believe that the Emporium Santa had to be the real Santa (as opposed to Macy’s Santa) because he arrived on a cable car.
The photo above is before my time. Based on the license plate of the car at right, it is somewhere between 1948 and 1950. You can see that the procession contained more than just Santa. There’s a clown peering out from the rear platform and a horseback rider with the world’s biggest sombrero (Feliz Navidad!).
The shot below comes from the late 1950s. Looks somewhat scaled down from earlier years. The roof just looks like a cable car roof instead of the Beach Blanket Babylon hat we see above. No visible clown, no sombrero guy. But hey, it’s all about Santa anyway, right?
By the way, this shot would be impossible to replicate today. This first block of Powell Street, between Market and Ellis, had its historic street lamps removed and replaced by ugly square modern lights as part of the Market Street rebuilding in the 1970s. Trees were planted on both sides of the tracks that are now nearing the end of their useful life and thrust the whole block into shadow. One goal Market Street Railway has in 2018: include this block of Powell Street into the project currently being planned to revitalize Powell from Ellis to Geary. We would like to see all of lower Powell Street return to its historic look from 1910 to 1970, incorporating wider sidewalks for pedestrians and placing the cable cars and historic street lamps at center stage.
Oh, a trivia point: Santa always used the same cable car: Car 504, with a specially-strengthened roof to support Santa and the loudspeakers and decorations. That car was retired in the mid-1990s, but in true San Francisco fashion, it has taken on a new and useful life. Muni leased it to the San Francisco Giants, where it can now be seen from everywhere in the ballpark, sitting proudly on the centerfield concourse, renumbered 44 to honor Willie McCovey. (Powell car 24, still in operation, was dedicated to Willie Mays last year).
The Emporium, of course, is long gone, though its 1896 Market Street facade and its iconic dome, slightly relocated, are features of the modern Westfield San Francisco Center that now occupies the south side of Market across from the Powell Street cable car turntable. But decorated cable cars are still a feature of the season in San Francisco, thanks to efforts led by cable car gripman and Market Street Railway member Val Lupiz. Here’s a wonderful montage of 2017’s decorated cable cars that Val shared. (Click to enlarge.)
May we add one more thing? Our mission is preserving historic transit in San Francisco. We’d very much appreciate it if you could take a moment and make a year-end tax-deductible donation of as little as five dollars by clicking here, or by joining Market Street Railway as a member by clicking here.
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
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
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
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
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