Chronicle, 1947: cable cars ‘surely dead’

Photo from the Chronicle in 1947 showing one of Muni’s ten new “hill-climbing Twin Coaches”, bought to replace the Powell cable cars, inexplicably posed next to a California Street cable car, which Muni didn’t own at that time and wasn’t threatened. (Muni later bought 90 trolley coaches from Twin in this body style, which were familiar sights around town for a quarter-century.)

Controversy is swirling again around the future of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, after a Chronicle column by Heather Knight last weekend that seemed to imply the three cable lines could be junked in 2023 unless San Francisco voters pony up lots more bucks for SFMTA/Muni to keep running them. (For the record, SFMTA denies the cable cars would be junked. We have the full behind-the-scenes story on this in the next Inside Track, our exclusive member magazine, due out within two weeks.)

The brewing brouhaha led the Chronicle’s cool culture critic, Peter Hartlaub, to dip into the Chron’s “vault” and emerge with some great photos and info. The actual story is behind a paywall online, but we’re sharing a few photos here and summarizing a rather remarkable revealing of the paper’s anti-cable attitude back then.

San Francisco history buffs know the basics of the story: In January 1947, Roger Lapham, a businessman elected mayor on a platform to modernize the postwar city, announced he planed to “junk the cable cars”. (Lapham’s target was the two city-owned Powell lines; the other cable lines were owned by the private California Street Cable Railway Co., which was struggling financially, and if the Powell lines were ripped out, it’s doubtful the city would have rescued them four years later as it did.)

January 29, 1947 front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, with its premature obituary for the cable cars. Click image to enlarge.

Hartlaub points a big finger at his own paper for swallowing Lapham’s line, and declaring the Powell lines dead before any actual decision had been taken. The Chron wasn’t alone: the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations were quick to bury the little cars while they were still kicking. Yet in the article, headlined “A Shame Revealed”, Hartlaub makes a strong (and entertainingly written) case that his paper cheered on cable car haters.” He called the January 29, 1947 story pictured above “a piece of editorial sensationalism disguised as a news story”, and then noted, “In the days that followed, there were more fantastic tales of the super-bus, the decrepit state of the track and fantasies of runaway cars killing unsuspecting citizens. The Chronicle seemingly stacked the opinion pages with anti-cable-car letters.”

Of course, we know what happened next: at a time when women’s voices weren’t welcomed in San Francisco (or most anywhere else), Telegraph Hill resident Friedel Klussmann assembled a brigade of women and handed the mayor his metaphorical head by placing and passing a ballot measure in November 1947 to save the Powell cables.

Hartlaub’s Chronicle article includes this wonderful photo taken at Jackson and Octavia Streets, indicating it appeared in the newspaper November 10, 1947. But that doesn’t jibe with the headlight style and lettering on the cable car, which suggest some time between 1953 and 1956. In any case, it’s ironic for this photo in Pacific Heights to illustrate the Chronicle story, since the wonderful Washington-Jackson line was ripped out after Cable Car War II in 1954 cut the system in half. Just for fun, here’s the same intersection today. This block of Octavia is still brick. The apartment building is little changed. The white mansion, built in 1913 for “Big Alma” Spreckels, is now owned by novelist Danielle Steele and sports a giant privacy hedge all the way round. But no more Washington-Jackson cable car.

Here’s the coda to this cable car concerto: before his public “junk ’em” announcement, Lapham had ordered Muni to buy buses to replace the Powell cars. Motor coaches then had limited power, but Muni purchased ten “Twin coaches” that featured two engines each, to provide extra hill-climbing power. But Muni couldn’t keep the two engines in sync, defeating the hill-climbing capabilities, and once the Powell cables were saved, yanked one of the engines out of each bus and sent them out on lightly-used routes until retiring them way early after just six years of use.

Just one of these historic buses survives. Our nonprofit acquired it from a museum that wasn’t using it a couple of decades ago, and gave it to Muni for their historic bus collection. Gradually, Muni is restoring the bus to operating condition. We plan a big unveiling when it’s ready.

But it won’t be running on Powell Street, thank God (and Friedel).

Share