Flagship Powell Cable Car Slips Into Service

Car 1 Roll Out 007Without 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 the Powell fleet, though parts of it are venerable. Muni wanted something special to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Andrew Hallidie’s first cable car line (on Clay Street) in 1873. With cable cars gone on Clay for 30 years by that time, Muni chose to mark the centennial of the invention of the cable car by creating  a Powell car that was as close to possible to their original 1888 appearance. Charlie Smallwood, rail historian and then-head of cable car maintenance, had a worn-out car in the fleet at the time, No. 506, that needed rebuilding. That car had been built in 1893 by Carter Brothers.  Smallwood hung the 506’s roof from the ceiling and built a new cable car under it, also salvaging the seats.Car 1 Roll Out 027Smallwood added long-vanished touches to his centennial creation, like roof signs on the ends of the car that showed where it was going. The rear end said “Powell Street.” The front originally said “Market Street & North Beach,” which is still true for the Mason line, but since the Powell-Hyde line, which the car will also serve, goes nowhere near North Beach, Smallwood changed the front sign to read “Market Street & Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Since the original livery chosen was used only on cars that ran the Powell-Mason line, and the restored car would serve both the Mason and Hyde lines, he couldn’t paint the destinations permanently beneath the front windows, so he created reversible metal signs with the Mason destinations on one side, Hyde on the other.  He also added conical caps on the roof, a detail that had long ago vanished from cable cars but had originally served as vents for interior kerosene lamps. Some aspects of the original Powell Street cable cars (like No. 9 above, shot when new in 1888), couldn’t be duplicated. For example the original open front end was barred by a 1904 requirement for windshields on transit vehicles.

Car 1 Roll Out 041Some of this 1973 restoration detail had vanished from No. 1 in subsequent decades. For example, the owner’s name, “Powell Street Railway Co.”, on the side rocker panels, was replaced by a standard San Francisco Municipal Railway decal.  The destination signs on the ends were replaced by ones with stick-on letters. And the roof signs disappeared.  With Market Street Railway’s help, Muni’s great crafts workers were able to put these original touches back on Powell No. 1 to get it as close as possible to its original appearance.

When No. 1 was created in 1973, all the Powell cable cars were painted in Muni’s then-standard green and cream, as now modeled on Powell cable car No. 3. But its handsome maroon livery with sky blue and white trim was so well liked, it was adopted, in simplified form, for all the Powell cars (except No. 3) when the cable system was rebuilt in 1982-84.

Since then, with Market Street Railway’s help, Muni has gradually reintroduced historic liveries to the Powell Street cable car line, such that there are now 9 of them. Scroll to the bottom of this page and click on the ones you want to see. Our museum and our online store offers a poster of all the historic cable car liveries. Proceeds help support our work to bring these historic cable car liveries back to the streets of San Francisco.

Thanks to the cable car maintenance team for sending along the launch photos and to Joe Thompson, the Cable Car Guy (great site by the way) for letting us use the 1888 shot.