Cable cars celebrated their 150th birthday on August 2 with a lively celebration at Market and Powell Streets. The event commemorated inventor Andrew Hallidie’s first cable car trip, down Nob Hill on Clay Street, on August 2, 1873.
You can watch the entire celebration here! Great speeches and presentations.
History re-enactor Steve Johnson, embodying Andrew Hallidie, told the crowd of several hundred how the gripman he chose for that first trip took one look down the hill, thought of his family, and ran away. Hallidie himself then took the screw-type grip and successfully descended the hill. Other history re-enactors portrayed famous people of Hallidie’s era, including Emperor Norton, Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree, and many more. Members of the Art Deco Club came in ’30s and ’40s attire; others dressed as 1960s hippies and other San Franciscans of the past.
Mayor London Breed and House of Representatives Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi highlighted the program, both lauding the importance of the cable cars to San Francisco’s economy as well as to its global reputation. Mayor Breed pointed out that the 150-year history of the cable cars has largely been shaped by women, including Friedel Klussmann, who saved the Powell Street cables in 1947, and then-Mayor (now US Sen.) Dianne Feinstein, who led the rescue and rebuilding of the system in the early 1980s. Sen. Feinstein had intended to appear at the event, but came down with a cold.
As if to punctuate Mayor Breed’s emphasis on women, she, the Speaker Emerita, and SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin presented a “Cable Car Hero” award to the first woman to ever grip a cable car, Fannie Barnes, who received repeated ovations from the crowd for her accomplishment.
She had worked her way from Muni bus driver to cable car conductor by the early 1990s, but then decided she wanted “to work up front, at the grip”, a much more physically-demanding job. More than 80% of applicants for grip person fail the training, which requires significant upper body strength as well as quick reflexes. She passed the training and took the grip in 1998. Now retired, she told the crowd, “I remembered what my mother told me: I can do anything, if I just put in the work. I did it, and I’m proud that I did it when I was 52 years old.” At that age, she may have been the oldest person to qualify for that demanding job.”
Fannie Barnes was feted again at a private fundraising luncheon that followed, in “Dashiell Hammett’s Den”, the third floor of the venerable John’s Grill, near the turntable on Ellis Street. Market Street Railway honored Hallidie, Klussmann, Sen. Feinstein, Fannie Barnes, and the late Tony Bennett as Cable Car Heroes to a full house of our members, donors, and long-time San Franciscans. The San Francisco Giants and the Flood Building were table sponsors. The Flood family also contributed wonderful flower arrangements at the luncheon and bouquets to the public outside their building. As more than one attendee said, it was a real flashback to traditional San Francisco, including the luncheon emcee, Mayor Willie Brown, who had the crowd in stitches with hilarious observations about the cable cars.
We’ll have more coverage in the next issue of our member magazine, Inside Track, out around Labor Day. You can also see extensive photo coverage by great photographers in our Facebook group, Market Street Railway.
The celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars continues through the rest of 2023 with a special $5 all-day pass to the California Street cable car line, where the biggest and oldest surviving operational cable car, Sacramento-Clay Car “Big 19” will be in regular service every Saturday through November 4, from 12 Noon – 6 pm. You can board anywhere along the California Street line, from Market Street to Van Ness Avenue, and just pay the conductor $5 for your California Street cable day pass. (Note: regular $8 one way fares still apply on the Powell cable lines.)
Also, the first Sunday of every month through November 5, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Streets Cable Car 42 will operate on its original Hyde Street tracks, then loop on Washington and Jackson to reach the Cable Car Museum and Chinatown, then returning immediately to the Hyde & Beach terminal at Aquatic Park. You can take a round trip up and down the Hyde Street Hill for just $8, if you stay on the car the whole way. It’ll only take 30 minutes, and you’ll be able to get past the line of people waiting for the cable cars that go all the way to Union Square and Market Street.
Come ride and enjoy the cable cars, and the historical neighborhoods they serve, in this 150th anniversary year.