The news coverage sounds confusing. Muni is planning to spend $660,000 to buy cable car artifacts from the museum at its own cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets. What’s up with that?
The Examiner and Chronicle each ran stories which generated head-scratching comments from readers. You need to know the backstory to get it clear.
In 1967, Muni added a mezzanine area to the cable car barn and powerhouse, allowing the public to get a clear and safe (but very noisy) view of the cable winding machinery. In 1974, this space officially became the Cable Car Museum, with gift shop, operated by the local chapter of the long-established Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, which had already installed a dummy (grip car) from the world’s first cable car line (on Clay Street) and an early dummy and trailer (pictured) from the Sutter Street line. These and other artifacts displayed by the R&LHS at the museum were carefully removed when the carbarn was rebuilt in 1982-84, then reinstalled.
But Muni and the R&LHS later found themselves at odds and the non-profit group exited the museum. The cost of moving the artifacts was prohibitive, so R&LHS sold them to the new operator, Friends of the Cable Car Museum, an organization put together by Jose Godoy and his father for the specific purpose of operating the gift store and museum under contract to Muni. “Friends” took over in 1993, but when its first lease expired, Muni realized that the Friends’ ownership of the artifacts discouraged other potential bidders for the concession.
In the interests of full disclosure, Market Street Railway has been informally approached by Muni a couple of times over the years to consider bidding on the Cable Car Museum operation. We have declined to do so for several reasons. We have been fully engaged in making a success of our own San Francisco Railway Museum, which focuses primarily on streetcars. We also prefer to remain free of formal contracts with Muni or the City, so that we can serve as a truly independent advocate for historic transit. (Our lease for the San Francisco Railway Museum is with the developer of the building, which houses Hotel Vitale, rather than with Muni, which owns the ground underneath. Muni neither exercises control over nor provides financial support to our museum, whose artifacts either belong to us or are loaned from private parties.)
We want to see the Cable Car Museum get more visitors and grow in success. That’s why we were troubled when Muni actually discouraged visitors to the museum by raising cable car fares and eliminating transfers. As it is now, the “free admission” Cable Car Museum effectively costs a family of four $20 to enter if they arrive and depart by cable car, given that they have to pay another fare
to finish their cable car trip. We’ve made suggestions to both Muni and the current operator for ways to make the museum more visible to cable car riders and more tempting to visit, but nothing has come of them.
Most of the $660,000 Muni is paying for the cable car artifacts will come from forgiving the Museum’s rent payments over the next ten years. After that, owning the artifacts will give Muni more flexibility in choosing future operators for the Cable Car Museum. Meantime, Market Street Railway will continue its advocacy for more efficient cable car service and for enhancing the historic appeal of the cable car lines through completion of our Powell Street vintage liveries project.