Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

One of the joys of San Francisco’s mid-20th century holiday season 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 dates to around 1949. 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?

Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

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, has been dedicated to Willie Mays).

The Emporium, of course, is long gone. Its 1896 Market Street facade and its iconic dome, slightly relocated, are features of a vertical shopping mall that lost anchor tenant Nordstrom this year (but still has Bloomingdale’s occupying The Emporium’s old footprint…for now anyway).

The San Francisco Standard has a great article recounting these days of the City’s classic department stores and the changing world that has brought their deterioration and demise. It’s well worth the read.

Another tradition continues, however. 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 and his band of “cable car elves” including our board’s vice chair, James Giraudo, Jeremy Whiteman, Frank Zepeda, and others. Here’s a wonderful montage of 2017’s decorated cable cars that Val shared. (Click to enlarge.) There are even more this year; fitting for the 150th anniversary of the cable car’s invention, for which our nonprofit led a year-long civic celebration.Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

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.

Happy holidays from Market Street Railway!


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