One of the joys of the San Francisco holiday season 50 or 60 years ago 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 is before my time. Based on the license plate of the car at right, it is somewhere between 1948 and 1950. 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?
By the way, this shot would be impossible to replicate today. This first block of Powell Street, between Market and Ellis, had its historic street lamps removed and replaced by ugly square modern lights as part of the Market Street rebuilding in the 1970s. Trees were planted on both sides of the tracks that are now nearing the end of their useful life and thrust the whole block into shadow. One goal Market Street Railway has in 2018: include this block of Powell Street into the project currently being planned to revitalize Powell from Ellis to Geary. We would like to see all of lower Powell Street return to its historic look from 1910 to 1970, incorporating wider sidewalks for pedestrians and placing the cable cars and historic street lamps at center stage.
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, was dedicated to Willie Mays last year).
The Emporium, of course, is long gone, though its 1896 Market Street facade and its iconic dome, slightly relocated, are features of the modern Westfield San Francisco Center that now occupies the south side of Market across from the Powell Street cable car turntable. But 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. Here’s a wonderful montage of 2017’s decorated cable cars that Val shared. (Click to enlarge.)
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!