Back On Track — After 77 Years Off!

“Big 19” on California Street, about to clatter across the Powell Street cable car tracks. Traci Cox photo.

Early this morning, a cable car originally constructed in 1883 became Muni’s oldest operating transit vehicle. Early this morning, Sacramento & Clay Sts. cable car 19 made a full trip on the California Street line pulled by the cable. It was the first time this cable car was pulled by a cable on the street in 77 years, since its retirement in 1942. This news, and these wonderful photos, come from Market Street Railway member Traci Cox who documented the event. This was the final test in a 20-year process to return a tired, sagging cable car that forlornly sat at the back of the cable car barn into a fully operable vehicle.

“Big 19” crossing Kearny Street inbound, heading toward Market Street. Traci Cox photo.

This cable car was originally built as an open car, running on one of the five Market Street cable lines before the 1906 earthquake and fire. When that event destroyed the Market Street cable system, Car 19 was one 12 such cable cars rebuilt into the standard double-end cable car configuration for San Francisco — open end sections and an enclosed center section. It debuted on the Sacramento-Clay line in 1907 and ran continuously until 1942, when that line shut down. Among the longest cable cars ever built (34 feet), the Sacramento-Clay cars couldn’t fit on the turntables of the Powell Street lines, and so most of them were scrapped, with a few becoming static displays, including the most famous survivor, Car 16, which was lifted to the roof of The Emporium, there to be clambered upon by generations of kids during holiday roof ride season, until it finally rotted away.

The cable car on the left, shown climbing Haight Street near Laguna in 1886, is the type of Market Street Cable Car that was converted following the earthquake into a Sacramento-Clay car, like Big 19. Note the identical roof, then and now. (In the current restoration, the bells were moved onto the clerestory roof to operate the same as today’s cable cars. Photo from opensfhistory.org, wnp13.236

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 was bought by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 1948 (apparently for $50), and stored in San Francisco for possible future display. In 1967, as part of the effort to create a cable car museum at the Washington-Mason power- house, Car 19 returned “home” but because of its size and weight (14,000 lbs.) was not chosen for display at the museum. Instead, it was stuck in the rear of the cable car storage area and largely forgotten for 30 years, until the car’s body showed signs of weakness.

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 in storage at Pier 80 during the cable car rebuilding in 1983, before its restoration by the cable car carpentry shop in 1997-89. SFMTA Archive.

Market Street Railway advocated the car’s restoration, and in 1997-98, Muni’s wonderful cable car carpentry shop did so — to actual operational standards, instead of just a cosmetic upgrade. No plans emerged at that time to add it to the active fleet, but some years later, fitted with new California Street type trucks, a test was made to see if it would clear the curves. It didn’t make it out of the Cable Car Barn, as the trucks hit the running boards. So, it was returned to storage.

But the car intrigued Cable Car Maintenance Manager Arne Hansen, along with Division Superintendent Brent Jones. Arne’s crack crew adjusted the running boards and made a number of tests, incrementally preparing the car for a return to service.

Car 19’s twin, Car 21, climbs through Chinatown on Sacramento Street in 1941.

Last week, “Big 19” (so-called by the master gripman, Val Lupiz, who was at the levers last night, a nickname to differentiate it from little sibling Powell 19) was towed around the Cal line by a truck and cleared every curve and hill crown. This extra-long cable car had never run on California Street before, and the entire trackage of the line was rebuilt in 1982-84 anyway, leaving at least a little doubt as to whether it could clear some of the hill crowns and curves going to and from the Cable Car Barn.

This morning, with grips installed, Val Lupiz latched onto the cable and completed the circuit of the California Street line. Big 19 must now be certified by SFMTA’s System Safety Department, and once that’s done, this unique cable car can return to service — not to Sacramento & Clay Streets of course, but certainly on California Street, and then, who knows, perhaps even on the outer ends of the Powell lines, where switches installed in the 1980s rebuilding would allow it to bypass the turntables.

We have already requested that this wonderful and unique cable car carry passengers on California Street during Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8. We’ll keep you up to date. We would expect it would take its place next to Muni’s other cable car that represents a “fallen flag” (abandoned line), O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 (which Market Street Railway acquired for Muni and helped restore 20 years ago), operating on Muni Heritage Weekends every year and other occasional special events.

Welcome back, “Big 19”, and special thanks to Arne Hansen and his crew, to Brent Jones, and to Val Lupiz, whose personal advocacy contributed greatly to this success.

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