Decorated Cable Cars, Now and Then

‘Tis the season to show off holiday spirit in all kinds of ways. The San Francisco Chronicle is both reporting and demonstrating that spirit with our most iconic transit vehicles, the cable cars. You can see the publication’s handiwork on Powell Cable Car 1 (pictured in the photo by Val Lupiz above, complete with Victorian-costumed guests), one of eight cable cars decorated this year in a growing campaign led by Val, Jeremy Whiteman, and Frank Zepeda (MSR members all), and supported by Market Street Railway.

Leading the Powell Car 1 decorating for the Chronicle: columnists Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub, who teamed up earlier this year for the transit marathon they called “total Muni 2018”, meeting Val, Jeremy, and Frank in the process and getting drawn in to the web of cable car love!  As a result, Powell Car 1 features inventive decorations inside and out, including replicas of historic Chronicle front pages dating all the way back to 1865, 23 years before the Powell cable even existed! Heather wrote a great article about the decorating experience.

Not to be outdone, Peter Hartlaub, who regularly mines the Chronicle’s photo and story archives for gems of San Francisco history, came up with a “WHOA!” story, recounting a little-known Grinch moment in cable car history. Christmas season, 1951, Muni had just assumed control of the bankrupt California Street Cable Railroad Company and its California and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines. Muni celebrated by inviting including Macy’s, to decorate cars on those lines. The Grinch glitch? The city’s ownership was challenged in court, keeping the decorated cars in the barn, never to be seen by the public, and delaying their city-run operation into 1952. Well worth a read!)

We can tell from the photo above, by the Chronicle’s Art Frisch, that the decorated cable car is from the O’Farrell, Jones, & Hyde lines, though the car number is covered up. Could it be Car 42? That’s the only surviving O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line car in its original 1906 configuration and livery, the one our nonprofit rescued from a cattle ranch near Santa Maria 15 years ago and restored with Muni’s expert help. It now runs in special service on California Street and sometimes Hyde, on part of its original route).

Macy’s sponsoring an O’Farrell car makes sense, since the O’Farrell line passed right in front of Macy’s…but it’s also ironic, since Macy’s was one of the downtown merchants that successfully lobbied to make O’Farrell one way a few years later, dooming the cable car line to make more room for automobiles.  (Here’s the story about the dark end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line in 1954.)

We at Market Street Railway are very proud to support the cable car celebrations. Beyond the decorating (which includes Powell Car 12 above, wearing the famed “White Front” 1930s livery of our namesake), we collected contributions to support this year’s holiday luncheon for seniors, co-sponsored by cable car operators and Transport Workers Local 250A (photo below).  

Come on downtown to see and ride the decorated cable cars this year, and don’t forget Car 56 on the California line, shown below in this magical nighttime photo by Traci Cox.  

Finally, along the F-line, look for Milan tram 1818, decorated in festive style by our volunteers, who also put wreaths on all the E- and F-line streetcars. (Yep, another great Traci Cox photo.)

If the holiday spirit moves you, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation in any amount to our nonprofit. We get no government money; it’s your donations and memberships that make it all possible, along with everything else we do to support San Francisco’s cable cars and historic streetcars. Thanks and Happy Holidays, in the spirit of our namesake, Muni’s lively competitor before 1944!.

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Smoke Stops Cable Cars

UPDATE: The cable cars will remain out of service at least through Sunday, November 18.

The deteriorating air quality around San Francisco Bay due to the smoke from the Camp Fire to the north has claimed another victim: the city’s cable cars.

Muni pulled all the cable cars into the barn this afternoon (November 15) and replaced them with buses until air quality improves. Forecasters say that could be another week. In a sign of how serious Bay Area residents have been affected, store after store has sold out of air purifiers and N95 face masks, recommended for those who must venture outdoors. The Cable Car Museum at Washington and Mason Street closed on Thursday for the same reason.

On one level, it may seem counter-intuitive to some to replace zero emission vehicles (the cable cars are powered by central electric motors using the city’s own hydroelectricity) with diesel buses, especially when an air inversion is trapping the smoke and locally generated emissions close to the ground. But cable car crews and passengers alike are essentially outdoors, where at least the buses can turn on their air conditioning and get some air filtration that way.

We join everyone in the Bay Area in our condolences to all those who have lost their homes — and lives — in this worst wildfire in California history, and in our concerns for all those in other parts of the state, such as Sacramento, where the air quality right now is even worse than it is here.

(The photo above comes from MSR Member Traci Cox, capturing the smoky background behind California Cable Car 56 looking west up Nob Hill from Drumm Street yesterday. It’s worse today.

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Kids Priced Out of Cable Car Experience?

The very good Chronicle columnist, Heather Knight, raises a provocative question today, one that we have raised before.

In her column (which is behind a paywall, so we’re excerpting it below), she notes that many kids today are denied the unique experience of a cable car ride due to cost. Cable cars have fares separate from all other Muni services — and much higher. For example, to get from Downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf on an F-line historic streetcar would cost a family of four (two adults and two children five or older) $8.20 if they paid in cash on the streetcar or $7.50 using Muni Mobile. Riding a cable car between the same two points would cost that family $28.00 — more than three times as much. That’s because cable car fares are a flat $7.00 one way for anyone over 4 years old. And no transfers, either.

Here are some excerpts from Knight’s column:

Pretty much everything related to raising kids in San Francisco is too expensive. From buying a house to renting an apartment to affording groceries and child care, it all adds up. And up and up.

The fares for those charming symbols of San Francisco that climb halfway to the stars, as Tony Bennett so famously crooned, have blasted through the stratosphere. And unlike the rest of Muni’s public transportation system, there aren’t discounts for kids ages 5 to 18. Or transfers to get you back for free within 90 minutes…

Yes, to ride the cable cars from Powell and Market Streets to Fisherman’s Wharf and back just because it’s fun for kids and a quaint part of our city’s history will set that family back $56…

San Francisco isn’t even nickel-and-diming us anymore. Is “dollaring” a word? When it comes to City Hall and its fees, it should be.

“It’s extremely expensive,” acknowledged John Haley, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “You can either eat for a day, feed your kids or ride the cable cars.”

Me? I’ll feed my kids.

Haley didn’t try to justify the fares, though he said the agency’s board is looking at a variety of fare adjustments. Revenue on the cable cars has actually dropped since the fare went up. I’m no economist, but gee, maybe the price should be lowered?…

Haley noted that operating the historic cable cars is very expensive and that while city residents with Clipper cards do ride the California line in big numbers, the Powell lines are used almost entirely by tourists ‘with fistfuls of money waiting to get on.’

Hmmm. Not the most visitor friendly comment we’ve heard lately, and sadly, it seems to show a management attitude that sees the cable cars as something other than an integral part of the Muni network. Haley also seemed to shrug off the long lines at the cable car turntables caused by layovers well in excess of what Muni’s labor contract stipulates.  “Schedule adherence is an issue for us,” Haley told Knight.

Back to Knight’s column:

As loyal readers of this column know, my 4-year-old is obsessed with all things Muni. Well, nearly all things Muni. The buses, the subway trains, the F-car? You bet. The cable cars? He’s ridden those maybe once or twice ever. While he’s free until his next birthday, it would still cost $42 for his older brother, my husband and me to ride with him round-trip…Muni should start giving free cable car rides to kids under 12 so long as they’re with a paying adult with proof of city residency.

The idea came from an email I received in response to the column on riding every Muni bus line in one day. David Kiely is a father of three boys and a South of Market resident.

‘It’s come up, more than once, that our kids have never ridden a cable car,’ Kiely wrote, noting his family is priced out and that kids shouldn’t be charged the full rate. ‘It’s a little thing that would mean a lot.’

Stacey Randecker Bartlett, a Potrero Hill mom of two kids, thinks all public transit in the city should be free for all kids. But a $14 round-trip ride on a cable car even for kids as young as 5?

“That’s insane,” she said.

She said San Francisco needs to decide whether the cable cars are purely a tourist attraction, in which case they should be removed from control of Muni and marketed as an amusement ride. Or if they’re actually public transportation, in which local families shouldn’t be charged the equivalent of a nice meal for riding.

“You just told that family, ‘Get in a car, get in an Uber, get in a Lyft, get in a taxi,’” she said. “For that rate, you could drive a family and park in the most pricey Union Square garage.”

To be fair, the free Muni program for low-income youth does allow them to ride cable cars for free, too. But it seems ridiculous that all other city kids have to pay $14 for a round-trip.

If Muni deems free cable car rides for all city kids unworkable, why not give discounts to San Francisco residents, like so many other tourist attractions do? Coit Tower’s elevator ride to the top costs $8 for non-resident adults and $6 for city residents. Kids ages 5 to 11 are charged just $2.

I finally took the boys there for the first time on Sunday (on the 39-Coit, of course), and the views were gorgeous. You can’t see dirty needles or smell urine from that high up. My 4-year-old peered out the windows on his tiptoes and said, “Let’s look for Muni buses!” The Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Botanical Gardens all offer reduced or free admission for residents, too.

Justin Bass would support the change. The Lower Pacific Heights resident also has a 4-year-old Muni-obsessed son. His boy, Quincy, had a Muni-themed birthday party, spends his free time either riding buses or tracking them on the Next Bus app, and knows the names of his favorite drivers. There’s Keith from the 24-Divisadero, Ramsey from the 44-O’Shaughnessy and Shalisha from the 1-California.

But he doesn’t know the names of any cable car gripmen because he hardly ever rides cable cars. Let’s change that, shall we?

Yes. Let’s change that. Market Street Railway is letting Ms. Knight know we support her idea. Muni uncoupled cable car fares from bus and streetcar fares 35 years ago now, and has seemingly not missed an opportunity to squeeze more revenue from the cables. We’ve advocated for many years for lower cable car fares, especially for kids, because it has seemed to us that high fares discourage many families from getting that unique experience. But also, from the local angle, it’s critical that kids growing up in the Bay Area today be acquainted with all modes of public transit, the better to become regular users and advocates when they grow up. And currently, cable car fares that are more than five times higher than the kids’ fare on any other Muni vehicle discourages those kids from embracing this central part of our city’s transit heritage.

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Stunning Composite Photographs

 

This isn’t new, but if you haven’t seen these wonderful composite photographs by San Francisco photographer Sean Clover, you’re in for a treat.

These are just a couple of them, comparing the damage caused by the 1906 earthquake and fire with the exact same location today.

Above, the gate of the cable car barn on Washington Street just east of Mason, showing how Car 155 was crushed by falling bricks. Within a few hours of the original photograph, it and all its mates from the Powell Street cable lines would be incinerated. (They were replaced by cable cars used on the Sacramento-Clay lines, stored out of the fire zone. Some of these cars, much rebuilt, are still on the Powell lines today.)

Below, two of the California Street cable cars of the type built in 1907 to replace the ones destroyed in the earthquake pass between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, with 1906 rubble from Nob Hill to the right.

 

We’re lucky to live in a city with artists as talented as Sean Clover.

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Clarifying the 1947 Threat to the Cable Cars

This week is the 70th anniversary of the failed effort by Mayor Roger Lapham (at left in the photo above) to “junk the cable cars.” It’s truly something to celebrate, and it has engendered several news articles, such as this badly flawed one, which confuses the cable cars with streetcars and doesn’t know how to spell “trolley” and this one recounting the fight. Most of these accounts get a fundamental point wrong, and it’s an important one.  Lapham’s misguided effort was… — Read More

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Cable Cars 1954: A Huge Loss

Editor’s Note: This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member newsletter, Inside Track, in 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of the cable car massacre of 1954. Inside Track always contains exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else (at least until much later). We depend on memberships to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate.  Thank you. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred… — Read More

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Hyde at 125

In 1891, the California Street Cable Car Rail Road Co. opened San Francisco’s last all-new cable car line, on O’Farrell, Jones, Pine, and Hyde Streets, linking the Tenderloin with Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and the waterfront at what’s now called Aquatic Park (then a warehouse and industrial area). Market Street Railway will be suggesting specific celebration ideas to Muni, which has operated cable cars on Hyde Street since 1952. (Photo above is from 1954, just before Muni shut down the line and… — Read More

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Red Lanes on Powell Seem to Work

Powell Street cable cars have some breathing room now, with the implementation of an 18-month test to ban private automobiles from Powell between Geary and Ellis Streets.  The SFMTA Board of Directors recently approved the plan, which Market Street Railway has been advocating for more than a year, and signage went up along with the signature red lanes San Francisco uses to denote “transit only.” While compliance with the new rules seems pretty good so far, part of that may… — Read More

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