There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season.
Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to enjoy the sound of bell-ringing from some of the champs, take a selfie, and stick around for shopping and dining. Lots of nearby restaurants, including historic John’s Grill around the corner on Ellis, are serving on newly constructed outdoor patios. And more and more shops are reopening.
Take a listen to a serenade from bell-ringing champ Leonard Oats.
Music to our ears! Speaking of which, friends are looking at adding a string quartet to the action. And when the time comes, holiday decorations. Stay tuned!
The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create, produce, and adequately distribute. The article quoted SFMTA head Jeff Tumlin as saying, “The cable cars require the operator to have the most direct interaction with passengers, and we have no way to protect our operators on cable cars.” In our own discussions with current and former cable car gripmen, they agree that any type of Plexiglas barrier to separate themselves from riders would be infeasible. Beyond that, any kind of social distancing among passengers would drive down capacity to single digits per car.
The Examiner followed with its own, longer article, offering more historic perspective on cable car operations through the eyes of MSR President Rick Laubscher. Beyond the cable cars, both articles noted that Muni has not set a timetable to return the historic streetcars to service on the F- and E-lines, either. A Muni spokeswoman, Erika Kato, noted that most streetcars lack the Plexiglass barriers that currently operational Muni buses have.
But that’s a fixable issue. The seven double-end PCC streetcars (Cars 1006-11 and 1015) already have these barriers. The two Melbourne trams, 496 and 916 have operator doors, as does “EuroPCC” (Brussels/Zurich) 737. On the operational Milan trams (about six currently), some hardware is still in place for the Plexiglas barriers that were on those cars when they arrived here from Italy 20 years ago. (Muni removed those barriers.) It would be straightforward to fit Plexiglas shields again.
The bulk of the F-line fleet is the single-ended streamliner “PCC” cars, which have stanchions already installed in the right location behind the operator, requiring only fitting of hardware and plexiglas. It’s our understanding that maintenance and engineering have done some preliminary design work already, and have asked top management whether they wish these shields fitted. But we are not aware of any actual installation work being authorized as of yet.
Muni has the maintenance staff to do this. They’re at work right now, and they have already caught up on the streetcar maintenance backlog during the shutdown (the cars look great; all seats like new, scratched glass replaced, paint touched up).
It’s clear that Covid-19 is going to be in our midst awhile, so it makes sense to have these changes implemented on the streetcars now. If we wait to do this until it’s safe to resume service, it would likely be an additional 3-6 months to get them back on the street. We are actively advocating for this protective word on the streetcars to be done now. When that’s completed, and with the same social distancing guidelines as other Muni vehicles imposed, it would seem there’s no mechanical or health reason the streetcars couldn’t return.
At that point, it would be up to where we as a society stand against the virus, how much ridership has returned, and how important SFMTA and the City consider the needs of the visitor industry in San Francisco among their many competing priorities. But with cable cars likely blocked from returning for a longer time, the F-line in particular will become the transit lifeline connecting Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, Union Square, Civic Center, and the Castro. Operating it with historic streetcars would clearly send a message that San Francisco is committed to retaining its uniqueness and attractiveness to the world.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars.
Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was swarming with riders, some carrying protest signs. Other like-minded people waited outside the carbarn. For a time, they blocked Muni efforts to pull No. 51 inside, until the police were called. While the cable car wars weren’t yet over, that moment was the last time a cable car ran the full length of a line that opened in 1891.
Seminal year: 1954
The ‘Battle of Car 51’ in 1954 was a seminal moment in what was a decade long political and social war over San Francisco’s beloved cable car system. The place where cable cars were invented in 1873 had seen many cable lines converted to streetcars right after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In 1912, Muni’s first streetcar lines, on Geary, replaced a privately owned cable car operation.
In those days, all cable car lines were privately-owned. The California Street Cable Railroad Co. (Cal Cable) owned its namesake line (which ran on California all the way to Presidio Avenue near Laurel Heights), the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, and a five-block shuttle that ran on Jones between O’Farrell and Market.
Our namesake, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy), owned the two Powell lines of the era, the Powell-Mason to the Wharf (still there on the same route), and the Washington-Jackson, which ran through Pacific heights all the way to Alta Plaza Park at Steiner Street. (MSRy also owned the Castro cable line, which closed in 1941, and the Sacramento-Clay line, which used a portion of the very first cable car route, shut down in 1942).When Muni bought out MSRy in 1944, it inherited the Powell cable lines. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed replacing the Powell cable cars with twin-motored buses capable of climbing the hills. This public relations blunder of historic proportions unleashed the fury of San Franciscans led by a woman from Telegraph Hill named Friedel Klussmann.
In an era when ‘ladies’ weren’t supposed to speak out or take the lead on policy matters, Mrs. Klussmann, supported mostly by other woman, galvanized opposition to Lapham’s plan, which was repudiated at the ballot box by a margin of more than 3-1, enshrining protection for the City-owned Powell cable lines in the City Charter. (As for those replacement buses, they had a brief and undistinguished career on other routes. Market Street Railway has helped Muni preserve one of them for its historic value.)
Cal Cable collapses
Buoyed by the saving of the Powell cars, Mrs. Klussmann and her allies followed up with a ballot measure to buy the private Cal Cable system in 1948. It received 58 percent support, but fell short of the two-thirds required. But in November 1949, a revised measure that required a simple majority passed with 52 percent of the vote, allocating up to $150,000 in taxpayer money to buy the Cal Cable system.
While the City’s representatives and the company’s leaders were trying to come to agreement on a fair price, the company’s financial situation was rapidly deteriorating. Labor strife (including a 25-day strike in 1949), construction of the Broadway Tunnel (which shut down the Hyde tracks in 1950), and finally the cancellation of its insurance, caused it to shut down its operations and file for bankruptcy in August 1951.
In January 1952, the City finally acquired Cal Cable for $139,000, and within a week reopened all three lines, including the Jones shuttle. Less than two years later, in November 1953, two Muni rehabilitation bond issues, which would have paid for rebuilding the California Street cable car tracks and partly rebuilding the powerhouse and barn at Hyde and California, failed at the ballot box.
By then, Muni was under increasing financial pressure itself because it faced a $4 million deficit (a rounding error today, but in those days, politicians believed a transit system should at least break even, as indeed Muni had done for most of its history).
Muni and City officials did take their financial situation seriously, though. In this same time period, streetcar service was cut to a bare minimum, with buses taking over all but the tunnel portions of lines nights and weekends. (Muni had been unable to win voter approval of a City Charter amendment to allow one-operator streetcar service. Even the then-new PCC streetcars were required at the time to have a conductor as well as a motorman).
In the aftermath of the bond defeat, a flurry of proposals quickly emerged to ‘consolidate’ cable car service in the name of saving money. It was clear that the most vulnerable stretch of trackage was the inner section of the O’Farrell Jones & Hyde line, which carried cable cars through the Tenderloin District, considered dangerous and tawdry by many, to reach Union Square and Market Street. Downtown interests wanted O’Farrell to become an auto thoroughfare, one-way eastbound, in part to serve a proposed (later built) garage opposite Macy’s.
In drafting options for future cable car operation, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, relied heavily on a consultant named Marmion D. Mills, a former transit bus salesman, who had led the implementation of its conversion of two dozen streetcar lines to buses over the preceding four years. Mills’ preferred “Plan A” for cable car consolidation called for retaining the Powell-Mason line and combining the inner end of the California line with the Hyde Street portion of the O’Farrell line to create a new California-Hyde line. The Washington-Jackson line, which at the time extended past Hyde Street, through the mansions of Pacific Heights, and past Fillmore to Steiner Street and Alta Plaza park, was protected by the City Charter, but Mill’s Plan A called for its scrapping anyway, though that would presumably require a public vote, plus formal abandonment approval from the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
Mills’s Plan A was openly pitched as the most effective arrangement to draw more tourist ridership, keeping them out of the Tenderloin, while downplaying the usefulness of cable cars to actual San Francisco residents. Eliminating all cable service that crossed Van Ness Avenue would also benefit that heavy automobile corridor, then as now US 101.
City Public Utilities General Manager James Turner disagreed with Mills’ Plan A, calling the conversion work to create a California-Hyde line too expensive and instead proposing to abandon all three Cal Cable lines completely, continuing to run only the City Charter-protected Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines.
Two members of the Board of Supervisors, first Francis McCarty, then J. Eugene McAteer, initially supported the proposed California-Hyde line. McAteer also proposed extensions for both the Hyde and Powell-Mason lines into the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where he happened to hold restaurant interests.
Cars vs. cables
As arguments raged, attorney Morris Lowenthal began speaking out against the cuts and allied with Friedel Klussmann and others to forge a opposition movement to save all the cable car trackage. The active role of Mrs. Klussmann, by now widely regarded as the cable car savior, made politicians begin to twitch, as they had already seen the passion she aroused in 1947.
The Downtown interests, whose main target was O’Farrell, apparently approached Ms. Klussmann and offered to support a compromise where the Hyde line and Jones shuttle would be combined to provide through service, abandoning only the tracks on O’Farrell. Mrs. Klussmann said no. McAteer backed off his California-Hyde proposal and told Mrs. Klussmann he would support a Board of Supervisors resolution to save all five cable lines. This caused her forces to postpone a voter initiative drive to accomplish the same thing.
At the last minute, though, McAteer changed his position again, throwing his weight behind a compromise plan (Mills’s “Plan B”) to create the cable car system we have today, by ripping out the California line west of Van Ness, combining the Hyde trackage with the inner portion of the Washington-Jackson line, and scrapping the outer part of Washington-Jackson between Hyde and Steiner.
Thanks to McAteer’s flip-flop, that ‘compromise’ cable car alternative (so called because it kept at least some of the Cal Cable trackage) faced no competition on the June 1954 ballot. The Public Utilities Commission had already irked cable car supporters by shutting down the Jones Street shuttle in February, then really fanned the flames by closing the O’Farrell line and the Cal line west of Van Ness on that May evening, without waiting for the June vote.
The Klussmann-Lowenthal forces girded for battle against ‘Proposition E’ while Downtown interests campaigned for it. That kind of face-off has been a staple of San Francisco politics for a century. What was different this time is that the Public Utilities Commission, which ran Muni at the time, interfered in the election in a way that would be unthinkable today. They put an outside public relations man, David Jones, on the city payroll, with explicit instructions to get Prop E approved. Jones set up bogus committees of ‘cable car ladies’ and ‘labor’ intended to confuse voters into thinking this plan was agreeable to the Klussmann forces.
Jones issued misleading statements in the campaign, such as “every cable car on the street today is here to stay.” Literally true at the time, since the O’Farrell cars were by then off the streets, along with half the Cal cars, and while the Washington-Jackson line was to go, the cars on it would stay, on the new Powell-Hyde line. Ads paid for by the ‘Cable Car Festival Committee’, the David Jones-front ‘ladies’ group’ said “Yes on E–Keep the cable cars rolling…bring back the Hyde Street grip”–another extreme stretch, since a ‘no’ vote would have kept twice as many cable cars running, and retained the entire Hyde Street operation on its traditional alignment, not just the Russian Hill slice.
When voters pulled the levers in June 1954 following this deluge of disinformation, they passed Prop E by a scant 12,000 votes. Allies of Mrs. Klussmann, led by attorney Morris Lowenthal and his ‘Cable Car Vigilantes’ group (including eager young volunteers like Philip Hoffman, longtime historian for our nonprofit) rapidly qualified an unprecedented initiative to amend the City Charter to undo what Prop E had done. Again, Jones, still on the City payroll, went to work. Merchants groups were offered zoning changes to permit parking lots in exchange for their opposition to the cable car restoration initiative, Prop J. Muni books were cooked to make a claim that the smaller cable car system implemented by Prop E was saving money, when in fact, deficits were actually higher than when all five lines were running.
This all came out in a subsequent trial, when Lowenthal sued Jones and won. However, by that time, Prop J had lost, and the city had already torn up the tracks on O’Farrell. Turner and Jones were both found liable and Jones was forced to return two months pay to the City. But the ballot measure results stood, and half of the city’s cable car system was gone forever.
Washington-Jackson ends, 1956
While Muni shut town all of the former Cal Cable trackage in 1954 (except California from Van Ness to Market), they kept the Washington-Jackson line running all the way to Steiner Street through September 2, 1956. Many residents of Pacific Heights, which supported the Washington-Jackson line, didn’t even know it was threatened, because it was never mentioned in the voter handbook and the Jones-led disinformation campaign claimed “every cable car on the streets today is here to stay”, but failing to mention that those assigned to the Washington-Jackson line would be shifted to the new Powell-Hyde line.
Even though voters had approved rescinding the City Charter protection for the Washington-Jackson line achieved several years earlier by Mrs. Klussmann and her allies, the city kept that line (and the shortened California line) running while designing new track curves to connect Washington and Jackson Streets to the remaining trackage on Hyde, as well as changes needed to consolidate California Street operations into the Muni carbarn at Washington and Mason Streets.
They left the track on Hyde between Washington and California and installed a pull-curve from California onto Hyde (something PUC GM Turner claimed would be too expensive to do) to enable the California Street cable cars to get to and from Washington-Mason. When the design was finished, they abruptly pulled the plug on the Washington-Jackson line September 2, 1956, and almost immediately hired a contractor to rip out the tracks west of Hyde (tracks which had been relaid only a few years before). This blunted last ditch-attempts by Pacific Heights supporters of the line to save it.
In fact, in yet another shady act by the city government, Muni leaders never took the abandonment of the Washington-Jackson line to their own Public Utilities Commission, nor to the Board of Supervisors, as required. When this was found out and publicized, the tracks were already gone.
What might have been
Looking at the available evidence, it appears clear to this writer that if the city hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the activities of consultant Jones, voters would have retained all the cable lines, or at least most of them. The Chronicle had run a poll in February 1954 which showed public support running at a ratio of 13 to 1 to retain all five cable car lines. The strongest negative influence was downtown interests who wanted cable cars off O’Farrell Street. If Mrs. Klussmann had accepted the compromise proposal that would have run the Hyde line straight down Jones Street to Market (over the shuttle route), it quite possibly would have been adopted. Tourists drawn to that scenic route might have transformed the troubled area around Jones and Market and invigorated the stretch of Market between Powell and Jones.
Alternatively, if the California-Hyde compromise had been adopted, the foot of California Street, then a dreary collection of hotels and bars, might have been revitalized sooner, and the California line cars would be packed on the trip between the Ferry Building and Aquatic Park. As it turned out, the California line, while traversing beautiful sights through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, really doesn’t have a destination. Efforts to reverse that mistake, by extending it to Japantown on California or to City Hall on Polk, have come to nothing, and today’s environmental process and extreme costs of new construction make future extensions unlikely.
Either of those alternatives would have saved the Washington-Jackson line, which would likely have transformed the surrounding blocks of Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park to visitor destinations, a mixed blessing to nearby residents to be sure.
As it turned out, of course, the 1888 Powell-Mason line was joined by the “new” Powell-Hyde line in 1957, each connecting one part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area to Union Square and Market Street, clearly enhancing retail businesses at the ends of the lines. The California line still struggles to find significant ridership, especially after Muni through-routed the 1-California trolley coach via Sacramento and Clay Streets parallel to and immediately north of California, and started charging more than twice as much for locals to ride the cable car instead of the bus.
Still with us
While the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line is a half-century gone now, it lives on, not only in the Hyde Street trackage (now operated as part of the Powell-Hyde line), but in many of the cars that originally ran on the line.
When Muni eliminated about three-quarters of the mileage of the old Cal Cable lines, dozens of the double-ended maroon and yellow cable cars were sold off as surplus. (Author Paul Bignardi tracked down the fate of all of them in his fleet history of all Muni vehicles, available at our museum or online store.)
In the mid 1990s, Market Street Railway volunteers, led by the late Dave Pharr and master craftsman Fred Bennett, spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring one of these, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 42, to its original condition, including solid tongue-and-groove ends and ornate hand lettering and striping. The car, reacquired from a rancher in Santa Maria who had protected it from the elements, is now again part of Muni’s fleet — the only one wearing the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde livery — serving as Muni’s ceremonial cable car and carrying the public every year during Muni Heritage Weekend.
While the bodies of the cable cars that ran on the California and Hyde lines were identical, the grip mechanisms were not, so each line had its own dedicated fleet. After the ‘consolidation’ of 1954, Muni standardized all the grips, then picked the best double-end cars from both lines–California Street, and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde–to be used on the reconstituted California Street line. Six ex-O’Farrell cars, Nos. 50, 51, 53, 56, 57 and 58, migrated to the California line, where they still run today.
Written by Rick Laubscher. Photos by Walter Vielbaum, except where noted..
This story is an updated version of one originally published in our quarterly member magazine, 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 your support to further our mission of Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco, so please join Market Street Railway or donate. Thank you.
Wes Valaris says it warmed his heart. Wes is the cable car superintendent, and in our eyes he’s been doing a fantastic job burnishing the historic aspects of this most historic transit operation. But the test ride he took last Friday (April 17) was unlike anything in his career.
With the cables silent and the cars in the barn for more than a month now, the great maintenance crew has been catching up on a long backlog of restoration and preservation projects for the little cars at the cable car barn in Chinatown (Washington and Mason Streets).
There are hi-tech projects too, believe it or not, including the refitting of required security cameras on cars as they’re repaired. Last Friday, the maintenance team finished replacing the roof of Powell Cable Car 3 (pictured above in normal times at Hyde and Lombard last September). But they couldn’t certify the system until the cable car moved along a line. So they cranked up the Hyde Street cable and made a couple of round trips from the barn to Aquatic Park.
There were only four people on the car to ensure physical distancing, and of course no tourists lined up like they were last September in that photo. No, what greeted the cable car crew along the way were San Franciscans. Walking their dogs. Leaning out of windows. Waving. Smiling. “It seemed to lift people’s spirits,” Wes said. “Just a moment of normalcy.”
More repaired and restored cable cars are going to have to be tested in the coming weeks (just as some of the historic streetcars have been). So, folks along the cable car lines may occasionally hear that familiar clang again. It may be quite a long time until the little cars can come back full time — operator and passenger safety are paramount of course — but these “curtain calls” can remind us that they WILL come back. They’re rarin’ to go!
‘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… — Read More
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… — Read More
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… — Read More
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… — Read More
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
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
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