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.