Chronicle, 1947: cable cars ‘surely dead’

Photo from the Chronicle in 1947 showing one of Muni’s ten new “hill-climbing Twin Coaches”, bought to replace the Powell cable cars, inexplicably posed next to a California Street cable car, which Muni didn’t own at that time and wasn’t threatened. (Muni later bought 90 trolley coaches from Twin in this body style, which were familiar sights around town for a quarter-century.)

Controversy is swirling again around the future of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, after a Chronicle column by Heather Knight last weekend that seemed to imply the three cable lines could be junked in 2023 unless San Francisco voters pony up lots more bucks for SFMTA/Muni to keep running them. (For the record, SFMTA denies the cable cars would be junked. We have the full behind-the-scenes story on this in the next Inside Track, our exclusive member magazine, due out within two weeks.)

The brewing brouhaha led the Chronicle’s cool culture critic, Peter Hartlaub, to dip into the Chron’s “vault” and emerge with some great photos and info. The actual story is behind a paywall online, but we’re sharing a few photos here and summarizing a rather remarkable revealing of the paper’s anti-cable attitude back then.

San Francisco history buffs know the basics of the story: In January 1947, Roger Lapham, a businessman elected mayor on a platform to modernize the postwar city, announced he planed to “junk the cable cars”. (Lapham’s target was the two city-owned Powell lines; the other cable lines were owned by the private California Street Cable Railway Co., which was struggling financially, and if the Powell lines were ripped out, it’s doubtful the city would have rescued them four years later as it did.)

January 29, 1947 front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, with its premature obituary for the cable cars. Click image to enlarge.

Hartlaub points a big finger at his own paper for swallowing Lapham’s line, and declaring the Powell lines dead before any actual decision had been taken. The Chron wasn’t alone: the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations were quick to bury the little cars while they were still kicking. Yet in the article, headlined “A Shame Revealed”, Hartlaub makes a strong (and entertainingly written) case that his paper cheered on cable car haters.” He called the January 29, 1947 story pictured above “a piece of editorial sensationalism disguised as a news story”, and then noted, “In the days that followed, there were more fantastic tales of the super-bus, the decrepit state of the track and fantasies of runaway cars killing unsuspecting citizens. The Chronicle seemingly stacked the opinion pages with anti-cable-car letters.”

Of course, we know what happened next: at a time when women’s voices weren’t welcomed in San Francisco (or most anywhere else), Telegraph Hill resident Friedel Klussmann assembled a brigade of women and handed the mayor his metaphorical head by placing and passing a ballot measure in November 1947 to save the Powell cables.

Hartlaub’s Chronicle article includes this wonderful photo taken at Jackson and Octavia Streets, indicating it appeared in the newspaper November 10, 1947. But that doesn’t jibe with the headlight style and lettering on the cable car, which suggest some time between 1953 and 1956. In any case, it’s ironic for this photo in Pacific Heights to illustrate the Chronicle story, since the wonderful Washington-Jackson line was ripped out after Cable Car War II in 1954 cut the system in half. Just for fun, here’s the same intersection today. This block of Octavia is still brick. The apartment building is little changed. The white mansion, built in 1913 for “Big Alma” Spreckels, is now owned by novelist Danielle Steele and sports a giant privacy hedge all the way round. But no more Washington-Jackson cable car.

Here’s the coda to this cable car concerto: before his public “junk ’em” announcement, Lapham had ordered Muni to buy buses to replace the Powell cars. Motor coaches then had limited power, but Muni purchased ten “Twin coaches” that featured two engines each, to provide extra hill-climbing power. But Muni couldn’t keep the two engines in sync, defeating the hill-climbing capabilities, and once the Powell cables were saved, yanked one of the engines out of each bus and sent them out on lightly-used routes until retiring them way early after just six years of use.

Just one of these historic buses survives. Our nonprofit acquired it from a museum that wasn’t using it a couple of decades ago, and gave it to Muni for their historic bus collection. Gradually, Muni is restoring the bus to operating condition. We plan a big unveiling when it’s ready.

But it won’t be running on Powell Street, thank God (and Friedel).

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Cable car on display at Powell & Market

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.

L-R: MSR President Rick Laubscher, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, and Union Square Business Improvement District Executive Director Karin Flood greeted “Maybelle” (Powell Car 26) on September 26, 2020.

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!

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Santa Claus Was Coming to Town

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!

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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 only aimed at the two Powell Street lines. Even if he had succeeded, the three lines run by the private California Street Cable Railway Company (Cal Cable) would have remained, and they made up more trackage than the two Powell Street lines.

The Powell lines came under city ownership in 1944, when the private Market Street Railway Company (our namesake) was taken over. Lapham, a businessman with no government experience and no sentiment for history (sound familiar?) blindly ignored the affection San Franciscans felt for the cables and roused up powerful opposition led by Friedel Klussmann, who continued her stalwart defense of the cable cars for the rest of her life. Today, the failed cable car shutdown attempt is the only thing anyone remembers about Lapham’s time as mayor.

It should be pointed out, though, that IF he had succeeded in shutting down the Powell lines, the California lines might well have died out within a decade as well. If Muni had gone out of the cable car business in 1947, Friedel Klussmann and her allies might well have been unable to convince the city to take Cal Cable over and operate its lines when the private company went broke in 1951. The combined cable system ended up getting cut in half in 1954, leaving us with the arrangement we have now: two busy Powell lines branching out to Mason and Hyde to reach two parts of Fisherman’s Wharf, and a truncated California Street line that abruptly ends at Van Ness (it used to go past Fillmore all the way to Presidio Avenue) and attracts far fewer riders because of its route.

An important remaining tangible object of that failed 1947 shutdown is one of the ten Faegol Twin Coach motor buses Muni bought specifically to replace the Powell cable cars. Lapham used these buses, which looked very modern for the era (and featured the same bodies as a fleet of trolley buses Muni bought a few years later) as props to try to convince voters to scrap the cables. One of the buses was even posed misleadingly next to a Cal Cable car, which as we said was not threatened by Lapham’s proposal (photo below).

The buses were assigned to other lines and were ultimately retired. Muni reacquired No. 0163 from a museum many years ago. Market Street Railway volunteers helped refurbish it cosmetically after it arrived in town, and we’ve asked Muni to display it this fall for Muni Heritage Weekend, the annual celebration of San Francisco transit history we co-sponsor with Muni’s parent, SFMTA. The dates for this celebration have not yet been finalized, but it’s looking like September 9-10.

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First Videos of “White Front” Powell Cable Car 12

Right on schedule, Powell Cable Car 12 returned to service at 11 a.m. on Thursday, June 15, 2016. For the first time in 72 years (back when it was numbered 512), it was wearing the “White Front” livery of our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, which merged with Muni in 1944. The video above shows the 12 leaving the Washington-Mason car barn for the first time in revenue service since its restoration. The photograph below, taken just few blocks away at… — Read More

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