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!
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.
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.
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 video below shows the first time Car 12 spun the Powell-Market turntable in revenue service today.
Finally, here’s a shot of two of the many proud parents of Car 12, SFMTA’s Ed Cobean, in overall charge of cable cars, and his maintenance right-hand, Carol Wolther. The first-run gripman, Randy Dea, is ready to go in the background.
We’ll have much more about this car and our livery restoration program in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, due out in July. Meantime, welcome back, Car 12!