Grab a seat on this unique cable car and feed the hungry

Ribbon Cutting and Celebratory Ride for Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 | September 5, 2019. Jeremy Menzies photo, courtesy SFMTA

Seats are going fast for a first-time opportunity to tour the cable car system on the biggest cable car ever built: Sacramento-Clay “Big 19”, at 34 feet a full seven feet longer than Powell cars, and at 136 years, the oldest operating cable car in the world. And you can ride it on Mason and Hyde Streets, as well as California Street, in a four-hour exclusive charter on November 9, starting at 11 a.m., with lunch included from the famous Buena Vista Cafe at the foot of Hyde Street.

Test Run of Sacramento Clay Cable Car 19 | August 14, 2019

The cable car just reentered service after a 77-year “vacation” and operated on California Street during Muni Heritage Weekend. But this extended charter includes a ride up and down the famed Hyde Street Hill, plus a run out Mason Street, Columbus Avenue, and Taylor Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, as well as the full length of the California line and the connecting trackage on lower Hyde Street, only rarely operated with riders on board.

Best of all, the ticket ($125) is tax deductible, because your ride benefits the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, our nonprofit friends, who will use the proceeds to provide turkeys (delivered by cable car!) to people in need in Chinatown and other communities. This is going to be a hot ticket, with limited ridership to give everyone breathing room. So sign up before it’s too late at this Food Bank page.  The great gripman Val Lupiz, who is a lead organizer of the event, will be at the controls of Big 19 for the charter. You don’t want to miss this.

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Great Kickoff to Heritage Weekend

Mayor London Breed (Center, in blue) leads the ribbon cutting that returned cable car “Big 19”, originally built in 1883, back to Muni’s active fleet after a hiatus of 77 years. She was joined by SFMTA Board Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden (second from right) and the team from Cable Car Division responsible for this miraculous resurrection.

Muni Heritage Weekend got off to a great start last night (Thursday), with a VIP reception at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Upwards of 70 invited business, neighborhood, and civic leaders heard Mayor London Breed extol San Francisco’s history and the role transit played in making the city what it is today. Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher paid tribute to transit pioneers through the decades, whom he described as “fighters for equality, for inclusion, for opportunity”, and lauded the team that brought Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 back to life. They include: Project Manager Arne Hansen, the shop superintendent; Electric Transit Mechanic Dave Kerrigan, who installed a complete braking system, Master Carpenter Antoni Cunha, who repaired and strengthened the running boards; Painters Danny Hicks and Henry Pegueros, who did a masterful job of painting, polishing the brass, and detailing the cable car.

Mayor Breed addressing the gathering at the museum. MSR Board Vice Chair Antone Sabella (just to her right) looks on.

That group, and the other guests, then processed from the museum two blocks to California and Market Streets, where “Big 19” was staged on the tail track of the California Street cable car line, ready to go. After a ribbon cutting, featuring Mayor Breed, SFMTA Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden, and the car’s restoration crew, Gripman Val Lupiz, whose personal enthusiasm for the project made a big difference in moving it forward, er, moved the car forward … up California Street, “halfway to the stars”, as the song lyric goes with the Mayor and a packed car of guests happily taking it in.

MSR Board Chair Carmen Clark stands in the grip man’s position aboard Big 19, with the restoration team in front of the car, along with MSR Board Member James Giraudo (far left), who contributed the accurate 46-star American flags for the car (commemorating the 1908 date it started working the Sacramento-Clay line), along with the two Cable Car Division superintendents who greenlighted the project: Brent Jones, now acting deputy director of transit for SFMTA, to the right of the shiny brass headlight, and Wes Valaris to the left of the headlight (in hat), current acting super at Cable Car.

Climbing Nob Hill with a crush load is just about the ultimate test for Big 19, and under Val’s expert hand, it went flawlessly. The Mayor had to disembark at Grace Cathedral for her next engagement…clearly reluctantly, asking to ride at least one more block…and the rest of the guests proceeded to Van Ness, where “Big 19” reversed smoothly.

Gripman Val Lupiz waits for a signal to change as Mayor Breed (over his shoulder) enjoys the ride. Former MSR Board Chair Bruce Agid looks toward the mayor from the far running board.

But then the Cable Car Gods said, “Not so fast”. One block into the return trip, another cable car hit a bumper bar on the California cable, causing the cable to automatically shut down. When this happens, the cable machinery crew carefully winds the entire cable all the way through its length, inspecting it as it goes through the winding machinery at the carbarn to ensure it wasn’t damaged. If it is, the line can be shut down for hours.

And so, guests on this memorable inaugural run of Big 19 got an unexpected experience: one of Muni’s brand new hybrid buses appeared to take them back to the museum, making them the first to make that round trip on transit vehicles built 136 apart.

One more shot of Val Lupiz, on his new favorite cable car. Those who are part of our Facebook group, (Market Street Railway) know Val as a devoted cable car historian whose dedication and enthusiasm has helped both Big 19 and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 spend time on the streets.

Later, the cable was found to be fine, and Big 19 returned to the Cable Car Barn without incident. It will be out and running on Heritage Weekend with a VERY special treat starting at 10 a.m. for those who show up at the Cable Car Barn at Washington and Mason Streets: on its pull-out trip, it will go down the Hyde Street Hill to Aquatic Park, then back up Hyde, around the Washington-Jackson loop, and then over to California Street to go into service. At Heritage Weekend Central Control (the plaza outside the museum), we’ll keep track of where Big 19 is, so visitors can catch one of its several trips from California and Market to Van Ness and back.

That’s just one aspect of what’s going to be a great Heritage Weekend. Don’t miss it.

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Back On Track — After 77 Years Off!

“Big 19” on California Street, about to clatter across the Powell Street cable car tracks. Traci Cox photo.

Early this morning, a cable car originally constructed in 1883 became Muni’s oldest operating transit vehicle. Early this morning, Sacramento & Clay Sts. cable car 19 made a full trip on the California Street line pulled by the cable. It was the first time this cable car was pulled by a cable on the street in 77 years, since its retirement in 1942. This news, and these wonderful photos, come from Market Street Railway member Traci Cox who documented the event. This was the final test in a 20-year process to return a tired, sagging cable car that forlornly sat at the back of the cable car barn into a fully operable vehicle.

“Big 19” crossing Kearny Street inbound, heading toward Market Street. Traci Cox photo.

This cable car was originally built as an open car, running on one of the five Market Street cable lines before the 1906 earthquake and fire. When that event destroyed the Market Street cable system, Car 19 was one 12 such cable cars rebuilt into the standard double-end cable car configuration for San Francisco — open end sections and an enclosed center section. It debuted on the Sacramento-Clay line in 1907 and ran continuously until 1942, when that line shut down. Among the longest cable cars ever built (34 feet), the Sacramento-Clay cars couldn’t fit on the turntables of the Powell Street lines, and so most of them were scrapped, with a few becoming static displays, including the most famous survivor, Car 16, which was lifted to the roof of The Emporium, there to be clambered upon by generations of kids during holiday roof ride season, until it finally rotted away.

The cable car on the left, shown climbing Haight Street near Laguna in 1886, is the type of Market Street Cable Car that was converted following the earthquake into a Sacramento-Clay car, like Big 19. Note the identical roof, then and now. (In the current restoration, the bells were moved onto the clerestory roof to operate the same as today’s cable cars. Photo from opensfhistory.org, wnp13.236

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 was bought by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 1948 (apparently for $50), and stored in San Francisco for possible future display. In 1967, as part of the effort to create a cable car museum at the Washington-Mason power- house, Car 19 returned “home” but because of its size and weight (14,000 lbs.) was not chosen for display at the museum. Instead, it was stuck in the rear of the cable car storage area and largely forgotten for 30 years, until the car’s body showed signs of weakness.

Sacramento-Clay Car 19 in storage at Pier 80 during the cable car rebuilding in 1983, before its restoration by the cable car carpentry shop in 1997-89. SFMTA Archive.

Market Street Railway advocated the car’s restoration, and in 1997-98, Muni’s wonderful cable car carpentry shop did so — to actual operational standards, instead of just a cosmetic upgrade. No plans emerged at that time to add it to the active fleet, but some years later, fitted with new California Street type trucks, a test was made to see if it would clear the curves. It didn’t make it out of the Cable Car Barn, as the trucks hit the running boards. So, it was returned to storage.

But the car intrigued Cable Car Maintenance Manager Arne Hansen, along with Division Superintendent Brent Jones. Arne’s crack crew adjusted the running boards and made a number of tests, incrementally preparing the car for a return to service.

Car 19’s twin, Car 21, climbs through Chinatown on Sacramento Street in 1941.

Last week, “Big 19” (so-called by the master gripman, Val Lupiz, who was at the levers last night, a nickname to differentiate it from little sibling Powell 19) was towed around the Cal line by a truck and cleared every curve and hill crown. This extra-long cable car had never run on California Street before, and the entire trackage of the line was rebuilt in 1982-84 anyway, leaving at least a little doubt as to whether it could clear some of the hill crowns and curves going to and from the Cable Car Barn.

This morning, with grips installed, Val Lupiz latched onto the cable and completed the circuit of the California Street line. Big 19 must now be certified by SFMTA’s System Safety Department, and once that’s done, this unique cable car can return to service — not to Sacramento & Clay Streets of course, but certainly on California Street, and then, who knows, perhaps even on the outer ends of the Powell lines, where switches installed in the 1980s rebuilding would allow it to bypass the turntables.

We have already requested that this wonderful and unique cable car carry passengers on California Street during Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8. We’ll keep you up to date. We would expect it would take its place next to Muni’s other cable car that represents a “fallen flag” (abandoned line), O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 (which Market Street Railway acquired for Muni and helped restore 20 years ago), operating on Muni Heritage Weekends every year and other occasional special events.

Welcome back, “Big 19”, and special thanks to Arne Hansen and his crew, to Brent Jones, and to Val Lupiz, whose personal advocacy contributed greatly to this success.

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