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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Decorated Cable Cars, Now and Then

‘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 by Market Street Railway.

Leading the Powell Car 1 decorating for the Chronicle: columnists Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub, who teamed up earlier this year for the transit marathon they called “total Muni 2018”, meeting Val, Jeremy, and Frank in the process and getting drawn in to the web of cable car love!  As a result, Powell Car 1 features inventive decorations inside and out, including replicas of historic Chronicle front pages dating all the way back to 1865, 23 years before the Powell cable even existed! Heather wrote a great article about the decorating experience.

Not to be outdone, Peter Hartlaub, who regularly mines the Chronicle’s photo and story archives for gems of San Francisco history, came up with a “WHOA!” story, recounting a little-known Grinch moment in cable car history. Christmas season, 1951, Muni had just assumed control of the bankrupt California Street Cable Railroad Company and its California and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines. Muni celebrated by inviting including Macy’s, to decorate cars on those lines. The Grinch glitch? The city’s ownership was challenged in court, keeping the decorated cars in the barn, never to be seen by the public, and delaying their city-run operation into 1952. Well worth a read!)

We can tell from the photo above, by the Chronicle’s Art Frisch, that the decorated cable car is from the O’Farrell, Jones, & Hyde lines, though the car number is covered up. Could it be Car 42? That’s the only surviving O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line car in its original 1906 configuration and livery, the one our nonprofit rescued from a cattle ranch near Santa Maria 15 years ago and restored with Muni’s expert help. It now runs in special service on California Street and sometimes Hyde, on part of its original route).

Macy’s sponsoring an O’Farrell car makes sense, since the O’Farrell line passed right in front of Macy’s…but it’s also ironic, since Macy’s was one of the downtown merchants that successfully lobbied to make O’Farrell one way a few years later, dooming the cable car line to make more room for automobiles.  (Here’s the story about the dark end of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line in 1954.)

We at Market Street Railway are very proud to support the cable car celebrations. Beyond the decorating (which includes Powell Car 12 above, wearing the famed “White Front” 1930s livery of our namesake), we collected contributions to support this year’s holiday luncheon for seniors, co-sponsored by cable car operators and Transport Workers Local 250A (photo below).  

Come on downtown to see and ride the decorated cable cars this year, and don’t forget Car 56 on the California line, shown below in this magical nighttime photo by Traci Cox.  

Finally, along the F-line, look for Milan tram 1818, decorated in festive style by our volunteers, who also put wreaths on all the E- and F-line streetcars. (Yep, another great Traci Cox photo.)

If the holiday spirit moves you, please consider a tax-deductible year-end donation in any amount to our nonprofit. We get no government money; it’s your donations and memberships that make it all possible, along with everything else we do to support San Francisco’s cable cars and historic streetcars. Thanks and Happy Holidays, in the spirit of our namesake, Muni’s lively competitor before 1944!.

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Carl Nolte: The Only One Who Does What He Does

The legendary San Franciscan Jerry Garcia said, “It’s not enough to be the best at what you do; you must be perceived as the only one who does what you do.”


Carl Nolte. Photo by Mike Kapka, Courtesy SF Chronicle

Ladies and Gentlemen, Carl Nolte.
Since the passing of Herb Caen more than 15 years ago now, Carl Nolte has been the only one who does what he does — tell San Francisco stories with a unique combination of personal knowledge, style, and grace.
These are the kind of things that get said in an obituary, but what a waste to wait. Carl’s not going anywhere for a long time, we hope, except perhaps on more of his Magical Muni tours so wonderfully described in last Sunday’s paper. (Clearly, the Chronicle thinks Carl’s Native Son columns are premium content; it’s about the only thing from that paper they still hold back from website posting until Tuesday.)
Another reason we’re posting this mini-tribute now is because the Chronicle recently put one of Carl’s classic accounts on line for the first time: a 1984 story entitled “How to talk like a San Franciscan.” We natives of a certain age can attest to its accuracy as we shed a little tear for how much that true San Francisco verbal style has waned in the 18 years since Carl wrote that.
I guess we should say something to keep this on topic. When the F-line opened, Carl told me he wasn’t a big fan of the PCCs. He liked the original Muni streetcars, like No. 1 better. Of course. Unlike the PCCs, Car 1 was built in San Francisco!
Carl, thanks! Just a little note of appreciation from your friends at Market Street Railway.

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Photo of the (Past) Moment: Deja Vu, Chronicle?


Jim Lekas photo, Market Street Railway Archive

Here’s an oddity. Not the photo, but where it showed up. We love this shot for two reasons: it features preserved Muni “Iron Monster” No. 162, near the end of its original service life on the M-Ocean View line on 19th Avenue crossing Junipero Serra, and it’s got that cool Nash keeping pace right alongside.
We know this photo, because it’s part of our collection, donated to us by MSR member Jim Lekas, who took it himself. We’ve never put it on the web before, but somehow — Jim doesn’t know how and neither do we — it has appeared in the Chronicle several times now in an advertisement for their website Groupon wannabe “”. An even bigger mystery than where they got the photo is why they used it, since it has nothing to do with the copy.
Maybe they just think it’s cool.
We’re fine with that!
UPDATE: Mystery solved. Thanks to eagle-eyed member Walter Gerken, we now know how the Chronicle got the photo. The great Carl Nolte did a story on the return of Car No. 162 to the active fleet in 2008. Muni had asked us for photos of the streetcar; we provided Jim’s; it was attributed in the story to Jim, but courtesy of Muni, rather than us (which is fine). Frankly, we just missed that ball. Strike one!
Still, a good excuse to share a great photo. Thanks again to Jim for sharing it.

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