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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Merry Christmas…Transit-wise

There’s a long tradition in San Francisco of celebrating the holiday season with streetcars and cable cars.msry-christmas-car-1930s-copy

In the 1930’s, our namesake, Market Street Railway Company (Muni’s privately owned competitor) decorated its all-white private car (named the “San Francisco”, normally used to take school kids on field trips) for Christmas and New Year’s and ran it around town as a goodwill billboard.

santacade-washington-masonIn the 1950’s, the Emporium department store, on Market opposite Powell (where Bloomingdales is today) would charter a cable car with a specially strengthened roof to bring Santa to the store. The “Santacade” always drew big crowds, including a generation of kids who believed that the REAL Santa was at the “Big E” because of course Santa would take the cable car!  (That cable car, by the way, is the one now on the centerfield arcade at AT&T Park.)

1010-west-portal-xmas-portalAlso in the 1950s, West Portal merchants turned the portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel into a fireplace (another proof that Santa rode Muni!!). The streetcar shown, 1010, is one of the ones saved from destruction thanks in large measure to the advocacy of our non-profit, and runs today on the E-Embarcadero line (another of our advocacy successes).

dsc_5248In recent years, Market Street Railway volunteers have decorated one or more F-line historic streetcars. We look to resume this next year when the streetcars have returned to Cameron Beach Yard (shown here) from their temporary quarters at Muni Metro East off Third Street. This year, as always, we’ve decorated the F-line and E-line streetcars with wreaths.

DSC04133.JPGFor sheer enthusiasm and beauty, nothing beats the cable cars decorated every year by gripman and cable car historian Val Lupiz. This year’s prize is Powell Car number 1, in the original 1888 livery of the Powell cable lines with wonderful decorations inside and out. Our volunteers assisted Val and friends in bringing this joy to the streets of San Francisco this season. (Val took the shot below; the others come from our archives.)

powell-1-2016-xmasAs 2016 ends, we at Market Street Railway thanks our 1,000 members and our friends for their ongoing support. We invite everyone who loves the cable cars, streetcars, and San Francisco history in general to join us or support us, to make 2017 a year of preservation and celebration of historic transit.

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