Time-travel kickoff for 150 Years of Cable Cars

The Mayor was there. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, too. News media were there. And, thanks to “Stanford scientists”, cable car inventor Andrew Hallidie was there. Plus other civic luminaries, coming together on June 13 at California and Market Streets to kick off the celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars, organized by our nonprofit and the little cars’ owner-operator, SFMTA/Muni, supported by partners from the historic preservation, business, and education communities.

Time-travel kickoff for 150 Years of Cable Cars
The old Southern Pacific headquarters overlooks the celebration site with the cable car it built in 1883, June 13, 2013. Reed Martin photo
Time-travel kickoff for 150 Years of Cable Cars
History reenactors take us back 150 years as Mayor London Breed addresses the crowd at the kickoff celebration, June 13, 2023. Stuart Evans photo
Time-travel kickoff for 150 Years of Cable Cars
Lily Ho, representing Chinatown Merchants Association, Mayor London Breed, and SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, on “Big 19”, ready to roll west on California Street. Rick Laubscher photo

Wait. Did we say “little cars”? In fact, the celebrants rode one of the largest cable cars ever built, 34-foot long “Big 19” (eight feet longer than the Powell cable cars), first constructed just 10 years after Hallidie’s 1873 line opened. It was built at the Southern Pacific Railroad shops in Sacramento in 1883 for the SP-controlled Market Street Cable Railway Company. It’s a particularly fitting car to star in the kickoff, for several reasons.

First, it operated over Hallidie’s original Clay Street route from 1907 to 1942 on the rebuilt Sacramento-Clay line after being moved from Market Street when cable car service there gave way to electric streetcars right after the 1906 earthquake.

Second, operating on the California line, which it will do in regular service every Saturday through October as a key event in the celebration, will see it terminate in the shadow of the historic Southern Pacific Headquarters (now One Market), the company that built it 140 years ago.

Third, “Big 19” represents the pride and persistence of the SFMTA cable car maintenance team over decades of effort, encouraged by our nonprofit, to take this derelict cable car sitting at the back of the barn (where it housed stored Christmas decorations!), restore it to the way it looked around 1930, and outfit it with current cable car trucks, brakes and other running gear.

Time-travel kickoff for 150 Years of Cable Cars
“Andrew Hallidie” is joined at the Van Ness Avenue terminal of the California Street cable line by (left-right): “Big 19’s gripman and conductor, Derek Johnson and Calvin Watts; former SFMTA Board member Sharon Lai, and Cable Car Maintenance Superintendent Arne Hansen. Rick Laubscher photo

As for “Andrew Hallidie” (history reenactor Steve Johnson, representing the San Francisco Historical Society), after explaining his presence by saying Stanford scientists transported him to the present day via time machine. He marveled at how quickly cable technology, and the cars themselves, evolved in the first decade after his Clay Street line started, all as attendees sipped lavender lemonade courtesy of the adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel, itself celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Steve and many other reenactors will join us for another celebration, this time at Powell and Market Streets, on the actual 150th anniversary date, August 2, at 10:30 a.m. Don’t miss that. There are lots of other special events planned the rest of this sesquicentennial year, too. Keep checking our special website, sfcablecars.org, for the latest.


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