Uncovering Cal Cable’s past

Uncovered Cal Cable track looking east on California at Van Ness, October 2020. Joseph Macasocol photo.

Constructing a new form of transportation for San Francisco, workers uncovered an old one the other day. Contractors building the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project scraped away asphalt to find the vertical curve of the original California Street cable car line bending westward and upward towards Franklin Street. Below, that same block, with a cable car descending the hill on this same track, before the Cal line was savagely cut in half on December 30, 1956 (a dark time indeed, coming within hours of the last run by B-Geary streetcars).

Looking east from Franklin Street on California Street toward the current California line terminal at Van Ness Avenue, 1954. Walt Vielbaum photo, MSR Archive.

The California Street cable line originally used a grip that closed on the cable (like pliers) from the side, unlike the top grip now used on all lines. That required the cable slot to be off-center about three inches, as shown in Dennis Roybal’s photo below. The surviving part of the Cal line, from Van Ness to Market, had to have its slot moved during 1957, so that all operations could be consolidated at the Washington-Mason cable car barn and powerhouse. (The old Cal line’s private owner had a powerhouse and car barn at Hyde and California, where Trader Joe’s is now. Read our story, “When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars”, with lots of photos.)

In the photos, also note the Belgian block (like cobblestones, but rectangular) that was fitted by skilled workers between the rails of the old installation. This was the standard paving material for San Francisco streets at the turn of the 20th century, and was also used to line the outside of Muni’s original streetcar track installations. Market Street Railway successfully advocated for the last remnant of this original track installation, on the L-Taraval spur between 46th and 48th Avenues, to be preserved.

When streetcar and cable car lines were replaced by buses, sometimes the tracks were physically ripped out and sometimes they were just paved over. It depended on what the cost might be and how much time it would take. Some streetcar lines, like the 31-Balboa and the C-Geary-California in the Richmond District still have the tracks under the asphalt. The 40-San Mateo interurban line paved over (or planted grassy medians above) all its trackage through Colma after that line was discontinued in 1949. Some of it remained visible at intersections until just a few years ago.

Cable car tracks were more work to remove, because besides the rails that the cars’ wheels rode on, there was a beefy underground “yoke” that protected the cable itself, with a slot on top for the cable car’s grip to reach the cable.

This is hardly the first example of uncovered street railway trackage in San Francisco, although it has become less frequent as old sewers and other underground infrastructure have been replaced over the decades. A member of our Facebook group posted this memory:

When the PG&E dug up the tracks at Scott & California a few years back I was sent out to look it over. The PG&E foreman said “Watch this.” He reached down into the excavated section, grabbed the carrier pulley and spun it. It whipped around for over 30 seconds before stopping. “How long has that been buried?” he asked. I answered “Over 50 years, but the track gang was probably lubing it right up to the last day, hoping for a reprieve.”

Norbert Feyling, retired cable car shop supervisor

When they tore down the old Petrini’s market at Fulton and Masonic Streets to build apartments some years ago, construction crews heard a big “clunk” as they excavated. What they’d uncovered was a tangle of cable from the old McAllister cable car barn and powerhouse ,which had become a streetcar barn, and then a bus barn over the course of 75 years before becoming a shopping center in the 1950s. In all those changes, no one had actually excavated the site. They learned why.

If you’d like your own slice of history, genuine cable car rail dating back to the 1880s, pay a visit to our online store. There, you’ll find both simple slices, great for paperweights or shelf display, and wooden plaques with either three or four different types of antique cable car rail mounted. Great holiday gifts. (A few of you Facebook users may have seen ads by a for-profit company offering cable car rail at the ridiculous price of $149. Our nonprofit offers it for less than ten bucks, and beautiful wooden plaques with three rails for half of their single slice. Plus, you’re supporting our work on behalf of cable car history when you do it!)

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