Of Cables and Grips:

The Cable Cars of San Francisco

Second Edition

by Robert Callwell & Walter E. Rice, Ph.D.

© 2005 by the authors, Library of Congress ISBN-978-0-9726162-2-5

Book Cover
Cover of the second edition. Photo by Walter Rice. All rights reserved. March, 2005 Picture of the Month.

Table of Contents


First of all, the authors wish to thank Joe Thompson for allowing us to present the second edition of our book on his Web site. As you can see, his Web site has a wealth of information about cable cars, including a current San Francisco cable car roster that has more detailed information than the one shown in this book.

We must also thank the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Cable Car Museum for all of their efforts in the publication of the first edition of the book. The first edition would not have been possible without their support.

The book would also not have been possible without the help of both current and former employees of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, especially Jose Diaz, Nicolas Finck, Chris Hill, Win Hoblitzelle, Brian Jennings, Paul Lovette, Carmen Magana, Bud McNaughton, Len Olson, John O'Neill, Tim Reilly, Ken Russi, John Stenson, and Don Troya.

Others who contributed their knowledge and research in the making of the book include Merrill R. Cohn, Val Golding, Richard Harris, Phil Hoffman, Don Holmgren, Val Lupiz, the late Dave Pharr, Norm Rolfe, and the late Richard Schlaich.

Finally, a special "thank you" goes to our friend Emiliano Echeverria for sharing with us his vast knowledge of San Francisco's rich public transportation past. Emiliano's suggestions have been invaluable.

Robert Callwell -- San Francisco, California
Walter Rice, Ph.D. -- San Luis Obispo, California

San Francisco Becomes the Cable Car City

The cable car was born in San Francisco on a characteristic San Francisco summer day - cold, dreary, and foggy. At four o'clock in the morning on August 2, 1873, Andrew Smith Hallidie and his partners stood at Clay and Jones Streets, near the top of Nob Hill. The first cable car had been dragged from the barn to this location for its maiden journey. The story has it that the first gripman fled in fear at the last moment. That left Hallidie himself to operate the car by using its simple grip system. Hallidie applied the grip to the cable, and the car moved slowly down the steep Clay Street hill to Kearny Street, at Portsmouth Square. The test, needless to say, was successful. That afternoon, prominent city officials and businessmen rode on the first official public trip. The cable car had arrived.

Hallidie claimed that he got the idea for a cable railway in 1869, after he saw five horses being whipped, and slipping on the wet cobblestones, while trying to pull a horsecar up the hill on Jackson Street between Kearny and Stockton. He well deserves the credit for the development of the world's first successful cable car system, although his contributions were probably more as an entrepreneur than as an inventor.

The cable railway, like the steamboat and railroad locomotive, was a method of harnessing the power of a steam engine to move people or goods. In cable car systems, unlike other transportation systems, the steam engine did not move. Instead, the steam engine moved the cable, which in turn allowed the cars to move when their grips clamped onto it. Hallidie was not the first to attempt a cable railway of this kind, but he was successful, while others were not.

The technology for a cable railway was simple and had been known for some time before the first line began running. Both Hallidie and the company's draftsman, William Eppelsheimer, must be credited with the design of the Clay Street line. Men like George Duncan in New Zealand and William Eppelsheimer, Asa Hovey, and Henry Root in San Francisco played major roles in later improvements to cable systems, while Hallidie's name is not mentioned. Yet he must be given all the credit for coming up with the idea, finding the financial backing, and being the driving force behind the successful operation of the first line.

Although the technology was unproven, Hallidie had full confidence that his cable railway would be successful. He entered into partnership with three other men and obtained the funds to build a cable car line on Clay Street between Kearny and Leavenworth - the Clay Street Hill Railroad. Construction began on June 2, 1873. There was only a short time to complete the line, because the franchise from the city called for operations to begin by August 1, less than two months later. The deadline was something to be taken seriously. Missing it by one day could result in the company's having to give up its right to operate on the street.

Hallidie always claimed that they tested the first car in the early morning hours of August 1. Nothing of the kind happened, because the line was not ready in time. The company had missed the deadline, and its franchise rights were in danger of being forfeited.

A San Franciscan with an enterprising spirit like Hallidie's was not daunted by a legal nicety such as a missed deadline. The test in the predawn darkness on August 2 was a practical solution to the problem. Although contemporary newspaper accounts told of the August 2 testing, Hallidie's August 1 version prevailed, and the truth did not become generally known until many years later.

The Clay Street line started public service on September 1 of that year. It had cost an estimated $85,150 to build, a great deal of money at the time, but it was immediately popular and profitable. Hallidie's line allowed the development of an area of San Francisco - Nob Hill - that had previously been accessible only to the few people who could afford private transportation up a hill too steep for horsecar service. Clay Street's two-car cable trains collected more fares on the uphill ride, since many potential riders opted to save money by walking downhill.

The Cable Car Idea Spreads

Hallidie and his partners were soon earning a rate of return of up to 35% on their investment. San Francisco responded to the robust profits that could be made from the use of cable technology for public transportation. Seven cable car companies followed Hallidie's Clay Street Hill Railroad.

The first of these, the Sutter Street Railroad (known after November 1879 as the Sutter Street Railway), converted its line on Sutter between Market and Larkin Streets from horse to cable power in January 1877. The cable cars' faster service meant that cable cars could make more round trips per day than horse cars, giving cable car lines a greater ability to carry fare-paying passengers. A cable car line's lower operating costs and its increased speed and capacity were incentives for horsecar operators like the Sutter Street company to convert to cable operation on routes where heavy ridership could justify the large investment. The company's risk-taking in making the conversion to cable service was well rewarded - the line carried over 960,000 more passengers in 1877, its first year of cable operation, than in the previous year, and its operating costs dropped by about 30%.

The Sutter Street company introduced a grip that was lever-operated and took the cable at the side of the grip, rather than the bottom, as on Hallidie's line. It was later shown that while side grips had somewhat greater strength, bottom grips were preferable on lines that had to pick up and drop the cable "rope" several times each trip.

The line was designed by Henry Casebolt, the company's owner, and Asa Hovey, an employee in Casebolt's carriage and rail car factory. A dispute arose between Hallidie's group and the Sutter Street company over the patent rights to cable car systems. That dispute was finally settled when they combined forces to obtain patent royalties from new cable lines, but the next few years were marked by attempts to profit from patent rights to cable systems and by attempts to avoid paying royalties on those patents.

Leland Stanford, one of the Southern Pacific Railroad's "Big Four," put the California Street Railroad into service on California Street between Kearny and Fillmore on April 10, 1878. Stanford was forced to pay $30,000 for patent rights to Hallidie and his associates. In 1884, Stanford sold his interest in the company, and it was renamed the California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable).

The California Street line was extended to Presidio Avenue (then called Cemeteries Avenue, later Central Avenue) in May 1879 and to Market Street in June 1891. Also in 1891, as Cal Cable expanded its mileage with two more lines, the company replaced its two-car trains with "California" cars - "double-ended" cars with an enclosed middle section and open sections at both ends. Cars with this design are still in use on California Street.

The Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad began operation in February 1880, and the Presidio & Ferries Railroad (the Union Street line) opened for paying passengers in January 1882. William Eppelsheimer designed the Geary Street cable system, including a bottom grip whose basic design is still being used for the grips on today's cable cars. The Presidio & Ferries Railroad developed the "let-go" or "drift" curve to let the cars coast around the corner in both directions at Columbus Avenue and Union Street.

Also in January 1882, in the dead of winter, cable cars began service on Charles Holmes's Chicago City Railway. (Asa Hovey had come from San Francisco to be the lead designer for the cable system.) The operational and economic success of the system showed other transit company owners that cable technology was not just suited for cities like San Francisco, but could also be profitable on flat routes and in harsh climates.

Cable car systems were not very energy efficient - more energy was spent on moving the cable than the cars or riders - but they were superior to horse-drawn and steam-locomotive city transportation systems. For instance, although about 1,000 horses and 200 stablemen had been needed to supply the power for the Chicago City Railway's horsecar service, the sources of the new cable system's power were the steam engines in the company's powerhouse. As in San Francisco, the speed and capacity of public transportation was increased, more passengers were carried per hour, and new neighborhoods were developed. Financial benefits to the company's investors soon followed.

Cable systems were installed in most major U.S. cities. With 52.8 miles of double track, San Francisco had the most mileage of any city, but Chicago had the most vehicles and riders. Kansas City, Missouri, had the most comprehensive system, and New York City, St. Louis, and Denver also had major installations.

Cable cars were mostly an American phenomenon, but they were operated in a few other countries, and Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia, had comprehensive systems. Dunedin, New Zealand, which had service from 1881 to 1957, was both the first and last city to have service outside the U.S. Dunedin's Roslyn line, designed by George Duncan, began service in February 1881. It introduced the "pull" curve, which is needed where coasting is not possible and the grip must remain attached to the cable. The Chicago City Railway was the first cable system in the U.S. to use pull curves, an innovation that greatly increased the cable car's range of operations.

The Cable Cars' Very Brief Heyday

The Market Street Cable Railway, San Francisco's largest system, started with its first line - on Market and Valencia Streets - in August 1883. By the end of 1888, four additional lines branched off Market Street - McAllister, Hayes, Haight, and Castro. The company was controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad, known as "the Octopus" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of its grip on California's transportation and politics.

Market Street cable cars ran as often as every 15 seconds from the company's terminal at the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, during rush hours, and every 40 seconds at other times of the day, providing one of the highest levels of service of any street railway in the world. (Market Street became known as "the Slot" because of the slot between the rails, and San Franciscans called South of Market "South of the Slot" long after cable cars ceased operating on the street.) Earlier cable systems used grip cars and trailers, but Henry Root, the designer of the original installations of both the Cal Cable and Market Street systems, invented the "combination" car for the Market Street system - a "single-ended" car with an open front section and an enclosed rear passenger compartment. That design is still used for the Powell Street cable cars.

Service on Powell Street began on March 28, 1888, operated by the Ferries & Cliff House Railway Company, which was also called the Powell Street Railway to emphasize its service to downtown. Full service on the Powell-Mason line began on April 5. (The Powell-Mason line is the only cable line still operating on its full original route.) At the same time, the company extended a route to the city's Western Addition with the opening of the Powell-Jackson line. That line also started at Powell and Market, but turned west on Jackson Street to Presidio Avenue, then down the hill to California Street. The line returned on Jackson, Steiner, and Washington to Powell. At California Street, it made a connection with a steam train to the ocean, which started service that July. (The cable line is generally known as the Washington-Jackson line, the name it was given after its rebuilding following the earthquake and fire of April 1906.)

The company had built a car barn and powerhouse for the Powell Street lines at Washington and Mason Streets in 1887. That site has been used ever since for a cable car barn and powerhouse - nowadays, for the three cable car lines of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).

The Ferries & Cliff House Railway purchased Hallidie's Clay Street line in 1888 to gain access to the Ferry Building - at the time, the most important public transportation terminal on the West Coast. That September, the company began service on a line between the Ferry Building and Presidio Avenue, using Sacramento and Clay Streets between the Ferry Building and the car barn area, and the Washington-Jackson line between there and Presidio Avenue, with outbound cars operating on Powell and inbound cars operating on Stockton between the two sections of the line. In November 1891, the company opened its fourth line, the Sacramento-Clay line. That line operated on Sacramento and Clay Streets between the Ferry Building and Larkin Street, and on Sacramento between Larkin and a terminal at Walnut Street, just west of Presidio Avenue.

The Ferries & Cliff House system was designed by Howard Holmes, who had been selected for the job after designing the powerhouse for the Oakland Cable Railway, one of the two cable car companies that served the city of Oakland, across the bay. The Ferries & Cliff House powerhouse was built on a constricted space, and the company's routes were so unlike each other that the cable system may have been the most complicated one ever to be run from a single building.

By the time San Francisco's last, and second largest, cable system began service, economic forces were beginning to shift interest away from horsecars and cable cars to the electric streetcar. The first of the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company's five cable lines started operations in August 1889. They were on essentially flat routes and, in retrospect, the company would have been better off had it chosen electric streetcars instead. For a brief time, the company was a fierce competitor of the Market Street system, but both the Omnibus and the Ferries & Cliff House companies were acquired by the Southern Pacific management in 1893. In December 1899, an expanded Market Street company put an end to the last remnants of the Omnibus cable system, only ten years after the service had started.

A ninth company, the short-lived Telegraph Hill Railroad (1884-1887), is sometimes mistakenly described as a cable car operation patterned on Hallidie's Clay Street Hill Railroad. The Telegraph Hill system, however, was a funicular railway. Unlike Hallidie's system, in which the grips take up and let go of the cable, the cable of the Telegraph Hill line had two cars permanently attached at either end. The cable was powered in one direction to send one car uphill and the other downhill, reversing the direction for the return trip. The weight of the car going downhill helped the upward-bound vehicle.

Although the Sacramento-Clay line started service later that year, Cal Cable's O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line and Jones Street Shuttle, which began service on February 9, 1891, were the last entirely new cable car lines built in the city. The O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line started at O'Farrell and Market, running on O'Farrell, Jones, Pine, and Hyde to Beach Street. The shuttle ran on Jones between O'Farrell and Market.

The California Street line operated with a side grip, but the other Cal Cable lines used a bottom grip because of the many times the cable had to be dropped and picked up again when the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line crossed other companies' cable lines. The franchise for the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line was granted later than the franchises for the other lines, and the cables for that Cal Cable line had to run below the cables of the other lines. While the grips on the other companies' cars could stay attached to the cable, the grips on the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde cars had to drop the rope each time they crossed another line. As recounted in Gelett Burgess's "The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip," gripmen on the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line had to drop the cable 22 times every round trip!

In 1892, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad's cable line was rebuilt and extended from Presidio Avenue, on Geary and Fifth Avenue, to Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio & Ferries Railroad's cable line was rebuilt and extended into the Presidio. Construction was never completed on some cable projects because of the advent of the electric streetcar, but there were extensions to cable car lines in San Francisco as late as 1901.

As with other transportation improvements, the introduction of the cable car was both a response to, and an influence on, population growth. Cable car lines changed the pattern of San Francisco's population growth - instead of south of Market and east of the hills, new population growth was to the north and west.

The Electric Streetcar Almost Conquers

Cable cars had been under economic siege since 1887-88, when Frank Sprague created the first successful electric streetcar (trolley) system in Richmond, Virginia. Transit companies' attraction to the electric car is easy to understand. Transportation authority George Hilton notes that "Sprague's electric systems were usually said to require only about one-seventh of the investment of cable systems…" and "the cars operated for only about half the cost per mile of cable cars." With improvements to streetcar systems in the early 1890s, it became apparent that they could also provide better service to the public, with larger-capacity cars, faster journeys over greater distances, and improved safety.

By the time of the earthquake and fire of April 1906, most of San Francisco's transit services were under the control of the United Railroads of San Francisco (URR). Under the leadership of the company's president, Patrick Calhoun, the URR had been using all of its political tricks to convert its cable lines to electric operation (except those lines where steep hills made the use of streetcars impossible). Calhoun, however, had significant opposition led by city beautification proponents. Wires are ugly!

Electric streetcars using overhead wires had been running in San Francisco since April 1892. Although streetcars had begun to replace horsecar and cable car service, the opponents of the streetcar were successful in prohibiting overhead wires on the major thoroughfares of Market, Geary, and Sutter Streets. (Mission Street was not considered important by the people who opposed overhead wires on the other streets, and it had been converted from horsecar to streetcar service in September 1894.)

Underground conduit systems (with a "third rail" beneath the street for powering streetcars) comparable to those built in Washington, D.C., and New York City were proposed for the thoroughfares, at least in the downtown area. Although there were some experiments with conduits on short sections of track, cost calculations and operational considerations showed the overhead wire system to be preferable to the complicated conduit system. Battery cars were also tried out, again with little to show for the effort. Thus, in 1906 San Francisco was embroiled in a heated environmental controversy.

At precisely six seconds after 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the URR's problem was solved. The Great Earthquake struck. Sixty hours later, after the fires had ceased raging, much of the northeast section of the city lay in ruins. Fires had swept 490 blocks, including the downtown commercial and financial districts, and 250,000 people had been left homeless. Calhoun seized the opportunity to rid the URR of most of its cable network.

Although some of the city's cable car lines had suffered severe damage from the earthquake and fire, others had not - the Geary Street line, for instance, had continued running for a few hours after the earthquake. Moreover, there were allegations that the URR overstated the damage to its cable system, to help convince the public that the company's only option for a quick restoration of its transit services was to convert most of its cable system to streetcar service.

Because of the post-earthquake emergency, the ordinance allowing the conversion of the URR's cable car lines to streetcar service probably would have passed without any extra help from the company. However, it was later learned that the URR had bribed Mayor Eugene Schmitz and 17 of the 18 members of the Board of Supervisors through the good offices of political boss Abe Ruef, who pocketed $65,000 of the $200,000 in bribe money.

The URR's surviving cable car lines were the two Powell Street lines (Powell-Mason and a shortened Washington-Jackson), the Pacific Avenue line (the outer end of the Polk Street cable line), the outer end of the Castro line, and a shortened Sacramento-Clay line. Most of the remaining routes shared one thing in common - steep hills. Although the relatively flat Pacific Avenue line's last block had a grade of more than 13%, that cable service probably continued because the area's wealthy residents didn't want overhead wires in their neighborhood.

Also surviving the holocaust of 1906 were the conservatively managed Cal Cable and its three lines - the California Street; O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde; and Jones Street Shuttle lines - and the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad. Although the Geary Street company had lost its franchise, it was allowed to continue operating because the city was eyeing the street for the route of a municipal streetcar line. The cable car line's last day of service was May 5, 1912, and Muni's first two streetcar lines began running on Geary Street on December 28 of that year.

The Cable Car - An Outmoded Relic of a Bygone Era

Eight cable car lines remained in service after May 1912. For those who believed in "progress," however, it was only a matter of time before those lines would also be replaced by more "modern" service.

When the Market Street Railway, the successor to the URR, abandoned the Pacific Avenue line in November 1929, the company considered the last day of service to be a major public relations event. It had shown its public-spirited nature by removing the slow-moving cable cars (which were unwanted, except in the eyes of a handful of sentimental residents), allowing the automobile to move freely. Progress had arrived!

By the late 1930s, the technology for buses powered by internal combustion engines and for those with motors powered by electricity from overhead wires (trolley buses) had improved so much that steep hills could be mastered by rubber-tired vehicles. Cable cars require two persons to operate them, while buses only require one, and a cable line's relatively high operating and maintenance costs were incentives for the conversions of the few remaining cable lines to bus service. The last U.S. cable lines outside of San Francisco gave way to buses - the Tacoma, Washington, line in 1938 and the Seattle lines in 1940.

In San Francisco, buses took over for the cable cars on the Castro line in April 1941 and the Sacramento-Clay line in February 1942. The Sacramento-Clay line had lost much of its ridership after the opening of the Bay Bridge in November 1936 and the subsequent decline in ferryboat operation. Also, it suffered from charging the Market Street Railway's seven-cent fare, compared with the rival Cal Cable fare of a nickel. There was virtually no mourning of the passing of any cable route until the Save the Cable Car League was formed in an unsuccessful attempt to save this line, the successor to Hallidie's original line on Clay Street.

Some conversions of streetcar service had also taken place, but World War II delayed further attempts to convert streetcar lines and the remaining cable car lines to bus service. The Market Street Railway's Powell Street lines, and the Cal Cable lines, especially, continued to carry significant passenger loads and earn profits for both companies' investors.

In this environment, San Francisco elected as mayor Roger Lapham, a businessman who was known for his irreproachable honesty, but who was also, as pointed out by rail historian Lucius Beebe, "infrequently beloved." Lapham had been elected on a platform that pledged efficient government for San Francisco. At Lapham's urging, the city's electorate voted to acquire the Market Street Railway, so that a much-enlarged Muni could provide both efficient and effective public transportation for the entire city. The City and County of San Francisco took over the Market Street Railway and its two Powell Street cable lines on September 29, 1944, leaving Cal Cable as the city's last privately owned transit system.

"The Cable Cars Must Go"

On January 7, 1947, Herb Caen, San Francisco's foremost newspaper columnist, penned in his "It's News To Me" San Francisco Chronicle column, "A top City Hall official confides: 'The days of the cable car are numbered.'" On January 27, Mayor Lapham in his annual message to the Board of Supervisors declared that the city should "junk the cable cars" as quickly as possible. "I know there are strong, sentimental reasons for keeping this old, ingenious and novel method of transportation," His Honor informed the board. "The fact remains that the sentimentalists do not have to pay the bills and do not have to run the risk of being charged with criminal negligence in the very possible event a cable breaks and a car gets loose on one of our steep hills."

Two days after Mayor Lapham's report to the supervisors, the Chronicle headlined, "Cable Cars On Way Out; City Orders Super Buses," "Days Of The Gripmen Are Nearly Over." Ten dual-engine Fageol Twin Coaches were on order to replace the 27 Powell Street cable cars. According to another Chronicle article, upon the arrival of the "super buses," which were expected in late February, they were to be assigned for Sunday service along the Powell Street cable lines, eliminating the "present overtime expenses on Sundays." "Gradually, as cable cars break down, coaches will replace them for daily use." On January 30, Caen wrote, "About those cable cars: The Powell St. line is a plucked duck, that's for sure. But keep tabs and see if the situation doesn't boil down to this eventually: The Calif. St. line will be kept in operation, for tourists and sentimentalists, at a greatly increased fare - maybe as high as 20 cents a ride." (That would have been double the regular fare. In 1947, the fare for Muni's buses, streetcars, and cable cars was 10 cents a ride.) As the protests mounted, this was to be His Honor's strategy to blunt the howls of indignation.

More important than Herb Caen's speculation was the surprising announcement on the very same day from James Turner, the general manager for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni. Turner stated, "No time should be mentioned for the possible replacement of the cable cars." The 10 twin-engine buses had not been selected as replacements for the Powell Street cable cars, but "were chosen for system-wide use on tough hill routes…." Although someone in his office had said that the new buses would be used on Powell Street that was "just sort of a rumor." In response to Mayor Lapham's statement that the cable cars were antiquated and unsafe, Turner declared, "The Mayor's statement was merely a directive for discussion and something for us to consider."

On February 3, the Chronicle editorialized that "bus lines would be a good deal less expensive. But against this saving should be weighed, first, passenger comfort which has some money value even if it cannot be demonstrated and, second, the market value of an institution which helps make the city stand out among cities of the world."

The Cable Car Lady and the Mayor

On March 5, 1947, within sight of Mayor Lapham's office, the San Francisco Federation of the Arts held a meeting attended by leaders of 27 women's civic groups. Rallied by the impassioned pleas of Friedel Klussmann and other civic leaders, they formed the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars, with Mrs. Klussmann as the chairwoman of the committee. Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg were later to write, "It was destined to wield the terror and authority once possessed by San Francisco's Vigilantes of 1851." By November, Mayor Lapham and his allies on the Public Utilities Commission wished they had never heard of Powell Street and its cable cars.

For an administration concerned about efficient government, what could be more efficient than the elimination of costly, obsolete cable cars? Not only was the system "outmoded," but also, unlike bus operations, it required two persons to operate each vehicle. To add to that economic logic, the city argued that the rails, which were no longer being made, were worn dangerously thin, and cables were difficult to obtain. Further, "Gripmen are getting old too, and younger men are not interested in pulling a grip."

However, Mrs. Klussmann and the citizens' committee rebutted the economic challenge of the mayor and his allies. In a detailed press release they set forth their case. In the year ending June 30, 1946, Muni buses lost $587,240. In contrast, cable cars lost $75,389, which included a depreciation charge of $19,903. "No one suggests the discontinuance of buses because they are losing money…. Any present monetary loss in the operation of the cable cars is more than compensated for by the wide publicity they give San Francisco throughout the world."

The issue of cable car safety was addressed by citing John Curley, director of the utilities commission's Bureau of Accident Prevention, "that the Powell Street lines had the best safety record of all divisions in times past." In 1945 and 1946, several deaths involving Muni streetcars and buses occurred, "none by cable car."

In 1946, the Powell Street cable cars took in 91 cents per mile, streetcars 45 cents, and buses only 32 cents. "The Public Utilities' promise now of an estimated profit, if we will just substitute buses, can be gravely questioned." Ridership would decrease. What tourist would come to San Francisco to ride the Powell Street bus?

Although the rebuttal case was strong, Friedel Klussmann and her associates realized they could only win the battle in the political arena. They argued, "Under the present city charter the Public Utilities Department has such broad autocratic powers that only a charter amendment could preserve our valuable world-famous cable cars."

In mid-February, Herb Caen had written, "Rajah Lapham's contradictum that 'cable cars must go' has been good for one thing, anyway - more publicity than the village has received since the er-uh-thquake; practically every newsmag and newspaper in the country has printed the darn yarn at great length, and the Feb. 24 Life will devote pages of pix to the grippers." Pressure from irate citizens worldwide was beginning to overtake the mayor and his allies.

Newspapers were flooded with letters to the editors extolling the virtues of cable cars and ridiculing buses. On April 3, the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars obtained more than 1,000 signatures in the first four hours of its campaign for an initiative charter amendment. On May 1, the city attorney ruled against utilities manager James Turner, stating that "the people can vote on a charter amendment ordering the Public Utilities Commission to continue operation of the present cable car lines."

Realizing that the cable cars had benefits far beyond their sentimental value, the business community's involvement increased markedly. The little hill-climbing cars were ready-made for use as an immediately recognizable visitor attraction in advertising campaigns for the city's tourist industry. Responding to the strong public opinion and pressure from businesses that relied on tourists' dollars, the Board of Supervisors placed a charter amendment to save the Powell Street lines on the November ballot, making the committee's initiative campaign unnecessary. (The Cal Cable lines could not be protected by a charter amendment, since they were under private ownership.)

All four daily newspapers in the city supported the cable car charter amendment. Visiting celebrities endorsed the cable cars - one famous actress pledged she would never return to San Francisco if the cable cars were eliminated. Songs and poems were written, and cable car clothing appeared. Just before the November 4 election, Mrs. Klussmann's group chartered two cable cars - Nos. 524 and 527 - in the campaign for the amendment. The route sign on No. 527 was for the Sacramento-Clay line, abandoned in 1942, to warn the voters of a similar result for the Powell lines if the cable car measure lost.

Measure 10, compelling the city to maintain and operate the Powell Street cable car system, passed overwhelmingly, with a "yes" vote of over 75%. The citizens' committee had brought about a victory of both sentiment and a realistic assessment of the cable cars' value to the city "over cost sheets and the opinions of transportation engineers."

The Cable Cars Survive Another Battle

At the urging of Mrs. Klussmann and the citizens' committee, the voters approved a charter amendment in November 1949 that authorized the city to acquire the Cal Cable system for a maximum of $150,000. However, the city's administration under Mayor Elmer Robinson continued to come up with reasons to delay the purchase. (Robinson had been elected mayor in the November 1947 election and was re-elected in November 1951.)

The once successful company and its three lines were shut down in July 1951 when it could no longer obtain insurance. The glory days of an efficiently operated system, generating significant profits, were rapidly becoming a faded memory. Finally, the city purchased the company's assets for $138,785.57 and reopened the three cable lines, along with the barn and powerhouse at California and Hyde, in January 1952.

Yet the enemies of the cable car were not to be quieted. City bureaucrats persisted in their goal of severe curtailment, if not total abandonment, of the cable operation. Cable cars, they proclaimed, were "hopeless money losers." The idea of transit being a "social good" was still far from general acceptance. Moreover, public transportation was still largely evaluated from the perspective of a private enterprise, where profit and loss, rather than public service, determines the rationality of resource allocation.

The 1947 charter amendment had protected the Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines, but not the three Cal Cable lines, then under private ownership. In February 1954, the Jones Street Shuttle was eliminated. Because any changes to the Powell lines required an amendment to the city charter, the city placed a charter amendment on the June ballot for a three-line consolidated cable car system, with reduced mileage and lower operating costs. That May, before the voters could have their say on the reduction in service, the California Street line was cut back from Presidio Avenue to Van Ness Avenue, and the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line ceased running altogether.

Enter again Friedel Klussmann and her citizens' committee. This time, they were joined by a group called the Cable Car Vigilantes, which was led by Morris Lowenthal, a lawyer who played a major role in the legal challenges to the city's cutbacks of the cable car system.

The defenders of the cable cars had been outmaneuvered in their attempt to get a proposition on the June ballot that would have required the city to restore the full five-line system. Their only option was to campaign against Proposition E (as the city's proposition was called on the June ballot) and begin gathering signatures for a proposition on the November ballot for the restoration of full service.

Unfortunately, Proposition E was approved by a close vote in the June election. The proponents of Proposition E had campaigned on the slogan "Save the Cable Cars - Vote Yes On E." Ironically and purposely, a "yes" meant abolishing half the cable car system. The cable car advocates, led by the Cable Car Vigilantes, gathered more than enough signatures for their initiative measure, and it was placed on the ballot for the November election, but their efforts in that election failed by a wider margin than in June.

A "public service director" had been hired by the Public Utilities Commission for the specific purpose of obtaining favorable public votes for the cutting back of cable car operations. A judge later ruled that both the public service director and utilities general manager Turner were liable for distortions in public statements and for the setting up of phony committees to "save" the cable car service, to mislead the public during the June and November proposition campaigns. But the election results could not be overturned, and the stage was set for the present-day cable car system.

Shortly after one in the morning on September 2, 1956, car No. 524 made the last trip on the Washington-Jackson line. Anna Blake Mezquida, one of the riders on the car, was a long-time advocate for the cable cars, and had also been a rider on the last car on the Sacramento-Clay line, in February 1942.

In December 1956, the truncated California Street line was shut down for rebuilding into the consolidated "new" system. The city constructed a cable tunnel beneath Mason Street from the Washington-Mason powerhouse to California Street so that the California cable could be run from that facility. The California Street line also had to be rebuilt from side-grip to bottom-grip operation, to allow the California cars to be operated from the Washington-Mason barn and powerhouse, and the closing of the former Cal Cable barn and powerhouse at California and Hyde.

With the resumption of service on California Street in December 1957, all three lines of the "new" system were up and running. The heavily traveled Powell-Mason line remained unchanged. Service had started that April 7 on the new Powell-Hyde line, created by cutting back the Washington-Jackson line to Hyde Street and combining it with the outer portion of the former Hyde Street line. The operation of Powell Street cars on Hyde Street had required the installation of a turntable at Hyde and Beach Streets, at the bottom of Russian Hill, so the single-ended Powell Street cars could turn around. (All operation on the Cal Cable lines had been with double-ended cars.)

While the work done during this system-wide modification was extensive, it did not involve a complete rebuilding of the track and cable system. Much of the system that was still in place came from the post-earthquake rebuilding of 1907-1910.

The 1960s and 1970s

In 1964, the cable car system was designated a National Historic Landmark. The official ceremony was held that October 1 at Hyde and Beach, presided over by Chief Justice (and former California governor) Earl Warren. The cable car system was now included on a select list of moving Historic Landmarks. For example, the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") had been designated a National Historic Landmark in December 1960, and Colorado's Durango-Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad had received the designation in July 1961.

In 1971, the city proposed substituting buses for the cable cars on the California Street line on evenings, Sundays, and holidays to save costs. But that November, the voters approved a proposition setting the minimum level of cable car service on the three lines, so that adequate service would be maintained and buses could not be substituted for the cars as part of the normal service. (The proposition also stated that cable car fares could not be higher than Muni's other regular fares, but that section of the proposition was overturned by the voters in the November 1981 election.)

The year 1973 was the cable cars' centennial year. That March, the sunken plaza at the main entrance of the BART and Muni Metro station at Powell and Market was dedicated in honor of Andrew Hallidie. (BART service started later that year, and Metro service in the subway started in 1980.)

In August 1973, events were held over a period of several days to commemorate the first day of cable operation. They began with a 5 a.m. celebration at Portsmouth Square on August 2 - a celebration highlighted by Clay Street Hill car No. 8, with some riders on board, being carried on a flatbed truck down the hill from Clay and Jones to the square. Later that morning, there was a procession of decorated Powell cars from the Washington-Mason barn to Aquatic Park, and a ceremony at the park. The celebrations were originally set to begin on August 1, but the day was changed after research by local historians determined that August 2, 1873, was the correct date for the first day.

As the months went by, it became more and more apparent that there was a new reason for concern about the system. Although the cable car routes were made part of the city charter by the June 1954 vote, and their schedules were protected by the November 1971 vote, cable car advocates could not forestall the deterioration of the system. By the mid-1970s, time and constant use were overcoming maintenance efforts.

An engineering firm was hired to evaluate the system. In late September 1979, it was declared so unsafe that all three lines had to be shut down, and service was not fully restored until the next April. The repairs were only stop-gap measures. The engineering firm's report had been published before the shutdown, and it had warned that a total rehabilitation of the system would be necessary, which would include the channels, tracks, and pulleys, and the entire barn and power house.

This time, city officials were on the side of the cable car system. It was not a direct moneymaker - what transit was by that time? San Francisco had become a city whose economic base was becoming ever more dependent upon tourist dollars, and the unique cable car system of Andrew Smith Hallidie was universally recognized as a major asset in attracting visitors to the city.

The System Is Rebuilt

The cable car system was entirely rebuilt between September 1982 and June 1984. To help pay for the reconstruction, the Committee to Save the Cable Cars raised $10 million in private donations, besides the local, state, and federal government funding amounting to $53.5 million. An additional amount of over $4 million was spent on the cable cars themselves.

September 21, 1982, was the last day of cable car service before the system was shut down for rebuilding, and the Cable Car System Rehabilitation Program started the next day. The entire system was reconstructed to make it as safe as possible, while retaining the cable and grip propulsion system that made it unique. Sixty-nine city blocks were involved, as old tracks and cable channels were removed and replaced. The Washington-Mason car barn was completely rebuilt, except for the chimney and exterior walls, which were retained, and reinforced, so that the building's traditional appearance could be preserved.

After the rehabilitation program on the car barn and trackway had begun, concerns were raised that the cable car fleet would not be receiving a comparable amount of resources for its rehabilitation. In April 1983, the Public Utilities Commission approved the use of contingency funds from the rehabilitation program for restoration work on the cable cars. Muni craftspeople repaired ten California cars and twenty-six Powell cars, and rebuilt a California car. The cars were repainted, and rewired for 12-volt battery systems. The emergency brake on the cars was modified, and the trucks and axles on all of the cars were completely rebuilt.

Many improvements to the system were made during the reconstruction. For example, the gripman's cry "'cout for the curve" (the often-used version of "look out for the curve") became less necessary, as curves were banked to enhance passenger safety. New, heavier rails became uniform throughout the system, and reinforced-concrete channels for the cables beneath the streets replaced the old channels. Other improvements included new cable propulsion motors and gearboxes, a new cable strand-alarm system, and new turntables.

The rebuilding of the system had to be completed by the beginning of summer in 1984 because the city government wanted the cable cars to be running during the Democratic Party's national convention, which was being held in San Francisco. On June 21, after celebrations earlier that month for the return of the California Street and Powell-Hyde cable cars, there were festivities celebrating the return of full cable car service. These began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Union Square, followed by a parade of cable cars up Powell Street, led by a U.S. Marine band.

But the story of the system's rehabilitation was not quite finished. At about 4:40 p.m. on Sunday, August 12, that year, an automobile sped down the Hyde Street hill and slammed into the front of cable car No. 12 heading up the hill from Aquatic Park, causing it to roll backwards, out of control. Despite their injuries, gripman Ray McCann and conductor Charles Gerstbacher applied the emergency slot brake and stopped the cable car after a block and a half.

The auto driver was killed in the crash (which was later ruled a suicide), but only three of the cable car's 65-70 passengers required hospitalization. Although the auto was wrecked, the cable car was not badly damaged. The U.S. Department of Transportation honored the two cable car crew members for their heroism - the cable car and its crew had passed this unplanned test of the safety of the newly rehabilitated system in the finest possible manner.

"Let Go" - The Anatomy of Cable Car Operations

Cable cars inspire many questions, such as: "What makes the cable cars move?" "How do the cars take hold of the cable?" "How do they go around corners?" "What happens when one cable line has to cross another?" The following is a brief description of how the cable cars are able to run up and down San Francisco's hills.

Four loops of wire rope - the Powell, Mason, Hyde, and California cables - are run at a constant 9½ miles an hour from the Washington-Mason powerhouse in channels beneath the streets. A system of pulleys (grooved wheels) supporting the cables from below allows the cables to move in the channels. At the end of a line, the cable is turned by a large pulley called a sheave (pronounced "shiv"), allowing the cable to return to the barn and allowing the cable cars to move in the opposite direction.

Cable cars have two crew members - a gripman and a conductor. The conductor not only sees that fares are paid, but also assists the gripman in the operation of the car. Both the gripman and the conductor are responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle.

The single-ended Powell cars have one set of controls and require a turntable to reverse direction. The double-ended California cars have complete controls at both ends. To reverse their direction, they only need a crossover track at the terminals.

Both kinds of cars have two "trucks" - frames holding the wheels and axles of rail cars, which can swivel so that the cars can go around curves. There are two axles and four wheels for each cable car truck, along with large springs to absorb shocks during the ride.

The cable car's grip - essentially a pair of pliers weighing over 300 pounds - extends through a slot between the rails and grabs hold of the cable to pull the car along. The grip lifts the cable from the pulleys, and it falls back onto the pulleys after the car passes by.

Pulling back on the grip lever lowers the grip's center plate, pushing the jaws of the grip between a pair of "roller bars" - solid-metal cylinders that revolve when the jaws push against them. The farther back the gripman pulls, the farther down the jaws are pushed between the bars, forcing the jaws to close and forcing the two steel dies in the crotch to apply increasing pressure on the moving cable. (Mild-grade steel is used for the dies. Because of the wear caused by the metal-on-metal friction, they must be replaced about every four days.)

If the cable is in the grip, but the grip lever is in the halfway position, known as "12 o'clock," the cable slides through the grip, and the car does not move. To move the car, the gripman pulls back on the lever - "grabbing the rope," as it's called - to apply increasing pressure on the moving cable. The farther back the gripman pulls, the greater the pressure, until the car is moving at the full speed of the cable. To let go of the cable, the grip lever must be pushed all the way forward.

The grip mechanism has a ratchet so that the lever can be held where the gripman sets it, and the gripman does not have to hold the lever all the time the cable is in the grip. Also, there is an adjustment rod to adjust the grip because of the wearing of the dies.

Skill, strength, and good judgment are necessary to operate a cable car. The steep grades and the smooth starts and stops necessary for taking on and letting off passengers call for a judicious use of the grip and the cable car's braking systems. The brakes and the pressure of the grip on the cable are used together to control the car's overall speed, as well as starts and stops.

Each car has three types of brakes: the wheel brake, the track brake, and the emergency slot brake. There is also a foot pedal to release sand from a storage box to improve the braking ability of the steel wheels on the rails in wet weather. And it's important to note that the cable itself is often used as a brake - when the grip is fully applied, the car cannot go faster than the cable, even on the steepest hills.

Each wheel has its own wheel brake, a steel shoe that presses against the wheel to help stop the car. When the gripman steps on a foot pedal, the wheel brakes on the four front wheels are applied. The conductor operates the rear wheel brakes. On Powell cars, the conductors use a crank on the rear platform, while on the California cars, the rear foot pedal is used.

Track brakes are two-foot-long blocks of wood, located between each of the four sets of wheels. When the gripman pulls back on the track-brake lever, the blocks press against the tracks to help stop the car. (Although the track brakes must be replaced about every three days, fir, a soft wood, is used for the brakes because a hard wood would slide on the tracks, with little braking effect.) When the gripman pulls back on the red emergency brake lever, the slot brake, an 18-inch steel wedge, is forced into the slot between the rails. The wedge is in three pieces, which expand against the slot, causing the car to come to an abrupt halt. The braking often happens with so much force that a cutting torch is needed to free the wedge and release the car.

At certain places, the grip must completely let go of the cable. For instance, Powell cars have to let go the rope at California Street because "depression" pulleys hold the Powell cable below the California cable - the Powell cars must coast across California Street before picking up the cable again. This has been the practice since 1888. Cal Cable, which had the prior franchise, had the right to run its cable above the Powell Street company's, avoiding the problems associated with letting go and picking up the cable.

There is also a safety latch at Powell and California, and at other places on the steep hills, for cars coming up the hill. If the cable has to be released in an emergency stop, the grip cannot move back past the latch, and the car will be prevented from accidentally rolling backwards down the hill.

A signal booth has been at the southeast corner of Powell and California for many years, so that cable cars can wait at an appropriate place until the gripman receives the light to cross the intersection. This signal system is especially important for the cars coming up the hill. The uphill cars must wait at the previous intersection until they receive the proper signal.

The gripman on an uphill car cannot see cable cars or other vehicles on the other street and may not have time to make an emergency stop at the intersection. Moreover, cable cars cannot be stopped on the steep uphill grades before the intersection and then started again on the grade. The weight of the car starting on the grade could result in so much heat being generated from the friction between the grip and the cable that the grip could weld to the cable, causing the car to jump to the 9½ miles per hour cable speed. When stopped on a steep grade, a car must be backed down to the nearest intersection, where the cable runs horizontally, before it can start up the hill again.

Besides letting go the cable when it runs beneath another one, grips must release the cable when the cars move from one cable to another. For example, Powell cars going up the hill from Market Street do not pick up the Powell cable again after crossing California Street, but simply coast down the other side of the hill to the block between Washington and Jackson, where they pick up either the Mason or the Hyde cable.

"Bumper bars" located at places where a let-go must be made, protect against a gripman who does not drop the rope soon enough. The solid-steel bumper bar is placed in the channel just above the cable as it runs on the pulleys. The grip pulls the cable upwards - if it is not dropped in time, the bar will force the cable from the grip. The bar will move slightly upwards when that happens, triggering an electronic switch that causes the cable to be stopped almost immediately and the location of the bumper bar to be shown on an electronic console in the powerhouse. The offending gripman can then be identified, and both the cable and the grip can be inspected for damage.

After releasing the cable, how does the grip pick up the cable again? At the terminals, the most common method makes use of a cable lift lever, known as a "gypsy," which is contained in a slot in the pavement. When the conductor pulls up the lever, a pulley beneath the cable is raised, and the cable is lifted into the grip.

Where the cable has to be picked up again after a let-go is made between the terminals, the cable runs closer to the street surface than it normally does. This is often accomplished by a dip in the tracks that brings the open jaws of the grip down to the cable. The gripman simply pulls back on the grip lever to take the cable again. If necessary, the gripman can lift the cable into the grip's crotch by hooking and lifting the cable with a steel hook.

Where a cable car line meets the grade at the bottom of a hill, and where it continues its upward climb after a level intersection on a hill, both the upward-bound and downward-bound cables must be prevented from damaging themselves against the undersides of the slot rails or rising out of the slot. To accomplish this, mechanical devices called "depression beams" are used.

Two kinds of depression beams are now in use. In both, pulleys are set in the beam so that the cable can run beneath it and be prevented from rising. Spring beams are on a pivot. The approaching grip holds the cable down from the beam, which is then pushed aside by the grip. After the grip passes by, the spring pulls the beam back into place. (Counterweight beams, which worked in a similar fashion, are no longer being used.)

Offset beams (also called offset slots) do not move. They make use of the fact that the grip mechanism has a limited ability to move from side to side on the car, to reduce the wear on the shank of the grip whenever it slides against the side of the slot. Although the tracks maintain their usual direction at the site of an offset beam, the slot is offset with a slight curve to the left, guiding the grip in that direction. The grip pulls the cable from its normal course under the beam for only a few seconds. The cable returns to its position under the beam's pulleys as soon as the grip passes by, and the grip follows the slot rails as they curve back to their usual position between the tracks.

Cable cars can go around corners by two different methods. In the first, the "let-go" or "drift" curve, the gripman simply releases the cable to let the car coast around the corner, while a sheave turns the cable at a 90-degree angle. Once the car is around the corner, the cable can be taken up again, allowing the car to proceed.

The second method, used where coasting is not possible, calls for a more complicated technology - a "pull" curve. In a pull curve, a series of horizontal pulleys guide the cable around the turn. The tracks and slot are slightly offset to the outside of their usual position so that the grip does not strike the pulleys as it passes. During the turn, the grip slides along a "chafing bar" in the channel, reducing the sideways pressure on the shank of the grip caused by the pull of the cable.

The cable car crews are always looking out for any mechanical problems on the three lines. Also, track crews inspect the tracks, channels, and turntables every morning. Based on that inspection, crews are sent out to clean the channels, oil and repair the pulleys, or do any other necessary maintenance work. Although cable cars are not the amusement park ride that some people might imagine them to be, they do provide a very safe and enjoyable means of public transportation.

The Washington-Mason Car Barn and Powerhouse

The car barn, which includes the powerhouse for the cable system, is located at 1201 Mason Street, at Washington, on the northeast slope of Nob Hill. It has two main stories, and two partial stories that do not go all the way across the building. The powerhouse is on the ground floor. Above that is the balcony that contains the visitors' gallery and the cable car museum and gift shop. The next level up - the second full floor of the building - is the place where the cars are stored when they are not in service, where maintenance and repair work on the cars takes place, and where the cars are assigned and made ready for service. The topmost level, a partial story, contains administrative offices, the room where crew members can wait until it is time to go out on their assignments on the lines, and the dispatcher's office, which oversees the availability of crew members for the assignments.

The cars leave from the Washington Street side of the barn and return on the Jackson Street side. The Powell cars coast slowly down Washington Street, and either take up the Powell cable, using a pull curve for a right turn on Powell towards Market Street, or coast around the corner to the left on Powell to take up either the Mason or the Hyde cable. The California cars coast down the hill and then around the corner to the left on Powell to pick up the Hyde cable. After they make the northbound turn from Jackson onto Hyde Street, they reverse direction, pick up the California cable, and run south on Hyde Street to get to the California Street line.

Coming back to the barn on Jackson Street, the cars go up the hill past the barn and then drop the cable to coast back down into the maintenance and storage area. A small vehicle called a shunter pushes the cars from a turntable in the barn to one of 12 storage tracks. Seven of the storage tracks have pit areas for the cars, for easy access to running-gear components - the trucks, axles, and braking systems. The pit areas at the first two storage tracks have room for three cars each, while there is room for one car at each of the other five pit areas. Both repair work and preventive maintenance work is done at the first two tracks, and preventive maintenance work, such as replacing the trucks on the cars, is done at the other five tracks.

The Cable Car Powerhouse

The powerhouse contains the huge machinery that moves the four continuous steel and fiber "ropes" for the three lines - the California (21,700 feet), Hyde (16,000 feet), Mason (10,300 feet), and Powell (9,300 feet) cables. The cables are one-and-a-quarter inches in diameter and consist of six steel strands of 19 wires each, wrapped around a sisal rope core.

The rope core acts as a shock absorber, preventing damage from the tremendous pressure that the grips apply to the cable. The rope is coated with pine tar during the cable's manufacture. The pine tar protects the rope against water damage and other causes of deterioration - it is kept pliable despite the many turns it must make on the pulleys and sheaves over the course of the cable's life.

The outside of the cable is covered with double-boiled linseed oil. The linseed oil is a good lubricant, but also allows the grip to take a firm hold on the cable.

Each cable has its own drive machinery - a 510-horsepower DC electric motor, gears to reduce the speed of the motor to the proper cable speed, and a set of three sheaves, each having a diameter of fourteen feet. To keep the cable from slipping, each cable wraps three quarters of the way around its powered driving sheave and under and over an unpowered idler sheave, in a figure-8 pattern. The cable then turns around a tension sheave, which is placed in a movable "bearing frame" on a "tension carriage."

A cable stretches many feet during its months of use, and it also stretches and contracts each day because of changes in temperature, differences in passenger loads on individual cars, and the starting and stopping of the cars. The bearing frame has a counterweight that allows the tension sheave to maintain the necessary tension on the cable despite the variations in the cable's length during the day.

The tension carriage is on a 180-foot-long track, and there is a second set of rails just outside the track rails. Pins between the track rails and the outside rails are placed every half-foot along the track so that hooks (which are called "pawls") at the back of the carriage can hook over the pins and hold the carriage in place. When the cable's overall slack is such that the bearing frame is near the back of the carriage, the carriage is moved farther back, and the pawls are hooked over the pins at that location to secure the carriage in its new position.

When the carriage is near the end of the track, the cable is shortened and respliced. That happens no more than once during the life of a cable, since there is a limit to its ability to stretch. When a cable becomes too worn, it is replaced altogether. The life of a cable ranges from 75 to 90 days for the heavily used Powell cable to at least 150 days for the California cable.

Cables are both respliced and replaced between 1:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., when the lines are not operating. The work is very strenuous. It takes eight maintenance workers four hours and 96 feet of cable to resplice a cable.

Twelve workers are needed to replace a cable. The old cable is cut and spliced to the new cable with a temporary splice. The old cable then pulls the new one into the channel, powered by a machine called a rewinder that winds up the old cable on a reel, operating at half the usual cable speed. When the spliced section returns to the carbarn, the old cable is cut off, and the ends of the new cable are spliced together to form a loop. The old cable can then be sold for recycling.

Since the splice cannot be thicker than the rest of the cable, cable splicing must be done with great care. Otherwise, the splice could be too large for the jaws of the grip, and the car could be dragged along by the moving cable.

Loose strands that can be caused by the wearing of the cables are also very dangerous, and strands entangled in the grip have caused serious accidents in times past. Strand alarms resembling large U-shaped forks are placed throughout the system. When a loose strand is detected, the cable is stopped within seconds. The electronic console in the powerhouse shows the location of the strand alarm, allowing maintenance crews to take quick action to correct the problem.

The automatic stopping of the cables because of loose strands and bumper bar accidents, and the electronic console in the powerhouse, date from the 1982-84 rehabilitation. This is a major example of how modern technology has been used to improve what is still, basically, a 19th century mechanical marvel.

The Cable Cars

Spared from total destruction by the 1906 earthquake, both the Washington-Mason car barn (Powell Street lines) with 65 cable cars and the California-Hyde car barn (Cal Cable lines) with 52 cable cars were swept away by the subsequent fires. Powell Street service resumed in January 1907, using 24 cars assigned to the Sacramento-Clay line and three open cars that had been assigned to both the Powell Street and Sacramento-Clay routes. Although Washington-Mason was the powerhouse for the Sacramento-Clay line, the cars had been stored in two car barns at Sacramento Street and Presidio Avenue, beyond the fire zone. The Mahoney Brothers, Ferries & Cliff House Railway, and Carter Brothers companies had built these cable cars between 1887 and 1894.

Service was restored on the California Street line in August 1906 and Hyde Street that December, but Cal Cable could not restore its full service until enough cars became available in June 1908. Two car builders - John Hammond & Company and the W. L. Holman Company - provided the equipment, using new bodies and salvaged metal parts. Cal Cable continued the car-building program, in its own shops, through 1914.

The rebuilding of the cable cars began after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when the United Railroads rebuilt 12 former Market Street cars from single-ended cars into California-style double-ended cars for the Castro and Sacramento-Clay lines. The Market Street cars had originally been built in the 1880s. At 34 feet in length, they had been capable of carrying as many as 130 passengers, and were some of the largest cable cars ever built. Car rebuilding continued throughout the years, under the United Railroads, the Market Street Railway, Cal Cable, and Muni.

According to the late Charles Smallwood, a San Francisco transit historian and a maintenance foreman at the Washington-Mason car barn, the Powell cars had steel plates put on their sides in the 1920s, a time when the increasing number of automobiles and trucks in the city would have made it important to reinforce the wooden bodies of the cars in case of accidents. Now, all of the cars have sheet-metal reinforcements on their sides and ends.

In 1971, a modified grip was introduced. The Eppelsheimer grip was modified by Don Troya at the cable car maintenance department, so that the grips are now made of interchangeable parts, instead of parts that have to be custom-made for each grip.

In 1973, the cable cars' centennial year, the Powell cars were renumbered from a 500 series to their current 1-28 series, to reflect the numbering system of the Ferries & Cliff House Railway (Powell Street Railway), the original operator of the Powell Street lines.

For several years prior to 1973, all of the Powell cars had been painted in a green and cream paint scheme. That had been the standard Muni paint scheme since the late 1940s, and was based on the green and white paint scheme of the Market Street Railway of 1921-44. In July 1973, an almost brand-new car No. 1 was presented to the public as the Centennial Car, in a maroon, light blue, and white scheme reminiscent of the colors of the Ferries & Cliff House Railway.

Muni has cable car drawings dating back to the 1880s, but in the same month that new car No. 1 was presented to the public, the Public Utilities Commission approved the hiring of a consultant to develop standard plans for the cars. Engineers inspected the cars and documented their features. The information was compiled, and basic sets of plans were drawn up for "standard" Powell and California cable cars.

As discussed in the chapter on the system's rebuilding in 1982-84, ten California cars and twenty-six Powell cars were rehabilitated at that time, and a California car was rebuilt. One California car and one Powell car were declared unfit for service and were later replaced by new cars, and a Powell car was put into storage for later rebuilding.

Also at that time, all of the cars except two of the Powell cars were repainted in standard paint schemes. A wide stripe of light blue was added along the bottom of the sides of the California cars, so that their paint scheme is now maroon, light blue, tan, and gold. Powell car No. 1 kept its Ferries & Cliff House Railway paint scheme, and No. 3 was kept in green and cream. The rest of the Powell cars were repainted in the Ferries & Cliff House colors, but with a simpler design than No. 1's.

When a car became too worn for rehabilitation, the usual practice for many years was to rebuild the car so that it was almost entirely new. (In some cases, that meant keeping not much more than the roof of the original car.) Beginning with the construction of new cars Nos. 13, 21, and 49, which were introduced to the public in December 1992, it has been the practice to replace an old car with a brand-new one. Each car, which is made of wood, glass, brass, and steel, takes about 18 months and costs approximately $400,000 to build. Given the skills of the Muni craftspeople and the care that is taken in building the cars, it is easy to see why the cars have been called some of the finest rail cars ever built for service on city streets.

Both major and minor repair work on the cars takes place at the cable car barn, and the cars are painted there. Since the late 1970s, they have been both rebuilt and newly built at the carpenter shop at Muni's Woods Motor Coach Division, just east of Potrero Hill in the city.

The metal work for the cars, including the grips, trucks, and braking systems, is done at the cable car special machine shop at Muni's 700 Pennsylvania Avenue facility, on the other side of the 22nd Street station for Caltrain, the Peninsula's regional rail line, from Woods Division. Although engineering drawings are available, many of the details of a cable car's construction rely on the knowledge and skills of the people at the carpenter shop and machine shop. The machine shop also repairs and rebuilds other system components, such as the pulleys and pulley frames, depression beams, and parts for the turntables, and modifies the components when that is necessary.

Since Muni does not have a foundry, outside contractors must make the metal parts that must be cast for the cars - from the brass bells to the steel wheels - and for other system components. The patterns for the molds that are needed for the metal castings are made by Muni's pattern maker, who works at the carpenter shop, and are then sent to contractors to make the molds and cast the parts. Any necessary finishing of the parts is either done by the contractors or by Muni.

Both the carpenter shop and the special machine shop have assignments in addition to their work for the cable car system. The machine shop, for example, does metal work for Muni's buses, and the pattern maker makes patterns for bus parts that are no longer available from the bus manufacturer. The shops also rebuild some of the streetcars that operate on Muni's F Market & Wharves historic streetcar line.

No two cable cars are exactly alike, but despite the desire to retain original features when building a new car to replace an old one, some standardization has become necessary in building new cars. For example, all cars, no matter what their heritage, are rolling out of the shops with the same arched window design.

The chassis, or underframe, of a cable car is made of steel and oak. High-quality plywood is used for the floor, instead of tongue-and-groove pine, but almost everything else in the car is made of authentic materials. The frame, interior panels, doors, and seats are made of oak, with sheet-metal reinforcements on the sides and ends of the car. The roof is made of Alaskan yellow cedar laid over oak beams. While red oak is used for the chassis and the frame, white oak is used for the seats and the interior of the car.

Although most of the construction practices are the same as the original car builders', Muni craftspeople have made some improvements, such as in the finish of the wood and the fit of the joints on the cars. Specially designed wood joints are necessary, and the principal frame members must be meticulously crafted for the best possible fit.

The roof requires considerable attention to detail in its construction. The clerestory - the raised section with windows for light and ventilation - is an especially complicated structure, which is why the old roof was one of the most important parts of a car to be saved when they were being rebuilt. But the clerestory is not the only part of a roof that is difficult to build. The boards for the roof are put together with tongue-and-groove joints running lengthwise on the car. The roof curves down at both the sides and the ends, and the craftspeople must taper the width of the boards for the proper fit and appearance. The work is similar to the building of a finely crafted boat hull.

Another improved construction method is the use of steel I-beams in the construction of the California cars. The California car bodies require extra support because of their length. Under the old design, the four truss rods that ran the length of the car could not be adequately adjusted to support the ends as the cars got older. As a result, the cars eventually began to sag. In the new California car design, two of the truss rods have been eliminated and replaced by I-beams, giving the cars the support they require.

Beginning in the 1990s, other Powell cars besides green and cream No. 3 have appeared in non-standard paint schemes. San Francisco's Cable Car 16 Festival, which was held on April 10, 1990, re-introduced No. 16 in a blue and yellow paint scheme, colors that Muni had used from 1939 to 1946, and which had appeared on three Powell cars for a brief time after Muni had acquired the Powell lines in 1944. The festival was designed to show the public that most of San Francisco had suffered little damage from the October 1989 earthquake, and was ready to welcome visitors to the city. In fact, the delay in resuming cable car service after the earthquake was not because there was any damage to the system, but because it was unsafe to operate the cars on the city's streets when the traffic signals were without electricity.

Other Powell cars with non-standard paint schemes are No. 9, in a green and white scheme similar to the colors of the Market Street Railway of 1921-1944, and No. 13, in a green and red scheme similar to that of the United Railroads.

Although both old Powell car No. 4 and the car that replaced it have the standard maroon, light blue, and white paint schemes, they are unique in other ways. Old No. 4 had been built by the Mahoney Brothers company, and all Mahoney Brothers and Ferries & Cliff House Railway cars have a "Bombay" roof design, with a "double" roof and a more complicated clerestory than the one on the "standard" roof of the Carter Brothers cars. Previous new versions of Mahoney Brothers cars - No. 14 and No. 21 - had their Bombay roofs replaced by the simpler standard roof. True to its predecessor and a tribute to Muni craftspeople, new No. 4, introduced in September 1994, also has a Bombay roof. Now, all of the new cars that are replacing Bombay-roof cars also have Bombay roofs.

In August 2000, the original No. 4 was placed on display in the outfield stands at the park for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. The car was renumbered No. 44 in honor of one of the team's greatest players, Willie McCovey. The cable car's bell is used to ring out the number of runs scored by the Giants after they have batted in their half of the inning.

Muni has two operable cable cars besides those in regular service, and they both have very interesting histories. Former Cal Cable car No. 42 became surplus when Muni abandoned the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line in 1954. Unlike other cars, which usually met more orthodox fates, No. 42 found itself in an agricultural setting, a cattle feedlot at Betteravia in the Santa Maria Valley, on the central California coast. The feedlot had its own 3½' gauge railway! The feedlot operator mounted No. 42 on a pair of narrow-gauge Los Angeles Railway streetcar trucks, one of which was motorized, to run the car on the track.

The car was returned to the city in 1993, and was restored by the San Francisco preservation group, the Market Street Railway, in conjunction with Muni. (The non-profit group uses the name of the former transit company and is dedicated to the acquisition, restoration, and operation of historic transit vehicles in San Francisco.) It is expected that No. 42 will see limited service - primarily for charters.

The restoration of Sacramento-Clay car No. 19 provides another important link to San Francisco's unique and historic transportation past. The Sacramento-Clay car is one of the cars that had originally been built for the Market Street Cable Railway. The restoration of one of the rebuilt cars thus provides us a connection not only with the days when the car ran on the Sacramento-Clay line, but also with the days before the earthquake and fire, when five cable car lines provided service on Market Street. (See the Historic Cable Cars section for information on Sacramento-Clay car No. 20.)

The Cable Car Museum

The Powell-Mason cable car rumbles up to Washington Street with its load of passengers from Fisherman's Wharf. The San Franciscans on board are amused by the expressions of wonder and curiosity from the many first-time riders, who come from every corner of the world. The gripman calls out, "Washington Street, Cable Car Barn and Museum." At least half a dozen tourists pry themselves off the jammed car and head toward a substantial red brick building with a large sign at the roof - "Ferries & Cliff House Railway 1887."

Those who read the sign might think they are about to enter a 19th century building, but they would be mistaken. This is actually the third cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets. The original three-story structure was a victim of the April 1906 earthquake and fire. The United Railroads then built a smaller "temporary" facility on the site of the destroyed remnants. After 76 years, the building was almost entirely rebuilt during the 1982-84 rehabilitation.

An area for the public at the barn dates back to 1967. At that time, the barn received a major refurbishing. Earlier in the 1960s, it had been painted in a cream color, and the "Ferries & Cliff House Railway 1887" sign had been placed near the top, in red letters to contrast against the cream background. As part of the 1967 refurbishing, the paint was sandblasted off to reveal the original red brick of 1907.

In November 1967, a gallery was opened on a mezzanine floor to allow visitors to view the "heart and soul" of the cable operation - the cables, sheaves, gears, and electric motors that run the system. (The Washington-Mason powerhouse was converted from steam to electric power in 1912, although steam engines were used for emergency power service until 1926.) The gallery included space for a museum, with a book and gift shop, which opened in August 1974. Since the museum has never charged any admission, profits from sales are essential for both maintaining and expanding the museum's operation.

In 1975, the Southern Pacific Railroad's 1914 Mission-style passenger depot at San Francisco's Third and Townsend Streets was torn down. As the depot was succumbing to the wrecker's ball, its classic wooden stand for candy and magazine sales was moved to the cable car barn, where it is in use today as the stand for the museum's gift shop.

Central to any museum are its exhibits. Appropriately, the most important acquisition - Clay Street Hill Railroad car No. 8 - was also the first. After its days on the world's first cable car line had ended, the tiny grip car had been sent to Chicago for display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. It was discovered in 1936 at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and returned to San Francisco by the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (R&LHS), which brought it to the car barn in 1966.

Both car No. 8 and the Sutter Street Railway Company's grip car No. 46 and trailer No. 54 were displayed at the Cavalcade of the Pacific exhibition at San Francisco's 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. The R&LHS had discovered the grip car and trailer at a Market Street Railway car barn in 1938. In storage for many years after the Treasure Island exposition, the cars were moved to the cable car barn in 1968.

The museum is now being run by a non-profit group called the Friends of the Cable Car Museum, operating under a contract with the City and County of San Francisco. Besides the historic cable cars and other displays, the museum has a video explaining the mechanical workings of the cable car system and a wide array of photographs depicting San Francisco's unique public transportation history.

Today, as visitors enter the museum, they are immediately confronted with the choice of going up the stairs to the observation gallery or descending to the "sheave room." Through a plate glass window in the sheave room, they can see the four cables going to and from the channels beneath the streets.

As the visitors go up the stairs to the gallery, it is soon evident that they are not only entering a museum, but an operating powerhouse as well. Like a ride on one of the cable cars, the whirring of the cables and sheaves in the barn makes for a journey in sight and sound back to a 19th century transportation technology - a technology that has had very few changes since it was invented and improved upon in the 1870s and early 1880s.

Today's Cable Car System

Gone are the days when the cable car was regarded as an obsolete liability. Ridership has increased dramatically since the late 1940s, when San Francisco's citizens fought to save the cable cars. With the rehabilitation program of 1982-84, the system has been renewed for many decades to come. Like Andrew Smith Hallidie's original Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, which was an economic success, today's San Francisco cable cars are solid revenue generators, used both by San Francisco residents and by visitors to the city.

Although cable cars are a historic means of public transportation, there can still be changes to the system. On December 1, 1997, a celebration was held at Victorian Park, at Hyde and Beach, to name the Powell-Hyde line turnaround "the Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround." Thus, San Franciscans have now honored the two most important persons in the history of San Francisco's cable cars by naming public places for them. Hallidie Plaza, at Powell and Market Streets, is named for the man who invented the cable cars, and the turnaround at Hyde and Beach is named for the woman who saved them.

Shortly after that celebration, there was a change that was even more significant. Women have been conductors on the cars for many years, but "gripman" had always been the proper term for the other crew member, since there had never been a gripwoman. (Although it is sometimes said that the poet Maya Angelou was either a conductor or a gripwoman on the cable cars, she was a conductor on Market Street Railway streetcars as a teenager during World War II.) In January 1998, Fannie Mae Barnes became the first gripwoman at the age of 52. She went back to being a cable car conductor in the fall of 2002, but she has earned her place in the history of the cable cars, and everyone looks forward to the time when other women follow her example, and become gripwomen on the cable car lines.

Everybody who loves the cable cars owes a large debt of gratitude to the men and women who designed and built today's cable car system, and to all of those who help provide the service to the public. But we must always remember that today's cable car system would not be possible without the "reactionaries" who, under the leadership of Friedel Klussmann, had the foresight to realize that "progress" can mean keeping and improving something that might seem "old-fashioned," and not just scrapping it for something that might seem "modern" and new.

California Street Cable Cars

Double Ended. Length: 30' 3". Width: 8'. Height: 10' 2". Weight: 16,800. Capacity: Seated - 34; Total - 68.

Originally, California cars Nos. 1-23 were fitted with a side grip for operation on the California Street line, and Nos. 38-59 had a bottom grip for the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line. In 1957, the California Street line was converted from side-grip to bottom-grip operation. That year, some of the remaining California cars were renumbered so that they would all be in the present 49-60 series, for service on the California Street line.

  • "Cal Cable" cars were built by the California Street Cable Railroad Company.
  • "Hammond" cars were built by John Hammond & Company. This was a San Francisco company that was in business from 1883 to 1910, building horsecars, cable cars, electric streetcars, and both narrow-gauge and standard-gauge railroad cars. Hammond was also an early builder of elevators. John Hammond's son, Manton Hammond, joined the business as the bookkeeper in 1893, and took over the business in 1901 when his father died. He continued to build railroad cars and elevators until 1910. The Hammond company built the first California-style cars (with open end-sections and an enclosed center section) for Cal Cable.
  • "Holman" cars were built by the W. L. Holman Company. This San Francisco company was in business from 1894 to 1912. William Holman had been the foreman and a partner in the Hammond Company. His production was similar to his ex-employer's, a mix of horse, cable, and electric cars, with an occasional railroad freight or passenger car. Holman tried to make the transition from wood to steel cars in 1912 with an order for Muni's first streetcars. He went bankrupt after only twenty of the forty-three cars under the contract had been built, and the order was completed by another company.
  • "Muni" cars were built by the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

The cars built prior to the 1982-84 Cable Car System Rehabilitation Program received a major overhaul at that time (including No. 56, which was rebuilt).


49MuniDedicated on December 5, 1992.
50Cal CableBuilt 1910.
51HolmanBuilt 1906. It was the last car operated on the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line, on May 16, 1954. Also, it was the first bottom-grip car to operate in revenue service on the rebuilt California Street line, on December 22, 1957
52MuniEntered service on February 2, 1996.
53HolmanBuilt 1906.
54HammondBuilt 1906. Originally No. 19.
55HammondOriginally No. 8. Stored out-of-service with accident damage.
56Cal CableBuilt 1913. Rebuilt by Muni in 1983.
57Cal CableBuilt 1914. Stored out-of-service with accident damage.
58Cal CableBuilt 1914. It was the last car to operate on the Jones Street Shuttle, on February 6, 1954. (Ordinarily, three cars that were 22' 5" in length served the shuttle. See Historic Cable Cars - car No. 62.)
59MuniEntered service on July 31, 1998.
60MuniEntered service in the week of February 16, 2003.

Click here for more information on cars that have operated on the California Street line

Powell Street Cable Cars

Single Ended. Length: 27' 6". Width: 8'. Height: 10' 4¾". Weight: 15,500 lbs. Capacity: Seated - 29; Total - 60.

Before April 1906, "combination" cars (with an open front section and an enclosed rear passenger compartment) in a 400 series had served the Powell lines from the Washington-Mason car barn, but they were destroyed along with the car barn in the earthquake and fire. Powell Street service resumed in January 1907, using 24 combination cars and three open cars, all numbered in a 500 series. (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.) The open cars were later rebuilt as combination cars by the United Railroads and Market Street Railway companies. The Powell cars were renumbered to their present 1-28 series in 1973. (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.)

  • "Carter Bros." cars were built in 1893-94 by the Carter Bros. Company for the Market Street Railway of 1893-1902. The Carter Bros. Company was in business from 1874 to 1902. Thomas and Martin Carter were California's most successful car builders, manufacturing nearly 10,000 cars over twenty-eight years. They specialized in narrow-gauge railroad cars, but also built horsecars, cable cars, turntables, water tanks, and some standard-gauge railroad cars.
  • "F&CHRy" cars were built in 1888-90 at the Washington-Mason car barn by the Ferries & Cliff House Railway.
  • "Mahoney Bros." cars were built in 1887 by the Mahoney Bros. Company for the Ferries & Cliff House Railway. The Mahoney Bros. Company was in business from 1885 to 1917. Jeremiah and John Mahoney are credited with building cable cars for lines in Oakland and San Francisco. There is evidence that they were the contractors for the construction of the Ferries & Cliff House Railway's tracks and cable channels, and had the cars built under a subcontract.
  • "Muni" cars were built by the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

The cars are in the standard Ferries & Cliff House Railway paint scheme, except as noted. The F&CHRy and Mahoney Bros. cars have Bombay roofs, the Carter Bros. cars have standard roofs, and the Muni cars also have standard roofs, except as noted.

The cars built prior to the 1982-84 Cable Car System Rehabilitation Program received a major overhaul at that time.


1MuniBuilt using the roof and seats from the first No. 506, a Carter Bros. car. Presented to the public at a ceremony on July 19, 1973, its paint scheme is more ornamented than the standard Powell-car paint scheme (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.). The car has a plaque honoring Mrs. Klussmann. Extensive rebuilding completed in 1997.
2Carter Bros.Former No. 502. Extensive rebuilding in 1971.
3Carter Bros.Former No. 503. It is painted in Muni's former green and cream paint scheme (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.). Extensive rebuilding in 1955.
4MuniPresented to the public at a ceremony at Powell & Market on September 15, 1994. New No. 4, like its predecessor, a Mahoney Bros. car, has a Bombay roof. (See "The Cable Cars" for information on the first No. 4.)
5Carter Bros.Former No. 505. Extensive rebuilding in 1956. Rehabilitation work was done in 2002.
6Carter Bros.Formerly the second No. 506. Rebuilt in 1965 from the first No. 518, a Carter Bros. car. (The first No. 506 was scrapped, except for the roof and seats; see car No. 1.)
7Carter Bros.Former No. 507. Extensive rebuilding in 1957. It was the first test car on the Powell-Hyde line, in March 1957.
8Carter Bros.Replace with: Former No. 508. Extensive rebuilding in 1958 and 2006.
9MuniEntered service on April 24, 2000, painted in a green and white paint scheme (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.). New No. 9, like its predecessor, a Mahoney Bros. car, has a Bombay roof.
10Carter Bros.Former No. 510. Extensive rebuilding in 1960, rehabilitation work done in 2002, extensive rebuilding 2006.
11Carter Bros.Former No. 511. This was the first car rebuilt at the Woods carpenter shop, in 1977.
12Carter Bros.Former No. 512. Extensive rebuilding in 1959. It was in a serious accident in August 1984 (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.).
13MuniEntered service on September 19, 1991. It did not resume regular service until cars Nos. 13, 21, and 49 were dedicated on Dec. 5, 1992, and is therefore classified as a "1992" car. No. 13 is painted in a dark green with red-trim paint scheme (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.).
14MuniFormerly the second No. 514. Entered service in late January 1964.
15Carter Bros.Former No. 515. Rebuilt in 1954. Stored out of service at Pier 80.
16Carter Bros.Almost entirely rebuilt by Muni, with only part of the roof retained from the original car (former No. 516). The car was dedicated on April 10, 1990, and is painted in Muni's former blue and yellow colors (See "The Cable Cars" for more information.).
17Mahoney Bros.Former No. 517. Extensive rebuilding in 1956.
18MuniFormerly the second No. 518. Entered service on July 4, 1962. It was built almost entirely new, except for some spare parts, to commemorate Muni's 50th anniversary in 1962. This was the first new cable car to enter service since Cal Cable's last new cars entered service in 1914, and the first passenger car to be built by Muni since its inception in 1912. (See car No. 6 for first No. 518.)
19MuniBuilt almost entirely new, except for some metal work. It was dedicated on October 7, 1986.
20Carter Bros.Former No. 520. Ridden by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Dark Passage. Extensive rebuilding in 1968.
21MuniDedicated on December 5, 1992.
22Mahoney Bros.Former No. 522. Extensive rebuilding in 1956.
23F&CHRyFormer No. 523. Extensive rebuilding in 1970.
24Mahoney Bros.Former No. 524. No. 524 was operated at the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949 (see The Annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contests). It made the last trip on the Washington-Jackson line, on September 2, 1956. Extensive rebuilding in 1958.
25F&CHRyFormer No. 525. Extensive rebuilding in 1976.
26F&CHRyFormer No. 526. Extensive rebuilding in 1973-75.
27Mahoney Bros.Former No. 527. Extensive rebuilding in 1958.
28MuniEntered service on January 2, 2004. New No. 28, like its predecessor, a Mahoney Bros. car, has a Bombay roof.

Click here for more information on cars that have operated on the Powell Street lines

Historic Cable Cars in San Francisco

Cal Cable No. 42. Built by the W. L. Holman Co. in 1906-07. The car has been restored to the way it looked in the early 1920s. See "The Cable Cars" for more information on this car.

Cal Cable No. 62. One of three cars built for the Jones Street Shuttle by Cal Cable in 1910. Those cars were 22' 5" in length, in contrast with the other Cal Cable cars, which had a length of 30' 3". No. 62 was mounted on a bus chassis in 1953 so that it can be driven to events and exhibitions for display as an authentic San Francisco cable car. It is used as the bell ringers' cable car at the annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contest (see The Annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contests).

Clay Street Hill Railroad grip car No. 8. On display at the Cable Car Museum. (See "The Cable Car Museum" for information on this car.)

Sacramento-Clay No. 19. Length, 34', Width, 8' 2". Seating Capacity, 40. (See "The Cable Cars" for more information on this car.)

Sacramento-Clay No. 20. Identical to No. 19, except for its "modern" streetcar roof, which it received in 1915 when it was rebuilt after an accident. No. 20 has been acquired by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum for future restoration.

Sutter Street Railway Nos. 46 and 54. Built by the Sutter Street Railroad in the late 1870s. (No. 54 was renumbered from No. 49 by the United Railroads in 1913.) The cars are on display at the Cable Car Museum. (See "The Cable Car Museum" for more information on these cars.)

Cable Cars in the United States

Cable cars were operated in these cities in the U.S., as well as in San Francisco:
Baltimore, Maryland
Binghamton, New York
Brooklyn, New York
Butte, Montana
Chicago, Illinois
Cincinnati, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
Denver, Colorado
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Hoboken, New Jersey
Kansas City, Missouri
Los Angeles, California
New York, New York
Newark, New Jersey
Oakland, California
Omaha, Nebraska
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Portland, Oregon
Providence, Rhode Island
San Diego, California
Seattle, Washington
Sioux City, Iowa
Spokane, Washington
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Paul, Minnesota
Tacoma, Washington
Washington, D.C.

The first cable car operation in the U.S. outside of San Francisco was the Chicago City Railway's service, beginning on January 28, 1882. The last cable car operation in the U.S. outside of San Francisco was Seattle's Yesler Way line, which discontinued service on August 10, 1940. (A Yesler Way cable car is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)

Cable Cars In Other Countries

Australia: Melbourne, Sydney
England: Birmingham, London, and Matlock
France: Paris
Isle of Man: Douglas
New Zealand: Dunedin
Portugal: Lisbon
Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow

The first cable car operation outside the U.S. was the Roslyn cable tramway line in Dunedin, New Zealand, which started service on February 24, 1881. The last cable car operation outside the U.S. was also in Dunedin, on the Mornington line, whose last day of service was March 2, 1957.

San Francisco's Cable Car Companies

The eight original companies:

Clay Street Hill Railroad. One line, 3½' gauge, bottom grip. After testing started on August 2, 1873, service from September 1 of that year to 1888, when it was sold to the Ferries & Cliff House Railway.

Sutter Street Railroad (Railway after November 1879). Two lines, 5' gauge, side grip. Service from January 1877 until the United Railroads of San Francisco took over the company in March 1902.

California Street Cable Railroad. (The company's name was the California Street Railroad until 1884.) Three lines, 3½' gauge, side grip on the California Street line, bottom grip on the other two. Service from April 1878 to July 1951. The City and County of San Francisco purchased the company's assets in January 1952.

Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad. One line, 5' gauge, bottom grip (converted to 4' 8½" gauge, side grip, in 1892). Service from February 1880 until the company went out of business in May 1912.

Presidio & Ferries Railroad. One line, 5' gauge, bottom grip. Service from January 1882 until the earthquake and fire of April 1906. Afterwards, the company converted the line to electric streetcar service. The company's assets were sold to the City and County of San Francisco in December 1913.

Market Street Cable Railway. Five lines, 4' 8½" gauge, side grip. Service from August 1883 until it became part of the Market Street Railway in October 1893.

Ferries & Cliff House Railway (Powell Street Railway). Four lines, 3½' gauge, bottom grip. Service from March 1888 until the Market Street Railway took it over in October 1893.

Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company. Five lines, 3½' gauge, bottom grip. Service from August 1889 until the Market Street Railway took it over in October 1893.

Companies that were based on the consolidation or reorganization of other transit companies:

Market Street Railway. October 1893 to March 1902. This consolidation included the Market Street Cable Railway, Ferries & Cliff House Railway, and Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company.

United Railroads of San Francisco. March 1902 to April 1921. This consolidation included the Market Street Railway and the Sutter Street Railway.

Market Street Railway. April 1921 to September 1944. A reorganization of the United Railroads because of financial difficulties. San Francisco's voters approved the purchase of its facilities and equipment in May 1944, and a greatly expanded Muni began combined service that September.

It should be noted that the companies operated other forms of public transportation besides cable cars. For instance, the Presidio & Ferries Railroad's single route was composed of a horsecar line, a cable car line, and a steam locomotive line.

Cable Car System Facts and Figures

Today's cable car service is provided by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which began operation with streetcar service on Geary Street in December 1912. Muni took over the Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines in September 1944 and the three lines of the California Street Cable Railroad in January 1952. The present-day three-line system, using a bottom grip, has been in service since December 22, 1957.

Lines and single-track mileage (equivalent to round-trip mileage), by line:
Powell-Mason - 3.2 miles
Powell-Hyde - 4.3 miles
California Street - 2.9 miles

Gauge - 3½ feet
Single-track mileage (after removal of duplicate trackage) - 8.8 miles

Steepest grades:
Hyde between Bay and Francisco - 21%
California between Grant Ave. and Stockton - 18%
Mason between Union and Green - 17%
Powell between Bush and Pine - 17%

Number of operating cars:
Powell cars - 28
California cars - 12

Note that some cars may not be available for service because of the need for repairs or rehabilitation.

Number of cars in maximum service:
Powell cars - 19
California cars - 7

Four 1¼" diameter cables moving at 9½ miles an hour, each powered by a 510-hp electric motor in the cable car barn.

Cable Lengths:
Powell cable - 9,300 ft., Mason cable - 10,300 ft., Hyde cable - 16,000 ft., California cable - 21,700 ft., Total - 57,300 ft. (Note that the cable lengths are the lengths at the time of purchase.)

Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse:

Washington and Mason Streets (1201 Mason Street). Originally built in 1887 for the Ferries & Cliff House Railway. Rebuilt after the April 1906 earthquake and fire, and again rebuilt in 1982-84. Facility square footage: 84,741 sq. ft.

The Annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contests

The first of the annual bell-ringing contests, as we know them today, was held at Union Square in April 1955. Although the bell-ringing contests are now a San Francisco tradition, the first annual contest did not begin in auspicious circumstances. It took place as part of a Cable Car Festival to promote the cable cars as a visitor attraction. The festival was sponsored by the city's administration under Mayor Elmer Robinson, which had obtained the votes in the June and November 1954 elections to authorize cutbacks in cable car service. The Cable Car Festival was held to fulfill a promise in the June 1954 election campaign to put on an annual festival for the cars, but the idea to include a bell-ringing contest in the festival may well have come from a event held at Union Square in 1949.

There was a railroad fair in Chicago in the summers of 1948 and 1949, and a bell-ringing contest was held at Union Square in May 1949 to select three gripmen to operate Powell car No. 524 on a short section of track at the 1949 fair, under the sponsorship of the Western Pacific Railroad. Cal Cable's Alexander Nielsen won the contest, and two Muni gripmen were named to go with him to Chicago.

The bell-ringing contests that began in 1955 continued throughout the remainder of the 1950s. There were no contests for a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have been held every year since 1977. San Franciscans and visitors alike look forward to the annual contests, which are traditionally held on the third Thursday of July at Union Square, and include a contest for non-profit organizations, as well as cable car crew members. For a few years, there was also a Miss Cable Car contest, although it must be said that being in a swimsuit on a cool and foggy San Francisco day couldn't have been all that much fun for the contestants. The motorized cable car that is used for the bell ringing is an authentic cable car - a former Jones Street Shuttle car. (See Historic Cable Cars in San Francisco for more information on this car.)

Every year, former bell-ringing champions who are retired from Muni service are invited to the contest. Former gripmen such as Al Davison, Tom O'Brien, Carl Payne, and Al Quintana are introduced to the crowd and are often asked to show off their bell-ringing skills. Al Davison once rang a bell with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Symphony in the playing of Josef Strauss's "Firebell Polka." And Carl Payne's bell ringing is truly legendary - he won the championship 10 times before he left Muni to become an officer in the San Francisco Police Department.

You can find out more about the annual event on this web site and on Muni's web site at www.sfmuni.com.

For Further Reading

George W. Hilton. The Cable Car in America: A New Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction as Applied to the Working of Street and Other Railways. Revised Edition. Howell-North Books, 1982. Reprint, Stanford University Press, 1997.

This book is essential for anyone interested in learning more about cable cars and about horsecar and early electric streetcar service in the U.S.

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