Saturday, July 09, 2016

San Francisco Cable Cars, 1954

It's hard to imagine San Francisco without the wonderful cable cars trundling up and down the steep hills - they're as iconic to 'Frisco as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Without even trying I've acquired a bunch of photos of the cable cars; all of today's are from 1954, from completely different lots. Did something happen around that time that made everyone want to visit The City by the Bay? I thought it might be Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo", but that wasn't released until 1958.

This one might be my favorite of the bunch, though it is a close call. You might disagree! There's something about the color and the the people in their vintage clothes. And Woolworth's! Another thing all three of these photos have in common is that they were all taken at the Powell Street terminal;  notice that the cable car rests on a circular turntable, which was so finely balanced that the whole contraption could be turned by two men.

This one's pretty neat too, since we get a nice look up Powell.  The tall building in the distance is the famous Sir Francis Drake Hotel. You can see that one of the uniformed men to the left has a change machine on his belt - as a kid I always thought those were cool! 

And... here's one last view, with the cable car being turned so that it can head back up the street. While the much of the original cable car system has been removed over the years, you can still ride the Powell Street line. It's popular with tourists of course, but I wonder how many San Franciscans use it as real transportation?

I hope you have enjoyed your visit to San Francisco!


Nanook said...


"You wouldn't say 'Frisco - OH NO-! So don't say salami say Gallo..." ♫ You know, I had a 'kids version' of one of them change "machines". If only I had the financial system to fill it to overflowing-!

And that blue/white taxi cab we see in the second image is a 1954 Plymouth.

And remember... please don't call them trolleys-!!

Thanks, Major.

walterworld said...

I've been on that line, and the turnarounds here and also at the station near the 'Buena Vista' are fun to behold. The ride is pretty exciting too.

Also, it would have been cool to explore that Woolworth's back in that long ago time.

I remember a Woolworth's that was still open in the mid 1980's in Santa Cruz, CA and it was an amazing mish-mash of items, all delightfully disorganized, and you never knew what the next aisle may hold. It closed soon after I was there last, around the time of the earthquake in '89 when the downtown lost the Cooper House and other treasures...

Thanks Major (as always)

TokyoMagic! said...

The only time I ever rode a San Francisco cable car was at Knott's Berry Farm! I was in San Francisco the summer before last and the cable cars weren't operating for some reason. Nobody was ever able to tell us why. These are fun pictures today, Major....a real ♫ ♪ "San Francisco treat!" ♪ ♫

K. Martinez said...

Oh boy! These photos bring up lots of memories of days I've spent in San Francisco hopping on the cable car and going into Woolworth's which was a real wonderland in itself back in the day. Powell Street was pretty cool too with all it's bookshops and eateries.

I used to always get a kick out of the tourists who'd wait in a long line for the cable car at the Powell Street turntable when I would just walk up a couple of blocks and catch the same cable car without waiting in line. Of course I'd have to stand on the outside and hang onto the bar, but that's half the fun of the cable cars.

Even though the images are from an earlier time, it still looked the pretty much the same until they removed Woolworths. What memories! Thanks, Major.

Walter World, As a Santa Cruz local I lived through the '89 Loma Prieta earthquake. The epicenter was nearby and that quake did a real number on our downtown as you know. I miss the old Cooper House, Woolworth's, Lily Wong's and United Cigar that were part of the old Santa Cruz. One of my favorite memories of Woolworths was the cone shaped cups placed in plastic holders that the diner soda was dispensed in. It was odd, but that's what made Woolworth's fun. A mish-mash of stuff as you said.

Chuck said...

1954 was actually a pretty crucial year for the SF cable car system.

The city, which had been trying to kill the cable car system since the late '40s, had acquired the privately-owned lines of the bankrupt Cal Cable in 1952. While the Powell Street system was protected by a 1947 citizen-driven amendment to the city charter, the former Cal Cable lines had not been included in that amendment because they hadn't been city-owned at the time.

A Muni rehabilitation bond measure to fund a rebuilding of the California Street line and some needed renovations of the Hyde & Powell power house and car barn failed in November of 1953, and the city began looking for alternate means to reduce a $4 million deficit. Without protection, the city proceeded with plans to severely reduce the cable car system. The Jones Street Shuttle was eliminated in February of 1954 and the California Street line shortened that May.

Mrs. Friedel Klussmann, known as "The Cable Car Lady" for her ongoing efforts to save San Fancisco's iconic transportation system (she had been the force behind the 1947 charter amendment), mobilized her Citizens' Committee to again attempt to save the cable cars through a referendum that June.

Unfortunately, she was outmaneuvered by the city government, who managed to get Proposition E worded in such a way that a "yes" vote meant "yes, I want San Francisco to tear up half the existing cable car system." The city also hired an outside public relations expert, David Jones, whose entire job was to get Prop E passed. Jones established a front group of "supporters" called the "Cable Car Festival Committee," which ran ads with misleading copy such as "Yes on E – keep the cable cars rolling." These tactics confused many voters into voting "yes," thinking they were saving the cable car system.

Prop E passed, and despite a lawsuit and a subsequent Prop J that attempted to undo Prop E, the cable car system was reduced from five lines to the three we have today.

As this was undoubtedly big news at the time, I'm sure that many people traveled to SF to ride the cable cars "one last time" or made an effort to take pictures just in case they never got a chance to see them again. Ironically, cable cars still turn at this Powell Street location (although the original turntable was replaced during the 1982-84 rebuilding and replaced in 2002) and all three of the cars shown in your photos today are still in operation.

Nos 503 and 508 (first two photos) were built in 1893-94, extensively rebuilt in 1955 and 1958, respectively, and renumbered as 3 and 8 in 1973. No 527 (last photo) was built in 1887, rebuilt in 1958, and renumbered as 27 in 1973.

Always glad to see the cable cars here, Major. Looking forward to seeing more!

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, I just looked and you can buy an old coin changer for $10.or $15. Now I can live the dream!

walterworld, while I have been to SF several times, I have never been on the cable cars, much to my dismay. Your description of Woolworth’s sounds a lot like a Marshall’s or a T.J. Maxx.

TokyoMagic!, at least you rode one of them, even if it was at Knott’s. I’ll bet old Walter bought those cable cars for nothing, since SF was probably just going to scrap them (I assume).

K. Martinez, hanging on to the outside of a cable car would be the way I would want to ride, for sure! That way I could show off my accurate Star Fleet uniform that I wear like everyday clothing. You recall that Star Fleet Headquarters will be in SF! Don’t you wish you had walked around Santa Cruz, even in the 1980’s, and taken photos of those landmarks that are now gone? I look at the “Vintage L.A.” Facebook page and see so many photos of stores and landmarks that I used to stroll past all the time that closed long ago; if only I had been smart!!

Chuck, I was wondering if you were going to do your “Chuck thing”!! ;-) I know how you like your buses and other forms of transport. It is a humbling thing to see that a commenter did way more research than I have probably done in a combined 10 years of blogging. Poor Friedel Klussmann, we should all know her name! I wonder if any people in SF’s city government think that it was a mistake to destroy so much of the classic cable car system? Probably not, they’ll just convince themselves that they had to go for the sake of progress. It kills me when something that is such a symbol of a city (almost like the old Red Car system in L.A.) is so thoughtlessly disposed of. Thanks for all of your info and research!

Mark H. Besotted said...

Daaaaaaang, you people are smart. First we got a genuinely interesting lesson on soil and engineering from JG, and now Chuck has schooled us all on the cable cars' history.

As usual, thanks all around.

Unknown said...

Great stuff on the Cable Cars, there, Chuck! Building a Cable Car replica to run at LA Live Steamers is on the back-back-back burner behind the Moonliner and Nautilus projects. I can only delay on so many projects at one time!

I'd just add that the last shot looks like a car on the Powell-Hyde run since the front sign sign is brown, as opposed to the first two with the yellow Powell-Mason signs. It's all I got...

K. Martinez said...

What's interesting is there is so much rail transportation available in San Francisco, from BART to the Muni-Rail System to the electric street-buses that run on rails and electrical wires overhead. It isn't just the cable cars that run on rails in that town. One of the many things I love about the city. Then of course there are the ferryboats to Oakland and other launches to the various islands in the Bay like Alcatraz and Angel Islands. It's a smorgasbord of transportation in San Francisco.

TokyoMagic! said...

Patrick Devlin, doesn't Travel Town (next door to the L.A. Live Steamers) have an actual San Francisco cable car that is kind of in bad shape?

Major, I think San Francisco was very interested in getting those cars back from Knott's. I'm sure someone in the city government (if even only one person) regretted tossing them all aside. I forgot to mention that one of the Knott's cable cars did not get returned to the city of San Francisco. It is now in the collection at the Orange Empire Railway museum, which I still need to go visit!

Chuck said...

Major, wow, now there's even a name for my obsessive research - "the Chuck thing." :-) I hope it comes off as an effort to share stuff I discover or already know and not as some sort of annoying, know-it-all showboating. I definitely don't know it all, and I learn a ton from the rest of you every day. I just love learning and love to share, and my kids can only take so much...

Patrick, are you a member of LA Live Steamers? That was one of those things I was interested in when I lived out there, but as a newlywed, single-income family on a military paycheck right out of college, building or buying and operating a live steamer seemed a bit out of my price range, and my N- and HO-scale equipment just wouldn't run well on their track gauge.

Ken, I think that's part of what makes SF so interesting is the variety of transportation systems. It's also interesting to read how the competition between the various systems has led to the current network. For example, part of the battle over Proposition E involved downtown businesses who were in favor of a one-way street grid, which for safety reasons necessitated a truncated cable car system. To give you an idea of the hazards of running two-way cable cars on a one-way street, here's a 1954 photo of a cable car turning from Hyde into opposing, one-way traffic on Pine:

The variety is probably part of what captured my interest in SF transportation from my very first visit when I was two. On a single day we boarded an SP commuter train near our home in Fairfield, took a ferry from Oakland, rode a Greyhound Scenicruiser on a tour of downtown, hopped a ride on a cable car, and then took a taxi back to the ferry landing (the BART was still under construction and so wasn't on our itinerary). The Scenicruiser and cable car have stayed stuck in my cranial spaces to this day.

TM!, you really should make an effort to visit the OERRM. It's interesting any day, but it's a special treat to visit on an operating weekend. I'm positive I saw Ward Kimball's wife at the Perris station while waiting to board an excursion to the north end of the line back in '94.

K. Martinez said...

Chuck, Don't ever stop doing "the Chuck thing"! I surely appreciate the research you share and the stories you tell. I've learned a hell of a lot from reading your comments. Thanks!

Major Pepperidge said...

Mark H. Besotted, your next step is to go to your local library (pronounced “lieberry”)!!

Patrick Devlin, are you involved with LA Live Steamers? If so, very cool. I’d love to hear more about what you do with them!

K. Martinez, it’s true, SF does have lots of public transportation; if only L.A. had had the foresight to develop similar systems over the years so that residents used them without a second thought. A friend of mine wants to use the new rail line nearby once, just for the novelty, but we’ll probably never use it for real.

TokyoMagic!, everything at Travel Town is in bad shape! I went there last year, and while I enjoyed it, I was dismayed at just how rotten/rusted everything was. Steel train cars have rusted holes in them, wooden parts are falling to pieces. It would be wonderful if the place got and infusion of cash for restoration. But I’m not holding my breath. Interesting to hear that S.F. wanted those cable cars back.

Chuck, clearly we all enjoy the fruits of your labors, so please continue to do your thing when inspiration strikes! As for the Live Steamers, imagine being able to have your own miniature steam train, like Walt did. Of course nothing would do but to have tunnels under the flower beds and a 20 foot tall trestle bridge.

K. Martinez, tune into “The Chuck Thing”, right after “The Love Boat” on ABC!