A Century of Cable Cars


In the end Mayor Lapham was retired from public life at the electorate’s first opportunity, the superior court judge Elmer Robinson rode into the mayor’s office—figuratively—on a cable car, and the lines were saved. (But not all of them: Lapham succeeded in having the Sacramento-Clay cables torn up. This proved a poor choice; the Clay Street grade is a fierce one, and from time to time the buses that ply it today have to stop, put all the passengers out, and fight their way empty to the top of the hill.)

The recent years have been kind to the remaining cables. No one has had the audacity to suggest their removal; in fact, they have never been more popular. Twelve million passengers a year ride them. In 1964 Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall proclaimed them a “registered national historic landmark,” and nine years later San Francisco celebrated their centennial in rare fashion. At 5:00 A.M. on August 2 there was a reenactment of Hallidie’s first run, and the San Francisco Municipal Railway proudly put its first new cable car in eighty years into service on the Powell Street line. The new arrival, a faithful copy of the line’s 1893 models, led a clanging parade of gaily decorated cars through the streets.

But not long after their centennial festivities, the cables began to show signs of age. Plagued by frequent breakdowns, the system had to be shut down in the fall of 1979 for several months of emergency repairs. It took years for the city to put together a $58 million budget to carry out the first complete renovation the system had ever had. In September 1982 the cars stopped again for their longest shutdown since the earthquake. Track, the subsurface cable conduit, and the complex cable machinery all were refurbished. The nineteenth-century cable powerhouse and car barn were completely rebuilt and four 510-horsepower General Electric drive motors installed. And while the system was closed down, the antique cable cars were completely overhauled.

The city celebrated the return of its cable cars on June 21,1984, with a show of civic enthusiasm that was extraordinary even for San Francisco. A crowd of ten thousand gathered in Union Square at high noon to cheer as Mayor Dianne Feinstein cut a red ribbon and rode off on the first car, preceded by a military band. Tony Bennett rode along, inevitably singing his trademark theme, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” (“where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars”). At Fisherman’s Wharf the day’s celebration culminated in a festival that featured a ten-cannon salute, the release of three hundred homing pigeons, fireworks—and the baking of a full-sized sourdough cable car.

And San Francisco’s enduring cable cars were ready for yet another century of service.