Taken with Transportation

Happy Birthday to a San Francisco Treasure

July 31, 2023 SFMTA Episode 4
Taken with Transportation
Happy Birthday to a San Francisco Treasure
Show Notes Transcript

San Francisco's incredibly popular cable car service turns 150 years old on August 2, 2023. 

In this episode of Taken with Transportation, host Melissa Culross speaks with San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Market Street Railway president Rick Laubscher, SFMTA cable car maintenance supervisor Dennis Dea, cable car operators Val Lupiz and Derrick Johnson, riders and business owners about the history and mechanics of the cars, as well as the impact they have on their city.

MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: A uniquely San Francisco treasure is turning 150 years old.

DENNIS REED (RIDER): When I first came here in ’82, I saw the cable cars. No way I could resist, I had to ride.

MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and today we’re celebrating a milestone anniversary of our beloved cable cars. To kick off the party, we are climbing up California Street to the top of Nob Hill on the city’s oldest operating cable car, Big 19, with Mayor London Breed. 

LONDON BREED: The Cable Cars are a iconic symbol of San Francisco for a hundred and fifty years. They have taken people, um, up our rolling hills, and they have been a resource for people to get around. But more importantly, they’re fun.

MELISSA: The Bay Area is no stranger to technological innovation, and it was a bit of innovation that gave birth to the cable cars in the late-19th century, as we hear from Rick Laubscher, president of the non-profit Market Street Railway.

RICK LAUBSCHER: There was a mining engineer and cable rope maker named Andrew Halladie. He was an immigrant from the UK, and he made these cables to carry ore buckets above ground in the Mother Lode in the Gold Rush country. He supposedly saw horses struggling up a hill pulling a rail horse car and realized that he could use his cable underground to pull vehicles up that hill and spare the horses and be more efficient. So he created a cable car system under franchise from the city on Clay Street and made its first run on August 2, 1873.

MELISSA: We’re chatting with Laubscher at the intersection of Jackson and Mason Streets outside the cable car barn, and he says Halladie’s idea was a hit.

RICK: His first line was immediately financially successful which got all sorts of other imitators building other lines in San Francisco and then around the world. There were 40 cities that had cable cars at one time. But just 15 years later in 1888, a man named Frank Sprague perfected the electric streetcar, which was twice as fast as cable cars, used steam engines to generate electricity to a wire above ground that fed motors in the car. That made more money. And cable car lines disappeared rapidly around the world, except on the hilliest places. In San Francisco, gradually the lines disappeared ‘til we had the Powell lines and the California Cable Railway company’s lines. The Powell lines: one went out Mason Street, just as today. The longest, continuously run transit line with the same vehicles, the same terminal, in America. Since 1888 it’s been on that line back and forth between Bay Street and Market Street.

MELISSA: There may only be three cable car lines in operation today, but they are VERY popular.

RICK: Cable cars, pre-pandemic, were getting about 8-million riders a year, and a very large percentage of those come in from out of town for that experience. And in the 21st century, the, the marketers say what people are looking for when they travel is something unique. There are thousands of cities around the world, but this is the only one with cable cars. 

MELISSA: And as we’ve been talking, several of the cars have passed by and stopped just a few feet from where we’re standing.

RICK: This cable car that’s crossing now, it was built in 1893 and originally ran on the Sacramento-Clay line. It moved over to Powell Street after the 1906 earthquake when the original Powell fleet was incinerated when the cable car, uh, barn burned down. They had a bunch of cable cars stored outside the fire area on Sacramento Street, and they, they just moved them over to Powell, and most of ‘em are still running today.

MELISSA: Now it’s time now to go inside the cable car barn and check out some of the mechanics of how the cars work.

DENNIS DEA: The whole system runs out of this building, you know. It used to be, uh, a number of, of these, uh, barns, but now it’s just consolidated into one.

MELISSA: That’s electric transit system mechanic supervisor Dennis Dea showing us around.

DENNIS: Second floor mezzanine is operations and, and administration for the operators. The second floor, itself, is all the cars. This yellow line at night is full of cars…of cable cars. Approximately 40 in the building, we have two under restoration. And then below, downstairs on the first floor, is the cables and the, and the track maintenance where the machinery runs the cable, they maintain the cable, and then there’s a crew that maintains the track, switches and rails, themselves.

MELISSA: After taking an up-close look at a few of the cable cars…

DENNIS: This one, take a look, dedicated to Willie Mays. Special paint job. Even underneath, you see it’s got the Giants colors on the board, there.

MELISSA: …we head down to the first floor.

DENNIS: So this is the cable machinery. So these are actual machines that move the cable. This is four independent DC motors each driving a gear reduction. Each turning one of these, us, sheens or pulleys. So the cable wraps over one, under the other, and then there’s another one way down at the end of this, this, uh, raceway that they move to give the cable tension. So this thing runs from uh, from ah, approximately six in the morning until one, one-thirty in the morning.

MELISSA: The cable runs underground and is in motion during service hours. When the cars are out on street, they grab hold of it to move and let go to stop. The concept is very simple, but maneuvering the cars and handling the cable grip requires skill, and that brings us to operator Derrick Johnson:

DERRICK JOHNSON: Basically, it takes a little strength, leverage, and also a good night’s rest. And also keep a even, total keel mind all the time. Don’t get too upset. Don’t get too outta your rhythm. Just stay within your rhythm and just keep your eyes moving left-right, left-right, and just see everything in front of you.

MELISSA: Johnson has been with the agency since 2000…in the cable car division the entire time…and he intends to stay there for the rest of his career. While operating a cable car, especially in the rain, can be a challenge, it’s also very rewarding.

DERRICK: This is like, uh, an adult Disneyland. ‘Cause people are excited, and they get so excited they run to the cable cars, you know. So it’s, like, we have to actually place people where they should be at and keep them safe all the time. But it’s exciting, and I love to see when the kids get on. They get on there so excited, but by the time they get off the cable car… Most of us are pretty good operators, they’re asleep.

MELISSA: We’re having this conversation while sitting on a cable car parked at the barn, and with us is Val Lupiz who has been a Muni operator for 25 years and has spent almost his entire career on the cable cars.

VAL LUPIZ: One thing I find that’s really cool is the number of wedding photos I’ve been in. I think I’ve probably been in a couple hundred wedding photos and videos and what, but it’s cool! It’s really, really cool. One story I do have, though. I was down at Powell and Market getting ready to leave. This guy comes up and tries to hand me a 20-dollar bill. “Do me a favor!” And he points to his, his lady friend, and he pulls out this little jewelry box, this beautiful diamond engagement ring. “I wanna propose to my girlfriend, can you…” Dude, sit down, I got it covered. Don’t worry about it. I got you. We get up to the top of the hill, up at Lombard. Stop the car. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gonna be here for just a couple minutes, if you can bear with me. We have a very important event to take care of!” He got off the car, got down on one knee. The whole thing…it was beautiful! Took out the little jewelry box. I took out my flashlight, put a spotlight on the ring (laughter). Another cable car passed us on the other direction, I went, “Stop, stop, stop, stop. Check this out! This is cool, wanna hear it.” “Will you marry me?” And she went, “Oh! Yes!” And just, you know, the applause and the cheers, and this is, I don’t know, 15, 18 years ago. It’s still one of my treasured memories.

MELISSA: The cable cars aren’t just vehicles, of course. They are remnants of a bygone era that continue to roll into the future.

VAL: There is that genuine connection to what’s called, I guess, living history, It’s not a static display in a museum. It’s alive. It’s rolling. It’s part of the everyday fabric of the city. And I think we’re all very, very fortunate to be able to do this. You know, we have a very, very important part of San Francisco. We bring these things to life. I feel very privileged to do this.

MELISSA: From the barn, we head over to Fisherman’s Wharf to see how these living pieces of history support San Francisco’s economy. The Buena Vista at the corner of Hyde and Beach Streets near Aquatic Park is at the end of the Powell Mason and Powell Hyde lines, and general manager Larry Silva says the cable cars have a big impact on the café.

LARRY SILVA: People get off here, they go visit all the places, and then they come in. If the cable cars are not running for any mechanical reason, then we notice about a 20-percent drop in our business. Uh, I think the cable cars have always been a integral part of this area.

MELISSA: The Buena Vista was able to stay open, even if just for take-out or outdoor dining only, throughout the Covid-19 emergency, and Silva tells us people noticed when the pandemic temporarily shut the cable cars down.

LARRY: A lot of our customers asked, “Are the cable cars coming back? When are they gonna be back?” Almost every other customer would ask that.

MELISSA: At the other end of the Powell lines is Union Square, where the queue to board snakes around the turnaround the cars use to change direction. Some of the people waiting are locals, like Dennis Reed who lives in Hayward.

DENNIS REED: When I first came here in ’82, I came to this very spot, and I saw the cable cars. No way I could resist, I had to ride. So part of my tour that I give to all of my relatives and friends when they come, is I bring them to the cable cars. Of course, they don’t call them cable cars, they call ‘em trolleys, and of course I have to come in immediately and correct them. “No, this is called a cable car.” 

MELISSA: And some folks, of course, are from out of town. Carmen is visiting from San Diego with her family.

MELISSA: Can you tell me how old you are?
 
 CARMEN: Six
 
 MELISSA: You’re six! And what are you doing here today? What are you waiting to do?
 CARMEN: Go to Ghirardelli
 
 MELISSA: And how are you going to get there? What kind of car are you going to take?
 
 CARMEN: A cable car
 
 MELISSA: Do you think it’s gonna be fun?
 
 CARMEN: Yes. I like the color

MELISSA: A short walk from the turnaround is John’s Grill. The Maltese Falcon may have made the 115-year-old restaurant famous, but co-owner John Konstin tells us the sound of the cable cars are an important part of the ambiance.

JOHN KONSTIN: You can find me, you know, at the host podium, uh, outside kind of watching the neighborhood, and hearing those bells is what makes you feel like you’re at home here at John’s Grill. 

MELISSA: Konstin says the cable cars bring visitors to his restaurant, and he returns the favor.

JOHN: We have so many people that walk in from all walks of life, and they ask us, “What do we do?” And it’s the easiest thing to tell them to go and do the most San Francisco thing ever and walk around the corner and hop onto to, uh, a cable car and, um, enjoy, you know, going up and down the hills of San Francisco.

MELISSA: And around the corner from John’s Grill is CK Contemporary, an art gallery that has been in Union Square for a decade but moved into a space on Powell Street three years ago with the cable car tracks just outside its window. Co-owner Lauren Ellis says that while the area has been slow to rebound from the effects of the pandemic, the cable cars continue to bring joy and give her reason to be optimistic.

LAUREN ELLIS: We are having a difficult moment downtown. That is undeniable. That being said, we have kind of a front-row view to the recovery, and watching more and more people on that cable car line, more and more people coming to town. And we are absolutely moving in the right direction because of it. And we have the evidence to show, and it comes in the form of people on the cable car.

MELISSA: Back on Big 19, that cable car taking us up California Street, Mayor Breed is just as confident. 

LONDON BREED: San Francisco, not just because of our cable car, but because of how beautiful it is, will be a place that comes back from a lot of the challenges that have existed. It’s only a matter of time, and we, you know, we’re gonna be here, and we’re gonna say, “See? Told ya’ so.”

MELISSA: Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.