7 things you might not know about San Francisco's cable cars A cable car turnaround in San Francisco. (Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr/National Archives)
7 things you might not know about San Francisco's cable cars
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Cable cars are a symbol for San Francisco. But they are also a big part of the city's history. 

Only 40 Cable Cars Are Left in Operation.
 
The Great Earthquake happened in 1906. Before that, there were more than 600 cable cars in San Francisco. By 1912, there were less than 100. Today, there are 40. A cable car must be replaced. This happens every few years. The process is similar to building a sailboat. It is also like making high-end cabinetry. It involves several dozen people. These include Union carpenters. It includes machinists. It includes electric transit mechanics. It includes painters. It includes glaziers It includes pattern makers. And in includes transit operators. They take great pride in a world-renowned tradition of craftsmanship. 

New cable cars are built in San Francisco’s trendy Dogpatch neighborhood. It is a former shipbuilding area. It is on the former site of the old Tubb’s Cordage factory. 

Each Cable Car is a Work of Art.

Building a cable car is an exacting art. It takes several dozen craftsmen. It takes 18 to 24 months to complete.

“Skilled carpenters create the frame and body. It is built mainly of oak and other hardwoods” says Norbert Feyling. His  family has worked in cable car maintenance for three generations. That is since the 1880s. 

“The roof is tongue-and-groove Alaskan spruce, covered in canvas. The fittings are of iron, steel and polished brass. The fresh wood smell and bare oak grain of an unpainted cable car is a thing of rare beauty.” 

New cable cars are painted at the cable car barn. Many parts receive multiple coats of varnish. This includes the seats. It includes the stanchions. And it includes the ceiling.  “It’s a slow, precise process, all hand brushed,” Feyling adds reverently. “No spray guns are used.”

Streetcars Are Different From Cable Cars – Ask New Orleans.

San Francisco’s MUNI system has a lot of historic vehicles. But not all of them are cable cars. "A Streetcar Named Desire" is by Tennessee Williams. In that play he created what might be America’s most famous public transit vehicle. But it was in New Orleans. 

San Francisco's Muni system is also famous for its fleet of heritage trolleys. Two such relics are Streetcars No. 913 and 952. These plied New Orleans’ “Desire” line. That was along Bourbon Street. And it went through the French Quarter. New Orleans removed the streetcars from this line. That was in 1948. San Francisco acquired two of these 1923 vehicles. They also acquired maintenance permitting—drafts. They put them into service. 

Rick Laubscher is president of the Market Street Railway. “In 2005," he recalls, “Streetcar No. 952 was decorated for the holidays. This was done to match the New Orleans tradition. It carried banners raising money for victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

The War Opened Doors for Women and African Americans.

There were two major street railways in San Francisco. This was from 1912 until 1944. One was public. It was Muni. One was private. This was the Market Street Railway. The war effort led to a surge in the hiring of women. And in the hiring of minorities. The private company promised women permanent jobs after the war’s end. Muni offered only “the duration and six months.” 

One of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductors was the poet Maya Angelou. She worked on the Market Street Line. She wrote about the experience in her autobiography. It is called "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Angelou never actually worked for Muni. She left before the two railways merged. That was in 1944. 

The Most Popular Driver Was Given a Trip to Hawaii.

The cable car and trolley and operators have always served as the public face of the San Francisco Muni. Stand-out employees were given “Courtesy Citations.” That was early on. The program became the popular “Muni Man of the Month.” The name was eventually changed to “Person of the Month.” That was after Cable Car conductor Mary Alice Ball won the honor. That was in 1953. It was an open competition. Muni asked the public to “Tell us by note or postcard any unusual example of service and courtesy, giving Muni operator’s cap number.” Twelve drivers each year received cash prizes. Their names were placed in a pool. One of them would win an all-expense-paid trip. It was to Hawaii.

The First Female Was Hired as a Gripman in 1998.

San Francisco’s cable cars take two people to operate. It takes a conductor. And it takes a gripman. The gripman has many tasks. One task is handling a 365-pound device. It grabs the cable as it rattles under the track at 9.5 mph. “Gripping” a cable car is a highly demanding physical task. It requires upper body strength. It calls for delicate balance. And it calls for superb eye-hand coordination. 

Fannie Mae Barnes was 52 when she took Muni’s 25-day grip course. This was in late 1997. She’d been a conductor for six years. No woman had ever made it past the first day of training. Barnes passed. She became the first woman to operate a cable car grip. This was in January 1998. 

“The cable car itself weighs eight tons, empty,” Barnes told an interviewer. “It's a miniature train. A lot of guys try to muscle the grip. But it's really more a finesse thing.” 

Barnes carried the Olympic torch in 2002. She carried it up Hyde Street. It was part of the relay leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

San Francisco’s Cable Cars (and Streetcars!) are Iconic Movie Setpieces.

Several movies have been shot in San Francisco. Many of the movies feature the SF Muni’s cable cars. They feature the trolleys. And they feature streetcars. 

The films include "Dark Passage" from 1947. It stars Humphrey Bogart. He rides aboard Powell Street car No. 20. 

"Yours, Mine and Ours" is from 1968. It stars Lucille Ball. And it stars Henry Fonda. They go on a first date. They also ride on a packed Powell Street cable car.

"Dirty Harry" is from 1971. It featured streetcar interiors. It was filmed in the Elkton Shops.

A Muni driver is seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire." The movie came out in 1993. The driver flirts with Robin Williams' character. That character is Mrs. Doubtfire.

The 1995 film "The Net" is set in San Francisco. It stars Sandra Bullock. She rides on the California Line.

The cable cars are very popular. These movies likely won’t be the last to feature the iconic railway system.

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Which fact did you find most surprising about the cable cars? Why were you surprised?
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