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.
 
Before the Great Earthquake of 1906, there were more than 600 cable cars in San Francisco, but by 1912, there were less than 100, and today there are only 40. Every few years, a cable car must be replaced—a process comparable to building a sailboat, or high-end cabinetry. Several dozen Union carpenters, machinists, electric transit mechanics, painters, glaziers, pattern makers and transit operators participate, taking great pride in a world-renowned tradition of craftsmanship. 

Today, new cable cars are built in San Francisco’s trendy Dogpatch neighborhood (a former shipbuilding area) 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 that takes several dozen craftsmen 18 to 24 months to complete.

“Skilled carpenters create the frame and body, mainly of oak and other hardwoods” says Norbert Feyling, whose family has worked in cable car maintenance for three generations—since the 1880s. “The roof is tongue-and-groove Alaskan spruce, covered in canvas and 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 and the seats, stanchions and ceiling receive multiple coats of varnish. “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 is replete with historic vehicles—and not all of them are cable cars. With "A Streetcar Named Desire," Tennessee Williams created what might be America’s most famous public transit vehicle—albeit in New Orleans. 

Along with cable cars, the Muni system is famous for its fleet of heritage trolleys. Two such relics are Streetcars No. 913 and 952, which plied New Orleans’ “Desire” line—along Bourbon Street and through the French Quarter. New Orleans removed the streetcars from this line in 1948. San Francisco acquired two of these 1923 vehicles, and—maintenance permitting—drafts and put them into service. “In 2005,” Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher recalls, “Streetcar No. 952 was decorated for the holidays to match the New Orleans tradition, and carried banners raising money for victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

The War Opened Doors for Women and African Americans.

From 1912 until 1944, there were two major street railways in San Francisco – one public (Muni) and one private (the Market Street Railway). The war effort led to a surge in the hiring of women and minorities. But while 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—on the Market Street Line—was the poet Maya Angelou, who wrote about the experience in her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Angelou never actually worked for Muni; she left before the two railways merged 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. Early on, stand-out employees were given “Courtesy Citations.” The program became the popular “Muni Man of the Month,” but the name was eventually changed to “Person of the Month,” after Cable Car conductor Mary Alice Ball won the honor 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, then their names were placed in a pool and one of them would win an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii.

The First Female Was Hired as a Gripman in 1998.

San Francisco’s cable cars take two people to operate: a conductor, and a gripman, who—among other tasks—handles a 365-pound device that literally grabs the cable as it rattles under the track at 9.5 mph. “Gripping” a cable car is a highly demanding physical task that requires upper body strength, delicate balance and superb eye-hand coordination. 

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

In 2002, Barnes carried the Olympic torch up Hyde Street as 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 which feature the SF Muni’s cable cars, trolleys and streetcars. 

The films include 1947's, "Dark Passage," which stars Humphrey Bogart riding aboard Powell Street car No. 20. Another film that features a packed Powell Street cable car, is the 1968 move, "Yours, Mine and Ours," starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as a couple on a first date. Release in 1971, the Clint Eastwood classic, "Dirty Harry," features streetcar interiors filmed in the Elkton Shops.

Two mid-90s films took place in San Francisco: In the 1993 movie, "Mrs. Doubtfire," a Muni driver is seen flirting with Robin Williams as he portrays the titular character Mrs. Doubtfire; while the 1995 movie, "The Net," features Sandra Bullock riding on the California Line.

With the popularity of the famous cable cars, these surely won’t be the last films to feature the iconic railway system.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Which fact did you find most surprising about the cable cars? Why were you surprised?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (12)
  • TiffanyA-kiw
    1/18/2019 - 11:08 a.m.

    The fact I find the most surprising is that there was more than 600 of them and now there is only 40 of them working today.

  • Josephr-kiw
    1/18/2019 - 11:25 a.m.

    i though it would take longer to make. its how they were made by hand. it must take way too long to make it perfect and make it safe.

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