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

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. By 1912, there were less than 100. Today, there are 40. A cable car must be replaced every few years. The process is similar to building a sailboat, or high-end cabinetry. It involves several dozen people. These include Union carpenters and machinists. It includes electric transit mechanics. It includes painters and glaziers. It includes pattern makers and transit operators. They take great pride in a world-renowned tradition of craftsmanship. 

Today, 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 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 and stanchions. It also 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 is replete with historic vehicles. But not all of them are cable cars. Tennessee Williams created what might be America’s most famous public transit vehicle. This was in his play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." But it was in New Orleans. 

Along with cable cars, San Francisco's Muni system is 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 through the French Quarter. New Orleans removed the streetcars from this line in 1948. San Francisco acquired two of these 1923 vehicles. They also acquired maintenance permitting drafts and 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.

From 1912 until 1944, there were two major street railways in San Francisco. One was public: Muni. The other one was private: the Market Street Railway. The war effort led to a surge in the hiring of women and minorities. The private company promised women permanent jobs after the war’s end. But 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. She 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.” The name was eventually changed to “Person of the Month.” That was 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, and their names were placed in a pool. 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. It takes a conductor and a gripman. The gripman has many operating tasks. The job includes handling 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. It requires upper body strength and delicate balance. It also requires 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. 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 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. 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 and trolleys. They also feature the streetcars. 

The films include 1947's "Dark Passage" starring Humphrey Bogart. He rides aboard Powell Street car No. 20.

"Yours, Mine and Ours came out in 1968. It stars Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. If features the two on a first date, also on a packed Powell Street cable car.

"Dirty Harry" came out in 1971 and features streetcar interiors. These were filmed in the Elkton Shops.

A Muni driver is seen in the 1993 film, "Mrs. Doubtfire." The driver flirts with Robin Williams' character, Mrs. Doubtfire.
The 1995 film, "The Net," start Sandra Bullock. In this movie she rides on the California Line.

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

Filed Under:  
Assigned 124 times
Which fact did you find most surprising about the cable cars? Why were you surprised?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • BenC-E2
    1/16/2019 - 10:53 a.m.

    Wow!I think that it is amazing that they are still going. I read a book on that earthquake.so I hope I can go on those some time soon.I hope you enjoy this article.

  • Nicolas S-mag
    1/17/2019 - 07:59 p.m.

    I did not understand the assignment very well, but on the previous article he talks about the means of transportation of San Francisco and other places in the United States.
    (the cable car and the train) it is amazing that they continue to work and that people take care of the traditional means of transport of this city

  • Blanca A-mag
    1/18/2019 - 12:26 a.m.

    here are speak on the cable cars, of how many cable cars left in operation in san francisco, too it´s important you should know that building a cable car many people are needed
    too it´s speakthe street car 952,it is used for the holdays in san francisco there are two major street railways, the one was public in other one was private. For to use a cable car you need upper body strengls and delicate balance.

  • Jaqueline V-mag
    1/18/2019 - 12:38 a.m.

    I found it surprising that the roof is of Alaskan spruce covered in canvas and the smell of fresh wood, I have never seen a cable car of that type, but i think it must be something very fantastic and it is a sadness that there are very few left

  • Issac F-mag
    1/18/2019 - 12:39 a.m.

    The most curious or most shocking for me was, Each cable car is a work of art, because i like the details like no spray guns are used. I like the people that take the art with respect. may be the important thing is not only history and the art of things but also who is responsible for taking care of this art.

  • Azucena B-mag
    1/18/2019 - 02:09 a.m.

    All things are very surprising but, the fact that I found it more surprising and more relevant, was that of The First Female Was Hired as a Gripman, because women are usually considered ‘the weaker sex’, being that the handling of a device of so much weight, requires a demanding physical effort. Women are amazing!

  • Nicolas A-mag
    1/18/2019 - 03:20 p.m.

    in the text says that for these cableways to be made, it is required especial people that for these cableways to be made,it is required especial people that are dedicated to building cableways, becausee it is a verry slow and precise process, for everything to be just perfect.

    what surprised me the most is that the cableways are not like the ones in mexico, and that they are covered with any different accessories made out of different metals.
    in the text says that for these cableways to be made,bit is required especial people that are dedicated to building cableways, because it is a very slow and precise process, for everything to be just perfect.
    it also tells us that cableways are used for noble causes such as: recollecting money and help the people that lost everything during hurricane katrina, putting up flyers to get the help.
    and last but not least it is satisfactoryto involve women to give maintainance to the cableways, and to drive them even though it can bea very hard job to do.

  • Guadalupe C-mag
    1/18/2019 - 03:41 p.m.

    before exist many cablecars 600 and now just exist 40
    because is a place with an amazing tourism and they havent done anything to rescue the cablecar tha exist now.

    it is amazing the way that the cable car through he years, have been decieasing, but the new tell us that it´s not anything make new cable cars it need much time and much patience, because they are made with rustic material and nigh quality this cable car have helped to increase he people that visit he places and make films here it´s a good idea that the woman participate in this work.
    a woman was he firs person contracted to do he operatives work.

  • Alheli R-mag
    1/18/2019 - 04:02 p.m.

    To San Francisco the cable cars are also a big part of the city´s history. Before there were a lot of cable cars it were like 600 but through the time for different reasons they have decreased. the document talk that the cable car is not only anything, we can say that is an amazing work of art, it takes several dozen craftsmen and much time to complete one.
    this type of transportation is popular and is the tourist attraction of that city and is a good place to film some movies.

  • Yadira C-mag1
    1/18/2019 - 05:38 p.m.

    I found it very interesting the fact that in those times I had to see in the handling of these machines a woman and I was surprised because what I had heard before women were subjected to what men said and looked bad way that women would like to do the work that was for men