SFMTA, Market Street Railway celebrating 150th anniversary of cable cars

June 13, 2023
A dozen San Francisco organizations are joining forces with SFMTA and Market Street Railway to promote increased cable car ridership with events in the summer and fall of 2023.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and its nonprofit preservation partner, Market Street Railway, have joined together with a dozen organizations, including business and merchant groups and history and preservation nonprofits, to stage a slate of special events in the summer and fall of 2023 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of cable cars, San Francisco’s iconic symbol.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the cable car’s invention, a dozen San Francisco organizations are joining forces to promote increased cable car ridership.

“For the last 150 years, residents and visitors have enjoyed the incredible experience of riding our cable cars through our neighborhoods to experience stunning bay views that are famous all over the world,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “You cannot imagine San Francisco without our iconic cable cars. In celebration of the 150th anniversary, we invite everyone to ride our wonderful cable cars to experience the magic of San Francisco.”

Events kick off on June 13 at 11 a.m. Breed, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin will join civic, business and neighborhood leaders to ride the oldest surviving cable car, ‘Big 19’, originally built for service on Market Street in 1883 and one of the largest cable cars ever built. The inaugural ride will take them through the Financial District, Chinatown and over Nob Hill to Polk Gulch and Van Ness Avenue.

The cable car starring in the kickoff event is unique. In the 1880s, it was open-sided and carried throngs of riders from the Ferry Building out Market and Haight streets to enjoy Golden Gate Park. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, ‘Big 19’ moved to the Sacramento-Clay route, successor to Andrew Hallidie’s original 1873 cable car line, and ran there from 1907 until 1942 when that line shut down. Restored by Muni crafts workers, ‘Big 19’, one of the largest cable cars ever built, will inaugurate the celebration with a trip up California Street through Chinatown and over Nob Hill, just two blocks south of inventor Hallidie’s Clay Street line. Decades after being sold as surplus to a cattle rancher in Santa Barbara County when the O’Farrell line closed, Market Street Railway brought it back to San Francisco and worked with Muni to restore it for service.

On the actual 150th anniversary date, August 2, history reenactors portraying Hallidie, Emperor Norton, Domingo Ghirardelli, Lotta Crabtree and other notable San Franciscans from 150 years ago will gather at Hallidie Plaza at Powell and Market Streets at 10 a.m. to honor Hallidie’s historic first run. A by-invitation luncheon will follow, honoring cable car heroes, including Hallidie; Friedel Klussmann, who saved the cable cars in 1947, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who as mayor personally led the rebuilding of the cable car system 40 years ago, Fannie Mae Barnes, the first woman to work as a “gripman” operating a cable car 25 years ago, and others.

Later in the summer, Muni hopes to have ‘Big 19’ in regular service every Saturday on the California Street line through the fall as part of the celebration. Likewise, if work can be completed, Muni plans monthly operation of cable car 42 on its original Hyde Street trackage. Cable car 42 ran the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line until 1954 when the southern half of the line was abandoned, and the tracks on Hyde were connected to part of a Powell Street line. Car 42 retains its original 1907 paint scheme and details.

The San Francisco Public Library’s San Francisco History Center will mount an exhibit of historic cable car photos, in collaboration with the SFMTA Photo Archive. Market Street Railway’s free San Francisco Railway Museum on Steuart Street across from the Ferry Building will debut a special exhibit on 150 years of cable cars in mid-July.

A six-month slate of special events includes:

  1. The first-ever public tours of the Muni shop, where cable cars are built and rebuilt
  2. History-themed walk/ride tours of neighborhoods served by the cable car lines
  3. The planned operation of “ghost” cable cars from disappeared lines

The SFMTA offers a $13 all-day, all-Muni pass, available on the Muni Mobile smartphone app, giving unlimited access to all Muni services, including all three cable car lines, the F-line historic streetcars on Market Street and the waterfront, plus all Muni Metro trains and all Muni buses. Additionally, to celebrate Muni’s oldest surviving cable car line on California Street, Muni Mobile will offer a special $5 all-day pass for just the California line starting on July 1 and lasting until year-end. The California line, with larger cable cars than the Powell line, has available capacity, making it easy for riders to hop on and hop off anywhere along the line for the entire day without paying an additional fare.

“San Francisco is famous for creating wonderful civic events, and what could be more wonderful than celebrating 150 years of cable cars,” Tumlin said. “SFMTA owns and operates the cable cars as part of Muni, but really, they belong to everyone, and we invite people from around the world, around the Bay, and around the block, to enjoy our iconic cable cars.”

“No other city in the world has cable cars. San Francisco was the first city with cable cars, and since 1957, we’ve been the only city to run them,” said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway. “Our special 150th anniversary website, sfcablecars.org, is filled with cable car history and little-known stories. It also makes it easy to combine cable car rides with walking tours of Chinatown, the Barbary Coast, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Union Square, Polk Gulch and the Financial District. It’s a great year to rediscover San Francisco and the cable cars.”