Cal Cable’s Hyde & California Street Car Barn & Powerhouse

By Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria

Editor’s Notes: May 16, 2004, marks the 50th anniversary of the cut back (by Muni) from Presidio Avenue to Van Ness Avenue of the California Street cable car and the total discountenance of the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line. The Jones Street Shuttle had been discontinued on February 6, 1954.

April 10, 2003 marked the 125th anniversary of cable car service on San Francisco’s California Street (from Kearny to Van Ness Avenue). From 1891 to 1956 California Street cable cars operated from a car barn and powerhouse at Hyde & California Streets that was built by the California Street Cable Railroad. Since 1957 California Street cable cars have used the same facility as the Powell Street cable cars -- Washington & Mason. These two facilities differ significantly.

Given the importance of these anniversaries and the uniqueness of the California Street Cable Railroad Company’s car barn and as tribute surviving California Street cable car line, this piece is posted. Materials used are drawn from San Francisco’s California Street Cable Car; Celebrating a Century and a Quarter of Service by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria, published by Harold Cox (March 2003). The authors were assisted by Don Holmgren and Jack P. Smith. A special thanks to Jack P. Smith whose recollections of Hyde & California were invaluable and to Emiliano Echeverria for producing the fine diagrams of this facility. These diagrams of the car barn’s layout and the immediate street trackage are found at the end of this piece. (Walter Rice)

San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (Muni) was in a hurry to restore cable car service to the three former California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) lines. July 31, 1951 proved to be the last day of service of that venerable company. Lloyds of London had canceled the railroad’s insurance after a waitress, injured in an accident, won a $140,000 judgment an adverse judgment. On January 8, 1952 one day after City ownership became official, Muni motor coaches, trolley coaches, streetcars and Powell Street cable cars carried "NOTICE TO PUBLIC" signs announcing restoration of service, effective January 13.

Cal Cable had ceased operation when this fall 1951 view was made showing the company's car barn's Hyde Street side. The wooden building in the center was Cal Cable's offices at the southwest corner of Hyde & California. Because of the cessation of service the doors are shut, windows bolted and the cables silent. Uninsured and bankrupt Cal Cable is dead and for sale. Negotiations with the City are pending but the fate of the carbarn andthe cars inside is still in doubt. After more than 73 years Cal Cable is now silent. Charles A. Smallwood collection.

When the City reopened the three former Cal Cable lines – California Street; O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde and the Jones Street Shuttle – it also reopened Cal Cable’s barn and powerhouse at California and Hyde. The Cal Cable barn and powerhouse differed in operation and design from the Powell lines’ Washington-Mason facility.

O’Farrell, Jones and Hyde cars and Jones Street Shuttles entered the barn from Hyde Street. Cars would stop north of the barn entrance, the gripman would drop the cable and the grip would be removed. Like most cable car barns, the barn track had no cable slots. Grips had to be removed on the street before a pull-in could enter. Cal Cable’s grips were a two-piece design, the grip itself and the grip lever or handle that was kept in place by a large bolt and locking pin. Grip removal was labor intensive, a shopman and the gripman lifted the grip out and placed it against the inside of the outside seats next to the grip hole. The lever was placed on the floor. Cal Cable crews got the same car and the same grip every day, unless something was wrong with the car or the grip.

Cal Cable’s doubled-ended “California style” cars were operated from both ends, however only one end had the actual grip mechanism to attach to the cable. When operated from the non-grip end the duplicate grip lever was linked to the actual grip by a connecting rod. When Muni in December 1957 began operating the California Street line from the Powell cable’s Washington-Mason cable car barn, actual grips were put in both ends of the “California” cars.

After coasting to the entrance, the Hyde Street car (south or grip end first,) would be pulled into the barn and up an incline the height of the next floor by means of a heavy rope and a towing motor. At the top, the incline ended in a transfer table by which the cars would be shifted to one of the storage tracks, on the barn’s east side facing Hyde Street. Cars needing attention were moved to repair pits and in and out of the machine shops by means of a small tractor, or by hand. Prior to the advent of the tractor a horse or mule may have been used.

Great drama was associated with Hyde cars leaving the barn. A flagman would stop traffic. Cars with the south or grip end last, would coast down the incline at speed, make a 90-degree left-hand turn onto Hyde Street’s outbound (northbound) track and coast to a stop next to Gilmore’s bar on the southeast corner of California Street where there was a track dip. The grip would be installed and the cable would be picked up at the track dip if the cars were bound for Beach Street. Market Street-bound cars would reverse direction, coast over a crossover to the inbound track, stop at another track dip, have their grip installed and pick up the cable.

A track dip consists of a dip in the track that brings the grip’s jaws down to the level of the cable. The grip lever then is pulled back, thus taking cable in the jaws of the grip. The car can then grip the cable and proceed.

California Street cars entered the barn from that line’s inbound track. Pull-ins would stop on the inbound track, just east of the barn entrance. There, they let go of the cable, had their grip removed and coasted downhill west and south into the barn with the west or grip end first onto a transfer table. The transfer table would take the car to a turntable (yes, Cal Cable had a turntable!), where the car would be turned 180 degrees. This practice was needed so that the same end, the west end, would always be the grip end. Then by means of a small tractor or by hand the car would be shoved into a storage track. If the car needed repairs, it would be moved to the elevator to reach the upstairs repair pits or machine shops where the Hyde Street cars were stored. The cable-winding machine also powered the elevator.

Lloyds of London canceled Cal Cable’s insurance after a waitress, injured in an accident, won a $140,000 judgment in adverse legal judgment. Cal Cable’s president Dr. John Haman, a physician, stated, "service could only resume if insurance was obtained." It was not. The result being that company’s cars are silent waiting an uncertain future.This photo was taken standing in the car barn’s transfer table pit shows cars of both of the company's major lines -- California Street and O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde -- out of service. Charles A. Smallwood collection.

California Street cars would coast out of the barn grip end first, turning left from the exit track onto the California Street inbound track. Heading west, they would immediately coast over a crossover to the outbound track. Once they were on the outbound track, the grip would be installed, the cable picked up by using a “gypsy” (chain), and the cars would head out to Presidio Avenue. Pullouts destined for Market Street would reverse direction by using the crossover just east of Van Ness Avenue.

Since California Street used an off-center slot and a side-grip system, California Street cars could not use track dips because for the dips to work the cable must be directly below the center of the grip's crotch. On California Street, the conductor would pull up the gypsy and the cable would slide into the grip's crotch, where the grip's jaws then engage it.

The winding equipment still in use in 1956 was that which was designed and placed into service in 1891. The rods, cranks, pulleys (sheaves [pronounced “shiv”]), beams and pipes were rendered badly out of shape from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Under the direction of President Stetson and superintendent Harris they were restored. The powerhouse’s main drive shaft had been warped by the fire. Stetson conceived the idea of slowly heating the shaft to straighten it. His plan worked saving the company considerable amount of money. Importantly, it allowed limited service on the California line to begin that August. After 1916, electricity replaced steam as the power source for the winding machinery.

Because of the 1891 opening of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line and the Jones Street Shuttle, Cal Cable built a new three-story brick powerhouse and car barn at Hyde and California Streets, where the company’s California Street and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde lines crossed. Previously, the company’s main facilities were at California and Larkin Streets.

Cal Cable’s winding equipment at its powerhouse was a multiple-wrap vertical tension-run driving system. Cable stretches several feet during its service life, and proper tension on the cable must be maintained. At the Powell Street lines’ Washington-Mason powerhouse a horizontal tension run is used for tension adjustments. Tension is maintained by moving the rear drum. Cal Cable’s tension drum was positioned vertically above the winding machinery moving up and down to adjust the tension in a manner similar to that of a yo-yo. An advantage of this system is it requires less ground-level space. Randolph C. Brandt collection, Emiliano Echeverria.

Cal Cable’s winding equipment was a multiple-wrap vertical tension-run driving system. J.C.H. Stutt, a local engineer devised the powerhouse installation and San Francisco’s Union Iron Works built the engines and other machinery. The steam engines installed in the new powerhouse marked the first use of triple expansion engines for cable traction. Three condensing engines, coupled to a single shaft, produced 500hp at 61rpm. Three Babcock & Wilcox boilers, only two of which operated at anyone time, provided steam for the engines. The company replaced the steam engines with electric motors in 1916.

Cal Cable’s cable machinery, showing a horizontal long tension run. Cal Cable would wrap its cables additional times around the driving wheels as a way to eliminate long term slack. Long term slack occurs as the cable stretches with use and age, whereas short term slack occurs when cars "let go" off the cable. Charles A. Smallwood collection.

In place of gearing, the new power plant utilized a rope drive to transmit power from a 7’ 9” driving pinion on the engine shaft to a 25-foot diameter-receiving pulley on the main drive shaft. The main shaft carried two sets of 12-foot diameter winding sheaves. Stutt designed a multiple-wrap driving system for the powerhouse, in which the cable passed around the driving and idler drums four or five times in order to acquire the adhesion needed to prevent the cable from slipping. Up to 300 feet of cable could be taken up by moving the idler drums along a 30-foot long bedplate as the cable stretched with use. Stutt developed an innovative, vertical tension run for the powerhouse, eliminating the need for the long tension runs used by other firms. Stutt’s design employed an 8-foot diameter sheave, supported in a gate frame, which bore down on the cable with a weight of 1800 pounds. The weight of the sheave kept the cable taut during the variations incurred in daily operations.

Before 1891 the cable speed was six miles per hour. However, after 1891, unique for San Francisco, the two cables required for the California Street line ran at different speeds. The Market to Hyde cable was set for 8½ miles per hour. From Hyde Street to Presidio Avenue the cable speed was 12½ miles per hour. The result of this arrangement was that a California cable car could make more than one round-trip per hour. Accordingly, hourly fare collections were high and likewise the profits. Cal Cable’s management knew how to do run an economically successful cable line. O’Farrell, Jones and Hyde cars and the Jones Street shuttle had a steady cable speed of 9½ miles per hour.

Cable stretches several feet during its service life, and proper tension on the cable must be maintained. At the Powell Street lines’ Washington-Mason powerhouse a horizontal tension run is used for tension adjustments. Tension is maintained by moving the rear drum (wheel, pulley or sheave) farther back from the winding drums. When this drum reached its farthest point, the cable was either shortened and spliced, or replaced. The tension drum is on a track approximately 120 feet long Cal Cable’s tension drum was positioned vertically above the winding machinery. An advantage of this system is it requires less ground-level space.

On February 6, 1954, the Jones Street Shuttle was discontinued without replacement. This was followed on May 16 by the California Street line being cut back from Presidio Avenue to Van Ness Avenue. The entire O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line was discontinued on this date. The former Cal Cable system was now reduced to a dozen cars, the requirement for the truncated California Street line. The size of the operation was too small to justify its own car barn and powerhouse.

On December 17, 1956 Muni informed the public that effective December 30, 1956 “Service on the California Street Cable Car Line will be TEMPORARILY discontinued for a few months due to the necessity of installing new track connections at Hyde and California and reconstructing the cable channel in both tracks from Market to Van Ness." This shut-down was necessary to install the track work to allow the California line to be converted to Powell Street bottom grip and operate from Washington-Mason.

The last of the California cable line’s original configuration died at 11:30 p.m. Saturday, December 29, 1956 when car 15's grip was removed from the slot, the last side-grip car. Thus, allowing No. 15 to coast into the California Street powerhouse and carbarn for the final time. Early in the morning of December 22, 1957, the California Street line began operation from the Washington-Mason cable car barn.

Click below to see Diagrams of the Cal & Hyde Car Barn & PowerHouse

Plan: Car House, Hyde Street Level

Plan: Car House, California Street Level

Plan: Cable Machinery

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Copyright 2003 by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria. All rights reserved.
Last updated 01-Mar-2004