San Francisco

Cable Car Chronology

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The San Francisco Cable Car Chronology chronicles the City's cable car history from 1869 to today. To make it easier to locate an item of interest or just browse, the chronology has been divided into four eras.

The Cable Car Conquers San Francisco’s Hills
(1869-April 17, 1906):

Companies covered are the Clay Street Hill Railroad, Sutter Street Railroad, California Street Cable Railroad, Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad, Presidio & Ferries Railroad, Market Street Cable Railway, Telegraph Hill Railroad, Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company, Market Street Railway (of 1893) and United Railroads of San Francisco.

During this era the cable car enjoyed its zenith as a transportation mode. The photo looking west from the Ferry Building up Market Street in 1905 shows the density of Market Street cable cars. During rush Market Street cable cars left the Ferry Building ever 15 seconds! Charles Smallwood Collection



The Cable Car is Almost Conquered by an Earthquake, Electric Streetcars and Politicians
(April 18, 1906 - December 19, 1957)

Companies covered are the California Street Cable Railroad, Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad, United Railroads, Market Street Railway (of 1921) and Municipal Railway of San Francisco.

During this era most of San Francisco’s cable car system was replaced as a result of the 1906 Earthquake and the economic superiority of the electric streetcar. Later conversions were made from cable car to motor bus or without any transit substitution. Ultimately, the reminding cable lines are operated by the City. The photo shows a California Street Cable Railroad (the last private company) Jones Street Shuttle waiting for connecting passengers as a Market Street bound O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde turns from Jones onto O'Farrell Street, Walter Rice Collection



A Cable Car Renaissance and Rebuilding -- Today's System
(December 22, 1957-December 12, 2007)

Company covered is the Municipal Railway of San Francisco. On December 22, 1957, the present three line cable car system – Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street – started service.

The current consolidated cable car system era is perhaps best indexed by the photo of a Powell Street car climbing the Hyde Street hill that was once the exclusive domain of double ended California Street Cable Railroad’s O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde cable cars. Walter Rice photo.



Rolling Along -- Today's Operations
(May 28, 2008-present)

Company covered is the Municipal Railway of San Francisco.

The current era is perhaps best indexed by a Val Lupiz photo of two Powell Street cars, a brand new number 15 and a completely rebuilt number 25, at the car barn, waiting for finishing touches. Val Lupiz photo.


Acknowledgments & Note

The material for this chronology came from a variety of sources. We are indebted to Transit in San Francisco, A Selected Chronology, 1850-1995 by Robert Callwell, Communications Department, San Francisco Municipal Railway, (September 1999), Emiliano J. Echeverria, A San Francisco Transportation Chronology, 1852-1921 (unpublished), the research and scholarship of Joe Thompson "the Cable Car Guy" and Paul Ward who provided the Muni "Notice to Public" cable car material. In addition, my own research has contributed to the structuring the chronology.

Scholars may note that certain dates differ from those found in other sources. Where such variation occurs, the date selected was based on consulting primary source material, contemporary newspapers and railway barn books.

Note-When cable car service was curtailed it was replaced by electric streetcars. From 1941 onward replacement was with motor coaches. However, for a few streets such as Oak Street east of Fillmore, Broderick, Jones, O'Farrell and 5th Avenue there was no direct replacement service.

Also, some companies with their cable car line(s) operated connecting horse car and/or steam dummy service. The above chronology focuses exclusively on cable car operation in San Francisco.

Walter Rice, Ph.D.

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Last updated 01-February-2009