San Franciscans Fight to Keep Historic Cable Cars - An Article from Life Magazine, February 24, 1947

Collected by Walter Rice

San Franciscans Fight to Keep Historic Cable Cars

Life Magazine, February 24, 1947

Thanks to Walter Rice for providing this interesting article.

Background: On January 27, 1947 San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham in his annual message to the Board of Supervisors declared, "the city should get rid of its cable cars as soon as possible." The mayor was referring to the city owned Powell Street cable car lines - Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson. Three other cable car lines were also in service, but they were owned by a private company the California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable), and hence were exempt from the mayor's pronouncement.

Eight days after Life Magazine published its February 24, 1947 cable car article, on March 4, within the sight of Roger Lapham's office, the San Francisco Federation of the Arts and the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association held a joint meeting attended by leaders of 27 women's civic groups. Rallied by the impassioned pleas of Friedel Klussmann, they formed the "Citizen's Committee to Save the Cable Cars." The Citizen's Committee would be successful in winning an election that November that saved the Powell Street cars.

The Life article is important in that it shows how rapidly opposition to Major Lapham's plan developed - before Friedel Klussmann's committee could spring into action! One could conclude that Life's editors did not do their homework since the article prominently features photographs of the private unaffected Cal Cable.

The text of this February 24, 1947 Life (pages 15-17) article is below. Four representative pictures with their captions from the publication are included. (Walter Rice)


Two cars of California Street Cable Car R.R. Co. (sic), passengers clinging to their sides, pass on a steep hill in San Francisco.

For almost three quarters of a century San Franciscans have gone about their affairs to the staccato clanging and clicking of the hard-working little cars that crawl up and down, the city's precipitous slopes, pulled by an endless, subsurface cable. Last month the venerable old cars were in danger of extinction. Unmoved by riders, who voted 9 to 1 in favor of retaining them, bouncy Mayor Roger Lapham announced that the cable cars must go.

It was as though Venice had proposed ridding itself of its gondolas. Civic-minded San Franciscans and sentimentalists all over the U.S. denounced the move, ridiculed Lapham's claim that the cars were losing $200,000 a year, wondered how buses, even if they could climb the hills, would lose any less. Not only were the little cars part of the city's flavor; they were part of its history. Invented by a Scot named Andrew Hallidie in 1873, cable lines developed areas on the city's almost inaccessible hills. Railway Pioneer Leland Stanford built his own line in 1878, and on it early nabobs like Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington used to ride to their Nob Hill homes. Stanford's line, the California Street Cable Car R.R. Co. (sic), still operates independently, but the other seven that flourished in the 1890s have disappeared. As Lapham intensified his campaign of extermination, one local newspaper wrote him a bitter open letter, suggested that he might as well make the job complete and get rid of famed Fisherman's Wharf, Golden Gate Park and Chinatown.

LEG DISPLAY of pretty passengers will be missed if the cars go. Another objection of some citizens is the danger of new motor buses slipping on wet hills.
EMBATTLED CABLE-CAR RIDERS like Mrs. Henry Dippel (right) are organizing an all-out campaign of resistance among women to scrapping of the little cars.
CAR ON TURNTABLE at Powell and Market Streets is turned about for the return climb. Passengers often turn the car by hand, take a proprietary interest in 40-year old equipment.

The July 15, 1946 edition of Time featured San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham on its cover. The article inside said "On July 16 the city will go to the polls and decide whether to recall Mayor Roger Dearborn Lapham. Some San Franciscans wanted to oust him because his administration had put through a 3 fare rise on the city's rattletrap trolley lines."
Read the complete article

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Last updated 01-Feb-2006