Those “little cable cars” climbing “halfway to the stars” are one of the best loved and most iconic experiences for any visitor to San Francisco. But few tourists hanging onto that lead rail as the Powell-Hyde car plunges down to the bay, or commuters perched atop Nob Hill on a California Street car about to sweep past the swanky hotels en route to the Financial District, will be aware that there was a time, shortly after the Second World War, when they became an endangered species. Or even less so of the fact that they were saved for future generations through the foresight and resilience of a genteel, middle-aged lady from the eastern slopes of Telegraph Hill.
The devastating earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed much of the cable car system and triggered the rapid expansion in construction of electric streetcars with overhead wires, the first of which had been built in 1892. And once it had been shown that the latest municipal buses, unlike the streetcars, could negotiate the steep hills, the continued viability of Andrew Hallidie’s invention was called into sharp focus.
By 1944 there were only five lines left in operation - the three independently owned by the California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) and the Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines owned by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).
On 27th January 1947, in his annual message to the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Roger Lapham, a New York businessman who had been elected with a mandate to streamline the city’s finances, announced that the “city should get rid of its cable cars as soon as possible”, claiming that they were losing $200,000 a year.
Lapham’s vision of “super buses” replacing the cable cars met with little public favour, and the San Francisco Chronicle encapsulated the opposition’s argument in its editorial of 3rd February when it wrote that: “bus lines would be a good deal less expensive. But against this saving should be weighted………the market value of an institution which helps make the city stand out among cities of the world”.
But the strongest advocate for their retention came in the unlikely form of prominent socialite, Mrs Friedel Klussmann, who, outraged by this pronouncement, immediately began to mobilise opposition through the equally improbable auspices of the California Spring Blossom and Wildflowers Association and the San Francisco Federation of the Arts.
On 4th March, within sight of the Mayor’s office, she held a joint meeting attended by leaders of 27 women’s civic groups and formed a Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars, collecting more than 1,000 signatures in the first four hours of its campaign for an initiative charter amendment, a figure that was to rise to 50,000 by the end of the battle with City Hall. Despite the increasingly desperate arguments emanating from the Mayor’s office, the Board of Supervisors voted 7 to 4 to place Measure 10 on the November ballot.
Neither Mrs Klussmann nor her Committee were mere soft-hearted sentimentalists, and they put forth a robust rebuttal of the economic argument for closure in a detailed press release that spoke about the “$34,630,522 of new money” generated by tourism in the previous year, adding that San Francisco “is constantly striving to interest the rest of the world in its historical and colorful background, of which the cable cars are the No.1 attraction”. The loss of the Powell and Market turnaround would be a blow to the city’s identity that “cannot be measured”.
As Life Magazine put in in its 24th February edition: “It was as though Venice had proposed ridding itself of its gondolas”. Visiting celebrities, including Elenor Roosevelt, publicly endorsed Mrs Klussmann’s campaign. Newspapers were inundated with letters of support for the cable cars and accounts from passengers of their grim experiences waiting for and riding buses.
Measure 10 compelling the City to maintain and operate the existing cable car system was passed overwhelmingly by 166,989 votes to 51,457. In her victory statement Mrs Klussmann said: “It is wonderful to know that San Franciscans appreciate their famous, efficient and safe cable cars”. The Committee was galvanised again in 1950, 1951, 1954 and 1971 to fight further cost-cutting measures, with modest success.
In the same year Mrs Klussmann also founded San Francisco Beautiful (www.sfbeautiful.org), the “only organisation in San Francisco whose sole purpose is to protect and enhance the city’s urban environment”, working to “improve the quality of daily life, strengthen communities and empower citizens to maintain the character of the city’s parks, neighbourhoods and streets”. It continues to do excellent work today, not least through its Friedel Klussmann grants made to organisations that “seek to maintain or enhance San Francisco’s unique beauty and livability”.
When she died at the age of 90 in 1986 the cable cars were decorated in black in her memory. On 4th March 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of the Committee’s initial meeting outside City Hall, the Friends of the Cable Car Museum dedicated a mural to Mrs Klussmann at the cable car barn. The turntable at the outer terminal of the Powell-Hyde line was also dedicated to her.
So next time, dear visitor, when you skirt the ridge of Russian Hill on a clanking, rumbling Powell-Hyde cable car and catch your breath at the bay vista spread out before you, spare a thought for the prosperous, middle-aged lady, whose vision and courage sixty years ago ensured that you can have those unforgettable experiences today.
I am particularly indebted to Walter Rice and Val Lupiz’s excellent article The Cable Car and the Mayor (www.cable-car-guy.com/html/cclm.html#top) for much of the detail provided above.