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Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Municipal Railway’


Today I stand, or rather sit (I find it easier to type that way), accused of a series of offences that, taken together, amount to an even more grievous crime – that of being a bad tourist in San Francisco.

With what appears now to have become an annual pilgrimage to The City approaching, I plead guilty on all counts as outlined below.

1. Failure to take a single cable car ride during the past three vacations, amounting to a total of 52 days.

This is all the more remarkable given my affection for the cute little blighters, but long lines at the turnarounds and a preference for both walking and other forms of transportation (even Muni!), have conspired to keep me away from the lead rail in recent times. But I promise that this is one omission that I intend to rectify very soon.

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2. Failure to visit Alcatraz during the past five vacations, amounting to a total of 73 days. 

Alcatraz is unquestionably one of the city’s greatest draws and any new visitor must include it in his/her itinerary if time permits (be sure to book in advance). And, to be fair, I have taken that short ride across the bay several times in the past, including the night tour, which has an atmosphere all of its own. But not recently. There will come a time when I wish to be reminded of that atmosphere, but living in the now in the city is a greater priority at present.

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3. Failure to make a single purchase in either Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom or any other large store in the vicinity of Union Square at any time.

I have less compunction about flagrantly contravening this obligation. The late lamented Border’s bookstore and Rasputin’s dark, quirky music store have been the limit of my Union Square shopping experiences. Though I have eaten in the area on many occasions!

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4. Failure to purchase a cheap San Francisco fleece or waterproof jacket at Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39 at any time.

Another “crime” to which I can offer little defence. I learned the hard way, as many visitors do, that clear days on the bay often go hand in hand with bitingly cold temperatures and an uncomfortable wind (it was probably the crab). But, never being one to follow the herd, I have resisted the lure of this ubiquitous top seller, ensuring that I always carry sufficient layers with me, whatever the weather. And leave the shorts behind altogether (though I do compensate by wearing trousers in case you wondered)!

I have no doubt that I could ask for many other violations to be taken into consideration, notably a failure to ride the tourist buses often enough (only once – on my wife’s birthday), stay in a hotel (rather than renting apartments in outlying neighbourhoods like Noe Valley and Bernal Heights) or fill up on clam chowder.

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But in mitigation I would argue that, at least in part, I served my tourist apprencticeship during the final years of the last, and early years of the new, century, including dutifully riding the cable cars and visiting Alcatraz regularly.

Equally, I have always found time to hang out in Chinatown, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, however short the stay might have been.

So, whilst I may have gone a little off the rails – or rather cables – I am not completely a lost cause. Going straight – a precarious pursuit in this of all cities – may be beyond me as I journey to a new apartment and contemplate hiking the Presidio and Glen Canyon, but the need to research for my next book will also encourage me to reacquaint myself with those sights that so enchanted me in the early years.

Before sentence is passed, I would offer the following plea bargain – keep letting me back in to San Francisco and I will promise to play the tourist at least for some of the time.

But I draw the line at the fleece.

Dangle me from the Golden Gate Bridge if you ever see me wearing one.

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One of the most endearing but infuriating features of San Francisco’s characteristically quirky public transport system are the historic streetcars that run along the F Line between the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and the Embarcadero.

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Redolent of a bygone age, they are fascinating historical constructs that appeal primarily to tourists because anyone, local or frequent visitor alike, who has travelled on one, knows that they are built neither for speed nor comfort. One journey my wife and I took from Church and Market to Fisherman’s Wharf last month took an hour and twenty minutes, admittedly extended due to roadworks on Market. 

But, at the best of times, expect a rough, cramped, hot ride that goes nowhere very fast. 

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Whilst there are a number of home-grown, or rather home-built, cars, many have been imported from all over the globe, including as far afield as Tokyo and Melbourne. As I write this now, five and a half thousand miles and eight hours away, streetcars from the following cities are operating inbound towards Fisherman’s Wharf: Louisville Kentucky, El Paso Texas, Juarez Mexico, Detroit Michigan, Brooklyn New York, Boston Elevated Railway, Cleveland Ohio and Milan, Italy. Other cities to have “donated” vehicles from their collection include Birmingham Alabama and Cincinnati Ohio.

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There’s even one from the seaside resort of Blackpool in the north west of England, one I may well have sat on in decades past! We first encountered it in its new San Francisco home whilst waiting for the gleaming, modern MUNI Metro J Church train a couple of blocks from our Noe Valley apartment!

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Many “experts” opine that your best chance of boarding a cable car (which, by the way, costs three times as much for a single journey as a streetcar) is a few blocks away from the Powell Street and Hyde Street termini. That may well be true, but if you wish to ride a streetcar, your best chance of a) getting aboard at all, and b) finding a seat (though the likelihood of you feeling ill may actually be lessened by standing up), you would do well to start at either end of the route (especially alongside Walgreen’s at Fisherman’s Wharf), as the following photograph taken aboard the Baltimore bus at Church and Market would indicate.

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In conclusion, do NOT prise yourself onto one if you need to be somewhere any time the same week (sorry, I exaggerate to make a point). But if you have plenty of time on your hand, do not get stressed very easily and enjoy being part of history, go ahead, sit back and – ahem – enjoy the ride.

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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.

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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”.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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