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A Forgotten Plot to Ditch Cable Cars for Wacky Open-Air Buses

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Coupled with the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street, the cable cars are among the most iconic symbols of San Francisco—so much so, they are a listed National Historic Landmark. While the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde, and California lines are still a major attraction for visitors, many of the original routes have been replaced by Muni bus routes over time. Most of the lines were converted to existing bus types, but in 1940 a proposal sought to replace them with this wacky open-air bus version.

Cable cars in San Francisco got their start thanks to British-born Andrew Hallidie, a wire rope manufacturer who wanted a solution after witnessing horse-drawn carriages struggle with the slippery topography in town. The Clay Street Hill Railroad was the first to open, in August 1873, though today none of the original line survives.

Variations on the type of grip used to catch the line were introduced, and by 1878, Leland Stanford opened his California Street Cable Railroad (the oldest cable car line still in operation). Twenty-three lines were established between 1873 and 1890.

But by 1892, electric streetcars with overhead wires began running in town. United Railroads of San Francisco (URR), owned and operated the majority of the existing cable car lines and was pushing hard to replace them with electric. The new electric versions were said to be cheaper to build and operate than the old cable lines, but opponents didn't want to see "ugly" overhead lines criss-crossing the city.

Like most things in SF, everything changed after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Many power houses and car barns, along with 117 cable cars stored inside, were destroyed. In the haste to reconstruct, URR saw the opportunity to convert their old lines to electric. By 1912, only eight cable car lines remained in service, saved because the electric versions couldn't hack it up the steep hills. Over the next few decades, slowly but surely almost all the lines were replaced by buses.

In 1940 then-police captain Albert Munn recommended replacing all the cable cars with open-top buses. The versions he pitched were used on Catalina Island, and had canvas tops that could be rolled down when it rained. Acknowledging the "romance" of the cable cars, the buses would have been painted with "scroll work and pictures of San Francisco scenes." His argument was that the cable cars were too slow for the congested car traffic, which couldn't pass them on steep hills.

The city took over the Market Street Railway's two Powell Street cable lines in 1944 and the California lines in 1951. When the mayor wanted to eliminate the Powell lines in the 1950s, a notoriously successful grassroots citizens' committee got a referendum on the city ballot that would require the city to continue operating the Powell Street lines—which passed 166,989 votes to 51,457. The lovefest didn't stop there: In 1964 the San Francisco Cable Car System was listed as a National Historic Landmark as the "only cable cars still operating in an American city."

Thanks to some mega-fundraising by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, the whole cable car system got a complete rebuild in the 1980s after a rash of accidents. All the tracks and channels (69 blocks' worth) were replaced, the car barn received an interior steel retrofit with all new equipment, and 37 cable cars got repaired or rebuilt. The rebuild was heralded as a success, and in the end, the SF system is the last manually operated cable car system in the world.

Above right: The Citizens Committee to save the Cable Car getting petition signatures in 1947, via SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

· Market Street Railway's Efforts to Curtail Its Cable Car System [Cable Car Guy]
· San Francisco Cable Cars [NHL]
· Remembering the Cable Car Rebuild [Market Street Railway]
· The Eight Original SF Cable Car Companies [Cable Car Museum]
· Cable Car History [SF Cable Car]
· San Francisco, 1906 [Cable Car Guy]
· Official Would End Cable Cars in SF [Santa Cruz Evening News]