San Francisco Cable Car Museum – All The Bells & Whistles

This is one of those hidden gems that makes the place so special. Since 1974, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum has preserved the heritage of the city's most iconic form of public transportation. On display are a medley of mechanical devices — grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, models, and historic photographs. There's also a great gift store with cable car memorabilia like books, clothing, cards, and genuine cable car bells.

The museum deck overlooks the huge engines and wheels that pull the cables. The museum also houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s: the Sutter Street Railway number 46 grip car, number 54 trailer, and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad number 8 grip car.

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Even Cable Cars Have Friends

Cable Car Museum,

The small Nob Hill museum is free to the public and is efficiently operated by a fiercely proud group, the Friends of the Cable Car Museum, a nonprofit organization.

Each year, the Friends of the Cable Car Museum participates in the annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest by providing a judge for the preliminary contest and the Union Square final. The first place winner receives a specially handcrafted gripman's cable car bell, made by the United Brass Foundry.

Here are some of the things we learned at the museum —

San Francisco Cable Car Museum – History

Cable Car Museum

History was made at 4:00 am on August 2, 1873, when Andrew Smith Hallidie tested the first cable car on Clay Street. His revolutionary idea for a steam engine powered — cable driven — rail system was born in 1869, after he witnessed horses struggle to pull supplies up Jackson Street on wet cobblestones. The horses were whipped and dragged to their death as they slipped.

Back in England, where he was born, Hallidie's father was an inventor who had a patent for a "wire rope" cable. During the Gold Rush, Andrew Hallidie immigrated; with him he brought the cable know-how knowledge and put it to good use to haul ore from mines and to help build suspension bridges.

Hallidie started the Clay Street Hill Railroad and began construction of a cable line in May 1873. The contract stipulated that the line must be operational by August 1. They launched a day late, but the cable car still got the stamp of approval. The Clay Street Hill Railroad service began on September 1, 1873 and was met with great success.

Clay Street Hill Railroad was the only cable car company for four years. A former horsecar company, Sutter Street Railroad also developed its own version of Hallidie's patented system and began cable service in 1877. They were followed by —

  • California Street Cable Railroad in 1878
  • Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad in 1880
  • Presidio & Ferries Railroad in 1882
  • Market Street Cable Railway in 188,
  • Ferries & Cliff House Railway in 1888
  • Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company in 1889

In total, the San Francisco cable car companies laid down fifty-three miles of track stretching from the Ferry Building to the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, the Castro and the Mission. By 1888, the electric streetcar was perfected and it become the vehicle of choice for city transit. It cost less to build and maintain and was faster. The steam-engine cable cars were still superior in their ability to climb the steep hills but as the electric streetcars improved, even those lines were in jeopardy.

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The Woman Who Saved the Cable Cars

Cable Car

By 1947, the appealing low costs of buses prompted then-Mayor Lapham to declare, "the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible."

Luckily for future San Franciscans, Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars. The committee started a public campaign to show that the value of cable cars was far greater than the cost. By November of 1947, they succeeded in getting an amendment on the November ballot, called Measure 10. The press picked up on the story and public support swelled. Life magazine did a timely feature on the gripmen who operated the cable cars. Celebrities rallied for the cause and savvy businesses realized that tourists travel to San Francisco to ride the cars.

Measure 10 passed in a landslide victory, ordering the city to maintain the Powell Street cable car system. In 1997, the Freidel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround celebration was held at Victorian Park to name the Powell-Hyde line turnaround in honor of the woman who saved the cable cars.

San Francisco Cable Car Museum Resources

  • Located in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse
  • 1201 Mason Street
  • April to October — 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM
  • November to March — 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
  • Open daily except for Christmas, New Years Day, and Thanksgiving.
  • Website

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