Cable cars have been an iconic symbol of San Francisco for over a century, and celebrating 150 years of their operation is a significant milestone. The San Francisco cable car system is the last manually operated cable car system in the world and has played a vital role in the city's transportation history.
The cable car system in San Francisco first began operating on August 2, 1873, and since then, it has become a beloved attraction for both locals and tourists alike. The distinctive cable cars traverse the hilly streets of San Francisco, providing a unique and nostalgic mode of transportation.
When Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car in 1873, Ulysses S. Grant was president. There were 37 states in the union and just one-eighth of today’s US population. The transcontinental railroad had opened just four years earlier. And San Francisco, less than 30 years old, was already America’s tenth-largest city. Only one other western US city was one of the 100 most populous. It wasn’t LA, which was still a village, it was Sacramento.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and its nonprofit preservation partner, Market Street Railway, have joined together with a dozen organizations, including business and merchant groups and history and preservation nonprofits, to stage a slate of special events in the Summer and Fall of 2023 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of cable cars, San Francisco's iconic symbol.
Enriched by the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the Nevada Comstock Lode of 1859, San Francisco in 1873 was the most sophisticated city west of the Mississippi and remained the undisputed financial, commercial, and cultural center of the West deep into the 20th century.
“For the last 150 years, residents and visitors have enjoyed the incredible experience of riding our cable cars through our neighborhoods to experience stunning bay views that are famous all over the world,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “You cannot imagine San Francisco without our iconic cable cars. In celebration of the 150th anniversary, we invite everyone to ride our wonderful cable cars to experience the magic of San Francisco.”
“No other city in the world has cable cars. San Francisco was the first city with cable cars, and since 1957, we've been the only city to run them,” said Rick Laubscher, President of Market Street Railway. “Our special 150th anniversary website, sfcablecars.org, is filled with cable car history and little-known stories. It also makes it easy to combine cable car rides with walking tours of Chinatown, the Barbary Coast, Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Union Square, Polk Gulch and the Financial District. It's a great year to rediscover San Francisco and the cable cars.”
In the 1880s, it was open-sided cable car that carried throngs of riders from the Ferry Building out Market and Haight streets to enjoy Golden Gate Park. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, 'Big 19' moved to the Sacramento-Clay route, successor to Andrew Hallidie's original 1873 cable car line, and ran there from 1907 until 1942, when that line shut down. Restored by Muni crafts workers, 'Big 19', one of the largest cable cars ever built, it inaugurated the celebration with a trip up California Street through Chinatown and over Nob Hill, just two blocks south of inventor Hallidie's Clay Street line.
On the actual 150th anniversary date, August 2, history reenactors portraying Andrew Hallidie, Emperor Norton, Domingo Ghirardelli, Lotta Crabtree and other notable San Franciscans from 150 years ago will gather at Hallidie Plaza at Powell and Market Streets at 10 a.m. to honor Hallidie's historic first run. A by-invitation luncheon will follow, honoring cable car heroes including Hallidie; Friedel Klussmann, who saved the cable cars in 1947; Senator Dianne Feinstein, who as Mayor personally led the rebuilding of the cable car system 40 years ago; Fannie Mae Barnes, the first woman to work as a “gripman” operating a cable car 25 years ago, all helping to San Francisco Celebrates 150 Years of Cable Cars
Market Street Railway is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve historic transit in San Francisco. Founded in 1976 To learn more about Market Street Railway, visit streetcar.org. To learn more about the 150th Anniversary, visit sfcablecars.org, a comprehensive hub featuring: cable car history and stories; tips on riding, sightseeing, dining, and shopping along the cable car lines; and event details.