A Rebuilt Historic Cable Car Gets Ready to Return to San Francisco's Streets
Not long after joining the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) as a carpenter supervisor in 2017, Andrew McCarron went to the agency’s Marin Yard—aka the “Boneyard”—where retired vehicles were stored. “I have always been a train buff, and I knew we had extra cable cars stored somewhere, so I went on a recon mission to see what we had,” he says. He spotted the frame and chassis of a cable car entangled in weeds and bushes, did some research, identified it as Powell Street Cable Car #8—built in 1893–94 by the Carter Brothers for the Market Street Railway—and filed the knowledge away for future reference.
San Francisco’s signature cable cars came into being in the 19th century as a way to navigate the city’s steep hills, which were difficult for horse-drawn streetcars to manage, especially in wet weather. The first line, Clay Street Hill Railroad, launched in 1873. It featured a cable car equipped with a gripping mechanism that clamped onto an underground steel cable. Powered by a steam engine, the cable hauled the vehicle up the sharply sloping road. Other cable car companies soon followed suit with their own lines. However, the 1906 earthquake and fires devastated the system. Faster, more efficient electric streetcars replaced many cable car lines on all but the steepest hills. In 1964, San Francisco’s remaining cable cars were named a National Historic Landmark.
Today, about 40 cable cars remain in operation, owned and operated by SFMTA. Given the extensive wear and tear these cars undergo, they periodically need to be rehabilitated. In many cases, they have to be completely dismantled in a containment zone to protect workers from hazardous materials, then reconstructed with new, specially made wood and metal pieces.
In 2018, when SFMTA asked the carpenters to ready another cable car to replace one being pulled from revenue service, McCarron suggested reconstructing #8. “It had already been disassembled,” he says. “I told the division superintendent, ‘We don’t have to take the car apart. That’ll shave a couple of months off, as far as working on it.’”
So #8 was hauled out of the weeds to SFMTA’s carpentry shop
in the Dogpatch neighborhood. It was little more than a bare frame. The
carpenters reconstructed the frame and body with custom-made wooden
pieces—Alaskan cedar for the roof and white oak for the rest. “We make
everything here,” McCarron says. “We try to save as much of the car as we can.
But there’s only so much you can do.” The SFMTA’s Special Machine Shop crafted
metal brackets and plates as needed. The carpentry shop maintains a library of
patterns for everything from the pocket door guides to the rods and brackets
that support leather grips for passengers to hold on to.
According to records, #8 had been previously renovated in 1958. But at that time, restoring cars in a period-correct way was not as high a priority. “They changed the roof, they put in square windows,” McCarron says. “When we got it here, we wanted to put it back the way it was.” Fortunately, SFMTA has copies of the original plans (slightly updated over the decades), as well as a database of digitized historic photos of cable cars, so the carpenters can create accurate reconstructions. “We have all the details—the way the stanchions are made, the way the side panels, body panels, cornice trims, and window trims are made,” McCarron says. “So we build them the same way that they were built back then. Obviously, we’re using more modern tools.”
There are a few departures from the original methods. “Back in the day, the cars were assembled with the wood still raw, and then they were painted. Now, for example, we’ll spot-prime each mortise and tenon before gluing them together. With raw wood, that’s where you’d get rot over time.” Today’s cable cars are also equipped with LED headlights.
The reconstruction process took nearly three years. In May of 2021, the carpenters shipped the finished car to SFMTA’s Cable Car Barn for installation of cameras and the GPS chip that links to the NextBus system for tracking arrival times. Soon it will hit the streets for routine safety inspections before rejoining the fleet.
One innovation that McCarron introduced comes out of an experience he’d long dreamed of, having grown up in San Francisco. At the onset of the city’s shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, SFMTA suspended cable car service for 16 months. During that time, he had the opportunity to spend two weeks training in cable car operation. To tighten or loosen the rear brake, operators have often had to reach awkwardly through a small access hole in the floor of the cable car and rotate a turnbuckle located several inches beyond the hole. Cable Car #8 was reconstructed in such a way that an access hole is now located directly over the turnbuckle. “That was a great learning experience,” McCarron says. “It’s something I would never have thought of before operating a car.”
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