The Annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contests
Three Muni Powell Street gripmen – James L. Buskirk, Harry Bishop and Thomas Hutchings – practice for the forthcoming 1949 Bell-Ringing Contest. R Brandt Collection.
The first of the annual bell-ringing contests, as we know them today, was held at Union Square in April 1955. Although the bell-ringing contests are now a San Francisco tradition, the first annual contest did not begin in auspicious circumstances. It took place as part of a Cable Car Festival to promote the cable cars as a visitor attraction. The festival was sponsored by the city’s administration under Mayor Elmer Robinson, which had obtained the votes in the June and November 1954 elections to authorize cutbacks in cable car service. The Cable Car Festival was held to fulfill a promise in the June 1954 election campaign to put on an annual festival for the cars, but the idea to include a bell-ringing contest in the festival may well have come from a event held at Union Square in 1949.

There was a railroad fair in Chicago in the summers of 1948 and 1949, and a bell-ringing contest was held at Union Square in May 1949 to select three gripmen to operate Powell car No. 524 (now No. 24) on a short section of track at the 1949 fair, under the sponsorship of the Western Pacific Railroad. Cal Cable’s Alexander Nielsen won the contest, and two Muni gripmen were named to go with him to Chicago.

Cal Cable gripman Alexander Nielsen, winner of the Bell-Ringing Contest is testing his bell-ringing talents on a model cable car in front of Cal Cable’s Hyde-California cable car barn and powerhouse. Nielsen will be shortly griping Powell car No. 524 at the Chicago Railroad Fair. R. Brandt Collection


The bell-ringing contests that began in 1955 continued throughout the remainder of the 1950s. There were no contests for a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have been held every year since 1977. San Franciscans and visitors alike look forward to the annual contests, which are traditionally held on the third Thursday of July at Union Square, and include a contest for non-profit organizations, as well as cable car crew members. For a few years, there was also a Miss Cable Car contest, although it must be said that being in a swimsuit on a cool and foggy San Francisco day couldn't have been all that much fun for the contestants. The motorized cable car that is used for the bell ringing is an authentic cable car — a former Jones Street Shuttle car No. 62, formerly No. 61.

The first Miss Cable Car contest held in 1947 awarded the honor for raising the most money to save the cable cars. During 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham wanted substitute buses for the Powell Street cable car system. The Miss Cable Car winners are, left to right, Mauricette Du Frony - Miss Hyde Street, Joy Groom - Miss Powell Street and Sandy Day - Miss California Street)

Every year, former bell-ringing champions who are retired from Muni service are invited to the contest. Former gripmen such as Al Davison, Tom O’Brien, Carl Payne, and Al Quintana are introduced to the crowd and are often asked to show off their bell-ringing skills. Al Davison once rang a bell with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Symphony in the playing of Josef Strauss’s “Firebell Polka.” And Carl Payne’s bell ringing is truly legendary — before he left Muni to become an officer in the San Francisco Police Department, he won the championship 10 times.

Each year the Friends of the Cable Car Museum present the first place winner a gripman’s cable car bell valued at over $1,000. The bell is handcrafted for the Friends at San Francisco’s United Brass Foundry.

On December 12, 2003 the 2003 Cable Car Bell-Ringing Invitational or All Star Bell-Ringing Contest was held at the Washington-Mason cable car barn. The Invitational was limited to winners of the annual bell-ringing contest. The winners were 1st Place Carl Payne, 2nd Place Al Quintana and 3rd Place Pete Palukevich. Other participants were Michael McClure, Ken Lunardi, Famous Limbrick, Joe Nobles, Frank Ware, Dennis McCoy, Tom O'Brien, Al Davison, Ron East, Byron Cobb and Steve Dickson. All of these men were San Francisco’s champion bell-ringer at one time.

2003-40th Annual Bell-Ringing Contest Held in October.
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2002-39th Annual Bell-Ringing Contest with Special Guest Mayor Willie Brown
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2001-38th Annual Bell-Ringing Contest, Held at
Fisherman’s Wharf

Pictured Left to right (1) Ken Lunardi, second place; (2) Byron Cobb, Champion and (3) Frank Ware, third place.

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