Annual Cable Car Bell-Ringing Contests
Muni Powell Street gripmen – James L. Buskirk, Harry
Bishop and Thomas Hutchings – practice for the forthcoming
1949 Bell-Ringing Contest. R Brandt Collection.
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
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.
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
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.
Annual Bell-Ringing Contest Held in October.
Annual Bell-Ringing Contest with Special Guest Mayor Willie
Annual Bell-Ringing Contest, Held at
Left to right (1) Ken Lunardi, second place; (2) Byron
Cobb, Champion and (3) Frank Ware, third place.
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