The Longest Cable Car Journey: Clay Street Hill Railroad Car #8
By Michael F. Phipps
San Francisco is synonymous with its cable car system, now
found nowhere else in the world. Its
three lines, the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde, and California Street Cable Cars
ply the hills much as they have for well over a century. They operate out of the Washington-Mason
Streets Power House, the last remnant of once ubiquitous houses scattered over
the City. Inside the powerhouse is found
the Cable Car Museum, dedicated to preserving cable car history and serving as
a repository for artifacts dating back to the earliest days of cable cars in
San Francisco. One of the most unique
exhibits, which greets visitors to the museum sitting at the top of the entry
staircase, is little car #8, one of the first cable cars to operate in the
City, running on the Clay Street Hill Railroad owned by Mr. Andrew Hallidie
himself, the father of cable cars in San Francisco.
Car #8 is undoubtedly the rarest exhibit of cable car
history anywhere, as it is the lone surviving car of the franchise, which
opened for business on September 1, 1873.
Car #8 is properly referred to as a dummy,
because it contained the gripping mechanism, which grabbed the cable below the
street and towed the trailer, which
was the main seating car.
The screw-type grip still seen on this car employed two hand wheels on a hollow screw fixed to
the car’s floor. By turning the upper
wheel, the gripman could open the jaws to grab the cable, while the lower wheel
lowered the grip under the slot in the street where it could contact the
This grip was soon replaced on
other newer cable car lines by different types of grips, due to patent and
Still, this screw grip
seen on Clay Street Railroad’s Car #8 was used on the first commercial cable
car line in the world, and as such is a valuable and exciting addition to the
museum’s historical collection.
of the Clay Street Hill Railroad’s .6-mile route, it ran up and over Nob Hill
for the two decades of the company’s operation.
Many cable car lines followed the success of the Clay Street
Hill Railroad, and by the 1880s cable cars were the mode of transportation in many cities around the United States
and the world. The Clay Street Hill
Railroad, while a great success financially and publicly, was sold to the newer
Ferries and Cliff House Railway in 1887, giving that franchise a route to the
Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.
In 1891 a portion of the Clay Street Hill Railroad tracks were removed
and the line was reduced to being a half-mile shuttle between Powell Street and
Van Ness Avenue, and then later incorporated into the company’s Sacramento-Clay
line. These older style dummy and
trailer cars were phased out and put into storage.
In 1893, Car #8, along with trailer #1, began its first leg of what would be the
longest trip of its life. Car #8
traveled to Chicago, Illinois to be featured in the railroad display at the
White City’s stupendous World’s Fair. As
property of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it was part of an exhibition being
held in Baltimore in 1905. Thus, #8
survived the San Francisco Fire and Earthquake of 1906 that destroyed much of
the cable car stock in the City, as well as many of the lines, and also
survived a fire in Baltimore in 1907.
Records of its career however were not so fortunate and appear to have
been lost through those two disasters.
Still, the little car was intact, though a long way from home.
Clay Street Hill Railroad Car #8 finally returned home in
1939, under the ownership of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society
Inc., Pacific Coast Chapter. Who had
possession of the car immediately prior to that is questionable. The B & 0 Magazine of January, 1941
stated that the car was presented to the Pacific Coast Chapter by the B & 0
Historical Collection, while Pacific Coast Chapter records from 1970 list it as
donated from a “Baltimore Junk Dealer”!
However it left Baltimore, the car was displayed in “America: Cavalcade of Nations” at the 1939 Golden Gate
Exposition on Treasure Island. It remained
a prominent feature of that Fair from 1939-40, along with another veteran of
early cable car days in San Francisco, the Sutter Street Cable Railway Dummy
#46 and Trailer #54, which have also found a home at the Cable Car Museum at
Washington and Mason Streets.
World War II, #8 was kept in storage, after a brief time on exhibit at the
Ferry Building, and later ventured west to the beach, displayed at the Cliff
House until 1966.
In that year, it was
brought to the Cable Car powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets, and
remains to the present on display in the museum housed there.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps between Chicago and Baltimore, trailer #1 was lost, and so did not return home along with car #8. Some rail historians speculate that it is still extant somewhere in the East and will one day be rediscovered and reunited with its mate, car #8, in its natal city, San Francisco, after beginning that goodwill tour back in the 19th century.
For a cable car whose original route ran somewhat less
than a mile, #8 has traveled far and wide as an ambassador of San Francisco’s
past. Criss-crossing the country as well
as the City, #8 has fortuitously survived far beyond its compatriots of the old
City. It is a unique treasure and a
priceless artifact of cable car lore and San Francisco’s first franchise.