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 cable.

This grip was soon replaced on other newer cable car lines by different types of grips, due to patent and other issues.  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.  As part 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. 

During 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.

Cable Car