San Francisco

San Francisco's Oldest Cable Car Returns to Streets After 77 Years

Because the 34-foot car was four feet longer than other cable cars, it was dogged by rumors it was too long to navigate around the corners on Muni’s updated tracks

San Francisco’s oldest cable car is headed back to the streets after 77 years in storage collecting dust, as a result of restoration by a band of devoted Muni workers who weren't dissuaded by rumors about its fitness.

Built in 1883, cable car 19 hadn’t seen service in the city since Feb. 15, 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But over the past couple weeks, workers in the cable car division began quietly testing the car, sometimes making 3 a.m. runs to see if the car could navigate the tracks. It did.

“It ran beautifully down and back like it was out here yesterday, all the time,” said Arne Hansen, supervisor of MUNI’s cable car shop. 

Big 19, as it’s known, was built in Sacramento and began its career on the Market Street Railway. It was then revamped and pressed into service on the Clay-Sacramento lines in 1907. It was taken off the streets in 1942 in a nationwide wartime belt-tightening and eventually sold off to a preservation group that donated it back to San Francisco in 1966. From there, it bounced from facility to facility, without returning to service.

Joe Rosato Jr.
Cable Car 19 sat in storage for 77 years. A recent restoration is returning the car to service for the first time since Feb. 15, 1942.

“It just sat and became a storage shed for our Christmas ornaments,” said Wesley Valaris, SFMTA’s Acting Senior Operations Manager for the Cable Car division.

Because the 34-foot car was four feet longer than other cable cars, it was dogged by rumors it was too long to navigate around the corners on Muni’s updated tracks. Hansen said one old story even portrayed the car taking out newspaper racks as it tried to make a turn.

“Everything that was said about it was all fabricated lies,” Hansen said, cracking a smile.

Hansen’s workers bugged him for years to take a crack at restoring the car. When he finally got the green light to start work, his crew of carpenters, engineers and painters went about undoing decades of neglect. Even the car’s bell was polished to a shiny sheen before one test run.

Joe Rosato Jr.
Cable car workers polished car 19’s bell before a recent test run in San Francisco’s streets.

“Our term is we ‘resurrected it,’” said cable car worker Harold Stewart. “We didn’t restore it, we basically brought it back from the grave.”

The crew installed new brakes and redid the running boards to accommodate wheel configurations that worked on the tracks. It also got a period paint job. Hansen said the crew then eased the 136-year-old into the road tests.

“That’s the first thing we did is took it out the door, just to see how it made it out the door,” Hansen said. “And little by little, test by test it passed them all flawlessly - with straight As.”

For rail enthusiasts, the return of Big 19 has become an event. During recent test runs, photographers swarmed along the route snapping pictures like paparazzi as the car loped past the curvy section of Lombard Street and down the Hyde Street hill.

“So instead of sitting in storage like it has for over 50 years,” said Paul Bignardi, a Muni planner who wrote a book chronicling the city’s transportation fleet, “it’s about ready to come out for people to enjoy and ride in San Francisco again.”

NBC Bay Area
Cable car 19 was built in 1883 and hasn't been in service since 1942.

The public will get a chance to ride the car at the upcoming Muni Heritage days weekend September 7th and 8th. Presented by SFMTA and the non-profit Market Street Railway group which supports vintage streetcars, the event will mark the first time the car will carry the public in nearly eight decades. After that, Big 19 will be used primarily for special events.

Arne called the restoration of the car the pinnacle of his 33-year career with the cable car division. He said it was a story he would tell his children and grandchildren. His only regret; that rumors kept the car from returning sooner.

“So seventy-seven years went by,” Arne said, “it should’ve been out there all this time.”

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