stories by joe rosato jr

‘Forgotten' San Francisco Cable Car Back at Work After 16-Year Restoration Break

NBC Universal, Inc.

After 16 years in repair shop purgatory, 129-year old San Francisco Cable Car 8 hit the rails again this week, following a full top to bottom restoration that some worried might never come. 

The car rolled out of the cable car barn on Monday, carrying a crew that included many of the workers who restored the car board by board - along with some of the transportation enthusiasts who got the car back on the city's radar after it was seemingly forgotten. 

"This car has been out of service for 16 years," said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway historical group, who was among the voices calling on SFMTA to revive the long-stalled restoration. "It’s a masterful rebuilding by the cable car carpentry shop and the cable car barn staff." 

Car 8 -- originally 508 -- was built in 1893 in the East Bay by The Carter Brothers company. It spent decades in service, eventually working the Powell/Hyde Route. Like all the cars in the city's fleet, decades lumbering up and down hills exacted a physical toll. It was pulled out service on April 10, 2006 for restoration. It was cut down to its wheel base -- and that's where the restoration seemed to veer off the rails. 

"She was forgotten, overlooked," said Arne Hansen, Acting Electrical Shop Supervisor at the cable car barn. 

Whether Car 8 was a victim of bureaucracy or cost-cutting, or just plain forgotten is part of her tale. Her salvation came as the worker in Hansen's shop joined a chorus of cable car aficionados like Laubscher who called on the city to re-start the restoration. The campaign worked. 

Joe Rosato Jr.
The crew of San Francisco's cable car shop poses for a photo in front of Cable Car 8 which was relaunched Monday following a long restoration. (April 12, 2022)

"2018 we started working," said Hansen. "Putting it back together again -- board by board." 

The re-birth of Cable Car 8 was the equivalent of a house remodel going down to the studs. The shop crew rebuilt the car from the wheels up, from the benches to the slatted roof -- painting it in a green color scheme common in the late 40s and early 50s. 

"It’s kind of a tradition that gets passed down from generation to generation," Hansen said of his skilled crew. "It’s been doing that now for almost 150 years." 

A gentle rain christened the car Monday as she slid onto the tracks under the reins of Willa Johnson, only the second woman gripman in the agency's history and part of the two-woman crew taking the car for its inaugural ride. 

"With it being historic, it’s a good thing," said Johnson as the car paused for a photo-op break at the bay end of Hyde Street. 

Laubscher noted this year marks 75 years since a woman named Friedel Klussman successfully lead a city-wide revolt to push back against a city proposal to remove the cable cars and replace them with busses. 

"It’s even more fitting for this run today we have an all female crew," Laubscher said. 

The car rumbled up and over Powell Street and down to the cable car turnaround at Market where a crowd of tourists watched the age-old ritual of crews spinning the car on a turntable using only human power. Then it was back up the hill and onto the famous Hyde Street stretch, winding past visitors gazing down Lombard Street's snaking course, and down the steep face of Hyde Street toward the bay. 

"It runs like it’s never missed a day," beamed Hansen. 

Everywhere along the route, tourists whipped out camera phones to snap photos -- oblivious to the added piece of history rumbling by. 

"This is a sign that San Francisco is coming back," Laubscher said as visitors aimed their cameras at the car. "It’s symbolic of the tourists returning, of people coming out of the neighborhoods to come down and shop at Union Square." 

The pomp and circumstance for the first run for the newly restored car was fleeting. After the quick jaunt, Johnson gripped the gear, sounded a two-bell ring and guided the car back onto the tracks to begin fare service. It was time to get back to work. 

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