Historical cable car number 19 went out for a test run on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

San Francisco’s oldest working cable car rides again

Vehicle rebuilt, returns after decades in obscurity

San Francisco’s oldest operating cable car climbed halfway to the — well, you know — for the first time in decades, earlier this month.

Cable Car 19, as it is numbered today, was originally constructed in 1883.

Now, after a lengthy hiatus, it’s back.

Over the last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has patched it up and made it ready for the streets. On August 6, it made its first test run. On Wednesday, it made its second.

There were no guarantees it would make it.

Hills posed a potential challenge for Cable Car 19, as the early model cable car is four feet longer than California cable cars and seven feet longer than traditional Powell Street cable cars, said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum.

”Would the midsection of the car go over the hills? Would it clear? That’s what the tests are about,” Laubscher said. “It passed a thousand percent.”

The roughly 136-year-old cable car has had a history of rebirths.

It was first built as an “open car,” and ran on Market Street, possibly all the way out to Golden Gate Park via the Haight, Laubscher said, though local historians are still trying to nail down its ultimate route. But Cable Car 19 was significantly redesigned and rebuilt to run on different San Francisco streets after the 1906 earthquake and fire. It made its second debut in 1907, according to Market Street Railway.

It ran until 1942. Its most recent home was Muni’s Cable Car Barn, where it sat for decades.

Market Street Railway advocated for its restoration. Arnie Hansen, the cable car superintendent of vehicle maintenance, led the effort to reconstruct it, said Brent Jones, the head of the San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency’s cable car division.

“It’s been a journey,” Jones said. “When I first got here it was sitting in the back of the barn.”

Cable Car 19 is old enough that it may not be able to operate in regular service, Jones said. But he’s hoping to get it in good enough shape to run in SFMTA’s annual Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7 and 8, when the agency offers rides on its older buses, streetcars and cable cars for nostalgia’s sake.

Laubscher gave some advice to those riding, who want to see what makes Cable Car 19 unique from other cable cars. “It’s the little things,” Laubscher said.

The seats in the center section are still the originals, with one hundred years of wear and tear. If riders look up to the ceiling, they’ll see little patched-up holes where kerosene lanterns were hung in the 1880s. And if riders are observant, they’ll be able to spot where the original fare register was placed.

So watch the streets, and watch the hills, the cable car enthusiasts said — because Cable Car 19 may be back by September.

“It’s surreal seeing something that was literally in pieces a few months ago ready to go out there,” Jones said. “Very gratifying for a cable car nerd.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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Historical cable car number 19 gets a push to move down hill during a test run. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

(Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

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