When rebuilding SF’s 100-year-old cable cars, carpenters turn to new digital photo archive to nail the details

Picture the elements of a century-old San Francisco cable car.

The subtle sloping arch of its windows. The layered wooden brow extending from its roof. The swelling outward curve of its back panel, where a conductor may stand on any given day.

These are just some of the countless little details Muni’s cable car carpenters obsess over to achieve millimeter-perfect historical accuracy. They only have one chance to get it right. Barring major collisions, Muni reconstructs each cable car just once every 50 years.

Now these wood-working artisans have been armed with a new tool to ensure every screw, and every nail, is placed more accurately than ever before:


Or, more precisely, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Photo Archive, an effort started roughly a decade ago to scan, digitize, and digitally “tag” thousands of analog photos chronicling Muni since its inception in 1912, and even photos of Muni’s predecessors.

While cable car carpenters relied on photos occasionally in the past, SFMTA staffers said, it wasn’t until the digital archives made searching for specific photos — and specific vehicles — so easy and accessible that they became regularly integrated into rebuilding San Francisco’s famous moving landmarks.

That practice blossomed just this past summer, as the archive neared key milestones in digitizing thousands more photos than it ever had before. That raised the eyebrows of the cable car carpenters, who needed original references to flesh out early cable car designs.

Powell Street Cable Car 508 at the Washington Mason Car House on Feb. 8, 1945. Cable car carpenters now have access to a historic Muni digital photo archive, and use high-resolution photos to help rebuild cable cars accurately. (Courtesy SFMTA Photo Archive)

At the Muni Woods Division Carpentry Shop in the Dogpatch neighborhood, The Examiner spoke with Andrew McCarron, the carpentry supervisor, who spread 2-feet long cable car blueprints across a table.

They were photocopies, but the reproduced inked lines still appeared thinner from age. Though Muni has many historic blueprints, McCarron explained, they didn’t always include modifications carpenters made after the cable cars’ first construction.

Carpenters are artists. And as they sculpted The City’s earliest public conveyances with sharp edges and blunt tools, subtle changes took shape that never made it to the printed page.

“The average person wouldn’t know it,” McCarron said. But looking around the woodshop through thick sawdust as saws buzzed around him, he said, “These guys would know it.”

It was that same historical curiosity that brought together the carpenters and the SFMTA Photo Archive. That archive is staffed with a small but mighty team of two: Archivist Katherine Guyon and SFMTA Staff Photographer Jeremy Menzies.

Camera in hand, Menzies has been Muni’s staff photographer since 2014, a job held by roughly a dozen people since the agency first launched. Menzies met McCarron while out and about shooting Muni vehicles, where the two connected over the SFMTA Photo Archive project.

Menzies cautioned that this isn’t a completely new practice — certainly, SFMTA staffers have consulted photographs to rebuild historic vehicles before, he said. But it’s the digital wizardry made available in the photo archive just in the past few years, a system by which archivists “tagged” thousands of photos with searchable terms and scanned each physical photo to post them in a browsable website, open both to the public and internally at SFMTA, that opened the door for far more photo usage than ever before.

Just this year, the photo archive is on the cusp of a major milestone: Nearly every photo in SFMTA’s analog archive from 1903 to 1978 has been digitized, Menzies said, a keyword-searchable selection of more than 8,000 photos.

The archivists opened a floodgate of history, and now SFMTA is plumbing its depths.

McCarron, a San Francisco native and Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School graduate, said he was fond of Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars long before he became a Muni carpenter. Menzies realized “he’s really into history,” so “I told him if he’d ever like to do research into these, we have photos of the (cable) cars.”

That was roughly around April. Just two months later, McCarron’s carpenters received Powell Cable Car No. 8 and California Cable Car No. 55 for a full rebuild.

This was the first opportunity to put those photographs to work. And they reveal something the average Muni rider may not know: Not every cable car is built alike.

“The fundamental difference between the two types of Powell cable cars is the roof,” said Rick Laubscher, a Muni historian and president of Market Street Railway. Some cable cars built in 1888 were crafted by the Ferries & Cliff House Railway and the Mahoney Brothers company under contract, he said. Those cars have what Muni calls a Bombay-roof, which features extra windows that are half-moon shape in the cable car’s front and rear, and the second row of windows on its sides, and are a bit more complex to build, Laubchser said.

Cable Car No. 8, on the other hand, was built by a company called the Carter Brothers in 1893. “It has a simpler roof than the Mahoney cars,” he said.

Carpenter Supervisor Andrew McCarron flips through cable car blueprints at the SFMTA Woods Division carpentry shop on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

At the Muni woodshop in December, McCarron pointed to the two steel skeletons of those cable cars, No. 55 and No. 8. Stripped naked, with hardly a single splinter of wood on its chassis, No. 8’s metal flatbed sat in the workshop resting with its wheels and pulley mechanisms bare. Above one of the cable cars, its wooden roof hung from the ceiling, a model for the carpenters to rebuild from scratch.

McCarron stood before them nearly giddy. It was near enough to Christmas, and midway through Hanukkah, but he had received his gifts early — he unfurled a high-resolution photo of Cable Car No. 8 from Feb. 8, 1945.

He pointed out details only historians or carpenters would notice.

“There’s an extension of the brow, here,” he said, tracing a finger along the photo. Also, he said, some windows on the cable cars were long reproduced with only right angles.

That wasn’t right, the photos revealed.

“It had square windows, but the pictures show it had arched windows,” McCarron said.

And it’s not just about having any old photo. “It’s huge!” McCarron said. He means it is very high resolution, which Menzies noted is somewhat rare. “We’re very fortunate there were very large negatives,” he said, meaning they can be zoomed in to reveal incredible detail.

“If he wanted to, [McCarron] could blow them up to 2-by-3 feet and have really large enlargements to work off of,” Menzies said. That’s magic to McCarron’s ears.

Back at the woodshop, McCarron gripped the photograph in his hand and looked back at the steel cable car frames, ready to rebuild San Francisco’s roving wooden wonders with hardly a single wooden panel out of place from 130 years ago.


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