Since 1974, the not-for-profit Cable Car Museum has been honoring the history of one of San Francisco's most beloved institutions, the cable car. Located in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood, the small museum shares space with the cable car system’s historic Washington-Mason powerhouse and cable car barn. A National Register of Historic Places landmark, the powerhouse and car barn have served the city since 1887 and are still operational today. The powerhouse holds the winding mechanics that power the system, while the car barn acts as a central hub for car turnaround.
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The museum, located above the powerhouse, is home to a large collection of historical photographs, mechanical devices, models, and other memorabilia. A standout feature is the unique inside look the museum provides of the powerhouse in action. From the deck, visitors can watch the cable lines as they are pulled through large wheels by a series of engines, and from the lower-level viewing area, can see how the cable lines come up into the building from under the street.
In addition to the inside views and memorabilia, the museum houses three 19th-century cable cars. One is from San Francisco's first cable car line, Clay Street Hill Railway, and the other two are remnants of the Sutter Street Railway.
Clay Street Hill Railway Grip Car No. 8
Grip car No. 8 is parked at the top of the entry stairway and is a one-of-a-kind treasure. No. 8 is the only surviving car from the Clay Street Hill Railway, which began its operations in 1873. The car was retired in 1891, when newer technology was introduced and portions of the original tracks were replaced. After its retirement, it was displayed in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and later transferred to an exhibit in the East Coast city of Baltimore, allowing it to survive as an artifact while most other cars from the era were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
In 1939, the car was acquired by the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society and displayed as part of the Golden Gate Exposition Fair, where it remained until 1940. After a brief time in storage during World War II, the car was moved to a beachfront location and displayed in front of the Cliff House until 1966. Since then, No. 8 has been housed at the Washington-Mason powerhouse. In 2003, it was purchased for preservation and display by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum.
The car is what is known as a “dummy” or grip car. When it was operational, it pulled a trailer and gripped the cables below the street. The original screw grip mechanism, the earliest prototype of grip technology, is still visible on the car today.
Sutter Street Railway Grip Car No. 46 and Trailer No. 54
The Sutter Street Railway began its operation in 1865 as a horsecar service. Following the success of the Clay Street Hill Railway, the company converted its routes to cable cars in 1877. For over 50 years, the company’s cars carried passengers across the city.
This line introduced side grip technology, marking an improvement over the Clay Street cars’ often unreliable screw grips. While many cable cars began transitioning to the modern standard bottom grip in 1879, the original side grip mechanism can be seen on grip car No. 46, which operated from the 1870s until 1929. Trailer No. 54 is not the original trailer grip car that No. 46 pulled, but the two were restored together for the Golden Gate Exposition Fair in 1939 and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
The on-site museum store features a large collection of cable car history books and collectibles, along with memorabilia such as authentic cable car bells. All profits from the store help support the museum’s education and preservation efforts.
The museum can be reached by riding the current cable car system. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both have museum stops, and the California line has a stop three blocks away. The museum’s Nob Hill neighborhood is rich in city history as a whole, lined with converted mansions housing grand hotels alongside coffee shops and bookstores.
Down the hill from the museum is Union Square Park, which hosts the San Francisco Municipal Railway's Annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, a tradition dating back to 1955. Cable car operators compete against one another and are judged by members of the Friends of the Cable Car Museum on factors such as sound quality and rhythm. In 2016, the contest featured its first female contestant.
1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA, 94108, website, Phone: 415-474-1887