Age-old crafts keep San Francisco cable cars chugging

Age-old crafts keep San Francisco cable cars chugging

Two anniversaries are in order for San Francisco’s cable cars. It’s been 149 years since Andrew S. Hallidie successfully tested a car he designed for The City and almost a year since cable cars resumed cascading down San Francisco’s steep hills after a 16-month shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than mobile icons, these vehicles are the culmination of years-long work where engineers, painters and carpenters join forces to keep these antique vessels humming along city streets.

From their Alaskan cedar ceilings and white oak bodies to the polished bronze bells, each car’s component is meticulously made by hand.

“None of this can be purchased off a shelf,” said Andrew McCarron, the carpenter supervisor of Muni’s Woods Cable Car division. “We do have modern tools now, planers and everything, that make the job a little easier. But the guys have quite a few years of skill and techniques.”

Given the varying wear and tear that each car undergoes, car repairs and restorations need to be made periodically or every few days.

Workers follow historic blueprints that have largely gone unchanged since the cable car’s inception in 1873. Their last update, which came in the late 1970s, added structural reinforcements to the cars.

“It’s basically still the same way it was back in (1873),” said McCarron.

Before a restoration process begins, each cable car is given an in-depth inspection in which they are checked for safety issues, material quality and loose paneling.

Through the digitization of old photos, crewmates can zoom in on each car’s intricate details and replicate them as closely as possible. The desire to stay true to form means that full-blown restorations typically take two to three years to complete.

Crew members involved in their specific car’s restoration will, behind the last panel, sign the body and leave hidden “Easter eggs,” usually pictures of the crew and other trinkets and mementos. Their hope is that other workers will discover these treasures when making future repairs.

“This is a product of them and the pride that they take in working on the car,” said McCarron.

Cable car construction and restoration starts at Muni’s Cable Car Carpentry Shop in Dogpatch, on the former site of the old Tubbs Cordage Co. factory. The location also houses the original blueprints for each cable car.

At the shop, cable car beams, panels and slats are formed out of cedar and oak wood, which McCarron says is ordered in “big raw form” and then carved and whittled into shape.

Finishing touches, such as painting the car’s lettering and trimming, are made at the Cable Car Barn, which is housed within the San Francisco Cable Car Museum.

McCarron, a self-described train buff and rail fan, brought his 40 years of carpentry experience to Muni in 2017. Previously he worked for the San Francisco school district, but a lateral transfer fulfilled McCarron’s dream of coming “here to help out and build cable cars,” he said.

For much of his tenure, McCarron has assisted in Muni’s latest project, the restoration of Powell Street Car 8.

Powell Street Car 8, which was initially built in 1893, had been partially renovated by Muni in 1958. By 2006, the car’s deterioration forced it out of service and the age-old car was sent to Dogpatch for rebuilding.

Once rotten wood and rusted metal were removed, only the car’s frame remained, but that was soon placed in storage.

Years later, while walking through the Boneyard, a facility that stores retired vehicles, McCarron saw the wooden frame and identified it as Powell Street Car 8.

When Muni needed to replace a cable car years later, McCarron put the restoration of Powell Street Car 8 on the table.

“The car was taken out and it was left out in the yard for years, until we were able to get to it back in 2018 and do the full restoration,” said McCarron.

Powell Street Car 8 was built from the ground up, with new wheels, slats and other body parts being added. Muni’s Special Machine Shop forged metal brackets and plates for the vessel.

The car’s livery resembles one of the two green and cream designs Muni employed on the Powell cars from 1947 into the early 1960s.

“I’m proud of the guys and the way the car looks. They did a fabulous job,” said McCarron.

Powell Street Car 8 also saw some upgrades, such as the inclusion of a GPS tracking device that allows public transportation apps to log its arrivals and departures.

McCarron said that it is “kind of exciting, but also sad” to watch cars he has worked on leave the Carpentry Shop and get loaded onto a lowboy trailer heading for the Barn. However, that mixed bag of feelings is replaced with excitement when he sees the cars rumble down the street.

“I think that’s gold, and I think that’s terrific that San Franciscans still support this system,” he said.

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