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SF to honor the woman who saved the city’s cable cars from extinction 75 years ago

An older woman holding keys in her hand holds onto the running board of a San Francisco cable car.
Friedel Klussmann was a longtime supporter of the cable cars who helped save the San Francisco landmarks in the 1940s and 1950s. Here, she rides a cable car during the 100 year birthday of the California line on April 11, 1978. | Clem Albers/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Clem Albers/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Back in 1947, San Francisco almost lost its trademark mode of public transportation when then-Mayor Roger Lapham called on the city to junk its cable car system.

That’s when Friedel Klussmann stepped in, establishing the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars, drumming up support from the media and local celebrities and convincing her fellow San Franciscans that the sentimental value of their world-famous streetcar line was worth the high cost of maintaining it.

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Klussmann’s fateful intervention. To celebrate the occasion—and to honor women’s civic participation—Mayor London Breed and other city officials will gather at Powell and Market streets before taking a ride to Aquatic Park to rededicate the Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround. 

Maintaining cable car service continues to be a subject of frequent discussion and debate. The system was already old and expensive in 1947, a fact that Darcy Brown—executive director of San Francisco Beautiful, a nonprofit founded by Klussmann—acknowledged.

“Even then, they were antiques,” Brown said, explaining that there is no commercial manufacturer of cable car hardware. “To this day, we have to make all the parts by hand.” 

A cable car is seen on California Street with the Bay Bridge behind it during sunrise in San Francisco on Sept. 6, 2022. | Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In response to Klussmann’s boosterism, San Francisco’s Emporium department store sold cable car print dresses and devotees wrote poems and songs. Even former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to the railway’s defense. A San Francisco Chronicle editorial opined, “Can you imagine London without Big Ben, Paris without the Eiffel Tower, New York without the Statue of Liberty?”

Klussmann’s committee placed Measure 10 on the November 1947 ballot, which passed in a landslide vote and saved the iconic cars from extinction. In 1964, the cable cars were named a historic landmark and a subsequent 1971 City Charter amendment required the three cable car lines to operate in perpetuity. After her death on Oct. 22, 1986, the cable cars were draped in black cloth to pay respect to her passing, and in 1997, the Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround at Fisherman’s Wharf was dedicated in her honor.

Of the some 75 miles of cable car track that once spiderwebbed across the city, only 4.7 miles remain. Brown said that Klussmann deserves a lot of credit for preserving this piece of San Francisco’s history. But that’s not all.

A side view of a red cable car shows passengers stranding and sitting on it.
Passengers ride a cable car in Union Square in San Francisco on June 24, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

After the success of Measure 10, Klussmann caught the organizing bug. She went on to create a citywide tree-planting program that evolved into Friends of the Urban Forest and also led movements to preserve city staircases, gardens and the lamps along Market Street.  

“She was a solid, responsible citizen and a trustee of what makes San Francisco unique,” Brown said, adding that she hopes preservationists like Klussmann continue to push the city to maintain and beautify landmarks like the turnaround at Powell and Market.

For Brown, protecting legacy buildings and infrastructure like the cable cars is about far more than nostalgia. It is about honoring San Francisco’s identity as a world-class city and global destination.

“It’s the first thing a tourist does,” Brown said of the cable cars. “It’s No. 1 on the list.”