The Washington-Jackson line brought riders to the neighborhood until 1956
By Carina Woudenberg
Today the three remaining cable car lines are icons of San Francisco, beloved by visitors to the city and protected by city charter. But until the 1950s, cable cars were still viewed as a viable means of transportation among commuters.
The Washington-Jackson line carried riders to and from Pacific Heights. Created in 1888, the line originally ran out Jackson Street to Presidio Avenue. But the 1906 earthquake and fire caused extensive damage to the cable lines and cars. The Washington-Jackson line, which restarted in 1907, was cut back to Steiner — the route longtime locals still recall fondly.
“To me, the Washington-Jackson line was unique because it didn’t serve tourists, it served residents,” says Phil Hoffman, who joined the battle against the line’s demise. “People don’t realize what a wonderful line it was.”
Hoffman, now 80, was a young man when he fought to keep the line running. He met his wife, another cable car fan, while they were petitioning to preserve the line — and rode the Washington-Jackson line to visit her when they were dating. He knew he would have to leave by 1:10 a.m. to catch the last car at 1:20. If he missed it, he would have to walk the 14 blocks from her place at Divisadero and Washington to his place at Washington and Hyde.
Hoffman became accustomed to waking to the cable car’s rumble when the cable cars started up at 6 a.m. It was his natural alarm clock — and when the system was broken and didn’t make a sound until 10 one morning, he overslept.
Having grown up in the Fillmore district, aspiring historian and former Muni employee Emiliano Echeverria remembers riding the Washington-Jackson line as a child. For him, it was a convenient way to get around town, with special benefits for regular riders.
“If you knew the gripmen and conductors and they knew you,” he says, “you could get away with things like hopping on the cable car in full motion — which I did all the time.”
Bond Cleaners owner Phil Kaplan remembers the cable car regularly making its way out Jackson and back on Washington in the early 1950s when he first took over his dry cleaning business at 2442 Fillmore.
The cable car employees would frequent Joe’s Smoke Shop, just down the block from his shop at the corner of Fillmore and Washington, where Chouquet’s restaurant is now located. It was the end — and the beginning — of the Washington-Jackson line.
“That’s where they would eat,” Kaplan says, “where they would hang out.”
Kaplan remembers when the tracks were torn up and removed after the cable cars stopped running in 1956 and were replaced by buses.
“The longtime residents were very upset to lose their cable car line,” says Don Holmgren, secretary of the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street. “Their link to downtown San Francisco was severed.”
For Phil Hoffman and many others, this meant working all night to gather 20,000 signatures in support of Proposition J, which proposed to maintain the line just as it was. “We finally got Proposition J on the ballot,” Hoffman says, “but didn’t have enough money to make it pass.” Instead, Proposition E, a competing measure to consolidate cable car lines, was narrowly approved in the 1954 election.
But by then, the cable cars had become a relic of an earlier era. Californians were in love with their cars. Victorian homes were being lifted to make room for garages.
“San Francisco the rough-and-tumble boomtown very much wanted to mature into a real city,” Echeverria says. “It wanted to be seen as a town that had arrived — a modern, majestic metropolis. And cable cars just didn’t fit into that image.”
On September 2, 1956, cable car number 524 made the final trip on the Washington-Jackson line.