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How We Almost Lost the Cable Cars

Roger Lapham was the Mayor of San Francisco from 1944 to 1948. He ran as the premier business man who would bring efficient government to San Francisco. For him, the elimination of cable cars would be the ticket. At the time, cable cars were showing losses while busses were showing a profit. Lapham argued that: the rails, which are no longer being made, are worn dangerously thin. Cables are difficult to obtain. Gripmen are getting old too, and younger men are not interested in pulling grips. The system is unsafe."

A defiant group in the San Francisco Federation of Art created "Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars", headed by Friedel Klussmann. They circulated petitions urging San Franciscans to join in the fight.

As Mayor Lapham and members of the Board of Supervisors tried to ignore this group. Klussmann and her committee proposed a ballot initiative to amend the City Charter so that cable cars could never be eliminated. People began to join the cause.

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Mayor Lapham driving a cable/horse car on Market Street

Lapham retaliated by driving a cable car hooked up to horses down Market Street. His intention was to show those who supported keeping cable cars that they were anti-progress.

But his stunt backfired. Pressure from San Franciscans' and people around the world flooded San Francisco newspapers with letters to save the cable cars. The committee stated: The loss of the famed turntable at Powell and Market would be a loss to San Francisco's identity that cannot be measured.

A few Hollywood celebrities stated they would never return to San Francisco if the cars were scrapped, the Emporium designed cable car dresses, a Cable Car Concerto was composed, and Eleanor Roosevelt defended the cars in her daily column "My Day".

Famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote: Roger Lapham's dictum that 'cable cars must go' has been good for one thing, anyway-more publicity than the village has received since the er-uh-thquake; practically every newsmag and newspaper in the county has printed the darn yarn at great length. Soon politicians and newspapers were on board to save the cable cars. Businesses also realized how important the cable car was in advertising San Francisco tourism. The ballot measure passed in the 1947 election. All newspapers supported it, and in the end, it won a resounding victory of 170,000 for and 50,000 opposed.
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Mayor Lapham tests the first parking meter in San Francisco, installed at Bush and Polk Streets, 1947

We can also thank Roger Lapham for the first parking meter installed in the city that same year.


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