The Left-Handed Spanner: Save the Cable Cars

What’s the most famous train in the world? Not the Orient Express, Shinkansen, Chattanooga or even the Auto-Train, it’s definitely San Francisco’s cable cars. You’d think the DNA of every public official in SF would encode genetic memory that historic trains are civic treasure. That’s why I was gobstopped to discover the amazing, historic Golden Gate Model Railroaders Club layout is about to be demolished.  The Left-Handed Spanner is a special feature column written by DT contributor Kaibeezy.

The GGMRC tracks are housed in the terrific Randall Museum, a converted school perched on a hillside overlooking most of downtown SF. It’s a children’s paradise with local wildlife, earthquake tables, wood shop, pottery studio, theater and more. The basement was given over way back in 1961 to the train geeks, and little-by-little over 50-plus years they built a doozy. 800 feet of HO gauge track through mountains, switching yards, and a downtown, plus all the controls, wiring, lighting, sounds and other details that bring the collection to vivid life. Click here for more info on


Who loves it? Every single kid in place, which means everyone, because nothing turns an adult back into a kid quite like a huge, dreamland version of one of their favorite toys.

Why is it being demolished? Unclear. Renovations are planned to the building, but something worth preserving can always be preserved. I smell petty turf war, which is the dark side of the fact some people never grow up.

What’s the key to preserving it? Grandfathers, three ways:

~Grandfathers built it.  Hobbies were different in the 60’s and 70’s. The original builders had skills, dedication and focus that make them seem like Old Masters in today’s scattery, touchscreen world. Most of them are probably gone now, but many were likely the grandfathers of today’s SF city officials and bureaucrats. Shame on you.

~ Grandfathers (and fathers) take their grandchildren to see it.  Graybeards are in high proportion among those holding little ones up for a better look. Nothing is a more classic bridge between those two generations than a fancy train set. Step up, gentlemen.

~ “Grandfathering” is how cities show respect for history. When something predates the rules, and it’s worth saving, an exception can always be made. Always. Looking at you, Mayor Ed Lee, and you, Parks and Rec boss Phil Ginsburg.

A city whose worldwide fame rides in no small part on its cable car tracks owes a huge debt to railroad history. The cable under the cable cars is there to keep trains from sliding down slippery slopes. If any historic trains matter in SF, then they all do. Save the model trains!

Neil Young is a famous car AND train geek, and a Bay Area local. It sure would be great if he chimed in on this.

Also, thanks to The Stavinator (big train? small guy?,) an Australian blogger and kindred spirit, for his unwitting photo assistance. ~KBZ