Runaway Cable Car: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

On May 7, 1926, overloaded California street cable car #17 rolled downhill on the way to the Financial District. As it approached Stockton Street, gripman Isadore Navarro released hold of the cable and applied the brakes to the wet and greasy rails on the steep grade.

“The car simply would not stop. I yelled to the passengers: ‘Get back, get in back of the car!’”1

Cable car crash, May 7, 1926.
Accident of #17 cable car collided with second California Street cable car at California and Sansom Streets. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Building at 401 California Street on southwest corner in background. (wnp37.03047.jpg, Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

In processing and scanning the OpenSFHistory collection we come across many news images depicting visiting dignitaries, parades, and crime scenes. (Out of respect to the victims we do not post photos of the coroner at work, even a century after the incident.)

Traffic accidents are well represented in the collection since, in addition to reporters from four major daily newspapers, the first half of the twentieth century also had official city and company photographers to document smashed streetcars, flipped fire trucks, and overturned trains. Searching for “accident” brings up produce trucks in front yards and streetcars in front parlors. Hogs in a lorry and grinning teenagers wait for the mess to clear while a photographer captures the scene.

As gripman Navarro and conductor Clinton Toy tried to slow #17 on its slide down the California Street hill, a score of passengers leapt to the street just before the car hit a meat truck at Kearny Street. The truck was catapulted into a parked car and into the front of a tailor shop, strewing animal carcasses behind it. The blood and meat on the streets would lead to exaggerated early reports of human carnage from the accident. Onward down the hill the cable car raced, with Navarro ringing his bell madly and Toy yelling at passengers to lie flat and not to jump off.2

On the rails ahead of the speeding #17, was a second cable car headed to the Ferry Building. Conductor Matt O’Connor saw what was happening behind him. He hustled passengers off the back of the car and ran up to his gripman, John Tompkins, imploring him to get moving. A moment after, at Sansome and California Streets, the runaway telescoped into O’Connor’s car: “There was a shattering of glass and rending of steel and wood. Seats were twisted free from their fastenings.”3

Cable Car accident, May 7, 1926.
View west on California Street at cable car accident on May 7, 1926. (wnp30.0067, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

More than a hundred were injured, some seriously. City agencies and corporations would use post-collision photographs for investigations and as evidence in legal claims for damages. Many of the most revealing street scenes of early twentieth century San Francisco come from “A.R.” or “Accident Report” photographs taken by the United Railroads. While we historians examine business signs, once-bare hillsides, and architectural changes, our excitement is tempered because someone was likely injured or even killed just before the photograph was taken.

In the days following the cable car crash the newspapers had humorous articles about personal items collected at the accident to be claimed by those in the hospital—one woman’s found shoe was conjectured to be a Cinderella story only awaiting a Prince Charming. Dodge Brothers had the gall to run a promotion on how little damage the flying meat truck had done to the parked automobile.4

Gripman Isadore Navarro, injured in the crash, was hailed as a cool-headed hero in the immediate aftermath. A day after, however, Joseph W. Harris, president of the California Street Cable Railroad Company, asserted that Navarro was to blame for not using another brake and possibly having the cable still engaged. “It goes without saying that if he is found to have been responsible he will be discharged.” Harris also said the company was willing to pay for victims hospital bills “unless demands were exorbitant.”5

Aftermath of the cable car crash of May 7, 1926.
Aftermath of the cable car crash of May 7, 1926. (wnp30.0118.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)


1. “Car Brakes Failed, Avers Gripman,” San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 1926, pg. 8.
2. “Death Rumors Laid to Meat,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 1926, pg. 5.
3. “50 Hurt When Cars Collide,” San Francisco Bulletin, May 8, 1926, pg. 2.
4. “Police Property Clerk Snowed Under with Belonging Lost in Cable Car Collision,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 1926, pg. 13; Putting One Over on a Peeved Cable Car,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 16, 1926, pg. 10A.
5. “Car Crash Blamed to Gripman,” San Francisco Bulletin, May 8, 1926, pg. 1-2.

St. Luke’s Hospital: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

The cranes and scaffolding have retreated from the new Sutter Health California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) hospital block between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin, Geary and Post streets. The site of the old Jack Tar Hotel (who remembers that midcentury modern hostelry?) is a gleaming silver ziggurat of high-tech healthcare, due to open in a year or so.

I reflected on the advances in medical science over the past century after a recent OpenSFHistory update. We added a series of interior images of the old St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District, photographs that no doubt were taken to publicize the hospital’s 1910s-era modern facilities and cutting-edge technology. Viewed a century later, the people-less rooms look more like horror film sets.

St. Luke's Hospital room, circa 1919.
The console, glass bell, crank and wheel, exam table, large window, and radiator behind all appear to be part of a Frankenstein movie. Is that an x-ray machine? We need a historian on medical technology to tell us! (wnp30.0339.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

St. Luke's Hospital room, circa 1919.
While there’s an autoclave and sink, the stained tiles on the floor do not give a great assurance of sterility, do they? (wnp30.0344.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

St. Luke’s opened modestly in 1871 with a series of buildings around Esmeralda and Prospect Avenues on the west side of Bernal Hill. Twenty patients could be accommodated. Most hospitals at the time were administrated and operated by religious societies and/or ethnic-aligned charities, so in addition to the County Hospital, San Francisco had a French Hospital, a German Hospital, an Italian Hospital, and a Catholic hospital (St. Mary’s). St. Luke’s was formed by the Protestant Episcopal Church, but from the beginning planned to be “open to the sick of all nations and denominations… people of all creeds and color.”1

St. Luke's Hospital, circa 1890.
View of St. Luke’s Hospital complex from Valencia Street, circa 1890 (wnp30.0347, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

After canvassing the whole city for subscriptions to build a permanent hospital, St. Luke’s managers purchased a two-acre lot on Valencia Street at 27th Street and Army Street (now Cesar Chavez) in 1874. Since then, St. Luke’s has been expanded, remodeled, rebuilt, and threatened with closure as recently as 2007.

Like the new California Pacific Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital is owned by Sutter Health, and while the plans aren’t as posh as the new campus on Van Ness Avenue, a new St. Luke’s facility is rising on Valencia Street. We can certainly look forward to glossy photo shoots promoting the new St. Luke’s featuring bright rooms and futuristic white and silver machines: slick comforting scenes of care that our great-grandchildren may find barbaric.

St. Luke's Hospital laboratory, circa 1919.
The laboratory room looks less equipped than a high school chemistry classroom, but there is one microscope! (wnp30.0338.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

St. Luke's Hospital washtub, circa 1919.
Please tell me there are towels… (wnp30.0340.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

St. Luke's Hospital staff, circa 1919.
To balance the coldness of the interior photographs, we have this group of St. Luke’s nurses offering a sense of comfort and competence. (wnp30.0255.jpg, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)


1. “A New Hospital,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1871, pg. 3. “St. Luke’s Hospital,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 1872, pg. 4.