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The first of the annual bell-ringing contests, as we know them today, was held at Union Square in April 1955. Although the bell-ringing contests are now a San Francisco tradition, the first annual contest did not begin in auspicious circumstances. It took place as part of a Cable Car Festival to promote the cable cars as a visitor attraction. The festival was sponsored by the city's administration under Mayor Elmer Robinson, which had obtained the votes in the June and November 1954 elections to authorize cutbacks in cable car service. The Cable Car Festival was held to fulfill a promise in the June 1954 election campaign to put on an annual festival for the cars, but the idea to include a bell-ringing contest in the festival may well have come from a event held at Union Square in 1949 .
There was railroad fair in Chicago in the summers of 1948 and 1949, and a bell-ringing contest was held at Union Square in May 1949 to select three gripmen to operate Powell car No. 524 on a short section of track at the 1949 fair, under the sponsorship of the Western Pacific Railroad. Three gripmen from the privately owned California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) and three Muni gripmen competed in the contest. Cal Cable's Alexander Nielsen won the contest, and two Muni gripmen were named to go with him to Chicago.
The bell-ringing contests that began in 1955 continued throughout the remainder of the 1950s. There were no contests for a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have been held every year since 1977. Although almost all of the contests have been held at Union Square, one was held on the Marina Green, on the 4th of July in 1959, and one was held at Fisherman's Wharf, in July 2001, because Union Square was undergoing renovation.
For many years, there has either been a celebrity bell-ringing contest or a contest for non-profit organizations, as well as the contest for the cable car crew members. For a few years, there was also a Miss Cable Car contest, although it must be said that being in a swimsuit on a cool and foggy San Francisco day couldn't have been all that much fun for the contestants. It should also be noted that the motorized cable car that is used for the Union Square contest is an authentic cable car. Car No. 62 was operated on the Jones Street Shuttle, which ran on Jones between O'Farrell and Market until February 1954.
Every year, former bell-ringing champions who are retired from Muni service are invited to the contest. Former gripmen such as Al Davison, Tom O'Brien, Carl Payne, and Al Quintana are introduced to the crowd and are often asked to show off their bell-ringing skills. Al Davison once rang a bell with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Symphony in the playing of Josef Strauss's "Firebell Polka." And Carl Payne's bell ringing is truly legendary - before he left Muni to become an officer in the San Francisco Police Department, he won the championship 10 times.
The cable car crew members who have won first place in the contest more than once are as follows:
The 42nd annual contest was held on July 8, 2004, at Union Square. As noted above, Frank Ware won first place. Walter Scott, III, came in second, and Byron Cobb took third place. The winners in the division for non-profit organizations were Brown Bombers (first place), California Autism Foundation (second place), and the San Francisco Police Department's Police Athletic League (third place).
S.F. Municipal Railway Community & Public Relations Dept.
July 12, 2004
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Page last updated July 13, 2004.