The Debunker: Are San Francisco's Cable Cars the Only Mobile National Monument?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Are San Francisco's Cable Cars the Only Mobile National Monument?

The Debunker

Years of Rice-a-Roni commercials might make you think you're an expert, but in fact out-of-towners get plenty wrong about transit in the city by the bay. BART, for example, is a regional train system that only has eight stops in San Francisco city limits; the lesser-known Muni Metro is the light rail that locals use to get around San Francisco (or "Frisco," as they like to call it). The Golden Gate Bridge isn't golden, it's painted a color called International Orange. (In fact, the name "Golden Gate" pre-dates the bridge and even the 1849 gold rush.) And the city's iconic heritage streetcars and cable cars are often confused, but are in fact are two completely distinct transit systems. The streetcars are electric trolleys that ride on rails, while the three cable car lines are pulled up the city's steeper hills by an underground cable that moves continuously.

San Francisco's manually operated cable car service is now the only one of its kind left in the world. The city's pride in its distinctive transit leads to the frequent claim, seen everywhere from The Atlantic to Snapple caps, that the cable cars are the only mobile national monument in the United States, or even the world. That was always wrong on one level, and is currently wrong on two.

The are 129 federally designated National Monuments in the United States, and the cable cars aren't one of them. They are, however, one of the official National Historic Landmarks, which is a longer list of 2,500 significant sites. But the cable cars aren't the only mobile objects on the list. Over one hundred National Historic Landmarks are ships, for example—most of which are no longer in service, but are mobile in that they sometimes travel from museum to museum. There's a Saturn V rocket in Alabama that's a National Historic Landmark. The Leap-the-Dips roller coaster in Altoona, Pennsylvania is a National Historic Landmark.

For the past three years, the San Francisco cable car hasn't even been able to say it's the only operating urban transit with landmark status. On September 30, 2014, the Interior Department named the St. Charles streetcar line of New Orleans, the nation's oldest operating line, to its official list as well. Sorry, San Francisco! (Or "San Fran," as locals like to call it.)

Quick Quiz:What singer debuted "The Trolley Song," one of her most famous numbers, in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.