By Phillip Hubler
San Francisco, the city by the bay that is full of charm as well as rich in history. The Presidio is a reminder of the city’s Spanish Colonial and U. S. military past, and the Golden Gate Bridge serves as a salute to the marvels of modern engineering. The nod to history in this city also extends to public transportation in the famed cable cars of San Francisco. They are perhaps one of the most premier icons that one thinks of when they think of this city. But, why cable cars? What brought them about? Much of the answer lies in the city’s plethora of hills.
Cable cars were introduced to the world through the vision of an entrepreneur, Andrew Hallidie. Mr. Hallidie had developed a wire rope business to improve the longevity of cables being used in mining operations. At the time cables used for hauling carts in the mines were made of hemp and they wore out quickly. His idea of using wire rope which, was stronger and more durable than hemp, took off and wire rope was soon considered the standard in hauling heavy loads by use of weights and pulleys.
In the mid-nineteenth century San Francisco had a population explosion. As it grew so did the need to transport cargo and people up its steep ridges. At the time it was horse drawn carts that shuttled passengers and products skyward on the slopes of San Francisco. Accidents were common. The loaded carts were sometimes so heavy horses, passengers, and all would be dragged uncontrollably downhill by the weight of their content. It was witnessing this phenomenon that prompted Hallidie to find a solution to this problem.
He proposed a rope railway to carry people and merchandise up the hills of this burgeoning city. The concept was to run a wire cable underground that traveled in a loop connected to a main powerhouse that lodged an engine of weights and pulleys motorized by steam. The car’s wheels glide over tracks as a mechanism called a grip, controlled by the operator, extends below to lock on to the moving cable transporting the car along the designed route. His idea was met with approval, funding was secured, and the building of his cable car system began in 1872.
It was in the early hours of an August morning in 1873 that Hallidie and some other men climbed aboard a car to do a test run of this newly installed method of transport. Halliidie was the gripman for this descent down Clay Street from Leavenworth Street to Kearny Street. It was a safe ride down that hill for the passengers aboard the test car and September 1, 1873 the Clay Street Line opened for business. It wasn’t long before other cable car companies sprung up opening lines on Geary, California, and Sutter Streets.
The cable cars were faster than the horse-drawn carts which allowed them to transport passengers more frequently increasing their profitability. Cable cars became widespread in the United States because of their use in San Francisco. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and Denver are among the many cities that installed cable cars as part of their mass transit systems.
The era of the cable car was rather short-lived as the electric street car was introduced. The country’s first successful electric streetcar system was launched in the late 1880’s in Richmond, Virginia. Streetcars systems became more desirable for city transit companies because they were considerably less expensive to install, operate, and maintain than cable car systems.
As soon as 1890 streetcars, also called trolleys, started to dominate in the market place of mass transit, pushing out the costly cable car systems. The greatest threat to the cable car system was the autobus. Buses drive on roads instead of a fixed track allowing for greater flexibility in servicing many routes around a city. They too were less expensive to operate and maintain.
It was the widespread use of buses that sealed the fate of cable cars. In favor of high power buses that didn’t need a track to operate cities began pulling out their cable car systems. Even the famed cable cars that are so identifiable with San Francisco were almost led to the scrap yard.
In 1947 San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham announced that the city need to rid itself of the cable cars and make way for super buses. Several women’s groups in the city did not agree and organized themselves into the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. This group felt that the cars shouldn’t be completely scrapped. They believed the cable cars to be a piece of San Francisco’s history that needed to be preserved. The competition was fierce with valid points of view on both sides. Votes determined if cable cars would stay or go. An overwhelming majority of 75% of the votes cast were “yes” votes obliging the city to maintain the Powell Street Cable Car Line.
Thank you to the Citizens’ Committee who sought to preserve this fun quirky mode of transportation so future generations can get a glimpse of the past. Today the cable cars are a designated historical landmark, one of the few moving landmarks in the United States. Powell and Hyde, Powell and Mason, and California Street are the three remaining cable car lines that operate taking visitors and residents to Market Street.
The cable cars currently in operation are of two different designs. The first design has the grip and brake mechanism at the rear end of the car, so when the car reaches the end of the line it must be manually turned. A later design placed the grip and brake operations at both ends of the cable car allowing the gripman to move from one end of the car to the other to operate the controls instead of having to rotate the car. The Powell and Hyde, and Powell and Mason Lines use the first design and must be manually turned around before beginning the return trip. The California Street Line uses the second design featuring grip and brake levers at either end of the car negating the need to turn it by hand.
The cable cars are used by residents and tourists alike. They are fun to ride especially if you stand on the sideboard and hang on.
If you go, tips for riding:
The fare is $7 for a one-way ticket but if you purchase one of San Francisco MUNI’s unlimited use day passes you can hop on and off as many times as you like. Additionally, with your pass you can board MUNI buses as well as the F and E streetcars unlimitedly for the term of your pass. A very economical way to get around the city to explore its charms.
Lines to board the cable cars are long, particularly at Hyde Street station on Fisherman’s Wharf and Powell Street station on Market Street. Ride the California Street Line instead, it boards where California Street meets Market Street at the northern end. Primarily because it is not as noticeable as the other two stations. There is hardly ever a line and if so, it’s miniscule compared to the other two more popular Powell Street routes.