"You wouldn't think such a place as San Francisco could exist,"
wrote the poet Dylan Thomas in a letter back home to Wales, and he then began
to list the city's charms.
Among those charms—the hills, the sunlight, the bridges, and the
sardine fleets on the water—he also listed "the little cable cars
whizzing down the city hills."FIG1
Credit: SFCVB photo by Mark Gibson
The little cable cars are still doing so—on three lines: the
Powell-Mason line, which runs from Powell and Market to Fisherman's Wharf; the
Powell-Hyde line, which runs from Powell and Market to Aquatic Park near
Ghirardelli Square; and the California Street line, which runs east to west
from the financial district to Van Ness
The cable cars have been a part of the San Francisco landscape since the
first one was tested in 1873.
According to information on the San Francisco Cable Car Web site, the cable
car had its origins in calamity when Andrew Smith Hallidie, a British
immigrant and inventor, happened to witness an accident in 1869: a horse-drawn
streetcar slipped backwards on a rain-soaked, cobble-stone hill, dragging five
horses to their death.
As it happened, Hallidie's father had filed the first patent in England for
the manufacture of wire rope. Andrew had brought the technology to America and
used it to design suspension bridges; he also used it to help pull heavy ore
rail cars out of underground mines.
Witnessing the accident gave him the inspiration for another use of the
wire rope—and thus was born the cable car. A cable car is pulled along a
hilly track by an underground cable. The cable is gripped by a vice-like
mechanism operated by a grip lever—hence the name "gripman"
for the cable car driver—in the front of the car.
The first working cable car line began at Clay Street in 1873, and five
years later the California Street Cable Railroad Company (CalCable) went into
service. In the closing years of the 19th century, several other cable car
lines had begun service; but by 1892, the cable car was headed for a collision
with technological innovation when the first electric streetcars with overhead
Credit: SFCVB photo by Rick Gerharter
When a devastating earthquake shook the city in 1906, many of the cable
lines were destroyed, and much of the city was converted to streetcar
Thereafter the cable cars went into a period of declining use, with lines
being converted to streetcar or bus service. By the late 1940s, then Mayor
Roger Lapham was calling for ending the cable car system permanently,
according to the cable car Web site.
But the cable car had also by that time become one of the symbols of the
city, and the public mobilized against the attempt to close the system down.
The fight was led by Friedel Klussman, who became known as "The Cable
Car Lady." On November 4, 1947, a citywide vote was held on a charter
amendment to keep the cable system running—and the measure won by a vote
of 166,989 to 51,457.
There was to be further consolidation of cable car lines, however. By
December 1957, what remained were the three lines running today. On October 1,
1964, an official ceremony dedicated San Francisco's cable-car system as a
special "moving" National Historic Landmark.
Between 1982 and 1984 the cable system underwent a renovation, and the
historic cars were refurbished.
The city's love of its moving landmark led to the establishment of the
Cable Car Museum in the historic Washington/Mason cable-car barn and
powerhouse at 1201 Mason Street. The museum deck overlooks the enormous
engines and winding wheels that pull the cables.
Information about San Francisco's cable cars, including fares and
routes, is posted at <
Information about the Cable Car Museum is posted at<www.cablecarmuseum.org>.▪