Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Electric Streetcar / San Francisco


Mass Transit History / San Francisco

As cities are concerned, San Francisco is one of the finest examples of urban transportation anywhere in the United States. The electric streetcar is a big part of San Francisco transportation. Traveling to San Francisco for a weekend getaway or as part of a California vacation is always a pleasure and what's especially great  are the many means of urban transportation. The cable cars are a big part of what many people like about the city. The electric streetcar and the electric bus are also prevalent throughout the city.
san francisco cable car

Cable cars like the one shown are great tourist attractions.They may not be the fastest mode of transportation but they are fun to ride. In addition to riding the cable cars and the electric streetcars there are a few fun stops while visiting San Francisco you should find interesting.

Two Good Stops to Make While In San Francisco

The Cable Car Museum is a one of a kind experience. Located at 1201 Mason Street, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum offers you a chance to view the huge engines which pull the cables. There are also many photographs and parts on display that help the cable cars operate such as the grips, brakes and track.  You'll also be able to view the cable car routes and maps.

The San Francisco Railway Museum which is located just across from the Ferry Building is a celebrates San Francisco’s rail transit history. The museum displays and tells of the positive impact the rail system has had for the city. In addition, the museum features a full-sized replica of the motorman’s platform of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar. Sometimes people refer to them as a San Francisco trolley car. These are two fun sites for the entire family to enjoy.

From Horses to Electric Power

streetcar Mass land transit in the United States begins in the east in the 1830s with the introduction of horse-drawn omnibuses and streetcars. As was the case throughout the United States, cities slowly converted from horsepower to electric power and that gave us the first electric streetcar.

The omnibus was essentially a stagecoach but larger. It was like a bus of today except it was pulled by horses. Stagecoaches were of course still in existence at the time but they were primarily used for longer distance travel. Yes, they could be used for urban travel but the number of passengers carried by an old Concord Stage was limited. Research shows that the last stagecoaches operated in Arizona until the early 20th century. They were replaced by omnibuses and then by motorized buses. At one time the omnibus was pulled along a track by horses. It was a lot easier for a horse team to pull a heavier load over steel tracks. By the 1920's most cities abandoned horse drawn cars for the new electric streetcars.

The Challenge in San Francisco

san francisco streetcar
Early transportation had a different challenge in a city such as San Francisco. The question was how to efficiently transport people and goods up steep inclines. The idea of cable cars for use in San Francisco came about by a man who witnessed what could happen when a horse drawn wagon slipped out of control coming down a steep grade.

A man by the name of Andrew Smith Hallidie first came to California because of the gold mines. Hallidie came to California with his father who had stakes in some gold mines. The father's stakes didn't work out and he decided to return to England. His son however decided to stay. While the younger Hallidie was working in the mine fields he was consulted about the rapid wear the ropes were taking lowering the rock filled cars from up in the mines to down to the mills. Hallidie had an answer.He put together machinery to make a replacement rope but this one was made of wire. The wire ropes were able to last two years and from this Hallidie established a wire rope factory in California. Using the same machinery he developed in the mine fields, Hallidie founded the A.S. Hallidie Company. He was now in the business of manufacturing wire rope in San Francisco.

Hallidie's Answer Was the Cable Car


streetcar san francisco
Andrew Smith Hallidie became involved with the cable car idea for a couple of reasons. First, he saw how hard it was for horses to pull wagons up the steep hills of San Francisco. There is no city in the U.S. with urban hills as steep as those found in San Francisco.

The second reason was that Hallidie supposedly witnessed a catastrophic accident in which horses pulling a horse car uphill were dragged backwards and killed. This seemed to be enough inspiration to try to find a better way. In addition, many people of the era thought horse-drawn transit as unnecessarily cruel, and the fact that a horse could work only four or five hours per day made upkeep a major logistics and financial issue. Even with the problem of horses navigating steep inclines, horse drawn wagons in San Francisco didn't totally disappear from the transit scene until about 1913.


San Francisco's first cable car system was called the Clay Street Hill Railroad named after the road on which it ran. Most historians credit Andrew Smith Hallidie with the promotion of this new urban railway. There is some debate as to exactly how much Hallidie was involved with the promotion since there were two other people involved. Some say he was the chief proponent of the line and others say he merely took over when another discontinued. Nevertheless, the Clay Street Hill Railroad started regular operation on September 1, 1873 and was an instant financial success. This was three years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana.

The method of the new cable car operation was fairly simple. Just like today it involves gripping the cable. The Clay Street Hill Railroad involved the use of grip cars, which carried the grip that engaged with the cable. This design was the very first to use such grips. An interesting historic side note is that a cable car was actually in operation in London as early as 1840. This English method however used iron claws to grip a moving rope. The problem was that the rope wore out fairly fast and eventually the line was abandoned and replaced by steam locomotives.

The difference thirty-three years later in San Francisco was that a wire was used instead of rope. There obviously another big difference in the terrain. The second line that converted over to cable was the Stockton Street horse car operation. These conversions were done because a cable car could carry twice as many passengers twice as fast. These and other converted cable lines were eventually absorbed into the San Francisco cable car system. Making the cable car cable from out of wire made all the difference.

The Electric Streetcar

street car
The next development after the cable car in San Francisco as well as the horse drawn car in other areas of the United States was the electric streetcar. These are sometimes called San Francisco trolleys. There was also quite a large electric streetcar project at the time in Los Angeles. The electric street car was basically an electrically propelled old omnibus on tracks. The credit for the development of the electric streetcar goes to Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith and inventor from Vermont. As early as 1834 Davenport developed a battery operated motor. Davenport went on to start a small electric railway in 1835 and in 1837 patented a device for "Improvements in propelling machinery by magnetism and electromagnetism" . The story about Thomas Davenport and how he created his electric motors is a full story in itself.


The first electric streetcar line in San Francisco was started in 1891. This was the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway. The line ran out to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma... another branch went to Golden Gate Park. In 1896 the line was expanded where people could ride out to the Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean and to the Sutro Baths by way of the Sutro Railroad founded by Mayor Adolph Sutro. Years later San Francisco's most popular old amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach would lure tourists and residents alike to the Pacific Ocean on streetcars.

The Cable Cars and Electric Streetcars are Still a Big Part of San Francisco

One thing that makes San Francisco travel stand out, aside from it's natural beauty and picturesque vistas, is it's unique transportation system. The cable cars of old are still one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Many people begin their ride at either Union Square (Powell and Market Streets) or at Fishermans Wharf off of Hyde Street. You'll be able to view the cable car routes easily at these two locations.

The three lines are the Powell/Mason route, Powell/Hyde route and the California line. The electric railways called the SF Muni are found all over the city and provide relatively inexpensive transportation for tourists and work commuters alike. Ride the Muni and cable cars and make your San Francisco travel a fun adventure.

In addition to the cable cars and SF Muni, the modern age has brought the electrically powered BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System) to communities all throughout the Bay Area. BART also goes to San Francisco International Airport. Commuters and tourists also use the San Francisco Bay ferry boat system which connects the city to points in Marin County as well as to the East Bay area such as Oakland.

Also see our article on the Texas Electric Railway

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)




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