Western Trips

Thursday, October 11, 2012

San Francisco Cable Cars

San Francisco cable cars are as much a part of the history of San Francisco as is the Golden Gate Bridge, Fishermans Wharf and Telegraph Hill. If you have an opportunity to visit San Francisco, one very fun and educational stop to make is the Cable Car Museum. There is no charge to visit the museum.

Cable cars roll through the streets of San Francisco with their clanging bells everyday. It's one sure way to travel up and down the highest sloping streets.The Cable Car Museum not only showcases vintage San Francisco cable cars, cable car mechanisms and their fascinating history but also lets you see for yourself just how the system operates today.

The San Francisco Cable Car Museum is located in the Nob Hill area of the city. The museum is also a part of the cable car power house which operates the underground cable system today. A visit there is a visit to a museum as well as the working power house. While the power house itself is off limits to visitors, there are two galleries which allow you to see the cables and machinery in action. There is also a section underground where you can see the cables operating under Washington and Mason Streets.

cable car power house
Cable Car Power House
The Need for a Better Way

Cable cars was just what the public needed to get up and down the city's steep streets. The first San Francisco cable car was tested in 1873 by Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie came to California from Great Britain during the early gold rush years. The very idea of a cable car began when Hallidi noticed how difficult it was for horses trying to handle the steep slopes of the city. There were instances where horses slipped on the wet streets and were dragged to their death. Another challenge for horse drawn wagons was the downhill leg where wagons, due to gravity, would dangerously push against the pulling horses and cause accidents and sometimes death. The horse and buggy worked well almost everywhere except on those steep hills of San Francisco.

Andrew Smith Hallidie had the knowledge to put his idea to the test. His father had a patent on a "wire rope" cable in England. When Hallidi mined for gold during 1852 he used cables to help haul ore from the mines as well as developing cable for suspension bridges. It was with this background that Andrew Smith Hallidie was able to patent his cable car system.

cable car grip
Cable Car "grip" mechanism
The Fast Growth of Cable Cars

The very first San Francisco cable car line was the Clay Street Hill Railroad, a partnership that Hallidie entered into. Service started in September of 1873. It didn't take long for the successful venture to spawn other operators. During the first four years, the Clay Street Hill Railroad was the only operator. The next was the Sutter Street Railroad which operated its own version of Hallidie's patented system and began cable car service in 1877. The next was the California Street Cable Railroad 1878. Then in 1880 it was the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad followed by the Presidio & Ferries Railroad in 1882, the Market Street Cable Railway in 1883, the Ferries & Cliff House Railway in 1888 and then the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company in 1889. Obviously, the cable car systems were quite popular with the public. When all was said and done, some 53 miles of track had been laid in San Francisco.


Over the years, cable car companies expanded and merged. The Market Street Cable Railway would eventually emerge as San Francisco's largest. It would be renamed the Market Street Railway Company.

The significant event that meant a permanent change to the original cable car routes was the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. The cable car map would be changed forever. For one thing, the devastating earthquake would give the Market Street Railway Company, which then was renamed the United Railroads of San Francisco, an opportunity to abandon certain cable car routes in favor of the cheaper to operate electric streetcars. The only cable cars lines to remain after the city had rebuilt itself were those on the steepest of streets. In 1918, mostly due to labor troubles, the United Railroads of San Francisco would again be reorganized and renamed the Market Street Railway Company.

clay street hill railroad cable car
Original Clay Street Hill Railroad, Number 8
The Electric Streetcar

At about the time that the cable car system was at it's heyday in San Francisco, a man by the name of Frank Sprague developed the electric streetcar in 1888. With the exception of some of the steeper hills in San Francisco, the electric streetcar was much more versatile then the cable car and it's building and operating costs were less. Regardless of the economy of the electric streetcars, many people did complain about the miles and miles of wire above city streets. It simply didn't look that great and because of this many still favored the cable car.

See our Western Trips article on the Electric Streetcars of San Francisco. You will also enjoy the article, Interurban Railroads of the San Francisco Bay Area. Also See These Carson City Nevada Historic Sites

Believe it or not, in 1947, the then mayor of San Francisco floated the idea of just getting rid of the cable cars altogether. Fortunately for all of us his idea met with stiff resistance most notably from the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars. The true value of the cable cars to San Francisco was proven. aside from whatever fares are collected from riders, the cable cars gave San Francisco a true distinction from other large cities. The tourism value of the cable cars is obvious. It's often said that tourists don't travel to San Francisco to ride the buses. While San Francisco certainly offers many fine attractions, both historical and otherwise, the cable car and it's history is in a class all it's own.

cable car wire
Roll of cable car wire
Today's Cable Car Lines 

Today, San Francisco has three different cable car lines. They are the California, the Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency operates all three lines. Depending on the time of day, single ride fares as of this writing range from $6 to $3. All day passports can also be bought for $14. Monthly passes are available and the cable cars are available for private charter. Many people begin their cable car ride at the intersection of Powell and Market Streets in Union Square. There you'll find the a booth for cable car tickets.

Another popular starting point is at the Fisherman's Wharf area. Two of the three cable car lines stop in Fisherman’s Wharf. You can board the Powell-Mason line at Taylor St. and Bay St., or the Powell-Hyde line at Hyde St. and Beach St.

Visit the cable Car Museum

You'll have a fun time touring the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. See first hand just how these historic San Francisco cable cars operate today. The Cable Car Museum is located at 1201 Mason Street, just a few blocks north of Nob Hill.

(Photos from author's private collection)