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The Cable Car History of San Francisco

May 2nd, 2017 · No Comments · Fisherman's Wharf, san francisco, Transportation, Union Square

San Francisco’s iconic cable cars have become a must-see attraction, but their history is what makes them the true symbol of the City’s spirit.  In the 1870’s, cable cars were simply a daily necessity for commuting the steep hills of San Francisco, and especially in dress shoes & heels!  Workers from around the City would rely on cable car lines like the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason every single day to get to work. The cable cars are incredibly popular with visitors, right up there with Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge. As America’s only mobile National Monument, who wouldn’t want to take a hilly ride?

Andrew Hallidie was inspired by many events to create the Clay Street Hill Railway– the true birth of San Francisco’s Cable Car network. Andrew was shocked to witness horses being whipped mercilessly trying to pull a horsecar up the steep grade of Jackson Street.   The horses later died after slipping on the wet cobblestone. The Clay Street Hill Railway was born as a solution to save the horses from the same fate while increasing efficiency.

William Eppelshimer was an engineer leading the design work, but Hallidie came from a transportation engineering background.   Hallidie’s father invented and patented the “wire rope” cable in Great Britain — likely a great connection to Andrew’s design contribution for San Francisco’s cable cars. Hallidie’s cable car system began testing in August 1873 and began full service in September.   San Francisco’s new cable cars were a massive success, and by 1890, 23 cable cars served San Francisco’s commuters. The cable car system continued to expand over the years, taking over horse-drawn streets, and modernizing technology and transportation.

Cable car technology was revolutionary for its time. The cable cars move by gripping an underground cable– powered by an engine in a central powerhouse. The cable is in constant motion – the grip clamps down on the cable when it needs to slow/stop, and releases as it continues to move. There is also a “grip man” on board the cable car, who is responsible for operating the grip between stops, and ringing the bell to let passengers know upcoming stops/alert oncoming traffic. There is also a conductor/attendant who collects rider fare and acts as a second set of eyes for the grip man.

Technology is ever changing, and by 1892 the first electric streetcars were invented. These street cars proved to be more efficient, and less expensive to build and maintain.  Electric street cars quickly became the preferred method of transportation around San Francisco. The 1906 earthquake destroyed a majority of San Francisco’s cable car infrastructure.  Engineers decided to expand the electric street cars as opposed to rebuilding the damaged cable car lines. San Francisco’s Mayor concluded that electric street cars were essentially half the financial investment and faster too. By 1947, Mayor Lapham declared that all cable cars be put out of service.  Friedel Klussmann had the courage and foresight to form a committee to save the cable cars heritage by highlighting the historical value of San Francisco’s cable cars.

Thanks to Friedel Klussmann and the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars, 3 cable car lines remain today in San Francisco: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and the California Street lines. While mainly a tourist magnet, people still use the cable cars for commuting the city, with the final stop being the busy Financial district and popular downtown areas.


Learn more about San Francisco’s legendary cable cars here, and be sure to download our free Cable Car Map for your next trip to San Francisco!


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