San Francisco’s first tech boom wasn’t about silicon, but steel. Steel cable that triggered a revolution in urban transportation. Scotsman Andrew S. Hallidie, an experienced maker of wire rope (steel cable), employed his expertise to invent the cable car on Clay Street in San Francisco, with the first run on August 2, 1873. Hallidie said he wanted to surmount hills in the City too steep for horse-drawn streetcars.
Not only could cable cars climb hills horses couldn’t, on level ground cable cars were almost twice as fast as horse-drawn streetcars. Private transit companies in numerous cities soon embraced them. In exchange for higher installation costs, they saved the considerable cost of caring for horses, and the faster speed meant more passengers and fares. New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Oakland were among the 29 US cities to install cable lines; London, Paris, Sydney, and Melbourne were among 11 known overseas cable lines.
Seeing the benefits of faster, horse-free urban transportation inspired other innovators. In 1888, Frank Sprague inaugurated the first practical electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia. Taking advantage of rapid improvements in electric motors, streetcars could run twice as fast as cable cars, and soon replaced them on flat routes, including in San Francisco.
By 1941, when cable lines in Seattle and Tacoma closed, San Francisco had the only street-running cable cars in America. The 1957 closure of a cable line in New Zealand made San Francisco’s cable cars unique in the entire world. Threatened with scrapping in 1947, cable car lovers rallied to defend San Francisco’s system and when the original installations wore out in the early 1980s, the City rebuilt its cable car network from the dirt up.
The free Cable Car Museum at Washington and Mason Streets is open Tuesdays through Sundays. It’s right where the two Powell lines meet, and two blocks north of the California line. The museum occupies the mezzanine level of Muni’s historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, where you can see the vintage cable winding machinery doing its job and watch the cables leave the barn underground to pull the cars. Antique cable cars, including one from Hallidie’s original Clay Street Hill Railroad, are on display as well, and there’s a shop selling souvenirs.
Andrew Smith Hallidie tested the first cable car at 4 o’clock in the morning, August 2nd, 1873, on Clay Street, in San Francisco. His idea for a steam engine powered – cable driven – rail system was conceived in 1869, after witnessing horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horsecar up Jackson Street. As the story goes, the horses slipped and were dragged to their death.
Hallidie’s father was an inventor who had a patent in Great Britain for “wire rope” cable. Hallidie immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 during the Gold Rush. He began using cable in a system he had developed to haul ore from mines and in building suspension bridges.
Hallidie entered into a partnership to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which began construction of a cable line on Clay Street in May of 1873. The contract to operate on city streets stated the line must be operational by August 1st. They launched on the 2nd. Even though they were a day late the cable car trials received great approval. Clay Street Hill Railroad began public service on September 1st, 1873. It was a tremendous success.
Hallidie’s idea was based on the principle of an endless wire rope that was in continuous motion underground. The car could be attached and released from the cable by a hook. When Hallidie first presented the idea of a cable car to the public he was ridiculed. Undaunted, with the help of friends and investors, Hallidie raised the capital to experiment with a single line on one street. The experiment proved to be successful, and cable cars became popular not only in San Francisco, but in other cities as well.
Andrew Smith Hallidie, the mechanical genius who originated cable railway transportation, was born in London, on March 16, 1836. His grandfather, Smith, a [Scottish] schoolmaster and soldier during the Napoleonic wars, had served at Waterloo. His father, Andrew Smith, had been born in Fleming, Dumfrieshire, Scotland, in 1798, and his mother, Julia Johnstone Smith, was from Lockerbie, Dumfrieshire. Andrew Smith was an engineer and inventor. Of his patents those for the making of metal wire ropes, granted from 1835 to 1849, were the most important. Young Andrew Smith later adopted the surname Hallidie in honor of his godfather and uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, who had been physician to King William IV and to Queen Victoria.
Hallidie’s desire to associate with men of intelligence brought him into the Mechanics’ Institute. Almost from the organization’s inception he worked tirelessly toward its progress. Much of the credit goes to Hallidie for laying the solid foundation upon which this organization was established. Hallidie became a trustee and vice-president in 1864 and served as president from 1868-1877. The beginnings of the Mechanics’ Institute were reviewed in an address delivered by Halladie before the Librarians’ Association of Central California on December 11, 1896, when he summarized some of the Institute’s historical highlights.
27 facts about cable cars, SF’s moving national landmark
Once upon a time, cable cars were common sights in Portland, Seattle, and even Oakland. But only in San Francisco, where the first cables ran, have they become a part of the city’s worldwide identity.
Each cable car has a staff of two. The conductor sells tickets and looks after the passengers. The grip person is the driver. They use levers and handles to grab or release a moving cable that runs in a continuous loop beneath the street. To stop, the grip puts on the brake, which is nothing more than a big piece of wood that drags the ground. The grip is also the bell-ringer, signaling the car’s approach. Three cable car lines run through San Francisco.
“No other city in the world has cable cars. San Francisco was the first city with cable cars, and since 1957, we’ve been the only city to run them,” said Rick Laubscher, President of Market Street Railway. “Our special 150th anniversary website, sfcablecars.org, is filled with cable car history and little-known stories. It also makes it easy to combine cable car rides with walking tours of Chinatown, the Barbary Coast, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Union Square, Polk Gulch and the Financial District.”
Image courtesy instituteforhistoricalstudy.org, Railway Age, and Ed O’Keeffe Photography