Thursday, March 6, 2008


One of my favorite things to do while growing up in San Francisco, was to ride its awesome cable cars. I would drag Nana, my long-suffering grandmother – with whom I lived for several years – onto one of these moving national treasures every time we went downtown to shop. Rain or shine, I would always insist on sitting on the outside of the car, the better to watch the bustling, and fascinating, city as we rode up and down the hills.

Sarah Woolson – the fictional heroine of my 1880s Sarah Woolson historical mystery series; MURDER ON NOB HILL, THE RUSSIAN HILL MURDERS, THE CLIFF HOUSE STRANGLER – also likes to ride the cable cars, and frequently uses this mode of transportation to make her way around San Francisco. This has caused a number of readers to write inquiring about the history of these famous landmarks: Who invented them? When did they first start running? How do they work? How many cable car lines are still in operation?

Actually, it’s a pretty interesting story. The city’s first public transportation was a horse-drawn omnibus, which started carrying passengers and goods around rapidly growing San Francisco in 1850. But the omnibuses and privately driven horse-drawn cars and carts, found the city’s steep hills difficult going. That was when a London-born Scotsman, Andrew Hallidie, came up with an unusual and creative solution to the problem.

Arriving in San Francisco during the late 1860s, Andrew S. Hallidie – who had pioneered the use of steel cable in the west’s gold and silver mines – witnessed a horrific street car accident caused by a tired old horse trying to climb a slippery San Francisco hill. This caused him to start thinking about how he might conquer the many steep grades of this “City of Hills”. An expert in manufacturing wire rope and cable, he realized that if he could come up with a transportation system by using a cable traction system, he could move people, heavy goods and other prohibitably large loads up even the steepest of San Francisco’s hills.

Hallidie’s basic invention was an endless cable running in a slot just below street level, kept in motion by huge wheels which were housed in cable car barns. To control the car’s movement, its gripman would fasten onto the running cable to make it run, then disengage from the cable and apply its brake to make it stop.

Undeterred by public and newspaper ridicule and skepticism, on August 2, 1873 at 4:00 a.m., the first trial run of Hallidie’s “dummy” made its way down the Clay Street hill between Jones and Kearny Streets, a distance of 2,880 feet. Later the same day, the dummy with a car attached, made another round trip, this time with a large, curious crowd in attendance.

This new public transportation cost five cents a ride, and eventually it was able to reach any part of the city, opening whole new areas to development. In their heyday, as many as eight different cable car lines, extending 112 miles, sent cars up Telegraph, Russian and Nob hills, out to the Presidio, to Golden Gate Park, and even to the Cliff House at Lands End. In its heyday, San Francisco boasted eight cable car companies, operating 600 cars over 100 miles of track.

In 1947, the cable car was very nearly phased out by authorities in the name of “progress”. The outcry from San Franciscans, however, was so loud and outraged that after a long political struggle that didn’t end until 1955 – when there was only a few miles of track left – they were finally saved from oblivion. The cable cars received their official seal of approval in 1964, when they were declared a National Historic Landmark.

Today, there are only three cable car lines left running in San Francisco, but they continue to be as much a part of the City By The Bay as the fog, Coit Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge.


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