1873 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

May 2017

The Streetcars of San Francisco

On September 1 the Clay Street Hill Railroad, San Francisco’s first cable-car line, began regular service over six-tenths of a mile between Kearny Street and Jones Street, at the top of Nob Hill. The Clay Street line was America’s first successful cable railway, though short experimental lines had been tried in New York City and New Orleans. The ingenious system was designed and built by an English immigrant, Andrew Hallidie, and his draftsman, William Eppelsheimer. Hallidie was a veteran of the California mining industry who had previously patented suspension bridges and a wire-rope tramway system.

Before cable cars, San Francisco’s street railways, like those everywhere else, had been horse-drawn. In addition to the usual problems with horses—expense, maintenance, filth, and low speed—they often proved inadequate to climb the city’s steep hills. Even worse, an 1872 epidemic had disabled a large fraction of the nation’s draft horses, leading to the shocking sight of human-drawn streetcars in some cities. Steam locomotives were well developed, of course, but they spooked horses, and their noise, smoke, and cinders proved objectionable in cities. No one had yet come up with a practical electric railway, and compressed air and other expanding-gas schemes proved unworkable as well. So for want of anything better, horsecars continued to plod through America’s cities until Hallidie found a better way.

Hallidie’s invention sounds like a child’s fantasy of how urban transit might work: A gigantic wire-rope cable, more than a mile long, was looped along the route on underground pulleys and kept in constant motion with power from a central engine house. To propel themselves, cars simply grabbed hold of the cable through a narrow slot in the street. A pair of thirty-horse-power steam engines easily handled Clay Street’s 16 percent grade.

After months of arduous work, on August 1—the required starting date—Hallidie made two roundtrips to fulfill the terms of his charter, then shut down to finish construction. The line opened for paying customers in September and was immediately profitable. With the success of the Clay Street venture, cable railways spread across the country and as far away as New Zealand. Their reign was brief, however, as the 188Os saw development of efficient electric traction. With much lower maintenance and no energy wasted dragging a heavy cable, electric trolleys were a lot more economical. Only on the steepest hills did cable retain an advantage, since the cars did not skid or spin their wheels. No new cable systems were built after 1895, and by World War I, of the more than five dozen lines that had once existed in the United States, only San Francisco’s and a few in Seattle and Tacoma remained.