- Historic Sites
A Century of Cable Cars
Magnificently impractical and obsolete almost as soon as they were built, the cable lines briefly dominated urban transportation throughout the country
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Beloved of San Franciscans for more than a century now, the sturdy cable cars cling tenaciously to the hills of their birth. They are fiercely protected as one of the crown jewels of Bay Area tourism—a columnist in the Chronicle once went so far as to say that, without them, San Francisco would only be a lumpy Los Angeles—but they are a good deal more than that.
A triumph of nineteenth-century American mechanical ingenuity, the cables were the first form of urban transportation that enjoyed any real success in displacing the animal-powered street railways that had dominated municipal transport for nearly fifty years.
Born in the 183Os, the horse-and mule-powered street railways grew into a great industry, grossing over a billion dollars a year, but they were far from ideal public transportation. The animals were seldom good for more than a few years in the punishing service, and they suffered from an endless variety of ailments. The huge stables required both a sizable initial investment and a high upkeep, and the business was never a very profitable one. Moreover, horsecars crept along at four or five miles an hour, and their speed severely limited the effective distance of street railway lines.
Cities tried a variety of mechanical alternatives without conspicuous success. Steam engines proved uneconomical in the small units needed for street railway service, and they were noisy and dirty in any case. Several attempts at “fireless” cars, using compressed air, pressurized ammonia, and even a boiler heated by the reaction of caustic soda with water, all ended in failure.
The concept of a moving, endless cable to propel vehicles through the city streets was at least as old as the horsecar industry itself. From 1812 onward, inventors had advanced proposals built around this idea. By 1858 E. S. Gardiner of Philadelphia had come up with a very detailed system for a street railway that included a constantly moving cable or rope and a gripping apparatus on each car to take hold of it. But although cable railways would be built along these lines, neither Gardiner nor any of the other early inventors were ever able to put their ideas to any practical test.
The first to actually try the idea was a brilliant Scot named Andrew Smith HaIlidie. Born in London in 1836, Hallidie was the son of Andrew Smith but later adopted the name of his godfather, Sir Andrew Hallidie, a noted physician. Andrew Smith manufactured wire rope, for which he had made several inventions, and young Hallidie gained some experience in wire-rope structures in his father’s business before emigrating to the United States in 1853 at the age of seventeen to seek his fortune in the California goldfields.
When he failed at mining, Hallidie turned to engineering and construction and soon established a considerable reputation. His first major success came in 1855, when, at only nineteen years of age, he designed and built a wire suspension bridge to carry a flume across the Middle Fork of the American River. During the next twelve years he constructed a number of suspension bridges up and down the Pacific Coast, and in 1858 he opened the West’s first wire-rope manufacturing plant at Mason and Chestnut streets in San Francisco. He went on to invent a rigid suspension bridge in 1867 and developed the “Hallidie ropeway,” a sort of aerial tramway that used an endless wire rope to transport ore and other freight in the mountainous California mining country.
So Hallidie was no stranger to the potentialities of wire rope by the winter of 1869, when tradition has him standing in the rain at the corner of Stockton and Jackson streets watching a heavily overloaded car drawn by four horses struggling up one of San Francisco’s vertical hillsides. A horse slipped and fell. The driver spun his hand brake, but the chain that set the brakes snapped, and the car, out of control, rolled back down the hill, dragging the screaming horses across the cobbles and injuring them so severely they had to be destroyed.
Whether this carnage was actually the source of his inspiration, Hallidie saw in the idea of the cable railway an opportunity for improved public transportation—not to mention a substantial market for the tough and flexible steelwire cables he made in his plant.
Hallidie’s cable-railway scheme was simplicity itself. A steam engine at a central power plant would pull an endless wire rope through a trough placed between the rails and below the street. Streetcars attached to the cable would be drawn through the streets, with the plant’s almost limitless energy enabling them to surmount the steepest of hills. A special contrivance by which the operator could grip and release the cable at will would permit the car to be stopped at any point.
Joined by three close friends—Henry L. Davis, a former sheriff of the City and County of San Francisco, and Joseph Britton and James Moffitt, both San Francisco businessmen—Hallidie organized a cable-railway company in 1872 and obtained a franchise to construct a line on the Clay Street hill between Kearny and Jones streets. The route was a little over a half-mile in length but climbed some three hundred feet and included gradients of more than 1 in 6.