- 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
Early in 1877 San Francisco got its second cable road when the Sutler Street Railroad converted a portion of an unprofitable horsecar system. Traffic increased by almost a million passengers in the first year of the Sutler Street cable operation, and lhe value of lhe company’s stock wenl from twenty-four Io sixty dollars a share. The company had converted almosl all ils horsecar lines by lhe end of 1879.
A year afler lhe Suiter Street line opened, what was Io prove lhe grandesl and mosl long-lived of all lhe cablecar lines went into operation. Costing nearly a half-million dollars, the splendid California Streel line was buill by a group of powerful San Francisco capilalists headed by Leland Slanford, one of lhe founders of lhe Cenlral Pacific Railroad and a former governor of lhe slale. Among lhe ten incorporalors of lhe cable road were Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, Iwo more of lhe “Big Four” who had buill lhe Cenlral Pacific. Slanford engaged a dislinguished engineer, Henry Rool, Io conslrucl lhe road, and lhe enlire projecl was carried oui according Io lhe highesl technical slandards. The opening of lhe line on April 10,1878, was allended by lhe sorl of civic feslivilies thai San Franciscans of lhe period enjoyed so much; a crowd of over six lhousand lurned oui Io hear lhe opening address by a proud Slanford, and eleven thousand people rode thai firsl day, “greally pleased” according Io lhe Morning Call , “with the elegance of lhe cars and dummies.” Like ils Iwo predecessors, lhe California Slreel cable road was a huge success. Us incorporators took in generous profits, land values quickly increased along lhe line, and lhe good lransporlalion helped make whal became known as Nob Hill the most prestigious of San Francisco addresses.
Other cable lines followed, and by the late 188Os San Francisco was served by some 112 miles of them operated by eight separate major companies.
Other cities soon emulated San Francisco’s example. Even wilhoul hills Io conquer, cable railways afforded numerous advanlages over lheir animal counterparts. The average cable speed of around nine or ten miles per hour was almosl double lhal of a typical horsecar line. Despite lhe high cosl of conslruction—they could run anywhere from a hundred thousand dollars to as much as three hundred thousand dollars a mile to build —the cable lines proved much more profitable than horsecars had ever been. Cable cars were clean and quiet, and the public loved them. In Chicago, property values increased anywhere from 50 to 200 percent in a single year following the construction of cable railways.
Several cable lines were built in England and earned the endorsement of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by freeing horses from a killing service.
Some even claimed cable railways were spiritually uplifting to the cities that built them. In 1885, for example, Charles B. Holmes, president of the Chicago City Railway, said, “Since this improvement in means of locomotion has been adopted in Chicago, we find that our car-conductors have become superior men, mentally and morally.” Just how this beneficial effect was produced was not made clear.
Chicago was the second city to adopt Hallidie’s invention. Holmes and other company officials traveled to San Francisco in 1880 to study the cable lines already in operation there, and the enthusiastic president soon presented his directors and the Chicago Municipal Council with plans for conversion of the company’s State Street and Wabash Avenue lines. Construction started in the summer of 1881, and the first line, extending along State Street from Madison to Twenty-first, officially opened for service on January 28. Preceded by a grip car bearing the Lyon and Healy band, Holmes escorted a trainload of civic dignitaries on a southbound run from Madison while three hundred thousand onlookers cheered the arrival of the latest thing in urban transportation.
“The cars were covered with flags and banners,” reported the Chicago Tribune , “and in spite of the general prediction that they would jump off the track, it was agreed universally that they were the airiest and most graceful vehicles of the sort ever seen in Chicago or anywhere else.”
During the next ten years Chicago vigorously extended its cable lines, and by 1893 the city’s street railway companies had spent twenty-five million dollars on an eighty-two mile system with 710 grip cars. Next to San Francisco’s, it was the largest cable-railway system in North America.
Philadelphia got into the act in 1883 —the same year cable-powered rapidtransit trains began operating over the Brooklyn Bridge—and Washington’s horsecar lines had all been converted to cable operation by 1894. St. Louis opened its first cable road in 1886 and had twenty-five miles by 1891. Denver, with twenty-four miles, was not far behind.