- 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
By the early 189Os cable railways had been installed in twenty-nine American cities, and cable railways constructed under American supervision were running in half a dozen cities in Great Britain as well as in cities in France, Portugal, Australia, and New Zealand. By 1894 cable-railway mileage in the United States had reached its peak—360 miles, nearly 5,000 cars, and 400,000,000 passengers a year.
Throughout the brief, fervid era of cable railways, the mechanical details of their operation changed little. One of the few significant improvements to Hallidie’s original design came from Henry Root, chief engineer for Leland Stanford’s California Street Railroad, who simplified the grip by replacing the screw-operated mechanism with a long lever on a quadrant, much like a brake handle. Root’s “California Street grip,” or similar designs, went into use on most cable railways. A rash of inventors set about further improving the grip—by the early 189Os more than a thousand patents had been issued for cable-railway systems and equipment—but without any particular success.
The huge endless cables and their central power plants were the most impressive features of cable roads. Usually several cables, each serving a particular line or section of line, were operated from a single power plant. Perhaps the largest single plant was built in 1889 by the Denver City Cable Railway Company: it powered all the company’s lines by means of seven separate cables totaling almost thirty miles.
The life of a street-railway cable varied considerably, depending upon the traffic and the amount of curvature on a road. On heavily traveled Chicago lines, a cable might last less than three months; on others, for more than a year.
Sometimes individual cables would reach extraordinary lengths. In 1886, what was then the longest cable ever made was shipped from the Trenton, New Jersey, works of John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. for the St. Louis Cable & Western Railway. Forty thousand feet long and weighing over a hundred thousand pounds, it was transported on a reel ten feet high and eight across. On its arrival in St. Louis this huge spool lumbered to its destination on a specially manufactured wagon drawn by thirty-six horses. Later an even longer cable, operated from the Sixty-fifth Street plant of New York’s Third Avenue Railway, powered a line all the way from Sixth Street to 130th. Spliced together from several separate reels, this immense cable was thirteen miles long and weighed an estimated 260 tons.
New York was one of the earliest cities to get cable-car mail service when a Railway Post Office was inaugurated on Third Avenue on October 1,1895. Trailer cars painted white and bearing in blue the legend “United States Mail Railway Post Office” were loaded on a special siding on Mail Street at the General Post Office and drawn by horses to the tracks of the Third Avenue line, where they were picked up by cable trains. Mail was sorted in the RPO cars en route to the branch post offices. A similar service was started on a Chicago City Railway line in the next year, and San Francisco and Washington also had cable-car mail service.
Despite its advantages over the horsecar, the cable railway had serious shortcomings of its own. Because of the great weight of the cables, a disproportionate share of the energy delivered by the powerhouse was absorbed just by the moving parts of the system. About half of the power developed by the engines was taken up simply in setting the cable, pulleys, and other machinery in motion; on some lines, this absorbed as much as 75 percent of the power-plant output.
Cable systems were vulnerable to a wide variety of breakdowns and mishaps, most of them involving either the cable or the grip mechanism. The gripman’s job was a particularly arduous and demanding one: as an early treatise on cable traction observed, “only men of quick perception and intelligence were employed in the capacity of drivers.” He had to be alert to release the cable at junctions or wherever it passed through a series of sheaves or pulleys at curves. Failure to do so almost always resulted in wrecking a grip and “cutting the rope.” This supreme error could immobilize an entire line for as much as six hours while the ends of the broken cable were located, pulled together with horse-drawn grips, and spliced.
The most spectacular type of cable car mishap occurred when a broken strand from the cable became entangled with the grip, making it impossible for the gripman to release the cable. As the car sped unchecked through the streets, bell clanging furiously, the passengers usually leaped to safety while the conductor ran for the nearest telephone to call the powerhouse and have the cable stopped. To avoid a collision, cable cars ahead of the runaway had to join the dash through the streets, and sometimes five or six cars, all clanging noisily, could be seen racing along pursued by the runaway.