- 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
Illustrative of the glorious bedlam that could result from one of these “caught cable” incidents was a multiple collision that occurred on San Francisco’s surviving cable railway system as late as 1966. Approaching the turntable at the end of cable trackage on Powell Street, a Municipal Railway cable car caught its grip in a loose strand. The runaway car collided with a car ahead of it, which in turn smashed into an automobile, drove it into a third cable car, which collided with another automobile and a fourth cable car that had just been turned and was about to begin its return trip up Powell. Six people were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of minor injuries in the splintered aftermath of this particular mishap.
Fortunately these caught-cable accidents were rare; most cable lines stationed men in their power plants just to watch for broken strands or other imperfections as the cable passed through.
The moving cable was an irresistible attraction to small boys, who learned how to fish for it through the narrow slot with a wire or string. A box or wagon could then be attached and dragged through the streets to the peril of pedestrians, other street traffic, and, of course, the boys themselves.
For all their formidable technological ingenuity and their inherent appeal, the cable roads were doomed even as they first clattered into life. While they were displacing animal traction on major street railways throughout the country, a host of inventors and tinkerers was coming closer to success in their efforts to perfect a rival means of power that would do away with horsecars and cable railways alike. As early as 1883, when the cable-car boom had scarcely begun, President H. H. Littell of the American Street Railway Association proclaimed in an address at Chicago, “I see in the recent subjugation of the subtle and hitherto elusive force of electricity to the needs of man boundless possibilities for the world’s three great requisites of advancement: heat, light, and motion.”
Littell’s words were remarkably prophetic. In just a few years the electric street railway, much cheaper to build than cable lines and far more efficient to operate, had emerged as an infinitely more practical means of urban transportation. After Frank J. Sprague’s triumphantly successful electrification of the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in 1888, the cable boom was as good as over. Within two years the U.S. mileage of electric railways was double that of the cable lines. A few more cable lines were opened, but none after 1895.
Many of the existing roads converted to electric operation with almost unseemly haste. In Dallas, Texas, construction of a cable system was halted with the work only half-finished, and the line was completed as an electric road. At Newark, New Jersey, a finished cable road was never even operated by cable but was converted to electricity forthwith. By 1902 half the American cable lines were gone; by the end of the decade the cable car had largely vanished from the streets of the American city.
In one instance the cable went in a literal blaze of glory. On the night of September 29,1897, the principal power station of the Washington (D.C.) & Georgetown Railroad at Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street was completely destroyed by fire. Three cable lines, totaling some fifteen miles of track, were shut down. Working frantically through the night, the company managed to borrow from local businesses sufficient horses and harnesses to resume service with animal power at 6:00 A.M. the following morning. Rather than replace the ruined cable equipment, the company’s directors decided to electrify.
Operation of most of San Francisco’s magnificent cable system came to an abrupt end in the city’s great earthquake and fire of April 18,1906. Almost all the power plants were shattered, much of the rolling stock was destroyed in the fire, and the cable conduits beneath the streets were badly damaged and clogged with debris. Most of the San Francisco lines found it easier to electrify than to restore cable operation.
But despite the devastating effects of the disaster, the city’s topography forced several lines to return to cable operation, and it was in San Francisco alone that the cable railway was to survive to celebrate its centennial.
Even at that, the San Francisco cables almost died before their seventy-fifth birthday. Early in 1947 San Francisco’s then-mayor, Roger Lapham, announced —in the name of progress—that the cables had to go. Special high-powered buses were already on order to take their place. The result was an explosion of municipal outrage that still stands as something of a record in a city noted for its ability to attain a state of sustained high dudgeon.