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A Century of Cable Cars

July 2024
17min read

Magnificently impractical and obsolete almost as soon as they were built, the cable lines briefly dominated urban transportation throughout the country

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.

The project was highly experimental, and Hallidie decided to use wood liberally in the construction to save money. The cable conduit below the street was built of wooden planks, carried by castiron frames placed about five feet apart. Two parallel beams, also supported by the iron frames, formed the narrow slot in the surface of the street through which the cable gripping apparatus passed. Wooden timbers supported the conduit frames and running rails, and the street surface between the rails was covered with planking. Durable California redwood was used in all street construction.

The cable itself was an endless wire rope, three inches in circumference, made up of crucible-steel wires formed into six strands of nineteen wires each. Grooved pulleys placed in the conduit about forty feet apart carried the moving cable; huge horizontal pulleys in vaults below the street reversed its direction at the end of the line. The cable entered the powerhouse at right angles to the track and wound several times around an immense drum powered by a thirty-horsepower reciprocating steam engine. At the end of the line the cable passed around a large pulley mounted on a movable tension carriage whose 3,300-pound counterweight maintained a constant tension on the cable and helped to compensate for changes in its length brought about by variations in temperature and load.

The gripping mechanism, or “grip,” devised by Hallidie used a vertical slide, moved up and down by a handwheel and screw, to work a wedge-shaped block beneath the car. As it rose and fell, this wedge opened or closed two jaws around the cable. As the jaws shut on it, the cable would slip through them enough at first to let the car accelerate gradually to the cable speed, rather than starting with a jolt.

On Hallidie’s line the grip mechanism was mounted on a small, four-wheel open car called a dummy, which pulled a closed passenger car. Turntables at each end of the line rotated the cars for their return trip.

Months dragged by while Hallidie and his associates tried to raise the hundred thousand dollars needed to build the road. Ground finally was broken on June 2, 1873; under the terms of their franchise, the builders by then had just two months left to complete the entire line. Not until August 1, the last day before expiration of the franchise, was all in readiness for a trial run.

The little group of promoters gathered around Hallidie’s cable car at about 4:00 A.M. on that foggy summer morning. According to yet another of those tales that seem to attend such events, the gripman selected to run the car for the first time was an old locomotive engineer named Hewitt. He took one look at the steepness of the Clay Street slope and turned to Hallidie: “I think perhaps you had better take this down, boss.” So the inventor himself operated the car on its maiden trip.

He set off down the hill without incident and came back up again smoothly, stopping along the way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the grip mechanism.

It all went perfectly, and at the end of his inaugural run Hallidie stepped down to the quiet congratulations of his shareholders. “The operation was a serious one,” he noted at the time. “There was no frivolity. The whole affair was serious, and when it was done there was simply a mutual hand shaking and nothing but cold water drunk. 1 do not know whether I felt more rejoiced at the visible proofs of the success of the trial trip, than at the expression of satisfaction, relief and renewed confidence in the faces of the gentlemen who had invested the money and faith in the enterprise, and had stood by it so faithfully.”

“At five o’clock this morning the first car on the Clay Street Railroad was sent down the hill and back again by means of the wire rope,” reported the San Francisco Daily Bulletin later the same day. “It was a platform car, or dummy, loaded with men and boys. No difficulty was experienced in stopping it at any point desired. The success of the experiment was greater than the projectors anticipated. This evening between five and six o’clock a passenger car will be attached to the dummy and put on the road, but regular travel will not be attempted at present.”

A large crowd, which included such San Francisco notables as Mayor William Alvord, Chief of Police Patrick Cowley, and Fire Chief David Scannell, gathered on Clay Street for the afternoon’s run. With the cars poised for the first uphill trip, the crowd piled aboard, everyone eager to be among the first riders. About halfway up the hill, at a point where the grade was particularly severe, the cars, choked with sixty or more passengers, came to a halt. The freshly tarred cable was slipping on the powerhouse driving drum. Sawdust and a slight increase in cable tension solved the problem, and the cars resumed their journey without further difficulty.

Regular operation started on September 1, and the pioneer enterprise quickly established itself as a solid success. By the following February the cable cars were transporting more than 76,000 passengers a month; by 1875 there were 150,000. Four years after it opened, the line had proved so successful that it was extended west to Van Ness Avenue.

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.

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.

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.

In the end Mayor Lapham was retired from public life at the electorate’s first opportunity, the superior court judge Elmer Robinson rode into the mayor’s office—figuratively—on a cable car, and the lines were saved. (But not all of them: Lapham succeeded in having the Sacramento-Clay cables torn up. This proved a poor choice; the Clay Street grade is a fierce one, and from time to time the buses that ply it today have to stop, put all the passengers out, and fight their way empty to the top of the hill.)

The recent years have been kind to the remaining cables. No one has had the audacity to suggest their removal; in fact, they have never been more popular. Twelve million passengers a year ride them. In 1964 Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall proclaimed them a “registered national historic landmark,” and nine years later San Francisco celebrated their centennial in rare fashion. At 5:00 A.M. on August 2 there was a reenactment of Hallidie’s first run, and the San Francisco Municipal Railway proudly put its first new cable car in eighty years into service on the Powell Street line. The new arrival, a faithful copy of the line’s 1893 models, led a clanging parade of gaily decorated cars through the streets.

But not long after their centennial festivities, the cables began to show signs of age. Plagued by frequent breakdowns, the system had to be shut down in the fall of 1979 for several months of emergency repairs. It took years for the city to put together a $58 million budget to carry out the first complete renovation the system had ever had. In September 1982 the cars stopped again for their longest shutdown since the earthquake. Track, the subsurface cable conduit, and the complex cable machinery all were refurbished. The nineteenth-century cable powerhouse and car barn were completely rebuilt and four 510-horsepower General Electric drive motors installed. And while the system was closed down, the antique cable cars were completely overhauled.

The city celebrated the return of its cable cars on June 21,1984, with a show of civic enthusiasm that was extraordinary even for San Francisco. A crowd of ten thousand gathered in Union Square at high noon to cheer as Mayor Dianne Feinstein cut a red ribbon and rode off on the first car, preceded by a military band. Tony Bennett rode along, inevitably singing his trademark theme, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” (“where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars”). At Fisherman’s Wharf the day’s celebration culminated in a festival that featured a ten-cannon salute, the release of three hundred homing pigeons, fireworks—and the baking of a full-sized sourdough cable car.

And San Francisco’s enduring cable cars were ready for yet another century of service.



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