Discovering the Adventure
San Francisco Cable Cars

Do You Know
Why San Francisco Cable Cars Were Created?

San Francisco cable cars started with an accident! In the beginning, San Francisco's public transportation system consisted of horse-drawn streetcars. In most cities around the world, this mode of transportation was quite adequate, but on the slippery cobble-stoned hills of San Francisco, it could turn deadly.

It's said that one damp, foggy Summer's day, Andrew Smith Hallidie was horrified as he watched a horse-drawn streetcar start to slide backwards down the hill as the hooves of the draft horses failed to maintain a grip on the slippery stones.

Five horses died that day, and Hallidie vowed to do something about it.

He and his partners established the first San Francisco cable car line, which was pulled up the hills by a system that gripped onto a constantly moving underground cable. Although Hallidie did not invent the cable car system, his design worked so well that it became the model for future cable car systems around the world.

What Exactly Are San Francisco Cable Cars?

They're vehicles like open-sided buses which are transported by means of a constantly moving underground cable, a grip, and a track.

The grip grasps onto the cable, the cable moves continuously, and when a car is gripped to the cable, the car moves along the track.

When the grip man determines it's time to go, he uses a lever which causes the grip (a vice-like thingy) to grasp the underground cable very firmly so the car is pulled along the track.

Time to stop? The grip man releases the grip, the cable is no longer engaged, and the brake lever is applied.

The reason Hallidie's design was so popular: he used a wire rope cable which did not wear out like regular rope cables previously used.

It's a pretty simple concept, but it sure solved the problem of horses trying to pull heavy wagons up those San Francisco hills with their hooves slipping on the rain and fog soaked cobblestone streets in the 1800s!

There Are Only 3
San Francisco Cable Car Lines Still Running

Turning a cable car around; CC Susan SmithTurning a cable car around; CC Susan Smith
  • The Powell-Hyde Line starts at the Powell and Market turntable, travels north along Powell over Nob Hill to the Hyde and Beach turntable in Fisherman's Wharf - The views from the tops of the hills are amazing!
  • The Powell-Mason Line also starts at the Powell and Market turntable and travels north along Powell, but switches to Mason, and ends at the Aquatic Park turntable near Ghirardelli Square
  • The California Line travels east and west from the Financial District (California and Market), through Chinatown and over Nob Hill, to Van Ness Avenue. This is the oldest cable car line still in operation. It differs from the other lines in that it uses double-ended cars, so - no turntables.

The interesting thing about the turntables is that they're still operated by manpower. Here's how it works: the car coasts onto the turntable; the conductor, the grip man, and a helper push the car to get the turntable turning; then - when the car is facing the right direction - they push the car off the turntable, onto the tracks, so it can head back along the way it just came.

In the days of long ago, riders and standers-by would help to turn the car, but alas - the dangers of lawsuits and insurance rules put a stop to the practice long before my days in The City!

To learn more about San Francisco cable cars, be sure to visit the Cable Car Museum. It's located in the historic Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse at 1201 Mason Street. You'll actually see the cable winding machinery in action! Best of all - it's free!

If you've ever enjoyed the thrill of riding a cable car in The City, hanging on to one of the special poles with the wind blowing your hair and the grip man's bell chiming in your ear...

Or if you still hope to get that chance - you can thank Friedel Klussman and her Citizens' Committee to Save the San Francisco Cable Cars for the opportunity. It was 1947 and The City was going to retire the system for good when Mrs. Klussman stepped in and organized the effort to preserve what was left.

Just be sure to heed the grip man when he says, "Step up! Step up!" Otherwise you might be sideswiped by another cable car or one of the many other obstacles along the way!

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