San Francisco's World Famous Cable Cars

powell-bridge-panse.jpgRichard Panse photo.
Cable cars were invented by Andrew S. Hallidie, a Scots-born mining engineer. The story goes that he saw horses struggling to pull a railcar filled with passengers up one of San Francisco's hills and decided to adapt his mining conveyor technology to pull rail cars, by means of an endless loop of cable under the street, between the tracks. He opened the world's first cable car line, on Clay Street in San Francisco, in August 1873. Cable cars soon dominated San Francisco's transit scene, with more than a dozen lines, including five on the city's main street, Market Street. The 1906 Earthquake and Fire ended the cable era on Market Street, but other lines soldiered on through two World Wars as a quaint relic (even then), survived an assassination attempt by misguided (or malicious) politicians in the late 1940s, were wounded in a follow-up assault in the 1950s, and yet survived it all to become a worldwide symbol of San Francisco. In 1964, San Francisco's cable cars were named the first moving National Historic Landmark. Today, both their continued operation and minimum level of service are locked into San Francisco’s City Charter. Their history is a fascinating amalgam of technology, politics, and passion. Here, we concentrate on the basics of the current system.

Two types of cable cars

Today, there are two types of cable cars in regular service. Though they differ in appearance, their operation is almost identical (see ‘How they work’ below). The two Powell Street lines (Powell-Hyde & Powell-Mason) use smaller cable cars, operable from only one end. They thus require turntables to reverse direction at the ends of the line. There are 28 Powell cars kept on the roster at any given time. Thanks to a project supported by us, Market Street Railway, nine of the cars in the Powell fleet now sport historic liveries recapturing the way Powell cable cars looked during various periods in the twelve-decade history of the service. The California Street cable car line uses 12 larger, maroon cable cars which have an open seating section at each end and a closed section in the middle. These cars can be operated from either end, and turn around by means of a simple switch at the end of the line. Additionally, there is a cable car from the defunct O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line (No. 42) that is restored and operates on special occasions, thanks to a joint project of Market Street Railway volunteers and Muni crafts workers. There is also a restored but non-operational cable car from the defunct Sacramento & Clay line in Muni's cable car fleet. How Cable Cars Work

Full cable car fleet roster