Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip

There is no more recognizable icon for the distinctive flavor of San Francisco living than the cable car. And who better to memorialize that venerable tramway than the author of the unforgettable classic, The Purple Cow. Gelett Burgess may have been sorry he wrote The Purple Cow, but it’s likely he never regretted writing the 1901 classic, The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip, which captures the essence of operating the cable car’s grip device by which the conductor attaches the car to a cable running continously beneath the street. (Introduction courtesy of Santa Clara University’s California Legacy Project.)

UPDATED 11/25/08: Added fifth stanza, previously missing from post.

Oh, the rain is slanting sharply, and the Norther’s blowing cold,
When the cable strands are loosened, she is nasty hard to hold;
There’s little time for sitting down and little time for gab,
For the bumper guards the crossing, and you’d best be keeping tab!
Two-and-twenty “let-go’s” every double trip
It takes a bit of doing, on the Hyde Street Grip!

Throw her off at Powell Street, let her go at Post,
Watch her well at Geary and at Sutter, when you coast,
Easy at the Power House, have a care at Clay,
Sacramento, Washington, Jackson, all the way!
Drop the rope at Union, never make a slip
The lever keeps you busy, on the Hyde Street Grip!

Foot-brake, wheel-brake, slot-brake and gong,
You’ve got to keep ’em working, or you’ll soon be going wrong!
Rush her on the crossing, catch her on the rise,
Easy round the corners, when the dust is in your eyes!
And the bell will always stop you, if you hit her up a clip
You are apt to earn your wages, on the Hyde Street Grip!

North Beach to Tenderloin, over Russian Hill,
The grades are something giddy, and the curves are fit to kill!
All the way to Market Street, climbing up the slope,
Down upon the other side, hanging to the rope;
But the sight of San Francisco, as you take the lurching dip!
There is plenty of excitement, on the Hyde Street Grip!

If you had to drive a penny bus from Chelsea to the Strand
You’d see Westminster Abbey, and you’d say that it was grand!
If you had to pass the Luxembourg and the Place de la Concorde
Atop a Paris omnibus, no doubt you’d thank the Lord!
But the Frenchy’d give his chapeau and the Cockney’d give his whip
For a sight of San Francisco from the Hyde Street Grip!

Oh, the lights are in the Mission, and the ships are in the Bay:
And Tamalpais is looming from the Gate, across the way;
The Presidio trees are waving, and the hills are growing brown,
And the driving fog is harried from the Ocean to the town!
How the pulleys slap the rattle! How the cables hum and whip!
Oh, they sing a gallant chorus, on the Hyde Street Grip!

When the Orpheum is closing, and the crowd is on the way,
The conductor’s punch is ringing, and the dummy’s light and gay;
But the wait upon the table by the Beach is dark and still
Just the swashing of the surges on the shore below the mill;
And the flash of Angel Island breaks across the channel rip,
As the lash of midnight falls upon the Hyde Street Grip!

Comments: 2

  1. There’s an error in nomenclature in the introduction: the operator is called the “conductor”, while the poem is about the “gripman” (a job category unique to The City). I’ve heard of a government listing of jobs in which “gripman” comes after “grip” (a class of stagehand–here in Southern Calif. we have lots of “grips” working in the movie studios).
    Mr. Burgess was obviously familiar with cable car operations; he even mentions the “slot brake”, which (as most Muni fans know) is only used as the last resort if a runaway occurs. (“If all else fails, pull the RED lever!”)
    I remember riding the pre-1982 cable car tracks on Powell St., where one could see remnants of long-abandoned lines at various former crossings, places where the gripmen of olden days had to “drop rope” or be in major trouble.
    Cable cars may be troublesome, archaic and somewhat dangerous, but it wouldn’t be San Francisco without them.
    On the Trainorders.com website, one member referred to a cable car as a “trolley”, and was sternly corrected by a poster from the Bay Area, being admonished to “write CABLE CAR 5000 times” before signing off.
    Bob Davis San Gabriel CA

  2. @Bob Davis
    Although you are correct about the nomenclature issue — and we are as picky about using proper terms as anyone — we are reprinting the Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip from the Santa Clara University California Legacy Project, and feel that it is only appropriate to publish the university’s introduction to the poem as well, errors and all.
    Now, if they had called the cable car a trolley, well… that would have been crossing the line! 🙂

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