Cable Car history

Cable Car history

Cable cars were invented by Andrew Smith 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.

Hallidie got a franchise to build a line on Clay Street, over Nob Hill. After midnight on August 2, 1873, a gripman prepared to take the first car down the hill, saw how steep it was, and quit on the spot. Hallidie took the controls himself, descended the hill, and the cable car was in business.

Cable Car history
Hallidie’s first cable car line, with the inventor himself standing in the center of the front car, Clay Street and Van Ness Avenue, October 1877. Most early operations used two-car cable trains, with an open car, known as a “dummy”, containing the grip and outward facing seats, towing an enclosed trailer, similar or identical to the railcars pulled by horses in the same era. SFMTA Archive

Cable cars could climb hills horse-drawn streetcars couldn’t, and even on flat ground were twice as horse cars. This new technology spread quickly around America, to cities including New York, Los Angeles, Cable cars went international, too, with installations in London, Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, and other cities. Cable cars soon dominated San Francisco’s own transit scene, with more than a dozen lines, including five on the city’s main street, Market Street.

But as a technology, the cable car’s dominance was short-lived. Just 15 years after Hallidie’s first trip, Frank J. Sprague inaugurated the first commercial electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia. Electric streetcars were faster than cable cars, and cheaper to build and operate. The only remaining advantage cable cars had was their ability to climb steeper grades than electric streetcars could. (Cable cars are literally pulled up the hills by the cable. On streets that are too steep, the steel wheels of electric streetcars just spin.)

Most cities converted lines that ran on flat ground to this newer technology very quickly. San Francisco got its first electric streetcars in 1892, a line that started right next to our San Francisco Railway Museum. However, influential citizens who disliked overhead streetcar power wires kept electric streetcars off the City’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, where the cables continued to click until April 18, 1906.

Cable Car history
Cable Cars on Market Street at the Ferry Building, August 22, 1905. Lower left, a cable car on the Sacramento-Clay line loops to return to Nob Hill. It’s likely that very car still runs on Powell Street today. John Henry Mentz photo (portion), SFMTA Archive

On that date, the 1906 Earthquake and Fire ended the cable era on Market Street, but lines on hills soldiered on for decades longer. So did a line on ritzy Pacific Avenue, the City’s last dummy-and-trailer line that finally closed in 1929, documented by incredible newsreel film.

Cable Car history
A kid on a bike hitches a ride behind a Castro cable car at 21st Street, 1941. The cable car disappeared that year, but every building in this photo is still there.

The last remnant of the five-line cable system that branched off from Market Street lingered until 1941, climbing over Castro Street from Eureka Valley to Noe Valley. That same year, the cable-assisted counterbalance line on San Francisco’s Fillmore Hill closed. Seattle’s cable lines also closed in 1941, leaving San Francisco as the only city in the Americas operating cable cars.

Early in 1942, Hallidie’s original route, now extended as the Sacramento-Clay line, was replaced by buses, though one car from that line has been preserved and you can ride it on special occasions on California Street.

By this time, more and more visitors and residents were recognizing San Francisco’s cable cars as something special. Nevertheless, in 1947, three years after the City’s transit system (Muni) took over the Powell Street cable cars from their private owner, the mayor tried to replace the little cars with buses, but was beaten back in an epic cable car war.

In 1952, the City took control of San Francisco’s other surviving cable car lines, owned by the bankrupt California Street Cable Railroad Company. Two years later, a second cable car war led to a consolidation of cable car service, cutting trackage in half.

Cable Car history
O’Farrell and Jones Streets in the Tenderloin neighborhood, 1950. This line disappeared in 1954. Emiliano Echeverria collection.

The combination of two former routes created the popular Powell-Hyde line In 1957. That same year, a cable line in Dunedin, New Zealand, closed, and San Francisco became unique in operating a street-running railway system powered by an endless underground cable — in other words, only San Francisco had cable cars! In 1964, San Francisco’s cable cars were named the first moving National Historic Landmark. In 1971, San Francisco voters mandated the continued operation of cable cars and minimum levels of service. Only another vote of the people could change that.

All the while, though, time was taking its toll on the cable car system. Repairs were no longer enough to keep the underground pulleys, channels, sheaves and bumper bars in top shape. The electric motors and giant winding wheels in the cable car barn and powerhouse were worn out, and the building itself was prone to earthquake damage. In 1982, Mayor Dianne Feinstein personally led a campaign that blended private donations and federal transit funds to completely rebuild the cable car system, while keeping the historic fabric of the cars themselves. When the reconstructed system and car barn opened in 1984, the politicians promised it would last another century.

Today’s cable car system

So, cable car history is a fascinating amalgam of technology, politics, and passion. But what about the system we ride today. Here are the basics.

There are two types of cable cars in regular service. Though they differ in appearance, their operation is almost identical. (See how cable cars work.)

Cable Car history
Powell Cable Car at Hyde and Lombard Streets. Rick Laubscher photo

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.

Cable Car history
California Street cable car at Grant Avenue in Chinatown. Wikimedia Commons photo

The California Street cable car line uses 12 larger 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.

Special service cable cars from vanished lines

Additionally, Muni owns two operational cable cars from defunct lines. These operate on special occasions only. O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line Car 42 was reacquired thanks to Market Street Railway and restored in a joint project by Market Street Railway volunteers and Muni crafts workers. Sacramento-Clay Car 19 was preserved by the Northern California Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in the late 1940s and restored by Muni crafts workers to return to special service in 2019.

What you’ll see on each cable car line

How Cable Cars Work