Cable cars, a giant leap forward in urban transit technology when Andrew Hallidie invented them in 1873, dominated San Francisco streets until the earthquake and fire of 1906 decimated both cable machinery and the cars themselves. After that, cable cars were largely limited to steep hills while larger, faster electric streetcars carried the heavy loads on main routes. High operating costs gradually pared down the remaining cable car lines. In 1947, an attempt by a misguided mayor to junk the Powell Street cables was slapped down by a women-led civic coalition helmed by Friedel Klussmann, but even her heroic efforts seven years later could not avert the loss of half the remaining cable car trackage.
Innovation born in San Francisco triggered a hi-tech revolution that changed America and much of the world. We’re not talking here about the digital innovations from Silicon Valley. Nor the analog innovation by Philo T. Farnsworth, in a little building on Green Street in 1927, that gave birth to television. We’re talking about mechanical innovation 150 years ago that began a revolution in how people move around cities.
The California Street cable car line has terminated at Market Street since 1891. For the past 50 years, its neighbor has been the Hyatt Regency, the innovative hotel designed by John Portman, now iconic in its own right. When the hotel’s current management generously supported the celebration of 150 Years of Cable Cars, they asked us if we had some old photos of the location.
Since 1888, a small wooden structure has stood on the southeast corner of Powell and California Streets. It’s an essential sentinel protecting the world’s only cable car crossroads. Here’s its story.
It’s Big Game week in the Bay Area. (To those reading this from elsewhere, it’s our biggest college football rivalry: University of California, Berkeley, known to all its fans as simply Cal, vs. Stanford University. ) The first Big Game was in 1892, four years after cable car service started on Powell Street, one year after cable cars started running on Hyde.
In 1947, San Francisco almost lost its Powell cable cars forever. A women-led campaign overcame male-dominated government and business interests to save them. That is a great story in itself. But there’s more to it, including lessons for today and tomorrow.
August 2, 1873 — In the wee small hours of a misty San Francisco night (they didn’t call the month “Fogust” back then, but it was), a new type of transit was about to be inaugurated. An endless wire rope clattered beneath Clay Street. An odd open vehicle sat on the rails at the top of the hill. Standing by was Andrew Smith Hallidie, a Scot who had experience using wire rope in the mining business, and was part of the team promoting this new technology, aimed at making horsecars obsolete.
For 149 years, San Francisco’s cable cars have been exemplars of craft, sculptures in wood and metal reflecting the talents of carpenters, metal workers, painters, electricians, and others. They absorb the jolts and lurches inherent in their daily operation, carrying millions of passengers over decades of daily service before their joints finally loosen and rot and rust take a big enough toll to require rebuilding.
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