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San Francisco’s World Famous Cable Cars

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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 1957, with the closure of a line in Dunedin, New Zealand, 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. 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 regular service 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 cable cars work.)

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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.

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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.

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.

How Cable Cars Work