You see them on postcards, movies and instant rice boxes. After a certain bridge, they are the first thing that comes to mind when people think of San Francisco. They are the city’s famous cable cars, a must for anyone visiting the city. But what makes them go? The answer can be found at the at Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse. This is not only a museum dedicated to explaining the history and operation of the cars, but also the powerhouse that drives the cables and a garage (“carbarn”) for maintenance and storage of the cars.
When you walk in, the first thing you notice is the noise. This din is caused by the four 510-horsepower GE direct-current motors turning large pulley-like wheels (called sheaves). Head up the stairs to get a better look. The sheaves move the cable in a figure-eight pattern to reduce slipping and increase tension on the line. There is one motor for each line (Powell, Mason, Hyde and California) and they move the cables at a constant 9 miles per hour. This diagram shows how they cable enter and leave the building. The cars move along the tracks by gripping the cable to move.
The museum explains the history of the system, from its beginnings, through the 1906 earthquake and and 1980s restoration using text, photographs and items. Highlights include restored cars and thorough description of how a car operates. The gift shop has the usual tourist trinkets as well as some high-end gifts like used iconic San Francisco street signs and authentic cable car bells. Before you leave, walk downstairs for an underground view of the cables winding underneath the street.
The museum is free, thanks to the Friends of the Cable Car Museum, but donations are welcome. The museum is open daily from 10 to 6 April through September and 10 to 5 October through March.
If you are taking either the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines, hop off for a stop here and see exactly how these cars work.