San Francisco’s Cable Cars

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Located in: North America United States California San Francisco

The Only Surviving Cable Car System in the World

Riding a cable car in San FranciscoIn the Midwest, a speed bump often qualifies for a scenic overlook, so San Francisco’s hills are mountains by our standards. And these hills are not just tall, but steep. Before cars, the only way to traverse these hills was by foot or by horse. Horses didn’t like the hills any more than you would, and an accident involving horses, a cart that was too heavy and a hill that was too steep, led British-born inventor, engineer, miner and manufacturer Andrew Smith Hallidie to introduce an alternative. Hallidie cut his teeth during the California gold rush, making wire cable to replace the rope the miners were using. This led to the invention of the Hallidie Ropeway, a kind of ski-lift conveyance to move the ore out of the mines.

In 1873, Hallidie introduced cable cars to San Francisco. The system operates in a similar manner to his ropeway: an engine at the Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse moves a single cable on a continuous loop. Instead of in the air, the cable is laid beneath the city streets. The cable cars do not have any power of their own. They run on a track and to move, an operator (called a gripman) pulls a lever to grab on to the moving cable below. This is no small feat – tremendous strength and skill is required as there is no automation and the cable must be “felt” by the gripman. To stop, the gripman releases the cable (but not all of the way) and brakes the car.

After the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cable Cars are what most people think of when they think of San Francisco. It is hard to imagine the city without them, but it almost was. Electric street cars were introduced in the late 19th century, and they were cheaper to manufacture and operate. After WWII, the streetcars were under fire when buses were being heavily lobbied. In 1947, the mayor proposed eliminating the aging, anachronistic form of transportation. But Friedel Klussman rallied the citizens of the city, got the measure on a ballot and soundly defeated it. The Cable Cars were saved. In the early 1980s, the system was completely rebuilt. Today, three lines (Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California) move tourists and commuters up and down San Francisco’s treacherous hills.

Know Before You Go

Some of the lines, especially the Powell-Hyde line going from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, can be crowded.  You can take the less-crowded California line, or walk up a few blocks from the large queue by the turn around. When the car stops, step on for the best seat in the house: standing on the platform and holding on to the pole for safety. In this day and age, with people wearing helmets on Seqways, it is nice to feel the thrill of hanging off of a moving vehicle. Rides cost $6 (exact change, hand to the operator), which is steep-just not as steep as steep as Nob Hill.

Bottom Line

It may be touristy, but the experience is once-in-a-lifetime.

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Last updated: February 28, 2014