Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Cable Cars.... Of San Francisco

When you think of gondolas, you think of Venice. When you think of cable propelled cars…You should think of San Francisco as it was the first city to roll out the cable car in 1873.
Today, it is the only city where the cable cars are operated in the traditional manner. While “the way to see London is from the top of a bus” (a quote by former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone), the way to see San Francisco is by standing on the periphery of a cable car!

I decided to take a cable car ride on an unusually bright and sunny day in San Francisco. One of the cable car lines terminates at the intersection of the Powell and Market Streets, in the downtown area of San Francisco. I headed to Market Street which is a good place to board the cable car as you can get to choose your seat if you wish to be seated or a pole if you prefer standing through your ride. There was a sizable crowd even in the wee hours of the morning. Holding onto my Muni Passport (a day ticket to ride the public transport in San Francisco), I joined the people queuing up to catch a cable car ride.

Every few minutes, a cable car would come down the hill and stop for passengers to alight. Surrounded by tourists, their cameras and curious onlookers, each cable car was manually rotated on a wooden turn-table. Once a new group of passengers hopped on, the cable car was all set to embark on yet another journey along the streets of a city bustling with activity. The sequence of events was unique and engaging that it kept me occupied for the one hour that I spent waiting for my turn to board the cable car.

I rushed to get the first pole at the front end of the cable car. This is a spot from where one can get the best view of the road ahead. Standing by a pole, hanging on the edge, I got a bird’s eye view of the city. A ride on the cable car from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf (a water front tourist destination) takes you through some of the most pristine and elite localities of the city. You could alight at Lombard Street and walk down the “Crooked Street”, the crookedest street in the world. The view of the San Francisco Bay and the Alcatraz Island (a military fortification and prison and now an important tourist destination) as the cable car descends the hill is spectacular. At the end of the fascinating ride, I concluded that there is probably no better way to explore the city of San Francisco!

The cable car was the brainchild of Andrew Smith Hallidie who migrated from England to America, during the California Gold Rush (the period between 1848 and 1855 when gold was discovered in Coloma, California). On a drizzly day in San Francisco, Hallidie witnessed an accident in which a street car pulled by horses, slipped and slid down the hill, dragging the horses to their death. Horrified by what he saw, he began working on a mechanism in which the wire rope or cable would be used to pull the street cars along the steep hills. This was the beginning of the tale of the cable cars of San Francisco.

Cable cars work by cable traction. A sturdy cable runs in a slot beneath the surface of the street from the central power plant along the entire route. This robust set up consists of an intricate system of pulleys, bars and sheaves which drives the cable at a constant speed of 9.5mph. Each car is equipped with a vice-like device called the grip. Operated by experienced grip men, the speed and motion of the cable car is controlled by engaging and disengaging the grip from the cable. These cars which ascended and descended the steep hills at a constant speed were a runaway success. Several railroad companies championed the cause of the cable cars and powerhouses were built to generate power to propel the cables.

All was well until the electric street cars hit the road in the fag end of the 19th century. In 1906, the great earthquake destroyed the powerhouses and cable car barns. The huge loss of infrastructure accelerated the downslide of the cable cars. In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham cited high cost of maintenance and safety concerns as reasons for pulling the plug on the cable cars.

In a fight led by Friedel Klussmann, a group of people who were passionate about San Francisco came together to form the “Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars”. They forced the government to pass a resolution that the citizens would vote on the fate of the cable cars. The result of Measure 10 on the ballot (whether the cable cars should stay on the streets of San Francisco) was heavily in favor of continuing operation of the cable cars.

Currently Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street cable car lines are operational. The fleet of cable cars which is owned and maintained by the San Francisco Municipal Railway or Muni has single-ended Powell street cars and double-ended California street cars in its ranks. The Powell street cars are rotated on a turn-table which is an added attraction for tourists. The double ended California type cars have control levers at each end thus eliminating the need for a turn table.

The cable car barn and powerhouse at the intersection of the Washington and Mason streets has been converted into a museum. A visit to the museum unravels the prolific history of this mobile National Historic Landmark (a building, site or object recognized for its historical significance by the government of the United States of America). Videos, photographs and antique cable cars are on display at the museum which was established in 1974. Postcards and souvenirs are on sale of those who want to take home a keepsake of this pride of San Francisco.
In the age of automated systems, especially in the United States, the cable car is a welcome aberration. In my opinion, a ride on the cable car tops the list of things to do in San Francisco. Definitely not a tourist trap, it's a ride like no other in a city like none other!

Quick Facts:
Getting there: If you are driving down, take exit 434B from freeway 101 which directly leads to Market Street.
Market Street is well connected by public transport to different parts of San Francisco.
Tariff: While a one time ride on the cable car costs $5, the Muni Passport which entitles you to unlimited rides on a single day costs $11.
Cable Car Museum: Open to public on all days except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Admission is free.
Timings: April 1st through September 31st - 10AM to 6PM
October 1st through March 31st - 10AM to 5PM
Getting to the Museum: The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cars stop at the Museum. The California Street cars stop at Mason Street, which is two blocks away.

This article was published in The Deccan Herald on the 11th of January 2009. Below is the link to the online version of the article.


  1. Aside from getting your own mode of transportation from one of the used cars San Francisco dealers out there, trying out the cable car would be fun once in while too.