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27 facts about cable cars, SF’s moving national landmark

More than just the muse to a popular instant rice jingle

Once upon a time, cable cars were common sights in Portland, Seattle, and even Oakland. But only in San Francisco, where the first cables ran, have they become a part of the city’s worldwide identity.

So ingrained in city culture are the cable cars that neither big business, City Hall, nor even the San Andreas fault could permanently remove them from the local equation.

Since January 17 is Cable Car Day, here’s a look at the driving force that has kept the cables turning for nearly 150 years.

  • Cable car inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie, a mining engineer, got his inspiration for the vehicles after seeing a team of horses meet a gruesome fate when they slipped on a wet street while dragging a heavy load uphill in 1869.
  • Hallidie started using the signature cable—essentially a rope made of steel—to haul ore and passengers in mining camps. His pre-cable car inventions strung the cables overhead in aerial “tramways,” but taking it down to street level proved a less harrowing journey.
  • The first San Francisco cable car line serviced Clay Street starting September 1, 1873.
  • The cost to build that original line: $85,150. In modern currency that’s about $1.64 million.
A cable car travels its route with mannequins on its roof provided by Macy’s in San Francisco, 1949 as part of a promotional campaign.
Photo by AP Photo/Ernest K. Bennett
  • Only one car from the Clay Street line still exists: The Clay Street Hill Railroad Number 8, presently on display at the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill. In previous decades it showcased at both the Ferry Building and the Cliff House.
  • The original San Francisco cable car had its grip and break mechanism in a lead “dummy car” and put the passengers in a trailer car towed behind it. But antsy San Franciscans kept climbing up into the dummy car, so eventually the manufacturing company installed seats there too.
  • Engineer Henry Root combined the passenger and dummy car in 1883. The city still uses his designs to this day.
  • Hallidie’s invention of the “endless rope” that would turn in perpetuity to keep the railway moving required an engine. The first cable car powerhouses were steam engines, later replaced with electric ones. In 1975 the city was down to a single motor running all three remaining cable car lines. Today there are four motors.
  • The upper part of the channel beneath the tracks where the cable actually runs is called “the slot,” where the cable car’s grip mechanism can, well, grip the cable. Once upon a time, locals called SoMa “South of the Slot,” a reference to sheer number of cable cars jostling each other on Market Street’s five old cable car lines.
  • Those five Market Street lines, operated by the megalithic Southern Pacific Railroad, serviced Valencia, Castro, Haight, Hayes, and McAllister. Cars ran as often as every 15 seconds.
Inside one the Cable Car barn and powerhouse, which operates the cars.
Photo by Caroline Culler
  • Before the 1906 earthquake the city had more than 600 cable cars in operation. By 1912, the number was already less than 100. This is mostly because in the wake of the quake the city’s largest cable car company took advantage of the damage to switch over to newfangled streetcars instead.
  • Incidentally, the cable car line that once ran on Geary Street continued operation even hours after the 1906 quake struck.
  • The cable cars are forever associated with this jingle.
  • Today the total cable car fleet is down to 40—28 cars for the Powell Street lines and 12 for the California Street line.
  • The Powell cars feature the older design and have only a single grip lever, which is why they need to be physically turned around at the end of the line. The California Street cars use the later “double end” design from 1891, with two grips, and don’t require a turntable.
Fannie Mae Barnes, the first female cable car “gripman”, rings her cable car bell as another cable car passes on Powell Street during her first day carrying fare-paying passengers.
  • Fannie Mae Barnes was the first cable car grip woman in the 124 year history of the cable car system. The date? January 20, 1998.
  • Cable cars are principally made of oak, canvas, Alaskan spruce, brass, and steel. The whole vehicle weighs more than 15,000 pounds.
  • According to the Cable Car Museum, cars running these days keep a cruising speed of 9.5 miles per hour, be it uphill or downhill. The cars have three different braking systems in place.
  • Each cable car has two bells—a big one to warn people to get out of the way, but also a smaller one that allows the driver to signal the man or woman operating the grip.
  • The first bell ringing competition happened in 1949 in Union Square. At the most recent contest this past July, six-time winner Byron Cobb, a grip operator, came in first place once again.
  • Electric streetcars running on overhead wires went into service in San Francisco in 1892, but lobbyists for competing systems prevented the stringing of wires on important cable car routes.
  • San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham launched a crusade in 1947 against the cable car system. “I know there are strong, sentimental reasons for keeping this old, ingenious, and novel method of transportation," said Lapham in a speech to the Board of Supervisors. "The fact remains that the sentimentalists do not have to pay the bills.”
Former president of the United States Bill Clinton shakes hands with people while riding a cable car up Powell Street during his campaign, 1992.
Photo by AP Photo/Eric Risberg
  • Even amid City Hall’s anti-cable car crusade, columnist Herb Caen shrewdly observed that no matter what happens, some lines “will be kept in operation for tourists and sentimentalists, at greatly increased fare—maybe as high as 20 cents a ride.”
  • Socialite Friedel Klussmann, forever thereafter known as the Cable Car Lady, whipped up cable car defenders and forced a landslide voter referendum that obligated the city to continue operating the remaining lines.
  • These days, tourists pay seven bucks a pop to ride the cars, but a lot of locals don’t realize that their regular monthly Muni pass covers cable car rides.
  • This photo of late comedian Phyllis Diller at the Cable Car Bell Ringing contest in 1962 is everything.
  • Note that the cable cars may soon stop taking cash, after the city caught a few operators stealing fares in 2017 year. A later audit discovered some others just not bothering to collect fares at all.
  • The cable cars are the only moving national landmark.

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