Cable Cars, a San Francisco Tradition


San Francisco streetcar
San Francisco streetcar

On September 1, 1873 the very first San Francisco cable car was placed into operation. Cable cars, which continue to run in San Francisco to this day, were the invention of Andrew Hallidie, a native of England.

As he was out and about in San Francisco one rainy afternoon, he witnessed five horses die as they tried to pull a street car up a hill. A combination of the wet cobblestones and the weight of the car made the task too much for the animals. Hallidie knew there had to be a way to prevent such a tragedy from happening again .

As it happened, Hallidie's father held the patent in Great Britain for wire rope. Over the years, Hallidie had found many uses for the rope. One was pulling heavy cars out of mines. He knew that the rope would be the perfect alternative to animal power for use in San Francisco's street cars .

Opening the first cable operated car on Clay Street came at a cost of close to $86,000. Since that fall day in 1873, cable cars have been a recognizable feature of the San Francisco landscape. So famous are the cars that in 1964 they were recognized as a moving historical landmark .

While the strength of animals would no longer be required to pull San Francisco street cars, there is still a need for some muscle. As the cars are pulled along by an underground cable, the cable must be "gripped'' by a device that is much like a vice. It requires a good amount of upper body strength to be a grip operator on a cable car. It wasn't until 1998 that San Francisco welcomed its first female grip operator.

There is also a museum dedicated to the cable cars. The Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse is home to a variety of antique cables cars, including the very first one that took the run in September of 1873. Visitors to the museum can also get a close up look at some of the mechanisms that are needed to run a cable car including grips and breaks among others .

In April of 1906, a powerful earthquake damaged the cable car system. After that, most of the city's public transportation was changed to streetcars. But there are still three routes in San Francisco that are serviced by cable cars, and visitors and residents alike enjoy riding on these small pieces of history.

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