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The World Famous San Francisco Cable Cars

May 3, 2011 By CityPASS

If you're planning on making a trip to San Francisco, one thing you have to take the time to do is to ride their world famous cable cars. But did you ever wonder how they work or how they ever got started? Read the information below and you'll learn a ton about the San Francisco cable cars: how they work, how fast they go, why they were built, and more!

San Francisco Cable Cars

The World Famous San Francisco Cable Cars

Important Parts of a Cable Car

THE BRAKES: Three different kinds of brakes are used on San Francisco cable cars to slow the car down, especially on steep hills: wheel breaks, track breaks and slot breaks.

THE SLOT: The opening that runs the length of the conduit holding the cable. The cable car's grips reach through the slot and grabs the cable moving below.

THE GRIP: The mechanism that picks up and drops the cable to move the car along. There are many patented designs for various types of grips.

THE CABLE: An endless wire rope made of hemp core wrapped with strands made of groups of small steel wires. The hemp core provides flexibility and the steel strands make it strong.

THE POWERHOUSE: Originally, the powerhouse was a large building equipped with boilers and coal to heat the water to produce steam to drive the cables. The San Francisco system was converted to electricity in the 1920s.

Fun Facts about the San Francisco Cable Cars:

San Francisco cable cars are the only moving National Historic Landmark, and 9.7 million people take a ride on them each year.

The cable speed is 9 1/2 MPH according to the museum site.

There are currently 40 cars in service: 28 "single-enders" serve the Powell Street routes and 12 "double-enders" serve the California Street route.

The cables pull up to 26 cars at a time on weekdays.

The cars have a capacity of carrying more than 60 people.

The single-ended Powell Street cars are the older of the two types now in service. The Powell cars have one open grip end.

The double-ended California type cars were developed later and have been used on California Street since 1891 when Leland Stanford's California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) began replacing their 2-car trains.

In May of 1949 a contest was held in Union Square to select San Francisco's best cable car bell-ringer. Traditionally held in July in Union Square, the contest has become an annual event that San Franciscans and visitors alike look forward to.

The Cable Car Museum was established in 1974. It is operated by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum as a nonprofit educational facility. The museum deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables.

The Cable Car Museum houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s. The Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car & No. 54 trailer and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.

History of the cable car

  • 1869: Andrew Hallidie witnesses a horse-car accident and had inspiration for a cable railway.
  • August 2, 1873: Andrew Hallidie tests the first cable car system near the top of Nob Hill at Clay and Jones Streets
  • September 1, 1873: Clay Street line starts public service at an estimated cost to build of $85,150.
  • 1877: Sutter Street Railroad converts from animal power to cable with no break in service.
  • April 10, 1878: California Street Cable Railroad Company (Cal Cable) goes into service.
  • February 1880: Geary Street, Park and Ocean Railroad begins service.
  • January 1882: Presidie and Ferries Railroad (Union Street line) opens service.
  • August 1883: Market Street Cable Railway starts its first line.
  • March 28, 1888: Ferries & Cliff House Railway Company starts Powell Street cable car service.
  • 1889: Cal Cable experiments with a double-ended car open sections at the ends.
  • August 1889: Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company starts operating.
  • 1891: Cal Cable replaces it's two-car trains with double-ended cars.
  • April 1892: First electric streetcars with overhead wires begin running in San Francisco.
  • April 18, 1906: San Francisco's Great Earthquake damages cable cars, allowing United Railroads (URR) to convert much of the city to streetcar service.
  • May 1912: Eight cable car lines remain in service in San Francisco.
  • November 1929: Market Street Railway (formerly URR) ends service on the Pacific Avenue line.
  • April 1941: Castro cable line taken over by buses.
  • September 1944: The City and County of San Francisco take over the market Street Railway with its two Powell Street cable lines. Cal Cable last privately held transit system in San Francisco.
  • 1946: Committee releases statistics proving cable cars lose less money than Muni buses.
  • November 1946: Committee succeeds in getting a charter amendment to save the Powell Street cables on the ballot.
  • 1947: Mayor Lapham attempts to close down cable car system.
  • March 4, 1947: Friedel Klussman rallies a new group called the Citizen's Committee to Save the Cable Cars.
  • April 3, 1947: The Citizen's Committee to Save the Cable Cars begins a petition drive for charter amendment with the City of San Francisco to save the cable cars.
  • May 1, 1947: The City Attorney trulls against the Utilities Manager James Turner, thereby allowing the citizens of San Francisco to vote on the charter amendment to continue operating the cable car system.
  • November 4, 1947: Measure 10 wins by a vote of 166,989 to 51,457 forcing the City of San Francisco to maintain and operate the Powell Street cable car system.
  • July 1951: Cal Cable's three lines are shut down.
  • January 1952: The City purchases and reopens Cal Cable's lines and powerhouse at California and Hyde.
  • February 1954: The Jones Street Shuttle is eliminated.
  • May 1954: The California Street line is shortened to cover only Presidie to Van Ness Avenues. The O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line stops running.
  • June 1954: The Cable Car Lady, Friedel Klussmann, and her Citizen's Committee are outmaneuvered when they mount a new campaign to save the cable cars. A "Yes" vote on Proposition E meant abolishing half the cable car system; a "No" meant all 5 lines in the system would be saved. Proposition E narrowly passes setting the stage for today's cable car system.
  • September 2, 1956: Car #524 makes the last trip on the Washington-Jackson line.
  • December 1957: All the current lines are now running after the installation of a new turntable at Hyde and Beach Streets so the single-ended Powell Street cars can turn around and all the cables are linked to the Washington-Mason powerhouse.
  • October 1, 1964: Official ceremony at Hyde and Beach designates San Francisco's cable car system a special "moving" National Historic Landmark.
  • November 1971: Vote to protect cable car schedules thanks again to a drive by the Cable Car Lady, Friedel Klussmann, and her citizen's group.
  • August 2, 1973: Cable Car Centennial celebrates by loading Clay St. Cable Car #8 onto a truck and driving it on the Clay St. hill.
  • 1982 to June 1984: Cable car system rebuilt and historic cable cars refurbished.
  • June 21, 1984: Festivities celebrate the return of full cable car service with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Union Square followed by a parade up Powell Street led by the U.S. Marine band followed by cable cars.
  • March 1, 1997: goes online.
  • March 4, 1997: Installation of a new collage at the car barn commemorating the 50th anniversary of Friedel Klussmann's saving the cable cars replacement by buses.
  • January 15, 1998: First female grip operator, Fannie Mae Barnes, operates a cable car after developing the great upper body strength needed for the grip and brakes.


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