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San Francisco, California: Cable Cars


San Francisco's cable cars are unique in that they are the only street railway in which the cars do not operate under their own power. Instead, the cars are propelled mechanically, by "gripping" a continuously moving steel cable which runs in a conduit underneath a slot between the rails. The cable, in turn, is kept in motion by an engine in a centrally-located powerhouse.

The world's first cable-powered street railway was built in San Francisco by Andrew Hallidie in 1873. During the next fifteen years, many cities in the U.S. and elsewhere built cable railways to replace horse-powered streetcars. When electric streetcars became practical in the late 1880s, they in turn quickly replaced cable cars almost everywhere. Fittingly, San Francisco is now the last city in the world to operate cable cars. The last previous survivor in the U.S. was Seattle (1940); abroad, Dunedin, New Zealand (1957).

San Francisco's cable cars too almost became extinct in the late 1940s. A popular campaign led by Mrs. Friedel Klussman led to a referendum which added to the city charter a provision that requires the continued operation of the cable cars. In the 1950's some routes were abandoned, producing the current configuration. In the 1980s the system was shut down and completely overhauled, ensuring its continued operation for many years to come.

For more information about cable cars in general, and San Francisco cable cars in particular, see Joe Thompson's Cable Car Home Page. You can also visit the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. In print, the definitive reference on cable cars is George Hilton's book The Cable Car in America.

A different form of cable-powered railway is the funicular, which uses an external cable. It usually has only two cars attached to opposite ends of the cable, each car counterbalancing the other one. In the United States, the best-known funiculars are in Pittsburgh. For information on funiculars worldwide, see Michel Azema's Funimag.

The California Street Line

The California Street line runs from Drumm Street (near Market Street) to Van Ness Avenue. It was built in 1878 by the California Street Cable Railroad Company, which also operated the O'Farrell/Jones/Hyde line and the Jones Street shuttle. It uses double-ended cars which were built after the great fire of 1906.

"Cal Cable" was the last privately-owned street railway operator in San Francisco. In 1952 it was absorbed into the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Two years later the O'Farrell/Jones/Hyde line and Jones Street shuttle were abandoned, and the California Street line was truncated from Presidio Avenue to Van Ness. The Hyde Street section became part of the new Powell/Hyde line in 1957 (see below).

The following pictures were taken in June 1997, with one exception noted below.

[picture] At the eastern end of the line, looking west up California Street towards Nob Hill.

[picture] A westbound car climbs the hill between Stockton and Powell Streets.

[picture] An eastbound car discharges a couple of passengers (who are apparently not tourists) just before crossing the Powell Street tracks. Note the dip in the southbound Powell track, and the yellow markings on the pavement; this is where southbound cars pick up the Powell cable again after crossing the California cable which passes above it.

[picture] A westbound car approaches Larkin Street.

[picture] A westbound car approaches the end of the line at Van Ness Avenue. (June 1993; scanned March 2006)

The Powell Street Lines

The Powell/Mason line begins at Powell and Market Streets, and runs generally north to Bay and Taylor Streets via Powell, Jackson (return via Washington), Mason, Columbus and Bay Streets. It was built in 1888 by the Ferries and Cliff House Railway, which also operated the Washington/Jackson and Sacramento/Clay lines. The F&CH was absorbed in 1893 into the Market Street Railway, which in turn was taken over by the San Francisco Municipal Railway in 1944.

The Powell/Hyde line begins at Powell and Market Streets, and runs north and west to Hyde and Beach Streets via Powell, Jackson (return via Washington), and Hyde Streets. It was created in 1957 by combining the northern part of the former O'Farrell/Jones/Hyde line (abandoned 1954) with the eastern part of the former Washington/Jackson line (abandoned 1956).

These two lines use single-ended cars that can operate in only one direction. They therefore use turntables at the ends of the lines to reverse direction. These cars were built in 1887-91, and survived the great fire of 1906 because they were stored in an outlying carbarn at the time.

The following pictures were taken in June 1997.

[picture] A gripman starts to turn his car at the Powell/Market turntable, while the conductor stands next to the turntable latch.

[picture] A northbound Powell/Hyde car descends the steepest grade on the system, 20.67%, on Hyde Street between Bay and Chestnut.

[picture] A southbound Powell/Hyde car (actually eastbound on Washington) passes the powerhouse at Washington and Mason.

[picture] Interior of a Powell/Hyde car, looking through the door towards the gripman on the front platform.

[picture] The Powell Street cable passes underneath the California Street cable at the intersection of the two lines, because the California Street line was built first. Therefore, Powell Street cars must "let go" of the cable at a point marked on the pavement, coast across the intersection, and pick up the cable again on the other side. (This picture shows the northbound track; in the next picture, you can see the dip in the southbound track that allows cars to pick up the cable after crossing.)

[picture] The crossing at Powell and California has a manned signal tower, because cable cars coming uphill from the south on Powell or from the east on California cannot see cross traffic until they are almost in the intersection. This northbound Powell/Hyde car had to stop for some reason, after letting go of the cable just before crossing California. (You can see the yellow "Let Go" mark on the pavement underneath the front bumper.) So, some of the passengers had to get off and...

[picture] "...all together now, push!"

[picture] Three Powell/Mason cars wait near the northern terminal at Taylor and Bay, before beginning their southbound trips.

Some Paper Stuff

The following items are from a visit to San Francisco in summer 1977:

This page was last updated on 10 February 2008.

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