Cable Car History

Cable cars were invented by Andrew Smith Hallidie here in San Francisco in 1873. Hallidie's cable car system, based on early mining conveyance systems, dominated the city’s transit scene for more than 30 years. Hallidie's cable car system would survive the great San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906, soldier through both World Wars, outlast political attempts to have the cars removed in the late 1940s and 1950s, and go on to become the worldwide symbol of San Francisco that it is today.

The Birth of the Cable Car

Andrew Smith Hallidie tested the first cable car on August 2nd, 1873, at 4 o'clock in the morning on San Francisco's Clay Street. His idea for a steam engine-powered, cable driven rail system was conceived in 1869 after he witnessed horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horse car up Jackson Street. The horse-drawn carriage faltered and rolled backward down the hill dragging the horses down roughly behind it.

Hallidie's father, a British inventor who owned a patent for "wire rope" cable, inspired Hallidie to design a system using these cables to haul ore from mines and to build suspension bridges. He put this system to the test when he immigrated to the United States in 1852 during the Gold Rush.

Hallidie entered into a partnership to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which began the construction of a cable line on Clay Street in May of 1873. Although the contract to operate on city streets stated that the line must be operational by August 1st of the same year, it was officially launched on August 2nd. Despite being a day late, the cable car trials were received with great approval. The Clay Street Hill Railroad began public service on September 1st, 1873 and flourished tremendously.
The Clay Street Hill Railroad was the sole San Francisco cable car company for four years. Sutter Street Railroad, a former horse car company, developed its own version of Hallidie's patented system and began cable service in 1877, which was followed quickly by California Street Cable Railroad (1878), Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad (1880), Presidio & Ferries Railroad (1882), Market Street Cable Railway (1883), Ferries & Cliff House Railway (1888), and Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company (1889).
By the end of the 19th century, 53 miles of cable car tracks had been weaved intricately throughout the entire city.


Save the Cable Cars

By 1947, the lower operational costs of buses prompted Mayor Roger Lapham to declare that "the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible." In response, Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars. The committee began a public campaign in the hopes of convincing city leaders that the cable cars’ intrinsic value to San Francisco far outweighed any operational costs. For all their hard work, they succeeded in placing an amendment on the November ballot entitled Measure 10. City newspapers promptly published their story, and public support amassed quickly. Celebrities all over the world rallied for the cable cars, and business owners realized that tourists didn't come to San Francisco to ride the buses. Measure 10 was passed in a landslide victory.

In 1997, a celebration was held at Victorian Park to name the Powell-Hyde Line turnaround the "Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround" in honor of the woman who saved the cable cars.

Today

Today, San Francisco's cable cars are one of only two National Historic Landmarks that move (the other being New Orleans’ St. Charles streetcar line), and both their continued operation and minimum level of service are locked into San Francisco’s City Charter.
There are two types of cable cars in regular service, and though they differ in appearance, their operation is almost identical.

The California Street Cable Car Line uses twelve maroon cable cars which have open seating sections at each end and a closed section in the middle. These cars can be operated from either end of the vehicle and can turn around by means of a simple switch at the end of the line.
The two Powell Street lines (Powell-Hyde & Powell-Mason) use smaller cable cars, operable from only one end and thus require turntables to reverse directions at the ends of the line. There are 28 Powell cars kept on the roster at any given time.

The Cable Car Museum presents a detailed history of our cable cars and is located at the corner of Washington and Mason streets.