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“Save our cable cars,” say Frisco’s citizens. But the City Hall boys have other ideas.

By Louis Hochman

SAN FRANCISCO shakes again! In 1906 it was Nature that rocked the infant town into a mass of ashes and rubble. Today it’s human nature that is giving this Golden Gate City the shakes with a wave of public sentiment that has spread far beyond the city’s own boundaries. Once again the people of San Francisco have gathered in force to go fight City Hall. It’s a battle between practicality and sentimentality and the object of this latest uprising is once again the dinky little cable car—that ding-dong relic of the Gay Nineties that continues to clang its merry way up and down the precipitous hills of San Francisco in blissful defiance of modern science and the forces of progress.

Crux of the explosive situation is the determined efforts of the City Supervisors to do away with a sizeable segment of the ancient cable car system which, it is claimed, has been operating deep in the red for too long a period to be ignored. In the interests of economy and a more modernized transit system, the city fathers have curtailed about half of the cable car lines and pro- posed changes that a goodly portion of the Frisco citizenry just don’t see eye to eye with. Atomic power and jet propulsion notwithstanding, Frisco-ites just won’t give up their beloved little cable cars and woe betide the practical politician who threatens to consign them to limbo. Whether this is actually the case in the current ruckus is a matter for debate, but the city’s cable car lovers aren’t for debating. They’re just for keeping their cable cars and hang the expense.

Cable cars were born in San Francisco during the early 1870’s and only in that city do they still live. Back in those formative years the boom town of Frisco, having outgrown its level britches, was beginning to push up into its many hills. The higher it pushed the harder the pull became on the city’s harried horse car system, and many was the struggling nag that slipped and lay injured on the fog-soaked cobblestone hills.

The sight of these suffering animals proved too much for young Andrew S. Hallidie, an engineer who had developed powerful cables of twisted steel wire and had started a company to manufacture his metal rope. “Why,” thought* Hallidie, “couldn’t the cables be used instead of horses to pull the cars up Frisco’s hills?”

He went to work on the idea and soon came up with an acceptable design for a cable railway and grip car. With the help of some backers, construction began in May 1872 on a line that extended six blocks up the steep Clay Street hill from Kearney to Jones. Having no precedent to go by, the job was a tough one. But came the deadline of August 1, 1873, Hallidie was ready to show the skeptical city fathers that his “idiotic and fantastic” project would actually work.

At 5:00 a. m. on that historic day Hallidie made his first trial run. So confident was he that instead of playing it safe and making the initial run up the hill, where if something went wrong at the start he wouldn’t crash down six blocks of near precipice, Hallidie chose to start at the top of the hill and come down. This confidence evidently was not shared by the first grip man who took one look down the steep, fog-shrouded hill, turned pale and disappeared.

Shrugging his shoulders, Hallidie took the grip wheel himself and began to turn it. The car “took rope,” moved over the brink and descended smoothly down the 20 per cent grade at an even 9 mph, thus beginning a new era in urban transportation. Cable cars soon spread, not only throughout San Francisco but into most of the large cities of the world. The cable had successfully replaced the horse, but. . .

Close behind came the electric trolley and little by little the gallant little cable cars have given ground until now only San Francisco, the city of their birth, still retains them.

Basically, the operation of the cable car is very simple. Having no motor of its own, it merely hitches a ride on a perpetually moving underground cable to which it attaches itself with a pincer-like “grip” that hangs down through a slot in the street and is controlled by a hand lever in the forward section of the car. The endless cables that run for miles under the city streets are powered by huge 750-hp electric motors located in two main powerhouses. One. the Washington-Mason Bam, handles two lines with three cables of 10,000, 12,000 and 16,000-ft. lengths respectively. These cables ride at an even speed of 9 mph over a series of huge wheels and pulleys which require constant lubrication. There are pulleys at the sides of the cables on curves, on top of the cables in valleys and under the cables on the hill crests. The gripman who controls the car must know when to release his grip at the right moment and coast over the spots where pulleys would jam it.

There are also places where cable car lines cross and the gripman on the lower cable must “drop rope” and coast across the intersection in order not to jam his grip into the crossing cable and tie up both lines. Suspense rides high at these busy intersections especially when two or more cable cars, approaching from different directions, arrive at approximately the same time. One such intersection, at Powell and California Streets, is situated on the peak of a hill where cars climbing up from three directions can’t see each other. Though a crossing guard tries to control the traffic, there’s many a near miss to add thrills for the cable car riders.

At the end of the line a quaint scene takes place amidst the towering structures of this modern day business world. The conductors hop out, put their shoulders to the car and push it onto a huge turntable. Then, still using their own muscle power, they swing the car around on its “lazy Susan” platform and when it is in position for its return journey they push it off the turntable and back onto the tracks.

During this process the car fills to the bursting point with passengers who delight in riding every available inch in, on and around the car that they can possibly squeeze into. During peak hours it is not uncommon for the tiny cars to take off with a load of 135 sardined passengers hanging on.

San Francisco is a city with a flavor all its own and one of its chief condiments is this antiquated little cable car system that still operates as an integral part of .the transit system. The people love ’em and ride ’em daily to and from work. Many shoppers park their cars on top of Nob Hill and ride the cable cars down to the shopping district.

As G. L. Fox, General Manager of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, says, “If you ride them,you’ll observe two things: One, they go up some pretty doggone steep hills. And, two, you’ll probably get scared to death. You’ll wonder that they don’t have more accidents than they do but the fact remains that they have a pretty fair safety record. Whether this is because the cars are so difficult to control that their operators have to be awfully careful, or whether it’s just a stroke of luck, I don’t now.

Controlled by the grip, the cars can move forward only as fast as the cable travels, which is 9 mph. Smooth starts are rare and impractical because slipping the grip is a frowned-upon practice that tends to shred and wear out the cable. The cars have nothing like modern air brakes but depend for their stopping power on a set of soft pine blocks that bear down on the tracks, metal brake shoes which press against the wheels and an emergency brake that jams a metal wedge into the cable slot. Between the gripman who handles the rail and front wheel brakes and the conductor who helps out on steep grades with the rear wheel brakes, they pretty much get the car stopped where they want it.

This, of course, all contributes to the thrills and excitement of cable car riding as does the gripman’s shouted warnings to “L’kout for the curve!” and the musical ditties he raps out on his all-important bell. The cable car operators of San Francisco are born comedians and have become well-known characters throughout the years. With pure rhythm and timing they can rap out anything from the familiar Shave and a Haircut, Shampoo to the Anvil Chorus on their car bells. Last year they held a bell-ringing contest, the din of which resembled many popular tunes.

But quaint and lovable as they are, San Francisco’s cable cars have been righting a constant battle for survival since even before the big earthquake when the electric trolleys began replacing them. Little by little, the newer transit developments whittled down the cable car lines until today only a skeleton of their former prominence remains to serve the people and capture the fancy of tourists and visitors.

Having lost most of the lines to progress, the people now jealously guard their remaining cable cars against any attempts to discard them. Prominent champion of the cable cars is Mrs. Hans Klussman, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars, who has lead more than one successful battle against City Hall in support of her beliefs. She is largely responsible for a charter provision which requires the city to keep the Powell Street line in continual operation. This line cannot be discontinued without a people’s vote and another amendment to the charter.

Says Mrs. Klussman, “We formed our committee in March of 1947. It was just an emergency committee and we were going to go right out of business as soon as we saved the cable cars, but we’ve had one fight after another ever since. One year they tried to take off the Jackson line and we managed to save that.

Then they didn’t want to buy the California line which, prior to 1949, was privately owned, but we fought that. Then after we got the people to vote on it, the politicians in City Hall didn’t want to go through with it. At one time the cars were out of commission for seven months but we got them back. We pulled them right out of the grave that time.

“When election time came around, suddenly all the people who wanted to be elected came out for the cable cars—promised to keep them, and so on. But now that they’re in office we’re having the same trouble all over again.”

On the other side of the fence is Public Utilities Commissioner Jim Turner who favors a proposal that would cut out about half of the cable car lines and consolidate the remaining lines into one permanent system operating out of one powerhouse.

Says Mr. Turner, “Cable cars have been a problem for many years. They’ve been outmoded as long ago as the quake when the then-new electric trolleys were replacing the Market Street cable cars that were ruined in the fire. They’re costly to operate and in spite of their popularity they’re operating at a deficit of close to $300,000 a year.

“Last January,” continues Turner, “the Municipal Railway, which operates the cable cars, came to the City Board of Supervisors and said, ‘We’re going to need $4,000,000 to keep the system as it is. We’re losing money.’ “The Board of Supervisors blew its top. They gave orders to us at the Public Utilities Commission to ‘show us how you can economize and knock that figure down.’ The P.U.C. did as ordered and, through the charter, drew up this economy program. Rather than provide the money, the Board of Supervisors agreed to the plan by a 7 to 4 vote.

The proposal which was passed by public vote on June 8 is to consolidate a permanent cable railway system of three major lines into the one Washington-Mason Power House. The traditional Hyde Street Grip, famed in song and story, will be rehabilitated, given new rails and a third turntable.

“The claim is made that the resulting cable car system will be reduced to the status of a ‘tourist trap.’ Nothing is farther from the truth. We will be retaining a very substantial cable railway system—5% miles long—which our computations indicate will gross better than $1,000,000 annually. That is not small business—nor a tourist trap.”

But Mrs. Klussman does not agree. She contends that the P.U.C. proposal will result in a mutilation of the cable car system with eventual doom inevitable. Her committee is busy getting up another initiative petition to put back all the cable cars and restore the service to what it was as of January before the curtailment She has until September first to collect 55,000 bona fide signatures in order to get it on the November ballot.

Opposing her and siding with the P.U.C. is a third group, The Cable Car Festival Committee, which is headed by Mrs. Emily Martin. This group feels that the P.U.C. plan is the only workable solution to the cable car problem and plans are afoot to hold an annual Cable Car Festival with the merchants of Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill and the International Settlement joining in.

Whatever the outcome, the San Francisco cable car problem is not a light one—nor is it a purely local one. Letters flow in from everywhere offering aid and encouragement to the Klussman group and begging the Chamber of Commerce to please not do away with the cable cars.

The San Francisco cable cars, it seems, belong not just to the San Franciscans, but to the whole country which has taken them to its heart. •

  1. davee says: June 2, 20097:21 am

    So what happened? Was the network reduced, or is it much the same today as it was then?

  2. Don says: June 2, 20098:59 am

    Charlie; I hate to be a nitpicker[*], but the headline has “ITS”, not “IT’S”. With an apostrophe there, “it’s” always means “it is”, not the possessive . . . .

    [*]not really — it’s what I do!

  3. StanFlouride says: June 2, 200911:31 am

    “The claim is made that the resulting cable car system will be reduced to the status of a ‘tourist trap.’ Nothing is farther from the truth.

    Unfortunately, that is EXACTLY what happened. They are part of the MUNI bus/streetcar system but cost $3.00 (twice the normal fare). Locals use them but only in the off season or on rare occasions. I love them but don’t ride them.
    There are now 3 lines, I think that was all that were left by the time of this article. They are the only moving US National Landmark and cost the City a fortune to keep up.

    When I first moved to SF in the 1970s I used to commute on them every day. Standing on the rear platform, smoking a joint with the conductor in the afternoon- ahhh, those were halcyon days!

  4. Charlie says: June 2, 200912:16 pm



  5. Don says: June 2, 20091:45 pm

    Wow. Charlie, that was totally unexpected — but I *like* it!

  6. Eric says: June 2, 20094:45 pm

    I commuted via cable car (California Street line) daily for several years, from 1994-2004. Many other people living on Nob Hill did and probably still do. Most of the riders were locals, not tourists, during the rush hour commute times. We all used our bus pass to ride so the extra fare wasn’t an issue…the tourists paid that, not us.

    It was great for me because it stopped a block from my front door and right in front of my office. No bus was so convenient.

    The Powell line is more touristy since it goes to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square area and it also has the turntable thing that people really love for some reason.

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