The only true cable cars left in the world, San Francisco boasts three street car lines in full use today. A visit to the City by the Bay is not complete without a bell-clanking, open-air ride.
In the 1800s, when horse-drawn transportation was common in cities, the steep hills of San Francisco were especially taxing for this animal.
It was during this time when Andrew Smith Hallidie–a wire-rope (cable) businessman in mining and bridges–witnessed a horse accident, and got the idea for inventing the cable car.
He tested the first cable car in 1873 on Clay Street, San Francisco.
A cable car works by running on a constant rotating cable underneath the street. The cables are powered by a stationary motor in a cable house.
Each cable car is operated by an independent grip person. When the car needs to start or stop, a skilled and muscular individual pulls a lever and ungrips or grips the cable.
By standing on a street that has a cable car line, and waiting for a quiet moment, even if there is no cable car in sight you can still hear the high-pitched whining of the cables underneath the street. You can feel the vibrations too.
From 1873 to 1890 there were 23 different lines in San Francisco, and cable cars were mass transit operations in many cities all over the world. But by the 1950s, cable cars were nearly extinct.
Not so in San Francisco. Here there was a contingent of determined citizens who fought to keep the cable cars running, and fortunately for us, succeeded.
I like to stand on the running board. Once my earring fell off into the street. I was with my sister and her husband, and it had been a big deal to stand in line and board, so I didn’t want to get off just for the earring.
When the ride was over we went back and found my earring; it was flattened, ruined. But it didn’t matter because the ride had been so fun and exhilarating.
Thanks for taking this ride with me.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander (unless otherwise specified).
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