San Francisco’s Cable Cars

San Francisco Hyde Street cable car

San Francisco Hyde Street cable car

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.


SF cable car machinery. Photo: C. Culler, courtesy Wikipedia.

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.


San Francisco cable car

San Francisco cable car

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.


Boarders at Market and Powell Streets, SF

Boarders at Market and Powell Streets, SF

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.


Read more about San Francisco’s cable cars here.


Take a wild ride on a 1906 San Francisco cable car here.


San Francisco cable car, Powell St. turnaround

San Francisco cable car, Powell St. turnaround

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.


San Francisco cable car, California St. line

San Francisco cable car, California St. line

Thanks for taking this ride with me.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander (unless otherwise specified).

Take another San Francisco ride, with many ups and downs, by reading my newly-released mystery novel. Purchase here.

Golden Gate Graveyard


50 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Cable Cars

  1. I guess the film you link to was before the earthquake to talk about in your book – fascinating to see it. I then Googled the earthquake and the images i found were horrendous – so different from the film. Thanks Jet, this was a very well timed post from my point of view and adds even more to my enjoyment of your book.

    • It’s really fun to witness you reading Golden Gate Graveyard, Alastair, and your useage of the info in the posts to augment your reading. That video was indeed filmed before the earthquake. At the time there was controversy about whether to stop the cable cars and move forward into electric trolleys. But the controversy was ended by the EQ that destroyed everything. I am thrilled you are enjoying the GGG experience. 🙂

  2. I always admire the towns or cities that preserve the old despite the new advances in Technology. The object preserved becomes an invaluable treasure to the people through many generations! Great post my dear friend! 🙂

    • And so much change happened to SF when the earthquake hit, so I, too, am glad the cable cars were preserved. And boy, do the tourists ever like them now. I know why: they’re really fun. Thanks so very much, HJ — always a pleasure.

    • There’s nothing like hearing that bell-clanking cable car heading your way — thanks so much, pc, always a pleasure. I hope your week is going well. The holiday break is just around the corner.

  3. Jet as I read your book and then reflect on your posts whether past or new, I love the way they intertwine. I understand one has to be careful not to fall off a cable car. 🙂

    • I thought it would add depth for readers of GGG to see photos and background here, on scenes from the book. I’m really glad to hear your feedback, you and others have found it helpful. And yes, cable car rides do require careful attention. SF reported 126 accidents and 151 injured persons in a ten year span. It’s a thrill to have you reading GGG, Sue.

      • I’m of course delighted to hear you’re hooked, Sue; and look to forward to answering any questions you have about the writing of it. Thank you so much for your support and encouragement.

    • It’s hard to imagine you doing anything but walking, Jo. You are such a walking explorer, that you could probably charge up those hills faster than the cable car. 😉

  4. Very interesting history and information about how cable cars work, Jet, thank you! I am reading your new book and it is FANTASTIC – congratulations! I love reading about San Francisco through the eyes of vivid and interesting characters – well done!

    • I think the cable cars are fascinating too, BS. It’s very unique to have an underground system of cables all continually running. And oh what fun it is to hear that you’re enjoying GGG, the characters, and SF. This delights me! Many thanks, dear BS.

  5. Fascinating! And the video of the “wild ride” is wonderful! We think our traffic is bad now! Seeing the horses, horseless carriages, wagons, bicycles, pedestrians moving along Market St from the vantage point of the cable car (and its rather annoying bell) is like watching a chaotic, choreographed dance! It’s a wonder anyone made it through the whole trip without serious injury! And that’s the Ferry Building at the end, isn’t it? Lovely. Makes me want to read GGG again!

    • I really enjoyed that cable car ride of long ago, and I’m so happy you did too, Nan. It was so precarious! People dashing about, drivers just pulling in front of the cable car — I agree with you, a little more safety was definitely called for. ha. And yes, that’s the Ferry Building at the end. I was just inside the Ferry Bldg. yesterday, it’s amazing to think it has stood there between the end of Market Street and the San Francisco Bay for all these many years. My thanks for your kind attention.

  6. I think the cable cars are the best feature about SF! Ok – that might be exaggerating a bit, but they are so charming and a lot of fun. It has always been a must for me to run with at least on of them when visiting SF:)

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