Cable Cars – A San Francisco Treat

Hyde-Powell Cable Car track

Beneath the streets of San Francisco are underground cables that run all day long. If you can catch a quiet moment on one of the cable car streets, you will hear the high-pitched hum of the constantly running cable.


Originally invented by Andrew Smith Hallidie, cable cars have been carrying commuters and tourists through San Francisco since 1873. Designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark, it is the only true cable car system left in the world.

San Francisco cable car, California Line

Cable Car Wikipedia


This network of cables and pulleys originates from one powerhouse located at Washington and Jackson Streets, and it runs the whole city’s cable car system. Here there is also the Cable Car Museum, which I recommend; it’s free.

Cable Car Museum. Underground cables operating in powerhouse

Each cable car has two operators: the conductor, who takes tickets ($7.00); and the grip person, who runs the car and grips the brakes.


With the underground cable running, the grip person starts and stops the cable car by attaching to or releasing from the cable. This takes great strength; the car has a passenger capacity of 60-68 people. So one Herculean person operates the grip that brakes the car carrying 60+ people.


Cable car grip man



Cable car stop


San Francisco Hyde Street cable car

The history and facts are interesting…but it’s the ride that is the thrill.


I have lived in or around San Francisco for 30 years, and I never ever tire of riding the cable cars.

San Francisco cable car

The wind is blowing through your hair, the car is rocking slightly, and creaking. The car is sandwiched between UPS delivery trucks, other double-parked work trucks, and speedy cars as we trundle up and down the precipitous hills.


Street scenes abound as we cruise by apartment buildings, houses, corner stores, and schools.


The clanking of the bell, the dampness of the fog.


From a few of the hilltops you can see Alcatraz Island in the distance, anchored in the Bay; and the Golden Gate Bridge. The aroma of savory foods waft out of Chinatown.


A quintessential San Francisco experience…not to be missed.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Cable car riders. From R Athena, Jet, Jet’s sister, and brother-in-law. July 2018.

Check out this old cable car commercial from 1962, pretty fun.


91 thoughts on “Cable Cars – A San Francisco Treat

  1. Loved this post, Jet! It brought back so many memories of a fantastic trip I took to San Francisco many years ago. You described riding the cable cars perfectly. Love that last photo…so many smiling faces! πŸ™‚

  2. Great pictures and write-up!!! I felt like I was hanging on for the ride–except for the wind in my hair.
    Great looking couples at the end!!!

  3. Is love to visit San Francisco some day and the cable cars would definitely be a highlight. I think it is fantastic that they are still used and even more so that it is still a person (however Herculean) that is operating it and not a modern day piece of gadgetry.

    • Enjoyed your comment, as always, Alastair. Originally the cars were operated by horses, then Hallidie invented wire rope, which began the cable system. It’s the only true cable car system left in the world, and it is definitely a highlight of the SF visit. I think you would like all the different sounds of it, Alastair.

      • I was wondering about the sounds. For now I will have to use my imagination. I expect there are recordings out there on the net but it’s not the same thing as recording it yourself.

      • The most prominent sound is the clanking bell, but there are many other sounds. Mechanical sounds in relation to the metal and cables, loads of traffic sounds, creaking of the car in the tracks, the release of the brakes (another mechanical sound), of course excited riders, the conductor telling people to stand behind the line, city sounds that swell and diminish as we pass by (like jackhammering and roofers). My favorite is the hum of the cables, but that’s only when you’re not on the cable car and you’re trudging up the hill on foot. If you come to SF let me know, I’ll help you record it.

  4. It hard not to think about the cable cars when you see SF. Somehow, it adds the romantic atmosphere to this beautiful, busy city. πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing your beautiful photo of you, your sister and brother-in-law. πŸ™‚

    • Glad you enjoyed the cable car ride today, Amy. That was a fun day; it’s always a fun day when you ride a cable car. Great to “see” you, and thank you for the visit to Scotland in your posts.

  5. One of these days, I must visit San Francisco. My husband lived there in the late ’70’s and I know he’d enjoy returning. Ah, priorities πŸ˜† Insightful post which has only piqued my curiosity about your beautiful city even more.

    • Oh you would love it, Ingrid. It’s a busy city, very unlike all your peaceful western meanderings, but if you are in the area it is really an adventure. And I know how you enjoy the adventures…. Many thanks.

  6. I never thought about hearing the hum of the cables. Funny how the “San Francisco treat” sticks in our minds. Whoever wrote that Rice-a-Roni ad sure did a good job. It is stuck in my mind and that of millions of other people – and this was YEARS ago!
    Wonderful post. Looks like a fun day for you and your family.

    • It was a fun day. They came out to help with the repair of our house, and we had five days of hard work, and two days of fun. This was the perfect thing to do for one of the fun days. As for the Rice-a-Roni ad, it has stuck in my mind too, Anneli. I put a link at the bottom of the post with the ad. It’s from 1962 and has a woman in long black gloves riding the cable car with a bag of groceries in her arms. They show you how simple it is to make, and all I could think was, MSG. ha. Thanks very much.

  7. A San Francisco treat! Mrs. PC isn’t going to enjoy me singing the rice-a-roni theme all weekend as much as I enjoyed reading this post. Loved everything about this, from the descriptions, to the photos, to the commercial.
    Thanks, Jet, have a wonderful weekend, and remember, now you can have something other than potato…ding, ding!

    • Isn’t that ad hilarious? I got a kick out of it, I’m glad you did. Your comment made me laugh really hard, PC, thank you. Please tell Mrs. PC I’m sorry…lol. I wasn’t sure you’d know the ad, since you didn’t grow up in this country; glad to know it’s known by many. Cheers for a fun weekend.

  8. I’ve lost count of the number of first time visitors I’ve taken on the cable cars, generally the Powell to Fisherman’s Wharf ride, and they’ve all loved it. I love the grip men and the conductors who have big personalities and make it more like a impromptu performance! Great picture of the family!

    • I’ve lost count too, Jan, it’s such a great thing to take visitors on because it’s fun no matter how many times you go on it. You describe the grip men (there’s one or two women now, too) and conductors well with “big personalities.” Glad you enjoyed the post, Jan, thanks so much.

  9. i had the experience of riding this iconic transportation many, many years ago and it was a thrill. truly a San Francisco experience. great post as always, Jet. thank you!
    “it is the only true cable car system left in the world” – WOW!

  10. I’ve lived here for over two years and still haven’t rode the cable cars!!! This looks so fun though- I need try one out ASAP! Thanks for the history too- so fascinating πŸ™‚

  11. I had no idea that there was an underground aspect to the cable cars in San Francisco. Or that an individual is in charge of braking the whole car! Talk about pressure. Well good thing there are no hills in San Francisco. πŸ™‚ What a sweet photo. I hope you had a wonderful visit with your sister and brother in law.

    • Your comment got me smiling, Sue, thanks so much. Yeah, good thing there are no hills in SF. That day we took a boat from Tiburon, where we were living then, to the SF Ferry Building. Then we grabbed a street car to the Wharf, then we took the cable cars up the hill, had lunch at Chinatown, and took the cable car back down; then a returning street car and ferry boat. Great fun. Thanks so much for your comment and visit today — much appreciated.

  12. San Francisco is the loveliest city in the U.S., in my opinion. The experience of riding a cable car as it descending a hill and you could see the city and the bay is mesmerizing. And yes, the Cable Car Museum makes a wonderful and educational visit. David and I visited it a couple of times over the years. Thanks for a nostalgia, Jet.

    • I, too, think that San Francisco is the loveliest city in the U.S., Keng. You and David are such trepid adventurers, I love that you’ve been to the CC Museum a couple of times. Thanks so much for the comment, always a pleasure.

  13. Great post! It is amazing that SF continues to use cable cars when so many other cities ceased ages ago. Part of it must be their efficiency, but they are also so ingrained in our minds as a part of the city. I loved riding one when I visited.

    • Yes, SF is unique for still having the cable cars. In the first part of the 20th century it was the major public transportation and there were many more lines traversing the city. That’s back when many major US cities had them. When electric motors came onto the scene, all the lines were going to be removed. But fortunately the battle to keep a few lines was won. And now they are a great tourist attraction. I’m delighted to hear you’ve ridden one, Eliza. Thanks so much.

  14. Sad to say, I remember the fluffy fragrance of those b/w commercials, but somehow I was driven to experience the cable car ride, way back in the 70s. With this nostalgic revisit, Jet, I can say that it was memorable. We need more public transportation of this sort. I, for one, would gladly take that ride again!

  15. The cable car is an idea that worked very well, for 145 years it has been the delight of many people perhaps tens of millions. It’s not only a mode of transport it is fun! Great post my friend! πŸ™‚

  16. makes me a happy passenger
    along halfway to the stars with you, Jet!
    fond memories of childhood rides.
    for his advertising business
    my grandfather invented the motorized
    cable car back in the ’50’s πŸ™‚

    • Oh how I love knowing your grandfather invented the motorized cable car, David. They are still a big hit all over the city. What a cool thing to know! Now whenever I see one, I will think of you. My warmest thanks and a big smile–

  17. Very interesting post, Jet! I’d love to ride on a cable car some day. I will admit, as soon as I saw your title “A San Francisco Treat”, the Rice-A-Roni commercial jiggle ran through my head, lol. And then to watch the video at the end made me laugh out loud! 😁

    • Loved your comment, Donna, thank you. That Ric-a-Roni commercial was kind of a last-minute add-on, and it sure was fun to see. I’m glad you enjoyed the cable cars, and appreciate your visit. πŸ™‚

  18. This is fascinating. I’m not sure if I’ll go to the museum, or not, but I really hope to jump on a cable car or two next week!

    Now, if I’m singing the jingle from the Rice-A-Roni ad all day long, you’ll be hearing about that! LOL

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