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.


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