From the Blog

The History of the Cable Car


The Cable Car was invented in America in 1873 by a gentleman called Andrew Smith Hallidie. The idea of developing a means of transportation to service the hilly terrain of San Francisco had been puzzling transportation gurus for decades.

Hallidie based his invention of early mining contraptions that used a pulley-type mechanism to pull the mining carts through the steep shafts. Hallidie’s invention was to dominate transport in San Francisco for more than the next three decades as it proved to be an instant success.

Hallidie’s Inspiration

Andrew Smith Hallidie was inspired to invent another method of transport in San Francisco when he witnessed horses slipping on the cobbles trying to get a grip on Jackson Street. Hallidie’s British father had already invented wire-rope cable, and Hallidie had used the cable to build suspension bridges and in mining applications.

Clay Street Hill Railroad

The Clay Street Hill Railroad Companywas formed in 1873, and it was a collaboration between Hallidie and other businessmen of the city. Construction of a cable line line started in the same year in Clay Street and the company had obtained a contract to operate a line in the city if they could make it operational by August 1873.

The first cars started to operate on August the 2nd which was only a day late. Then a month later the line became operational to the public and the first cable car was born.

Success Breeds Success

For four years the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company had things pretty much to themselves, but soon other transport operators in San Francisco wanted part of the action. Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company, California Street Cable Railroad, Ferries & Cliff House Railway, Park & Ocean, and Geary Street all joined in the cable car revolution.

San Francisco now had fifty three miles of cable tracks that made a network transport system all over the city from Golden Gate to the Presidio, and included the Mission area.

The Emergence of the Streetcar

By 1888 a new method of transportation that was more flexible became operational all over America. The streetcar had now become the most favorite choice for city transport in the U.S, it cost a great deal less than a cable car system and could reach areas quicker than the cable car.

The cable car was still far more efficient where the terrain was hilly, so the cable car did not completely disappear. But in a devastating comment by Mayor Lapham in 1947, he suggest that the lower cost of buses now made the cable car obsolete, The city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible.

But public outrage at such a suggestion formed a groundswell in support of the city’s iconic cable cars. A citizen’s committee was formed to save their beloved cable cars, and a coordinated public campaign to show the value of San Francisco’s cable cars gathered momentum. They succeeded in pacing an amendment in a ballot and Measure 10 won the day. It is impossible to think of San Francisco without its iconic cable cars, and they have remained a part of the city ever since both as a great tourist attraction and as an efficient means of transport.