What is a San Francisco Cable Car?

Vicki Hogue-Davies

A San Francisco cable car is one of the vehicles making up the historic cable car transportation system in the United States city of San Francisco, California. The system is the last regularly operated manual cable car system in the world. It was developed by Andrew Smith Hallidie to traverse the city's hills after he allegedly witnessed a horrible accident in which horses trying to pull a horse car uphill were dragged backward to their deaths. The first San Francisco cable car system, powered by steam engine, had its inaugural run in 1873. The first of San Francisco's cable railroads was called the Clay Street Hill Railroad for the road on which it operated.

Cable cars service the famous Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco's Nob Hill district.
Cable cars service the famous Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco's Nob Hill district.

In the following years, other companies started their own cable car systems until there were eight cable companies in the city. Over the years, the cable cars and cable systems evolved in design. Eventually, 53 miles of track stretched throughout the city.

By the late 1880s, the electric streetcar system had been invented. The streetcars were faster, safer and cheaper to build, and they seemed to signal the beginning of the end for the San Francisco cable car. By the 1940s, when buses had become a popular means of transportation, the San Francisco mayor at the time, Roger Lapham, proclaimed that the city should remove the cable lines. In response to that declaration, resident Friedel Klussmann started a movement, called the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars, with the goals of saving the cable lines for their historical value and tourism value. She became known as the "cable car lady," and in 1997 — 50 years after the beginning of the movement to save the cars — a turnaround on the Powell line was named in her honor.

As of 2010, residents and visitors were able to ride two historic San Francisco cable car lines. Those lines are the California Street line and the Powell Street line. Each line operates a bit differently.

The California Street cars, of which there are 12, were built in the 1890s. The cars have two open ends and a control lever at each end, so turntables are not required to turn around at the ends of lines. Instead, the car switches to an opposing track, and the operator switches to the controls at the other end. The line runs east-west and traverses the Financial District, Chinatown and Nob Hill.

The Powell Street system, the older of the two lines, has one open end and uses turntables for its cars to turn around. This system features 28 cars. The Powell Street line has two routes, both of which originate at the intersection of Powell and Market streets and take different routes to San Francisco's well-known Fisherman's Wharf area.

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