There is nothing as recognizable a symbol of a city as the cable car is for San Francisco. The heavy cars trundle up the hills of the city-by-the-bay with the bell clanging a nearly danceable rhythm. In fact, every year there is a cable car bell ringing contest, in the hands of the best cable grip men. A ride on the iconic cable cars from the wharf to downtown riding over the crest of the San Francisco hills costs 5 dollars, but a look back at the history of the city’s romantic transit mode is free.
The San Francisco Cable Cars first came into existence in the 1870’s, 20 years after the gold rush which exploded San Francisco from a sleepy muddy pueblo port into a metropolis spreading over the steep hills rising high above the waters of the bay. Finding a public transit system to carry people up the hills took some California ingenuity. A british immigrant, Andrew Smith Hallidie came up with the idea of a steam powered cable driven rail system, based on his father’s patent on the steel cable, strands wound into a metal rope, also the main stay of San Francisco’s later suspension bridges. The first cable car ran on Clay Street. Eventually there were 8 separate cable car companies with lines running on 53 miles of track. After the great 1905 earthquake, the city mostly switched to the electric street car and by the 1940’s San Francisco was ready to tear up the last of the cable car tracks, until a public campaign organized by a German immigrant Freidel Klussmann passed a ballot measure to save the cable car on the Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason Lines, and on the California Line from a separate cable house.
The cable car lines basically run from the wharf area over the steep hills to downtown and Union Square. They operate on a 1 1/2 inch wound steel cable which runs under the street gripped by the car to go up the hills, and releasing the cable to roll down hill with the speed controlled by three brake systems. In the 1960s, the days of Willie Mays playing with the Giants, the cars and system had aged to the point where the cable men would have to drop nearly to the floor of the car to get the grip tight enough on the cable. The cable car system was completely refurbished in 1984 so that it remains a current reminder of the romance of the city.
Halfway on the Powell-Hyde and Powell Mason lines at the corner of Mason and Washington Streets, a few blocks to the north of Nob Hill, the Mason-Washington Powerhouse, where the massive cable system is pulled through the track slots by giant wheels, now powered by electricity rather than steam, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum presents the complex history of the legendary cable car. On display can be found a collection of mechanical devices on which the system is based, historic photographs, models and three antique cable cars from the 1870s, including the only surviving car from the original Clay Street line. An observation deck allows viewing of the daily cable operations at the power house and on the lower floor a window onto the wheels called "sheaves" which guide the constantly moving cable under the streets.
The San Francisco Cable Car Museum is free to visit and open every day except four holidays, from 10am to 6pm April-September and 10am to 5pm October-March. A store on the premises offers various cable car souvenirs and memorabilia. Both the Powell lines stop at the museum. From the California line get off at Mason street next to the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill and walk down the hill toward the bay. Hourly street parking can be found on the surrounding streets if you’re lucky enough to find a spot. © Bargain Travel West
Find best hotel and vacation deals in San Francisco on TripAdvisor
See these other articles on Bargain Travel West:
Discover the west with budget travel
ideas at Bargain Travel West or visit Bargain Travel Europe for Europe