Transport & Travel > Modes > Railroad >
The Cable Cars of San Francisco

"Where little cable cars, climb halfway to the stars"
Behind the car is the power plant for the cars which also contains a small, but free, museum.
Ride on the outside of the cars, even if space is available inside.
Turning them at the end of the run.
Ready to go for the next trip, while another inbound car waits its turn to come forward to use the turntable.

The 'cockpit' of the cars. No computers, all mechanical controls (no hydraulics or electric motors).

The big lever in the middle of the hole grabs the cable, the lever on the right and the foot pedal apply breaks. The long poker with a loop handle that is stored against the right wall of the gripman's work area is for snagging the cable and pulling it up into the jaws of the grip.

Trundling along at a stately 9.5 mph, open to the air, the cars are a wonderfully de-stressing trip. You are part of the city you pass through, not isolated behind Plexiglas.

In the fall of 2004 I was in San Francisco on business and had a chance to get reacquainted with the cable cars. On the first trip I took, the 'gripman' was a Sikh. He kindly introduced all the tourists to the customs of the car. He guided people to seats, encouraged the timid to enjoy standing on the running board on the outside of the car and kept the careless from getting hit by close encounters with cars. What a perfect image of the America we all dream of: this man, bearded and turbaned, from a very small minority population, enabling with quiet dignity the white-bread Americans to experience a lost part of their own history.

At this point in the essay, I fully expected to have to write a paragraph about how, of course, the cars are archaic and inefficient, but efficiency isn't everything. However, a visit to the museum revealed that each line is propelled by a single 500hp electric motor. Not bad for moving several cars and a two-mile long cable. Especially when you realize that there is zero pollution from the cars themselves. So maybe there is something to be said for this mode after all. I suspect that electric trolleys are still more efficient, but compared to a fleet of diesel busses, the cars look pretty good.

Combine that with the conductors who will take your picture, the car I rode with a scrawled note that "H. Bogart rode this car, ca. 1946-47 'Dark Passage'" (which was shot in SF), a small but free museum and all the Victorian era mechanical engineering you could want.

That, and the most important fact of all: that one can journey and arrive feeling better than when you started, a feat not capable of being performed on the highway or in the packed airliners we assume are the height of progress.

You travel close enough to outdoor restaurants to almost touch the guests. And the unique and diverse architecture of San Fran houses is also brought before you as you glide along.

Many cities had cable cars including Seattle, Chicago and Kansas City. San Francisco used to have many lines running all over down town. But all that are left are four lines in San Francisco.

A moment of quiet before the day gets going.


Last modified 9/25/07; posted 6/25/05; original content © 2007, 2005 John P. Nordin