Ever ride a national landmark? It’s being done everyday by both tourists and natives in San Francisco. The City’s cable cars were named a National Historic Landmark in 1964 by the US Interior Department’s National Park Service, and it couldn’t have happened to a more worthy institution.
The Cable Car Barn, Powerhouse and Museum is known as “Home Base” to the cable cars. It is here that the cars not only depart and arrive daily on their 11 miles of wrapped steel “rope” going a steady 9 1/2 miles per hour, but also where visitors find a variety of spectacular sights. The Museum houses one of the very first cable cars (1873), a Sutter St. grip car and trailer, as well as scale models of some of the 57 different types of cable cars, which were once operated in the city. From the gallery, visitors can look down onto pulleys, which thread the cable through big figure eight’s and back into the system via slack-absorbing tension racks. Daily visiting hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Oct.- Mar.) and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Apr. - Sept.). And if just seeing the sights in the museum are not enough motivation to come visit, how about the fact that it’s free?
There are currently 40 cars in service: 28 “single-enders” serve the Powell Street routes and 12 “double-enders” serve the California Street route. The cables pull up to 26 cars at a time on weekdays. The cars have a capacity of carrying more than 60 people, and an astounding 7.5 million passengers ride these cars each year.
As the operators of these nationally designated moving landmarks, the cable car grip persons and conductors constitute something of an elite corps among public transit personnel. While the grip person tends to the brakes, and rings the brass bell, the conductor collects fares and gives a hand with the brakes. It’s a team effort and the audience eats it up. And though it may not be a roller coaster ride, at a grade of 17 percent over Nob Hill and 21 percent along Hyde St., many people find themselves excitedly grasping whatever they can get a hold of, while the conductor shouts, “Heeeere we go!”
If there is one person to thank for this adventurous joy ride, it would have to be the inventor, Andrew S. Hallidie. This British native metal rope manufacturer was inspired to create the cable cars in 1869, when he noticed the overworked horse cars. He was determined that there was a kinder and more efficient means of transportation, and four years later he proved it to the world. At 4:00 a.m. on August 2, 1873, while the rest of the city slept, a small crowd watched as “Hallidie’s Folly” made its maiden run down Nob Hill’s prestigious east side and made history. In fact, the run was so successful that eight companies operated a total of 22 lines in San Francisco.
Many other large cities throughout the country adopted the idea of the cable car as well, however by the mid-1940’s, San Francisco was the only city left with running cable car lines. When the city government tried to get rid of the lines, there was a successful public crusade organized by the “Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars” under the leadership of Friedel Klussmann.
Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Klussmann, the cable cars still serve as one of the best ways of sampling several distinct sections of this eclectic city for the millions of visitors who travel to San Francisco each year. Whether it be the heart of the shopping district at Powell and Market Streets or the incomparable pizzazz of Fisherman’s Wharf; the rush of the mid town route or the elegance of Victorian Park; exotic Chinatown or prestigious Nob Hill, the cable car is there to take them.
These one of a kind vehicles celebrated their 100th birthday with a 10-day jubilee in August of 1973, but only nine years later, a problem arose. It seemed that after being in service for over a century, the beloved cable car system had deteriorated beyond repair. To rebuild it would cost $60 million and take at least 20 months.
When it became known that the cable cars’ survival was at stake, contributions came in from every corner of the world to help save them. The City of San Francisco was able to raise $10 million from the private sector alone. The federal government aided the project with a $46.5 million contribution, and the State of California chimed in with a $3.6 million contribution.
In an operation similar to open heart surgery, four-and-a-half miles and 69 blocks of city streets were torn up section by section to make way for new cables, tracks, turntables and utility lines. The cable car barn at Washington and Mason Streets was almost entirely rebuilt. Meanwhile, the cable cars were getting a makeover of their own.
Finally, in mid-1984, the ordeal was over and the unveiling was ready. Crowds lined the tracks, helicopters hovered above, and the bands played. At noon, a thunderous cheer went up as bells clanged and pedestrians piled on to their familiar old favorite for another 100 years of service.
Though it has been a long and winding road for the cable car, it has proven itself to be a part of the heart of San Francisco.