In 1872, Andrew S. Hallidie, a Scots-descended immigrant, managed the California Wire Rope and Cable Company on Market Street in San Francisco. For a long time he pondered the difficulties of conquering the many steep grades of this “City of Hills”. He was also concerned about the ill-treatment horses sometimes received from drivers using whips to urge them up the city’s steeper hills. He realized that if he could come up with a transportation system by using a cable traction system, he could move people, heavy goods and other prohibitably large loads up even the steepest of San Francisco’s hills.
Hallidie’s basic invention, adapted from engineer Benjamin H. Brook’s cable plan, combined a grip that would function efficiently without damaging the traveling cable, with a slotted run adapted to the irregularities of the San Francisco terrain.
Undeterred by ridicule and skepticism, on August 2, 1873 at 4:00 a.m., the first trial run of Hallidie’s “dummy” was down the Clay Street hill between Jones and Kearny Streets, a distance of 2,880 feet. Later the same day, the dummy with a car attached, made another round trip, this time with a large crowd in attendance.
This new public transportation cost five cents a ride, and eventually it was able to reach any part of the city, opening whole new areas to development. In their heyday, as many as eight different cable car lines, extending 112 miles, sent cars up Telegraph, Russian and Nob hills, out to the Presidio, to Golden Gate Park, and even to the Cliff House at Lands End.
In 1947, the cable car almost was phased out by authorities in the name of “progress”. The outcry from San Franciscans was such that after a long political struggle, ending in 1955, with only a few miles of track left, they were saved from oblivion. The cable cars received their official seal of approval in 1964 when they were declared a National Historic Landmark.
Sources: “Historic San Francisco” by Rand Richards, Heritage House; “Old San Francisco, the Biography of a City, by Doris Muscatine, Putnam; “San Francisco Almanac,” by Gladys Hansen, Chronicle Books.