A Trip in Time: The History of San Francisco Cable Cars

When I was a kid, I loved all the fascinating family stories and experiences I would hear from relatives. As most of my relatives (great aunts and uncles mostly) were up in years and had lived through the great depression, they had lots of stories to tell. My dad also lived during the great depression and talked a lot about what life was like during that period of time. But what always fascinated me the most was when he talked about when he lived in San Francisco during the mid-1950’s and it was the cable cars that fascinated me the most.

When I was nine years old, we made a family trip to San Francisco and although I have a lot of fun memories from our time there, the highlight of the trip for me was getting to ride a cable car for the first time.

1969 family San Francisco cable car ride. From left to right, my brother Mike, me, my brother Marty, my mother Sylvia, and my sister Diana.

Reminiscing about all of my dad’s stories about San Francisco and remembering my early experience with the city has given me the idea for a new book project—a mystery that takes place in San Francisco after World War II. The cable car system is part of the mystery.  The story is about a boy whose father—a cable car gripman (more on that later)—dies under mysterious circumstances. The boy is now an orphan, and as he waits in the train station to go live with his great aunt, he decides that he can’t leave without knowing what happened to his father, so he stays in San Francisco.

Cable car operator Leonard “Cowboy” Whitman Jr.

Since I’m in the early stages of story development, my wife and I recently made a research trip to San Francisco and we spent a good portion of our time riding the cable cars and talking with many of the locals and tourists. I also had the privilege of interviewing one of the cable car operators, Leonard “Cowboy” Whitman, about his experiences as a cable car operator.

Cowboy has been a conductor for about 7 years and before that he operated one of the street cars for 23 years. We all sat in a parked cable car and visited during his lunch break.  The questions I asked were mostly about the people that operate and ride the cable cars, things you won’t read about online. We learned a lot of interesting history, all of which will add to the richness of the story.

The San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. Of the 23 original lines that were built between 1873 and 1890, only three lines remain, one of which combines parts of two earlier lines: two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf (Powell-Mason line: 1.40 miles and Powell-Hyde line: 1.6 miles) on a north-south orientation, and a third east-west route along California Street, 1.4 miles.

San Francisco was built on hills (over 50 of them!) so the streets go steeply up and down. In 1869, Andrew Smith Hallidie reportedly had the idea for a cable car system after witnessing an accident where a streetcar drawn by horses slid backwards over wet cobblestones, killing the horses.

San Francisco cable car on top of a hill with a view of Alcatraz in the background.

For its time, the cable car system was quite ingenious. The cable cars are pulled by a cable that runs below the street and the cars hold onto the cable with a grip that runs through a narrow opening between the rails in the street surface. Each cable is 1.25 inches in diameter, running at a constant speed of 9.5 miles per hour, and driven by a 510 horsepower electric motor located in the central powerhouse.

San Francisco cable car powerhouse and museum.

To start and stop the movement of the car, the gripman opens and closes the grip (it’s like a vice grip) around the cable. The grip’s jaws exert a pressure of up to 30,000 pounds per square inch on the cable.

There are four separate cables: one 16,000-foot length and one 10,300-foot length for the Hyde and Mason segments, a 9,300-foot length for their common Powell section, and one 21,000-foot length for the California Street line. That’s a lot of cable!

A cable car gripman operating the manual cable car controls.

The cable car driver is known as the gripman or grip operator. This job requires a lot of skill as the gripman has to smoothly operate the grip lever to grip and release the cable. This must be done at certain points to allow the vehicle to coast over crossing cables or places where the cable does not follow the tracks, and to avoid possible collisions with other traffic. Operating the grip and brake requires a lot of upper body strength as well as good balance and hand-eye coordination.

In addition to the gripman, each cable car carries a conductor. The conductor’s job is to collect fares, manage the passengers boarding and exiting the car, and when descending downhill, operating the rear wheel brakes. There are also standing passengers on the running boards so properly managing the passengers is an important job.

Another interesting fact is that after World War II, it cost 7 cents to ride the cable car. Today it costs 7 dollars.

I highly recommend the Cable Car Museum. It’s a free educational facility located at 1201 Mason Street, and it has lots of interesting things to see.

Future research will include more interviews and fact-finding about the postwar lives of orphans in the Bay Area.

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