Cable Cars: A San Francisco Icon

Cable Cars as seen from the Powell Street Terminus near Market Street in San Francisco. (Photos by Dilu via Wikimedia Commons)
Cable Cars as seen from the Powell Street Terminus near Market Street in San Francisco. (Photos by Dilu via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1873, the first cable car in San Francisco began operating.

Here are some things you may not have known about the Bay Area icon.

San Francisco’s first cable car system ran along Clay Street from Kearny Street to Leavenworth Street. One of the main reasons for building the system was to improve on the horse-drawn system that was operating two blocks north.

Four year later, the line was extended four blocks west to Van Ness Avenue, one of the city’s main north-south thoroughfares.

The cars on this line didn’t resemble the cable cars in use today. They used a driver car that pulled a trailer for passengers.

The Clay Street Line was discontinued in 1942. The oldest line still operating is the California Street Line which was started in 1878 by Leland Stanford, the founder of the university he named after his son.

Between 1873 and 1890 more than 23 cable car lines were built. In 1892 the first electric streetcar in the city began operation.

Don’t confuse cable cars with streetcars. San Francisco has both, but the cable cars are better known as the symbol of the city.

Cable cars operate by grabbing a moving cable housed in a groove in the street. The cars are equipped with what are essentially giant pliers that are used to grab the cable and move the car.

The cable moves at a constant 9.5 miles per hour, powered by a single powerhouse.

The system’s main benefit is that it handles hills, both up and down, extremely well. This is one reason the system was so successful in San Francisco. A streetcar or other train supplying its own locomotion on metal wheels can’t generate enough traction to pull itself up or slow itself going down a steep grade.

The company that owned most of the cable cars wanted to convert them to overhead electric streetcars, however opponents objected because of the mass of overhead wires needed for the system.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake directly or indirectly brought the end of 15 of the cable car lines. The powerhouses and car barns for two of the main systems were destroyed, including 117 cable cars stored inside. The eight cable car lines that remained all climbed steep hills that streetcars couldn’t. The introduction of buses in the 1920s and 1930s saw the end of most of the remaining lines.

In the late 1940s, the mayor of San Francisco proposed closing the two city-owned lines. This plan was met with a concerted effort by 27 women’s civic groups which proposed a referendum that led to a change in the city charter forcing the city to continue operating the cable cars.

Today, there are three cable car lines remaining. The two city owned lines, the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines, along with the California Street Line that was bought by the city in 1952.

The system was rebuilt in the early 1980s, at a cost of about $60 million.

There are 28 single-ended cars, which run on the Powell Street lines, and 12 double-enders that run on California Street.

Our question: Which Bay Area professional sports team’s uniforms once featured a cable car?

Today is Paratroopers Day in Russia, Airmobile Forces Day in Ukraine and Republic Day in Macedonia.

It’s National Night Out, Dinosaurs Day and National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

It’s the birthday of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, who is 93; writer James Baldwin, who was born in 1924; and film director Wes Craven, who was born in 1939.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1975, the top song in the U.S. was “The Hustle” by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony.

The No. 1 movie was “Jaws,” while the novel “The Moneychangers” by Arthur Hailey topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Before the break we asked: The uniform of which Bay Area professional sports team once featured a cable car?

The answer is the Golden State Warriors.

Weekly question

Name the artists from the following five songs that played on MTV’s first day.


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