New and Venerable Institutions: Cable Cars

"If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground... and if for two-pence half-penny I can ride in that car, why should I seek reasons for that miracle?" - Rudyard Kipling, 1889
Cable Cars are San Francisco's most popular attraction among tourists, many of whom actually expect to find the cars magically suspended from cables! (Visit the cable car museum at 1201 Mason Street to find out how they really work.) The first cable car line in the world made history with an experimental run from Jones Street to Kearny via Clay on August 2, 1873. Cable cars, the brainchild of engineer and inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie, were soon trundling up and over San Francisco's hills from the foot of Market Street to the Pacific Ocean. Where there were once up to eight companies running many cable railway lines all over town, today only three lines remain - Powell & Hyde, Powell & Jones, and California. Collectively, they are the only mobile national landmark in the U.S. For those who live or work near the lines, the cable car is a fixture of daily life. In the movies, everyone in the City lives near a cable car line thanks to motorized imitators which are fine for tourists but universally derided by locals. Following are pivotal figures in cable car history: Frieda Klussman waged a successful campaign to save the cable cars in 1947 after Mayor Roger Lapham moved to have them replaced by diesel buses. Carl Payne became the "Ding Dong Daddy" after winning several cable car bell ringing contests beginning in the late 1970s. Mona Hutchin was a 19 year-old college student in the early part of 1965 when she staged a protest against the long held tradition preventing women from standing on the steps outside the cable car. The police hauled Hutchin off after she refused to step inside the car, but there was no legal violation with which they could charge her. Muni officials then attempted to have the City Attorney formalize the prohibition of women from riding outside the cars, but were told to forget it. The unofficial ban was lifted in the spring of 1965 - 92 years after the cable cars' debut! Fannie Barnes became the first female grip operator in 1998. San Francisco literary figure Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) is the author of "The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip."

Here's the ultimate tip for enjoying the cable cars without the crunch of tourists: Catch the east bound car on the California line at California Street and Van Ness Avenue, where there will almost certainly not be a line. Sit or stand along the north facing side of the car for the better view by far - Nob Hill, Fairmont Hotel, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Chinatown, etc. You can drop by Powell and Market later if you want to see the famous turntable, or choose the link and see it here.

More about the Powell Street Turnaround

The web site of the nonprofit Cable Car Museum is excellent.

Copyright 2002 Hank Donat home