It’s impossible not to love these sturdy little vestiges of another age, as they valiantly make their merry yet determined way up the city’s precipitous hills. Yet these San Francisco icons came perilously close to being completely scrapped in 1947, when a “progressive” mayor announced it was time for buses to take their place. An outraged citizenry, under the leadership of “cable car vigilante” Mrs. Friedell Klussman, eventually prevailed, and the whole system was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964. In the early 1980s, the tracks, cables, power plant, and cars all underwent a massive $60-million overhaul and retrofit. The present service covers some 12 miles (19 km) and utilizes about 40 cars.

Cable Car Museum

  • 1201 Mason St, at Washington

  • 415 474 1887

  • www.cablecarmuseum.org

  • Open Apr–Sep: 10am–6pm daily; Oct–Mar: 10am–5pm daily

  • Free

Cable Cars and Streetcars

Wire rope manufacturer Andrew Hallidie’s cable car system dates from August 2, 1873, when he tested his prototype based on mining cars. It was an immediate success and spawned imitators in more than a dozen cities worldwide. However, 20 years later, the system was set to be replaced by the electric streetcar. Fortunately, resistance to above-ground wires, corruption in City Hall, and finally the 1906 earthquake sidetracked those plans. The cable car was kept for the steepest lines, while the streetcar took over the longer, flatter routes.

Cable car route

Rather than wait in the long lines at a cable car terminus, do what the locals do and walk up a stop or two, where you can hop on right away – then hold on!

The $5.00 fare is for one ride, one direction only, and there are no transfers. Consider getting a CityPass or a Muni Passport for one day ($10) or longer .

Every grip person develops their own signature ring on the car’s bell, and a ringing contest is held every July in Union Square.

The cables, which cost at least $20,000 each, must be replaced every two to three months due to the terrific wear and tear.

Top 10 Features
  1. Cars

    Cable cars come in two types: one with a turnaround system, one without. All are numbered, have wood and brass fittings in the 19th-century style, and are often painted in differing colors.

  2. Bell

    During the course of operation up and down the busy hills, the cable car’s bell is used by the grip person like a claxon, to warn other vehicles and pedestrians of imminent stops, starts, and turns.

  3. Grip Person

    The grip person must be quick-thinking, and strong to operate the heavy gripping levers and braking mechanisms. The grip is like a huge pair of pliers that clamps onto the cable to pull the car along.

  4. Conductor

    The conductor not only collects fares, but also makes sure that everyone travels safely, and that the grip person has room to do his job.

  5. Cables

    The underground cables are 1.25 inches (3 cm) in diameter and consist of six steel strands of 19 wires each, wrapped around a rope, which acts as a shock absorber.

  6. Braking

    There are three braking mechanisms. Wheel brakes press against the wheels; track brakes press against the tracks when the grip person pulls a lever; while the emergency brake is a steel wedge forced into the rail slot.

  7. Cable Car Museum

    Downstairs, look at the giant sheaves (wheels), that keep the cables moving throughout the system; upstairs are displays of the earliest cable cars.

  8. Riding Styles

    There is a choice of sitting inside a glassed-in compartment, sitting on outside wooden benches, or hanging onto poles and standing on the running board. The third gives you the sights, sounds, and smells of San Francisco at their most enticing.

  9. Turntables

    Part of the fun of cable-car lore is being there to watch when the grip person and conductor turn their car around for the return trip. The best view is at Powell and Market streets.

  10. Routes

    The three existing routes cover the Financial District, Nob Hill, Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill, and Fisherman’s Wharf areas. As these are always important destinations for visitors – and for many residents, too – most people find that a cable car ride will be practical as well as pleasurable.

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