Cable Cars


The world's first first cable-powered street railway was built in San Francisco by Andrew Hallidie in 1873. During the next fifteen years, many cities in the U.S. and elsewhere built cable railways to replace horse-powered streetcars. When electric streetcars became practical in the late 1880s, they in turn quickly replaced cable cars almost everywhere. Fittingly, San Francisco is now the last city in the world to operate cable cars.

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Horse Team Hauling Cable Car Cable, c. 1880

Andrew Hallidie's love of animals was one of the motivating forces behind his invention of the cable car. Ironically, although Andrew Hallidie intended cable cars to replace horse-drawn carts on San Francisco's steep hills, horse teams were still needed to move the cable to lay new tracks.

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Horse Cart pulling cable for Cable Cars, Market Street
c1880-1890
photo by Taber

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Market Street Railway Cable Car Construction, c. 1895

At its peak in the 1890's, the cable car system had 9 companies running 22 lines. The Market Street Cable Railway Co., which began in 1883, was the most extensive, with 5 lines fanning out from the Ferry Building all over the city. In 1893 it merged with other companies to become the Market Street Railway.

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Clay Street Hill Railroad Co., 1873

Andrew Hallidie, sitting on the left end of the front bench, was a failed miner, bridge architect, and self-taught engineer. He synthesized his father's wire rope invention with a simple clamping mechanism in 1873 to invent the first passenger-bearing cable car.

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EASTERN TERMINUS OF CLAY STREET HILL RAILROAD - The Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, the first cable railroad system in the world, was invented and installed by Andrew S. Hallidie. It started operation on August 1, 1873 and ceased on February 15, 1942.

Location: Portsmouth Plaza, Clay and Kearny, San Francisco

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Geary St., Park & Ocean Railroad Co., 1890

The #12 Geary Street line, which commenced in 1880, ran from Lotta's Fountain, at Market and Kearny Streets, to the Cliff House at Ocean Beach - a length of 13,200 feet. The Lone Mountain Cemetary, seen in background, was a popular destination.

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Cable Car turnaround at Powell and Market Street circa 1935


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The California Street Cable Railroad Company Powerhouse


This Powerhouse, which opened in 1878 for one of the City's largest cablecar companies, housed engines that kept the steel cables in motion. The cables run in conduits underneath slots between the rails, and mechanically propell the cablecars, which are able to "grip" them.



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Eastern Terminus of the Clay Street Hill Railroad Co., c. 1890

This cablecar line climbed Nob Hill and allowed the residential area of San Francisco to expand to the west. It connected the business area of Kearny Street with Nob Hill. Portsmouth Square is to the right.

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Photograph, Carlton Watkins Studio c1890

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Terminus of the California Street Railroad, c. 1878

The California Street Railroad commenced running April, 1878. Its original length was 8,800 feet, but later extended to 12,000 feet. Its Hyde Street line was famous for its luxurious cars, steep grades, and beautiful bay views.


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California Street Cable Railroad, 1882

The line was opened in 1878 after Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and associates secured a 25-year franchise to construct and operate a "wire cable railroad" from Kearny Street to First Avenue. Passengers include Adolph Sutro, holding the trailer grabiron, and Mark Twain, in silhouetted profile on the dummy.



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