Yesterday, my granddaughter and me took a day trip up to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and took a ride on the cable cars…These now quaint but anachronistic vehicles have been in service in San Francisco since 1873…The steep hills and severe grades in many parts of the city made horse drawn carriages back then both inefficient and dangerous, and there were several accidents before the cable cars were established and put into operation…
At their peak, there were 23 lines criss crossing the city, and they were an integral part of the transit system…At one time, you could ride all the way from Nob Hill across what were then only sand dunes, not the densely built up Sunset neighborhood that exists today, to the famous Cliff House and the public baths run by Adolph Sutro for 5 cents! The Cliff House of course still exists today, and is another famous San Francisco landmark…
Now we are down to just 3 cable car lines, and they are mostly patronized by tourists and the occasional resident like me, just for fun…The San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system… An icon of San Francisco, the cable car system is operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway…. The cable cars used to be just a part of the transit system, I used to ride them to work for 15 cents in the late 1960’s, and you could get transfers just like on a bus, but that has all changed now, they are strictly tourist attractions these days…
It was a bright and sunny day at the Wharf, and we eagerly joined the long queue of people waiting to board the cable cars at their starting point at Aquatic Park, right across the street from the also famous Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory…Inflation has increased the ticket price to $6 each way, but where else in the world can you get such an experience? Only in San Francisco, as far as I know, although I remember reading New Orleans also had some, but I do not know if they are still functional…
The cars are small, only 27 feet long, and have a listed capacity of 60, but only 29 seats…One of the more exhilarating experiences in life is to ride the cable car on the running boards mounted in front of the outside benches in the open air part of the cable car…You pass literally within inches of the cable cars going the other way, and even closer to some trucks or cars or debris bins!…It is so tightly packed that the grip man insisted everybody had to wear their backpacks in front…There is an enclosed section for the elderly or faint of heart, but sitting outside is my favorite part…These cable cars are the same ones or exact replicas of the cable cars that were used in the 1800’s!
We got choice seats right next to the front window on the outside bench row so we could see where we were going all the way…The conductor rang the bell, the grip man engaged the cable, attaching it to the cable below the street, and we were off on our journey into the past!…The cable car slowly inched out of it’s starting point and we were off on our adventure…The grip man constantly kept adjusting the cable and stopping for traffic when necessary, but mostly we had the right of way over the other traffic, especially on the steep hills….
We slowly climbed the very steep Hyde street hill, chugging and rumbling and bouncing around, pulled by the giant cable below us, stopped at Lombard street, the “crookedest street in the world” then passed by the cable car barn where the cables themselves are located, like giant spools of steel thread, running 24 hours a day….
Then we rumbled past California and Powell street, where all the famous old hotels like the Stanford Court, the Fairmont, the Huntington, all left over mansions converted into hotels by the original robber barons of the city….Surprising to me, the cable car actually let a few people board en route, as other people got off, most of these were locals to the neighborhood, like I used to be…
These robber barons ruled San Francisco by amassing their wealth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by speculation, stocks and shady political deals including during and after the famous earthquake of 1906…Of course their descendants are now the creme de la creme of the fashionable and elegant high society of the city, the old money who live in Pacific Heights, the richest neighborhood in San Francisco…
Anyway then we rumbled down the Powell street hill, past all the inner city tourist attractions and famous restaurants, like the Sears Pancake House, some of them have been there for more than a 100 years…At the end of the line, they manually turn the cable cars around on a giant wooden turn table and you re-board for your return trip…In the old days, the passengers waiting would help push the cars…
The highlight of the return trip is the descent DOWN the Hyde street hill back to Fisherman’s Wharf…Once the cable in the late 1960’s snapped going down this hill and the cable car careened down the steep hill, everybody inside clinging on for dear life, tossing passengers clinging upright on the running board off and frightening pedestrians out of their minds! I believe it finally hit a car and stopped… So there is always that nervous excitement coming down the hill in the back of your mind!…
For you technical buffs, i was able to glean this information from my Google sources about exactly how these colorful remnants of how they actually operate: “The cable cars are pulled by a cable running below the street, held by a grip that extends from the car through a slit in the street surface, between the rails.
Each cable has six steel strands, with each strand containing 19 wires, wrapped around a sisal rope core (to allow easier gripping). The cables are coated with a tar-like material which serves as a sacrificial lubricant (much like a pencil eraser erodes away rather than the paper). To start and stop the movement of the car, the grip man closes and opens the grip around the cable (similar to the clutch of a conventional car), with the grip’s jaws exerting a pressure of up to 30,000 psi on the cable.”
The driver of a cable car is known as the grip man or grip operator. This is a highly skilled job, requiring the grip man to smoothly operate the grip lever to grip and release the cable, release the grip at certain points to coast the vehicle over crossing cables or places where the cable does not follow the tracks, and to anticipate well in advance possible collisions with other traffic that may not understand the limitations of a cable car. Being a grip man requires great upper body strength needed for the grip and brakes, as well as good hand–eye coordination and balance.
Besides the grip man, each cable car carries a conductor whose job is to collect fares, manage the boarding and exiting of passengers, and control the rear wheel brakes when descending hills. With the common practice of carrying standing passengers on the running boards of cable cars, passenger management is an important task”….
All in all, we had a great fun trip and I would recommend anybody coming to San Francisco to make sure they include a ride on the cable cars as part of their itinerary….You literally have to experience it to appreciate it, and it is like a trip into the past…Enjoy!
6 thoughts on “Cable Car Adventure in San Francisco”
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