Cable cars: The San Francisco treat (photos)

Road Trip at Home: Once a vital method of transportation around the world, cable cars are now unique to San Francisco.

Daniel Terdiman
1 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Cable car

SAN FRANCISCO--Although they were once common public transportation in cities around the world, cable cars are now found only in the City by the Bay. Beginning in the late 19th century, the cars--which replaced horse-drawn cars and were capable of climbing even the steepest hills--were a main way to get around here. At one time there were eight lines, all run by private companies, and it was only much later that those lines were bought up by the city of San Francisco.

And while every other city abandoned cable cars in favor of streetcars and other conveyances, San Francisco has kept using them because of their charm and because they're great for taking people over the steep hills.

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed many of the carbarns that operated and maintained the cars, including the building that currently houses the Cable Car Museum.

Today, there are three lines in San Francisco, all of which run out of a single barn near Chinatown. Seen here, the Powell and Market line carries a carload of riders east along Washington Street.

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California Street car

Today, the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) operates two different kind of cable cars on three different lines. Though nearly all of the fleet of 40 cars are original and date from as early as 1893, some were built by Muni at its building shops in more recent years. Several were constructed from original blueprints in the mid-to-late-1990s, and another was built from the ground up and dedicated in 2009.

Muni runs 28 cars on the two Powell Street lines and another 12 on the California Street lines.

This is one of the California Street cable cars. These feature open trailers on both ends of the car, are 30 feet, 3 inches long, and 8 feet wide. They weigh 16,800 pounds and can handle 68 people, with 34 seated.

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Powell Street car

There are 28 Powell Street cable cars, each of which has a single open trailer. These are slightly smaller than their California Street cousins. They are 27 feet, 6 inches long, 8 feet wide, and weigh in at 15,500 pounds. They can hold 60 people, with up to 29 sitting.
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Clay Street number 8

This is the "crown jewel" of the Cable Car Museum, an original 1873 Clay Street Hill cable car. This is the only one remaining in the world that uses the original grip system created by cable car inventor Andrew Halladie.

Halladie's father had patents on wire rope cables, and the younger man began testing a new system on August 2, 1873, that incorporated equipment he'd developed in order to haul gold ore from mines during the Gold Rush.

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Clay Street gripping system

The Clay Street Hill cable car on display at the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco features inventor Andrew Halladie's gripping system in which by turning the bottom wheel seen in this picture, a screw lowered the grip down into the cable slot, and then simultaneously turning the upper wheel grabbed the cable.

The system was difficult to use and often caused problems, such as bucking in the grip, and even the occasional cable car jumping off the line.

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The Grip

This is a standard grip, as is used with all of today's cable cars. According to the Cable Car Museum, "The grip is like a giant pair of pliers that reaches into the channel and clamps onto the moving cable. When the grip has hold of the cable, the car is pulled along with it."

The gripman can determine the speed and control of the cable car by how much strength he or she uses to grip the cable. If it is gripped loosely, the cable will slide through the grip, meaning that the car is pulled slowly. And if the grip is tightly clamped on to the cable, the car goes at the same speed as the cable, which is 9.5 miles an hour.

"Operating the grip requires a degree of practice and a tremendous amount of strength," the museum's sign reads. "The 327-pound grip has no markings indicating the amount of grip the jaws have on the rope. Each position must be felt by the gripman."

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46 and 54

In the old days, cable cars were often actually two separate cars, a dummy--the locomotive--and a trailer. Today, the dummy and the trailer are combined into a single car.

Here, we see two cars, Sutter Street Dummy No. 46 and Trailer No. 54. No. 54 used to be pulled by horses before the mechanized dummies came along. In addition, the trailer was featured in the 1938 San Francisco World's Fair on Treasure Island.

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Cable car truck

According to the museum, "Each cable car is supported by two trucks that carry all the grip mechanisms, wheels, brakes, support frame, and wooden body of the car.

"The truck alone, without the wooden body, could travel the rails. The body merely provides shelter and seating for the riders as well as creating the look of the car. The truck and body together weigh about 6 tons."

This is a standard Muni truck, but in the early days of cable cars, from 1880 to 1906, there were nine companies operating 22 cable car lines in San Francisco. Each operator utilized different track gauges in order to prevent the other operators from using their lines. That meant each truck had different widths. Muni standardized the system in 1956.

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Old cable car map

This is a map showing the breadth of the cable car system--operated by nine companies--in 1893.
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Underneath the main part of the Cable Car Museum are a series of gears, motors, and the giant pulleys known as "sheaves." That system powers the four subterranean cable loops that are used to pull the cable cars around San Francisco. The cables are directed out from the powerhouse and then pulled back in.
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The winding machine

Each of the four cable lines has a corresponding set of three sheaves in the carbarn attached to the museum. The three are known as an idler sheave (the closest set of wheels), a driving sheave (the second large set of wheels on each line), and a tension sheave (the furthest back). These three sheaves are used to move a single loop of cable through the underground channels.

According to the museum, "each cable has its own electric motor, which turns the driving sheave by means of a gear reducer. Each gear reducer contains three pairs of gears, which allow the sheave to turn at a slower speed than the motor.

The driving and idler sheaves work in conjunction to move the cable under the streets. The motor powers the driving sheave, which moves in the opposite direction from the idler sheave, which offers more surface contact for the cable, according to the museum. "As the cable loops in a figure-eight pattern, there is more friction on the cable, and the friction between the cable and sheaves allows the cable to move."

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Side view of the winding machine

Though the powerhouse runs on electric power today, from 1886 until 1911, it was powered by steam engines, according to the museum.
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Tension carriages

These are the tension carriages for the four lines. They ensure that the cables are always taut and actually move on their own tracks to make sure they can take up the slack depending on the number of cars in use and the number of passengers riding those cars.
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After the earthquake

This picture shows the building that houses the cable car carbarn and powerhouse, and the Cable Car Museum, after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The quake put an end to many of the private cable car lines in the city.
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Melted cars

Although the earthquake itself was a disaster, it may well have been the ensuing fire that caused the most damage. Seen here is the remains of a cable car barn and the cars inside. All that remains is rubble and the metal trucks of the cable cars.
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Car 62

An original cable car trailer, No. 62.
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Post office car model

Although the Cable Car Museum maintains some original cable cars, it also has a selection of scale models depicting the many uses for the cars.

This model is of the Market Street Cable Railway Company's railway post office car, from the 1890s.

"During the late 1890s, the U.S. Postal Service, in cooperation with various railway companies, developed the 'railway post office car.' RPO cars were in service long before the use of trucks or other vehicles to deliver mail. These cars performed several jobs, including mail delivery and collection from mail boxes and in-route mail sorting. Pedestrians were able to flag down an RPO car and drop mail into the slots provided on either side of the car."

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Cars in the barn

Each evening, all 40 of the city's cable cars are brought home to the carbarn above the Cable Car Museum. They are pushed into the back of the barn on rails, though there are no cables there. Seen here, a few of the cars sit in the barn during the day, while employees' cars take up much of the room.
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Today, San Francisco maintains three cable car turnarounds, where the car drives onto the table, which spins around, allowing the car to grab the cable and move onto the opposite direction track. This is the Aquatic Park turnaround, which is officially known as the Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround, after the woman who spearheaded efforts by city leaders and businesspeople in 1947 to save the cable cars from retirement.
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Lined up

Here, three cable cars await their turn at the turnaround.
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Waiting to come out of the barn

Here, a Powell and Market line cable car sits at the entrance to the car barn.
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The grip

Here, we can see the grip protruding from under the bottom carriage of the cable car and into the space underneath the sidewalk.
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The museum building

The Cable Car Museum and the operational cable car barn and powerhouse is located inside the building that was once home to the Ferries and Cliff House Railway Company. That was one of nine companies offering cable car service in San Francisco in 1887, when the building was constructed. In 1984, the entire cable car system was put on hiatus while the building was earthquake retrofitted and the cable car system was upgraded for the first time in decades.
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Spool of cable

A spool of cable, seen inside the Cable Car Museum.

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