One of the unique features of San Francisco is the wonderful cable cars. I was amazed to find out that the cables are not in fact up in the air, but instead beneath the streets of the city! On one of our days in the city we got a public transport pass, which allowed us to explore much further with a lot less effort. The ticket included rides on the cable cars, which were by far my favourite.
The only power in the cable cars themselves is the batteries that run the lighting. The cars don’t operate under their own power - instead they operate by gripping on to a cable that is constantly in motion under the streets of the city.
In the Cable Car Museum we went to see the machinery that works together to make the cables move continuously. The pulleys (called “sheaves” and pronounced “shivs”) turn the cables and are themselves turned by electric motors. All this together makes the winding machinery. The winding machinery keeps the cables moving at 9.5 miles per hour (about 15 kilometres per hour). There are four loops of cable that service the four streets of San Francisco that have the cable cars. When the car wants to move, it uses a special mechanism to pick up the cable and grip onto it so that it can be pulled up the hill. On the way down the cable cars just coast down the hills (which are really steep), and when you ride the cars you can smell the burning wood of the pine they use for brakes.
Riding the cable cars is an experience that every tourist to San Francisco likes to have. There used to be many more cable cars servicing the streets (the streets are so steep that the horses from the horse-drawn carts used to last for only 2-3 years) but after the great earthquake and fires of 1906 a lot of the infrastructure was destroyed and the streetcars (trams) were introduced. In the 1940’s many of the cable car lines were taken over by buses, and in 1947 the mayor tried to close down the remaining cable car lines. This was not a popular move but it looked like it would fly for a while. It was due to the efforts of a local lady named Friedel Klussman (also known as the Queen of the Cable Cars) that the cables were rebuilt on the four streets of San Francisco which they now reside.
Riding the cable car and visiting the museum was an amazing experience. With the knowledge of how the cables worked, I could watch the cable car driver engage and disengage from the cable as we went up and down hills and around corners. The mechanics seems so simple, but it takes a lot of pulleys and cables and advanced mechanical engineering to get the system working. Good on old Andrew Hallidie back in 1873 - you’ve made a lot of horses a lot happier!
To find out more, visit the San Francisco Cable Car website here.