San Francisco’s Cable Cars
By Richard Jacobs
Barbara and I rode the famous San Francisco cable cars on Sunday, October 3, 2010. We left our hotel after breakfast and walked west on Bay Street to Taylor, the end of the Powell-Mason line. There are three cable car routes left in San Francisco, down from many more in the past.
The current operating lines are the Powell-Mason, the Powell-Hyde and the California. The Powell-Mason and the Powell-Hyde lines join at Chinatown and continue south together to Union Square and Market Street. The California line travels west from Market Street downtown to Nob Hill. It crosses the other lines at Powell Street.
When we got to Taylor Street, they were turning the car on the turntable at the end of the line. It is turned by hand with the operator pushing on the end of the car.
We boarded after paying the $5 fare and were off uphill on a Powell-Mason car to the corner of Washington and Mason Streets, where the Cable Car Museum and powerhouse is located.
The museum is free. We went inside to view the many displays and the operation of the drive machinery that powers the cable cars. It used to be powered by steam, but now electric motors do the job. The cables are constantly turning on the drive wheels.
The continuous cables run at a fixed speed beneath the tracks in the street. The car’s operator has a long lever that squeezes a pliers-like contact that grips the cable. The car’s speed is dependent on the pressure applied by the device, which depends on the position of the lever.
When the cables become worn, they are replaced overnight to be ready for the next day’s operation. There are brakes for stopping the car.
In 1947, the city government tried to scrap the cable car system. A women’s organization forced the issue to a referendum. Proposition 10 was overwhelmingly approved by the voters on November 5, 1947, and preserved the cable car system.
After the museum visit, we boarded another Powell-Mason car for another $5 fare and rode uphill — is there any other way in San Francisco? — to California Street. A $13 fare allows you to ride all day on several cars.
We got off the P-M car and boarded a California car headed downhill to Market Street in the center of downtown. At the end of this line, there is no turntable. A switch allowed the car to move to the adjacent uphill track.
Many cable car routes used to continue from Market Street into the Ferry Building where passengers transferred to/from the ferry boats from Oakland and Sausalito.
We walked toward the Ferry Building to visit the Streetcar Museum near Justin Herman Plaza. Admission was free. There were many displays and gift items. The displays presented a nice history of the historic streetcars presence in San Francisco.
We then boarded one of the F-line cars for the trip back along the Embarcadero to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Between the cable cars and the streetcars, San Francisco has a rolling museum. It brings the past into today. There are also trackless trolleys, buses and light rail to complete Muni’s transit system. Some of the buses are electric powered, like the modern electric car. The transit system in San Francisco makes it easy to get around town. Along the way, you get a chance to experience history.