150th Anniversary: The San Francisco cable cars, history in motion

150th Anniversary: The San Francisco cable cars, history in motion

150 years ago this month, the first cable car made its way down a San Francisco street with its inventor, Andrew Hallidie, at the controls.

Andrew Hallidie returned to San Francisco in 1857, where he set up a factory to manufacture wire rope. In addition to aerial tramways, his rope was used to build suspension bridges across creeks and rivers throughout northern California.

In the 1860s, Hallide saw horses struggling to climb the city’s streets, especially in the rain. He took out a patent for an “Endless Wire Ropeway” and implemented it for San Francisco. Hillidie’s company began operations in September 1873. Soon, other companies had lines. The cable cars lasted through the 1906 earthquake and fire, an effort to rid the city of them in 1947 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

Today’s fleet

The San Francisco Municipal Railway maintains the current fleet of 40 cars. Not all are in service at the same time.

The cable cars travel on steel tracks set above a channel enclosing the cable. At the top of the channel is a slot through which the cable car’s grip grabs the cable below.

RELATED: Photos: San Francisco’s iconic cable cars turn 150

The cable used in the present system is made of steel with a hemp center to increase flexibility. Routes vary in length:

The California, 21,700 feet

Hyde, 16,000 feet

Mason, 10,300 feet

Powell, 9,300 feet

The cable has an average life of six to eight months.

The power source

The first power sources were steam engines powered by enormous amounts of coal. Today, four 510 horsepower electric engines move the cables. The cable runs in a figure-eight pattern to reduce slippage. Between the three remaining lines, there is nearly 11 miles of line running under the streets.


Today’s lines

In the 1890s there were eight different companies with as many as 23 cable car lines in San Francisco. Today there are three lines. Annual ridership was 5.7 million people in 2019. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

How to ride

The SFMTA recommends purchasing your cable car fare in advance of boarding the vehicle and using their official app, MuniMobile.

You can pay in cash for single rides, which is $8 and you’ll need the exact change.

Clipper Card: Clipper is the all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area. Use your Clipper card on all major Bay Area transit systems, including Muni.

For all-day travel, you may want to purchase a visitor Passport. Rates may vary. Ages 4 and under ride free.

Special Cable Car Service

In celebration of the 150th anniversary fares on the California Line will be $5 for hop on/hop off from July 1 to the end of the year.

Saturdays, June 17- Oct. 28, 11:15 a.m. to 7 p.m.: Ride Cable Car 19, the largest & oldest cable car in the fleet along the California Street Line. This car originally ran on Market Street from 1888 to 1906 and came back in service for special events after 77 years off the rails.

You can learn a lot more at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum website here.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has history and ticket information here.

Details of every car in use are on streetcar.org.

Sources: San Francisco Cable Car Museum, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco Public Library, streetcar.org