The cable car (or street car) in San Francisco is an iconic attraction of the city. It is the last manually-operated cable car system in the world, so riding it is a must on any visit to the city. However, the cable car today is a shadow of its former self. Between 1873 (when the system was built) and 1890, 23 lines were established. In today’s modern age only three lines now remain.
There are two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route along California Street. The majority of the 7 million journeys per year are now by tourists. Each trip on the cable car costs a flat $7 per person.
How does it work?
The cable cars are actually pulled by a cable running below the street. Each of the steel cables is 1.25 inches in diameter and is run at a constant speed of 9.5 miles per hour. The cable is pulled by a 510 horsepower (380 kW) electric motor, which is located in the central powerhouse. The cable is held by a grip from each car that extends through a slit in the street surface, between the rails. The Central powerhouse is actually now the Cable Car Museum. The driver is called the grip man as he controls the 30,000 PSI grip onto the cable. The other operator is the conductor who also acts as the brake man.
The Cable Car Museum
The Cable Car Museum is at Washington and Mason. We walked to it from the Cruise Terminal – it’s a serious uphill walk through and beyond Chinatown! It’s worth it though, and free to enter. The museum shows off some old cable cars, together with smaller exhibits like traffic lights and payment tokens, and has a souvenir shop.
More importantly the museum tells the story of how the cable car was saved from total closure in the 1950’s and after several transitions reopened as a tourist attraction in 1984.
Two galleries allow visitors to overlook the main powerhouse, and also to descend below the junction of Washington and Mason Streets and see the large cavern where the haulage cables are run out to the street.
The car barn, where the cable cars are stored is situated directly above the powerhouse and the Cable Car Museum.
You have to go on a cable car when you visit San Francisco. You may have to hang on the outside, but it is really brilliant. A piece of history and really the only way to go up and down some of the hills. The route from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf is a good choice. This was our route. The journey is a bit expensive but worth it. You might have to wait a while for a cable car to turn up, as we did, but if you visit the museum you should ride the cable as well for the full experience.
For more information please visit the Cable Car Museum’s website here.