The Stagecoach

Stagecoaches came in a variety of styles. Some as just open carriages. The stagecoach of course most of us is more familiar with is the famous Concord Stage. This is the coach that many associate with Wells Fargo. This will give you an idea of the Concord Stagecoach. The coach weighed about 2,500 lbs. Amazingly, the coach could carry eighteen people. This configuration would place nine inside and nine on top of the stagecoach. The wood used in it’s construction was both ash and oak and generally four to six horses were used to pull the coach.


Coach display at San Juan Bautista California

Making the Westward Journey by Stage

Much has been written about stagecoach travel during the old west days. Mostly it’s been depicted as none too comfortable. This is probably an accurate description especially if you’ve read some of the observations put down on paper by Mark Twain and a few others. His experience occurred about eight years before the transcontinental railroad was built. The stagecoach was about the only choice a person had to travel westward aside from horse riding alone or joining a wagon train.

Mark Twain, in his publication “Roughing It“, which describes he and his brother Orion’s stagecoach journey from St. Joseph Missouri to Carson City Nevada in the summer of 1861, gives one an understanding of what was involved in making the trip. Here are a few excerpts from Mark Twains journal

plaza stable in san juan bautista

Plaza Stable, San Juan Bautista

“Our coach was a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description – an imposing cradle on wheels”.

“We began to get into country, now, threaded here and there with little streams. These had high, steep banks on each side, and every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed sowewhat. First we would all lie down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end and stand on our heads”.

Stage Lines on the Old El Camino Real

Western Trips came across an interesting site in California which still displays advice given to stage coach travelers over a century ago by newspapermen. This display is showcased at the old San Juan Bautista California livery stable, the Plaza Stable,  built in 1861 and which once served as the stop for the stagecoach. In fact, San Juan Bautista was established as both a settlement and mission by the Spaniards directly on the old El Camino Real “The King’s Highway”. Because of it’s location, San Juan Bautista at one time had as many as seven stage lines passing through it.Most of the traffic was going between San Francisco and Los Angeles but also a fair amount to Monterey, Watsonville and Santa Cruz on the coast.

Also, see our articles on the Black Canyon Arizona Stagecoach LineRiding on the Butterfield Stage Route and The Woman Called Calamity Jane

concord stage coach

Concord Stagecoach model at Wells Fargo Museum, Old Town Sacramento CA

Visiting San Juan Bautista California

Today, the Plaza Stable is preserved as a museum which houses a variety of carriages, wagons, harnesses and other stable gear. San Juan Bautista, being only about 93 miles south of the center of San Francisco and also directly on the way to the popular Monterey Peninsula, is a great place to add to your California trip planner. If you’re heading out from the San Jose area it’s obviously much closer. San Juan Bautista is also home to Mission San Juan Bautista which is  a very popular tourist site.

You’ll find an interesting photo article about  Mission Juan Bautista on our Western Trips site.

Advice For Stagecoach Travelers

Travel advice and tips during the 1870’s was scarce and even scarcer when it came to traveling by stagecoach in the west. Newspapers generally took the lead in informing it’s readers about stage coach happenings.

charley parkhurst stagecoach driver

Charley Parkhurst Mural, California's famous female stagecoach whip

In this endeavor, the information below was first published in the Omaha Herald newspaper, on October 3, 1877. Keep in mind that a stagecoach trip in many instances could be a long journey, not necessarily to the next town down the line. Because of this, there could be a variety of occurrances along the way, some okay and some not as okay. The advice given out by the Omaha newspaper was probably the result of either people desiring to know what to expect traveling by stagecoach and/or the stage lines themselves asking the paper to inform it’s readers so as to make the journey easy on all parties involved.


The published information is as follows:

“The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver.  Even if you have a tendency to seasickness when riding backwards, you’ll get over it and will get less jolting and jostling. Don’t let any “sly elph” trade you his mid-seat.

In cold weather, don’t ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes, or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling. he won’t request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away, sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine times out of ten you will get hurt.

In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence. Don’t growl at the food received at the station: stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

Don’t keep the stage waiting. Don’t smoke a strong pipe inside the coach. Spit on the leeward side. If you have anything to drink in a bottle, pass it around. Procure your stimulants before starting, as “ranch” (Stage Depot) whiskey is not “nectar”!

central overland stageline

Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Stage Line stamp

Don’t swear or lop over neighbors when sleeping. Take small change to pay expenses. Never shoot on the road as the noise might frighten the horses. Don’t discuss politics or religion. Don’t point out where murders have been committed especially if there are any women passengers.

Don’t lag at the wash basin. Don’t grease your hair, because travel is dusty.

Don’t imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort, and some hardship.

Expect the Unexpected

Not exactly a twenty-first hiking guide, but the article above appears to have been printed in an honest effort to make the journey as comfortable as possible for all passengers. Much of it pertains to issues of how to get along with your fellow passengers as well as the driver, usually referred to as the “whip”.

There were so many variables coming into play during a stagecoach journey that most advice can be summed up as “expect the unexpected“. To be sure, not every journey was horribly difficult. Just as in today’s news, the extraordinary is what gets publicized the most. By the same token, traveling by stagecoach was quite different from rail travel. That’s one of the reasons that the railroad brought more people west and created towns all along it’s way.

In addition to the Plaza Stable at San Juan Bautista, a lot of information about the old west stagecoach can be found at any one of the Wells Fargo museums such as the one in Old Sacramento and San Diego California. Also, you can view the old Deadwood Stagecoach at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody Wyoming.

(Stagecoach and San Juan Bautista photos from author’s private collection. Charley Parkhurst Mural and Overland Stage Line stamp from the public domain)

The Surrender of Robert E. Lee / The Ironic Details

One of the most interesting stories to come out of the American Civil War was the arrangement of a site for the formal surrender of Robert E. Lee and his troops. How was the site selected? Who was in attendance at the signing? What became of the structure and furnishings after the war? These are all interesting details you may not have read about.

robert e lee in 1850

Robert E. Lee at age 43 in 1850

First, one of the most ironic events in the Civil War concerned the site ultimately chosen for Lee’s surrender. How one man was connected to two of the largest of Civil War events, years apart and at two separate locations, is ironic in the extreme. The details of this along with the arrangements for the surrender of Robert E. Lee are two of the war’s more ironic moments.

The McLean Home

A man named Wilmer McLean had the distinction of claiming that the Civil War started and ended at his home. In a large way he was correct. It so happened that in 1861 McLean had settled at a site known as McLean’s Ford very near Bull Run. The Confederate forces had dug in at Bull Run erecting earth works as a defense of an expected surge of Union troops into the south. McLean’s home was essentially put on ground zero.

On July 18, 1861 a Union shell was fired and amazingly fell into the chimney of McLean’s house. The story is that the shell landed in a pot of stew and exploded. While there were no casualties in the McLean home as a result of the explosion, the event marked the opening salvo of what would be known as the first Battle of Bull Run. This engagement many say was the start of the war.

wilmer mclean

1860 photo of Virginia farmer Wilmer McLean

The Surrender of Robert E. Lee

Now, from the McLean Home that was at Bull Run in 1861, we fast forward to the last days of the Civil War. The setting was now 1865 with Richmond Virginia under heavy Union siege. Jefferson Davis had already fled the Confederate capital and was on the run heading to the Carolinas. Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were only a few miles apart.

The surrender of Robert E. Lee came at a time when the war for the Confederates was in utter turmoil. Lee’s army was ragged after months of marching and skirmishes and the lack of an adequate supply line, namely food, was devastating. Without a supply line and the choke hold the Union Army had on the South, Lee had very little choice than to surrender his army to General Grant.

Regarding Wilmer McLean, like many all over the country, he became tired of the war. When the armies retreated he moved to a farm in southern Virginia  and resided in a house that fronted a street at Appomattox Courthouse. The house was on a well used stage route and had previously operated as a hotel. It became a single family home after McLeans’s purchase. As history would have it, Appomattox Courthouse would be the site where the Civil War officially ended. This time however, it wouldn’t be shells exploding that brought McLean to the center of events. By fate, it was in this small village that he had chosen to live where the Civil War would touch him again.

Where to Have the Official Signing

mclean house at appomattox courthouse

McLean House at Appomattox Court House in 1865

When Lee decided that there was no other alternative than to surrender and word of this was sent to Grant, the next question was where would this meeting take place?

McLean was walking in the village when a Confederate soldier approached him and asked where the two opposing generals might meet. McLean showed him a few sites which weren’t satisfactory for a variety of reasons, mostly inadequate furnishings. Eventually, McLean took the soldier to his own home and the site appeared perfect. The two Civil War generals met there afterwards, the surrender documents were signed and McLean’s house in Appomattox Courthouse would reside forever in Civil War History. In a very real way, by simply fate and coincidence, Wilmer McLean was present at both the official start and ending of the American Civil War.

Two additional Trips Into History photo articles you’ll find interesting are the Civil War Submarine and the Confederate Navy.

Preserving Such a Historic Site

At first most people would have assumed that the McLean House would have been carefully preserved for posterity. The fact is that it was and wasn’t. It stood at the same site in Appomattox Courthouse until the year 1893. At that time it was disassembled and brought to Washington D.C. for an exhibition. The people who financed this move however were ruined during the deep Financial Panic of that year and the house was never reassembled. The contractor who had torn it down and shipped it to Washington was never paid. All of the parts were laid out in the open and eventually were deteriorated beyond repair. The famous house would never be put together again.

The Original Furnishings

Union soldiers gathered around the Appomattox Court House in 1865

Not as a surprise, some of the original furnishings in the McLean House appomattox courthouse in 1865″ at the time of Lee’s surrender became quite valuable to collectors. Chairs where Lee and Grant had sat were taken away against the wishes of McLean. Chairs which had cane backing were cut up and sold as mementos. General Philip Sheridan reportedly bought the table where the surrender terms were written up and eventually donated it to the widow of George Armstrong Custer. According to the book, A Terrible Glory by author James Donovan, Brevet General Custer mingled outside the McLean House with Confederate officers he had known from West Point while the surrender document was signed. General Custer and his troops had been involved in skirmishes and victories just a short time earlier around the village. General Ord also purchased the table where the signing actually occurred. That table is now on display at the Chicago Historical Society.

As luck would have it, a man named P.C. Hubard had made very detailed drawings of the house for the contractor before it was disassembled. Hubard’s drawings were then preserved in the Lynchburg Virginia Library. There the drawings stayed for decades. In 1948, just a few years after the end of World War Two, the Federal Government ordered that a replica house be constructed. Hubard’s drawings would be critical for the project.  Donations were forthcoming and the state of Virginia appropriated money for the furnishings. The total cost of the project ended up to be just under $50,000.

The dedication of the McLean Home was made in 1950 in the presence of U.S. Grant III and Robert E. Lee IV. The home resides now at the Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Park in Virginia. Also within the Appomattox Courthouse Park is a Confederate Cemetery which is the final resting place for eighteen soldiers killed during the battles of Appomattox Station and Appomattox Court House.The park visitor center shows two different 15 minute videos on an hourly schedule in it’s 70 seat theater.

The Appomattox Court House National Historic Park is located in south central Virginia about 95 miles west of Richmond. If your road travels take you to Virginia, you’ll certainly want to add this very historic site to your trip planner.

(Photos from the public domain)




Pan Am China Clipper / The Air Route to the Orient

Flying The Pacific Route From San Francisco to the Orient

One of the most remarkable achievements and a colorful period in early passenger plane history was the highly successful and many would say glamorous trans-Pacific route of the fabled Pan Am China Clipper. The story of the China Clipper brings back memories of a time when air travel across the Pacific was an adventure. There had never been anything like it before. At the time, it was a trip taken by the very adventurous and/or the very rich. The Pan Am China Clipper demonstrated that long distance air travel over the world’s largest ocean was indeed possible.

china clipper postage stamp

Stamp denoting first China Clipper flight over the Pacific

The China Clipper took off from San Francisco Bay near the old Alameda Naval Air Station site in the east bay area and flew across the Pacific to Hong Kong. This was not only a great achievement but it also opened the Pacific region to much more travel.

If you think airfare is high today, a ticket on the China Clipper was in today’s dollars about $10,000.

To offer you some perspective, the price of a new home in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, averaged about $3,400. The average price for a new car was $625. Obviously this priced out most people. Among the very rich who could afford the airfare there were also both government travelers (not sure how this fit the national budget) and of course celebrities. Some celebrities could afford the fare but I’m sure in some cases their studio employer ended up footing the bill. This was also before the era of earning free flights with points saved up.

The Beginnings of Pan AM

pan am china clipper

Pan Ams China Clipper over the San Francisco Bay area

The beginning of Pan Am itself was in many ways an answer to international competition in aviation. If you’ve seen the movie “The Aviator“, there is a glimpse of the Pan Am story however in the movie the plot line is really about the competition between Howard Hughes‘ Trans World Airlines and Juan Trippe‘s Pan Am. The movie is largely about the life of Howard Hughes.

International Air Route Competition

Back in the 1920’s, Germany had made headway with routes into South America. In fact, history tells us that Germany had quite a bit of interest in general with the South American continent. In 1927’s a couple of ex Army Air Corp majors got together and established an airline mostly in response to the German presence. Eventually eastern financiers entered the picture and a Yale graduate named Juan Terry Trippe in 1927 put together a holding company called the Aviation Corporation of the Americas. Between 1926 and 1930 there were many mergers and acquisitions mainly between three different investment groups. The end result was that by 1930 Juan Trippe was managing the America’s largest aviation transport company. Pan Am was a subsidiary of his parent Aviation Corp. The goal for a start up was to obtain mail contracts from the government. The other goal of course was to get landing rights.

The First Routes

juan trippe

Also, the presence of concrete runways in the 20’s and 30’s were hard to find. Trippe’s new company obtained rights for a mail rout between Key West Florida and Havana Cuba in 1928 and began service with a rented single engine float plane.

It was from those very humble and uncertain beginnings that Pan Am was eventually launched. Government mail contracts were the key to financing new routes. The mail contract along with landing rights put you in business.

If anything, Juan Trippe was very aggressive and lobbied for more government mail contracts. With passenger demand questionable, a mail contract was the way to have a steady predictable cash flow. Two challenges were to find air routes in which you could operate and service aircraft with suitable runways. The other was to obtain the proper aircraft.

Trippe’s spent much time trying to convince aircraft manufacturers to build larger, more powerful and longer range aircraft. Pan Am had it’s sights on service to all of the South American continent which it did accomplish. Eyes were then turned to both Europe and the Pacific region. In the early 1930’s, years before the first trans Pacific flight, Juan Trippe employed Charles Lindbergh to find a route to the Orient. Lindbergh looked at a route via Alaska and and the Aleutian Islands but this proved impossible because of the growing conflicts in China, Japan and Korea. The question then was how to build an aircraft that could travel very long distances non stop.

Two additional photo articles you’ll find interesting are the Twin Beechcraft Model 18 and the story of the Heath Parasol Homebuilt Airplane of 1929.

Speed and Comfort Island Hopping Across the Pacific Ocean

Pan Am’s answer was the Clipper fleet which eventually comprised some 28 aircraft made by three different aircraft builders. They were Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing. The Clipper that made the inaugural flight out of San Francisco bay on November 22, 1935 was a Martin M-130. This was a four engine flying boat that went on a route to Manila Bay Philippines via Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam.

pan american china clipper schedule

Pan Am’s China Clipper schedule

The trip took six days and a total of 60 flight hours with an average speed of 130 MPH. That first flight from San Francisco carried upwards of 100,000 mail pieces. Later, Hong Kong and New Zealand were added to the route.

The first flights carried mail only but passenger service was begun in 1936 with a one way fare of about $10,000 in today’s dollars.  The Clippers could take only twelve passengers which was one reason for the high ticket price. The plane itself was appointed with a lounge which made it the most luxurious way to travel by air anyplace. Juan Trippe’s vision was to provide the same type of first class amenities one might experience on a sea voyage. Pan Am built a reputation for this kind of service.

In 1942, due to World War Two, the U.S. Government took control of the Clippers and operated mostly southeast down to Australia via Pearl Harbor and the Fiji Islands. The planes however were still crewed by Pan Am employees and were very valuable to the Pacific War effort.

In Came the Concrete Runways

The end of the Clipper airliners occurred with the build out of concrete runways throughout the world. No longer was the ability to take off and land on any large body of water a big advantage. Likewise, the aircraft manufacturers built planes for land based airports.

There is no question that the rapid rise of Pan Am was the result of obtaining large government contracts including route rights, especially in Europe, South America and the Orient. Nevertheless, the Pan Am China Clipper story is an  amazing piece of history. Juan Trippe’s vision and achievement ranks at the very top of aviation history.

More Information About the History of Pan Am

A few interesting venues where you can learn about the legendary Pan American World Airways and about the Pan Am Clipper aircraft include the Museum of HistoryMiami located at 101 West Flagler Street in Miami Florida.

Another good site is the Aviation Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. Lots of good artifacts from early aviation on display there. Also in the San Francisco Bay area is the Pan Am Clipper Exhibit Hall at the Alameda Naval Air Museum in Alameda California. Make it a point to see their Clipper Aircraft flying model on display. It’s a one of a kind exhibit.

One more San Francisco Bay area venue you’ll find interesting is the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. The museum is on the grounds of the San Carlos Airport. Founded in 1998, the Hiller Aviation Museum has a memorial plaque at it’s entrance pertaining to the 1943 crash of the Philippine Clipper while approaching the San Francisco area in fog and rain. A nine man Pan Am crew in addition to ten Naval officers were killed in the crash. Among them was the commander of the Pacific Submarine Fleet.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

Mount Hood Oregon

The state of Oregon is a premiere vacation state with beautiful forests, mountains, rivers and seashores. There are a great number of historic lodges and hotels spread throughout the state. Below are two very historic sites which were built during the first half of the 1900’s and today still serve as excellent and scenic lodges. The first is at the base of Mount Hood Oregon and the other is directly on the Columbia River in the popular Columbia Gorge area, north of Mount Hood. Timberline Lodge is a great place to enjoy Mt Hood skiing.

timberline lodge mount hood

Timberline Lodge in winter

Timberline Lodge–  The Timberline Lodge at the foot of Mount Hood in Oregon is one of the most historic lodges in the entire state. The Timberline Lodge was actually a project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration along with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Hundreds of men were put to work building the lodge. Work on the lodge began in 1935 during the depths of the Great Depression.

The lodge was built at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Stonemasons were brought in from Europe to teach the American workers. The stonemason craft was important in as much as some four hundred tons of volcanic rock from nearby canyons was used in the project. In addition to this, very large Ponderosa pines were gathered together by adjacent forests to help support the roof. The building of Timberline Lodge was truly a unique endeavor.

Constructing the lodge required even more skills. During the 1930’s the art of blacksmithing was something from the past. Something back from the 1800’s. A master blacksmith was recruited to help the men learn the art. The results were a large collection of handwrought gates, lights, ornaments and other hardware used in the construction.

mount hood oregon

Mount Hood Oregon

Furniture built for the Timberline Lodge was another fascinating aspect. Chairs were built big and out of strap iron. Chairs and bench seats were a combination of rawhide leather and hardwood planks. Rugs to cover the lodge rooms consisted of over one hundred hooked rugs. They were made by Oregon women who used the worn out blankets and uniforms of the workers.

The Timberline Lodge was 360 feet long and four stories high and at the top was a 750 lb weather vane. The construction cost was $1 million. Today, it would take perhaps twenty times that amount  to build the same type structure. Many people in Oregon today know of some relative who was involved with the project.

The Timberline Lodge was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt who called it “A monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers”. The projects goal was to add a recreational facility in the Pacific Northwest while helping to create jobs. The views from the lodge are quite dramatic. You can see the forested slopes below Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson about forty miles south. The Timberline Lodge offers fifty bedrooms. Each is furnished with pieces built exclusively for the lodge. The designs of the room are somewhat Art Deco which was a popular theme in the 1930’s.

The skiing at Timberline Lodge is considered excellent. The first ski trails were established as far back as 1906. Today, Mt  Hood skiing is world class not to mention a world class hiking and mountain climbing venue as well. The peak of Mount Hood has an elevation of 11,235 feet. Amazingly, it was first scaled in 1857.

The lodge is located at 27500 East Timberline Road, Timberline Lodge Oregon. This is about 47 miles south of Hood River Oregon.

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting are The King of the Columbia River Steamboat Men and the Waterfalls of the Columbia Gorge.

cloumbia river gorge hotels

Columbia Gorge Hotel

The Columbia Gorge Hotel– Here is another excellent Oregon lodge which has a lot of history attached to it. Located on the south bank of the Columbia River in Hood River Oregon, the Columbia Gorge Hotel offers one of the finest views of the river. The hotel is located along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway which in itself is one of America’s most scenic byways.

The site where today’s Columbia Gorge Hotel stands on was first developed by a Hood River pioneer named Bobby Rand in 1904. Rand built the Wah Gwin Gwin Hotel which in Native American language translates into “rushing water”. The name showcases the fact that the grounds contain a 208 foot waterfall. This was of course before the Scenic Highway was built. This was an era when visitors to the Wah Gwin Gwin Hotel came by steamer on the Columbia River from the Cascade to The Dalles. An interesting story is that ship captains would blow their whistle to alert the hotel of the arriving guests.

columbia river view

View from hotel

The hotel was sold to a man named Simnon Benson in 1920. Benson is referred to as Oregons very first tourism promoter. Benson was instrumental in having the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway built. He also wanted a hotel built at the end of the highway. As a result, he had the Wah Gwin Gwin torn down with the idea of building a lavish luxury hotel on it’s siteTo help accomplish his dream, Benson employed the same Italian stonemasons that were used to build the Scenic Highway. The new hotels name would be the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

What wasn’t foreseen was the coming Great Depression. Economic troubles would also reach into the Columbia River Gorge. During this period of economic turmoil the Columbia Gorge Hotel was bought by the Neighbors of Woodcraft which turned it into a retirement home. The building served as a housing facility all the way up to 1977.

Today’s Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa is now owned by a corporation. It has also undergone a large restoration and is a marvelously elegant hotel. It’s location right on the north bank of the Columbia River and in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area affords visitors a million dollar view. The Columbia Gorge Hotel is located at 4000 Westcliff Drive in Hood River Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland.

(Timberline and Mount Hood photos from the public domain. Columbia Gorge Hotel photos from author’s collection)







Cable Cars of San Francisco / Cable Tracks

san francisco cable car power house

Cable car Power House


Out of all the various means of public transportation, the cable car, most notably the San Francisco cable car, is the only vehicle that doesn’t have a readily apparent exterior means of power. Cable cars of San Francisco have no overhead wires, no exhaust fumes, no electric third rail. The cable car glides along it’s tracks effortlessly whether the terrain is flat or highly steep.

One of the remarkable things about cable car technology is that it is relatively simple. By the same token, a cable car system such as the cable cars of San Francisco was very expensive to build. Aside from laying cable tracks, the task of building a cable car system,  requires a massive Power Plant which contains large engines and wheel mechanisms. Quite different and more expensive than hanging electric streetcar wires.

Andrew S. Hallidie and the Early Cable Cars

It just so happened that the father of cable cars of San Francisco’s was a man named Andrew S. Hallidie. Hallidie was quite knowledgeable about wire. His father held several patents in Great Britain involving wire cable or sometimes referred to as wire rope. Andrew Hallidie had wire cable patents himself in the U.S. Hallidie was the first person to make wire rope in California having used wire rope cable to pull ore cars during the California Gold Rush.

cable car control mechanism

Cable car control mechanism

During the early days of the San Francisco Cable Cars there were cable tracks all over the city. Each one was run by a separate railway company. Over time there were mergers and acquisitions. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire things changed immensely. The electric streetcar was on the scene and the devastating earthquake gave many companies a reason to abandon certain routes. The earthquake signaled the time of everlasting change to San Francisco’s cable car lines.


You’ll find the following two articles on our Western Trips site of interest. A Visit to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum and The Electric Railroads.

The Power House

A good argument could be made that the most important part of the street cable car system is it’s Power House.  It is from the power house that the wire cable itself enters and leaves. It’s the Power House that feeds the entire cable system. In the beginning, every separate cable car line had it’s own dedicated Power House and their own cable tracks. Some systems actually had more than one Power House. During the heyday of the cable cars, San Francisco had no less than nine different Power Houses and Car Barns.

cable car grip

Cable car "Grip" mechanism

Inside the Power House are very large winding wheels and engines. The wheels are referred to as “sheaves“. The wheels turn with the power of the engines and feed the cable out of the building and under the street surface. When this technology was first developed, the engines were powered by steam and as a result burned quite a lot of coal every day to heat the steam boilers.

The wire cable is wound around the sheaves or wheels in a figure eight. In addition to this,  additional sheaves that are known as a “tension carriage” is employed so that the lines stay taut at all times. The tension carriage can adjust tension as required. This will vary by the number of cars on the line as well as the passenger load.

The Street

cable tracks

slot between cable car tracks

Chances are, when you’ve taken a ride on a San Francisco cable car, you’ve noticed the slot between the two rails that the car travels on. It is in this slot, slightly under the street surface, that the cable wire runs. You most likely will hear it’s whirring sound. It is the one and only power source for a cable car. You might find it interesting to note just how much cable car wire is used today in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, the grand total of cable used in all three of today’s cable car lines is 56,750 feet. The cable itself is a very strong bundle of metal wires. Today’s cable car cables run at a constant 9.5 MPH.

The Cable Car

While the Power House provides a constantly moving cable wire, it’s the cable car operator who decides how and when to use the cable. The cable car operator uses what is called a “grip” to engage the moving cable. It’s an appropriate name in as much as what the “grip” does is grip the cable. When the operator pulls back on the “jaw“, the mechanism grabs the moving cable. When the grip is completely engaged on the cable, the cable car will move at 9.5 MPH, the constant speed of the moving cable. The cable car operator can also reduce speed by letting up a bit on the grip. When the grip is unengaged from the cable, the car will stop.

san francisco cable car

San Francisco cable car

In addition to the grip mechanism, a cable car has brakes. Today, there are three types of brakes on a San Francisco cable car. One is a foot pedal brake. The foot brake operates the brake shoes located on both the car’s front and back wheels. Another is a track brake that essentially sticks wood into the cable slot below. Yet another is the emergency brake which is referred to as a “guillotine brake“. This emergency braking mechanism consists of a piece of steel about one and one-half feet long that hangs under the cable car. If it is deployed, the piece of steel wedges tightly into the cable slot on the street. It wedges so tightly that sometimes a torch is needed to get it out.

The very fact that the grip can fully engage the cable and hold on tightly is why cable cars can go up very steep inclines and do it in wet weather. As you can appreciate, the advent of the San Francisco cable car was a welcomed event.

san francisco cable car museum

Cable Car Museum in San Francisco

The early cable car could go up and down a steep hill where horse carts would sometimes get out of control and cause accidents sometimes leading to the death of the animals. It was this very problem that led Andrew Hallidie to devise the cable car concept.

San Francisco was by no means the only city employing cable cars. Cable cars at one time operated in Sydney and Melbourne Australia, Bogota Colombia, Lisbon Portugal, London England and several more cities.

If you travel to San Francisco California, you do want to add the faThe Cable Car fascinating Cable Car Museum to your trip itinerary. The Cable Car Museum is located at the corner of Mason and Washington just a few blocks north of Nob Hill. The museum is free to visit and showcases some excellent historic exhibits of both the cable cars and old time San Francisco.

Two excellent books on San Francisco’s cable cars are The Cable Car Book by author Charles A. Smallwood and San Francisco’s California Street Cable Cars by authors Walter Rice, Emiliano Echeverria and Michael Dolgushkin.

(Photos from author’s private collection)