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)

The Columbia River and the “King of the Steamboatmen”

The Columbia River was and still is the aorta of the American Northwest. Along with it’s tributaries such as the Snake and the Williamette, the famed Columbia River stretches for thousands of miles. What was once a mighty river that needed to be tamed now is a mighty river that Oregon tourists enjoy continually. Riding up the Columbia River to the beautiful Columbia Gorge and viewing the scenery that Lewis and Clark did is a fascinating trip into history. A Columbia River map will show you just how large this river is. The Columbia River has a rich history that the following story will help tell.

The Columbia was recognized very early on by the Native Americans to be a highway through otherwise difficult and sometimes impossible terrain. The Columbia ran it’s course through jagged mountains and remote flat lands. This amazing river spread so far to the east into Montana and Idaho that it almost converged with the Yellowstone River which flowed in an opposite direction. A some points, a rain drop could run in either direction, west to the Pacific Ocean or eastward down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. The Columbia River of course made it possible for Lewis and Clark to reach present day Oregon.

john AinsworthOne of the best ways to fully understand the significance of the Columbia River and learn what it took to make it a navigable route, is to take a glimpse into the life and feats of one of it’s very first river pilots. This man was named Captain John C. Ainsworth ( pictured left) and many referred to him as the “King of the Columbia River Steamboatmen”. He arrived in Oregon in 1850.

Like many experienced steamboat men, John Ainsworth gained his river piloting skills along the Mississippi River. He recognized the opportunities present in the northwest. Fellow steamboatmen would ask John Ainsworth the  question…why would a skilled river pilot waste his time in the relative wilderness of Oregon when there was plenty of money to be made down in California?

Ainsworth had the good fortune at the time to meet a man by the name of Lot Whitcomb (pictured below right). What Whitcomb didn’t have in knowledge of piloting a steamboat, he did have in industriousness. Whitcomb was buying up materials to construct the first home built steamboat made in Oregon. The boat that Lot Whitcomb would build was named, unsurprisingly, after himself, the “Lot Whitcomb”.The vessel was 160 feet long with a 24 foot beam, two boilers producing 140 horsepower and capable of 12 MPH on the open river. It was a sidewheeler boat. The Lot Whitcomb steamboat was roomy, had a dining room and an interior of polished wood. Whitcomb’s new vessel offered elegance in the wilderness. It was the best looking boat in Oregon.

lot whitcombAlthough it was a very impressive vessel, the “Lot Whitcomb” was a sidewheeler. The feeling however among boatmen was that a sternwheeler would have better control on a swift flowing current. The Columbia River promised to have many such currents. Sternwheelers were  known to be able to penetrate narrower waterways for the very reason they could be narrower by design, not having wide paddles on each side of the vessel. With the rudders placed close to the rear paddlewheel,of a sternwheeler,  quicker maneuverability could be expected. All good things to have on a river like the Columbia.

The steamboat was built simply because Lot Whitcomb believed in the potential for steamboats in the northwest just as John Ainsworth did. Whitcomb eventually offered the job of commanding his new steamboat to Ainsworth. He accepted. Unfortunately, the two found out they didn’t get along too well. Most historians attribute this to the fact that Whitcomb could have been envious of Ainsworth steamboat piloting abilities. He knew river navigation much better than Whitcomb. Regardless, John Ainsworth stuck it out with Whitcomb and kept envisioning the potential for himself to operate a fleet of steamboats on the very river that Lewis and Clark in 1804 used to explore to the Pacific Ocean. relations with Whitcomb didn’t improve and as far as Ainsworth was concerned it was only a matter of time that he would leave and strike out on his own. The problem however was money. Ainsworth didn’t have the needed funds to begin his own operation. His plan was to convince fellow Oregonians to fund an able steamboat captain like himself. He would need to convince them of the economic potential of Columbia River steamboating. As time went on and John Ainsworth was piloting on the Columbia River the population was growing. That also meant that the commerce was growing. Competition from other boats grew and Ainsworth had the uncomfortable thought that perhaps some other experienced boat men from the Mississippi would emerge and steal his dream.

steamboat lot whitcombA strange thing happened shortly after the official brass band accompanied launch of the Lot Whitcomb ( sketch at left). The steamboat got itself hung up on a reef. At first, people who heard the news blamed Ainsworth, but as it turned out, he had taken the day off and the boat was piloted by none other than Lot Whitcomb himself and an assistant. Whitcomb of course called Ainsworth for help in freeing the vessel at which he flatly refused. he didn’t want to get aboard until the boat was back where he left it. The story is that Whitcomb had spread rumors that the hang up was Ainsworth’s fault even though he was nowhere near the accident scene. The rumors started to tarnish Ainsworth’s reputation as an excellent steamboat pilot. That signaled the end of the association between the two men. Ainsworth received a payment of $3,500 for his time with Whitcomb. At the same time Whitcomb had severe financial problems and sold had to give a controlling interest to an Oregon City Company. Ainsworth stayed on piloting the “Lot” and plowed his money back into the steamboat. For this he received a share of the ownership. In 1854 the Lot was sold for $40,000 and was to be sent to work on the Sacramento River in California. Ainsworth received $4,000 from the sale as his ten percent share.

John Ainsworth, now with his $4,000 to get started, befriended a Mississippi River man who was an excellent engineer, and they together made plans to build a sternwheeler for Ainsworth to operate. The boat envisioned was to be built and named the “Jennie Clark”. She would be 115 feet long and 18.5 feet at the beam. The boiler was centered on the vessel and the rudders were to be placed very near the rear paddlewheel to give maximum control. The Jennie Clark was built and launched in 1855 and didn’t take long at all to start making a profit with both passengers and freight. The story of John C. Ainsworth and his steamboat company only grew from here. The public domain image below is of Astoria, Oregon in 1868.

astoria oregon 1868John Ainsworth and a group of investors incorporated the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in 1860. Ainsworth’s company was so large it controlled the shipping routes of steamers, railroads, and freight lines. It essentially became the biggest transportation monopoly in the Pacific.Northwest. The company also began operating steamers between San Francisco and ports along the Columbia River such as Astoria and Portland. By the year 1869 the OSN Company virtually controlled Columbia River traffic. Then, In 1872, Ainsworth exchanged a controlling interest in the OSN to the Northern Pacific Railroad in return for the railroad’s bonds.In less than twenty years John Ainsworth turned an idea and a dream into vast wealth. To be sure, it was the right idea at precisely the right location.

In April 1879, Henry Villard purchased the Oregon Steam Navigation Company for its full capitalized value of $5 million. Ainsworth then relocated to Oak Lawn, California, a very wealthy man. This was not however the last of Ainsworth business ventures. After selling out his shares in OSN, in 1883 he entered the banking business. Ainsworth founded the Ainsworth National Bank in Portland and later in 1892 he started the Central Bank of Oakland.

The Columbia River and it’s famed Columbia Gorge continue to marvel visitors. Today, tourists have the opportunity to ride up and down the river enjoying cruises lasting a week or longer or they can simply take a picturesque day cruise and get some great photo opportunities. Many people also enjoy the dinner cruises on the boat Portland Spirit. If you have the opportunity to do any of these things you just may want to remember the dream of John C. Ainsworth and the great success he had operating a fleet of steamboats.

John C. Ainsworth passed away on December 30, 1893 near Oakland California. He was seventy-one years of age.

(Photos and images are in the public domain)





See the Deadwood Stagecoach in Cody Wyoming

Many people familiar with the old west would say that the most famous stagecoach to have plied the trails of the frontier west was the Deadwood Stagecoach. This is Deadwood as in Deadwood South Dakota and the Black Hills. Deadwood South Dakota could easily have been called the capitol of the Black Hills.The photo below is of Deadwood circa 1877.

deadwood south dakota

This is where people from all walks of life hastened to as soon as gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The fact is that Deadwood was, in a way, founded by none other than George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who led an expedition into the Black Hills which was at the time a very sacred area of the country to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux in fact had ownership of the Black Hills per a treaty with the federal government. When Custer filed a report of his expedition to the Black Hills, whose purpose was to ascertain if gold was truly there,  he emphasized that gold was there in abundance. Somehow, at about the same time Custer filed his report, the startling information also found it’s way to the eastern newspapers.

concord stagecoachThe national economy was in a slump at the time and this only added fuel to the fire and what appeared to be another California Gold Rush, this time in the Black Hills, was in the making. Beginning in April of 1877 the first stagecoaches started rolling between Bismark South Dakota and Deadwood. The Northern Pacific Railroad had a terminal in Bismark and this offered the fastest way to Deadwood from the east. Three time a week service began in May and it didn’t take long for the stages to make the trip daily. Deadwood South Dakota was booming and people were trying to get there fast. The coach of choice was none other than the Concord coaches which were built well for the rough western trails.The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827 by the Abbot Downing Company. The innovation that made these coaches so popular lay in the construction of their suspension. Traditional stagecoaches employed metal springs which gave the coach a very bouncy ride when the trail got rough. Concord coaches instead used leather braces which gave the coach a gentle swinging motion, prompting Mark Twain to refer to the Concord as the “cradle on wheels.” Freight and passenger revenue was doing very well and in addition to that the stage company received the coveted U.S. Mail contract. During the stage lines heyday it was reported that they employed about 175 men. This was quite a large operation in 1877.

sam bassAnytime there was a flourishing stagecoach route, and the route to the Black Hills was one of them, there were stagecoach robbers. In that era they were often referred to as “highwaymen”. People handy with firearms such as Wyatt Earp were hired to sit beside the driver with a shotgun to protect passengers and gold from the highwaymen. There was a lot of criminal activity in the area. The infamous Sam Bass, pictured above, and his gang reportedly robbed the stage four times in two months. In fact, the Sam bass gang was credited with the largest Union Pacific train robbery that took place in Nebraska. The amount and value of gold dust being shipped via stagecoach was such that precautions were taken that included a special coach to protect the gold. The treasure box was bolted securely to the floor, the coach was even lined in lead, and there were two portholes guards could use to fire back at the robbers.

The transportation boom ended suddenly when the railroad reached Pierre, South Dakota. In 1880 the company moved the majority of its coaches and livestock to Pierre and opened an alternate line. After that the service on the Bismarck line was cut to tri-weekly trips and was soon after abandoned.

To illustrate how popular Buffalo Bill’s Deadwood Stagecoach was in his Wild West performances, while performing in England the highlight of one of the shows came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, climbed aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the Indians engaged in a mock attack. It doesn’t get much more real than that for the visiting monarchs. Obviously this was a show business first and gained wide publicity for the Wild West.

Today, you can see the original Deadwood Stagecoach which played a big part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. The stagecoach is on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The Cody Historical Center began as a log cabin tribute to William  F. Cody, founder and namesake of Cody Wyoming, and has materialized into  a seven-acre building which houses five museums and a research center. The museum is located at 720 Sheridan Ave. and features everything about Buffalo Bill Cody, his Wild West and the old west in general. They have done an excellent job with this museum and I would recommend anyone traveling on a Wyoming vacation to make a visit there. It is the largest repository of William Cody artifacts in the west.