San Francisco History

The Coming of the Cable Cars

Pointing southwest of California and Powell, 1880by Walter J. Thompson

There was rejoicing in the northern end of town when on a fair forenoon in September, 1873, the first cable car devoted to passenger traffic was whisked over Clay-street hill and it was shown conclusively to admiring hundreds gathered along the line of that thoroughfare, including throngs of wonder-stricken Chinese who could not quite make out the “no pushee, no pullee, alle the same go like hellee,” principle of the car’s progress, that the cable system could be successfully operated. The downtown people rejoiced because now they could get up the hill slope so handily, and the hill residents were jubilant at the removal of the only objectionable feature—that of near inaccessibility—to their home site.

The junction of Clay and Kearny streets was the eastern terminus of the car line, and on that day it was the scene of great excitement as the crowd gathered about that first car and dummy that stood on the turntable awaiting the starting signal. The new cars were pretty little things—little in comparison with the large double horse cars—claret colored with gold trimmings on the sides and shiny inside and out with tarnish. Being built for narrow gauge track they looked somewhat top heavy with their pinched-in truck and as though it would take a mighty small shove to topple them over. They would only seat seven persons to a side and the dummy would hold but four. Mayor Alvord came over from the near-by City Hall, as did Chief of Police Crowley, Fire Chief Dave Scannell, Supervisors Tim McCarthy and Sam Taylor, Sheriff Adams, as well as other city officials and prominent business men who came up from Montgomery street, and all clustered about the new car and spoke flatteringly of it. Of course, A. S. Hallidie, who was looked upon as the big man of the Clay-street Hill Railroad Company, was the boss of the occasion, and as he and the invited guests started off in the first car the air resounded with cheers of the crowd. Everything went off without a hitch and the cars ran all day, collecting few fares. Everyone wanted to undergo the new sensation of being dragged up the steep hill—a grade of 317 feet to the half mile—to the power-house at Leavenworth street, where they found equal delight in riding on the scenic horse-propelled section of the line out Leavenworth to Vallejo street and hence to Larkin and Chestnut streets. It was a notable occasion and the popularity of the cable car was above par. It had come to stay.

The advent of the cable car into San Francisco was not accomplished, though, without a struggle, and the story of its development is an interesting one. It had taken nearly five years to get that first car started. The cable project was long looked upon as an experiment of doubtful character. The idea of propelling a car by means of an endless cable and a stationary engine was conceived first by Benjamin H. Brooks in 1869. He, together with W. H. Hepburn, a civil engineer, perfected the plans, including a reliable grip, which later was the main thing about the whole business. Then they sought a franchise, and obtaining that, they next looked for finances, and there they stumbled. Local capital praised the plan, but would not invest; Eastern capital followed suit. Finally the project fell into the possession of Hallidie, who handled wire cables, and he managed to get together the means to put the line through and give San Francisco a cable road, which, by the way, was the first in the world. But with all the glory and credit given him Hallidie did not enlarge on his enterprise. The line was afterward extended to Van Ness avenue, but there it stopped and it always remained just a little cable link over the hill between its terminals.

The Sutter street line was at that time struggling hard with a series of grades which, while not as steep as those of Clay street, yet taxed the company heavily to keep up a supply of the best and strongest horses obtainable to drag the coaches over the rails. The directors of the road, known as Casebolt’s line, had noted the success of the Clay-street project and quickly decided to adopt the cable system. Henry Casebolt, part owner, manager and superintendent, was the chief adviser of the company in all of its affairs. His reputation in street railway circles was high. Since his arrival here in 1851 from Virginia he had shown himself to be a man of resource, energy and enterprise. He was the pioneer carriage and car builder and was an inventor of no small ability. He also enjoyed the distinction of having built the first plastered house in “Happy Valley.” It was on Everett street. He constructed the Sutter-street railroad for the original company and was obliged to take it over by securing a controlling share of the stock, when the contracting company sought to pay him in paper. From that time Casebolt was the practical head and front of the company, and it was his tireless energy that made it a paying concern. It was Casebolt who advised the adoption of the cable system. The change of operation brought about the famous grip war. Negotiations were opened with Hallidie for the use of his grip. Realizing that he had the only grip, Hallidie coolly asked $50,000 a year for the use of his patent and a healthy royalty for each grip used. The Sutter-street people gasped. They saw the last dollar of profit going glimmering adown Hallidie lane. A dozen conferences were held, but Hallidie never weakened. It was then that Casebolt, who was a brusque man and more used to grappling with difficulties than dallying in their shadow, stepped to the front. He was also a man of great mechanical skill and full of ideas, many of which had been resolved into successful patents.

So Hallidie found himself up against a real inventor who had no connection with pipe-dreams. Casebolt cut the negotiations short by announcing he would turn out a grip as good if not better than Hallidie’s purchased affair. And with full confidence in Casebolt’s ability the reconstruction of the Sutter-street line went on at night, while the cars ran by day, with Casebolt’s directing the labor and working on his grip idea all the time. When the line started as the second cable line in the city it had the Casebolt grip on its dummies. The difference in these grips lay in the fact that the Hallidie grip caught the cable from the bottom and was operated by a screw and hand wheel, while the Casebolt invention took the cable from the side and was controlled by a lever and bunch of cogs. The war was on between Hallidie and Casebolt, but the latter’s grip won out finally in popularity when other roads started, the Union-street line being the only one to use the wheel; but then Hallidie was one of the owners of the road. When the Newhall management came in later the Casebolt grip was adopted as being the safest and most reliable on steep grades. But it was not alone in the matter of grips that Casebolt made his mark in the cable road business. To his practical mind the endless cable attached to a stationary engine meant more than a mere hillslope power necessity. He saw in it the possibilities as a power for propelling street cars anywhere and everywhere to the complete elimination of the horse. Soon the Sutter-street company had cable branches down Larkin street to Market, out Pacific avenue and an extension out Sutter street to the cemetery hedge. What the Clay-street and Russian Hill district owed to Hallidie the residents of Sutter and Polk streets and the Pacific Heights and the Presidio districts owed in far greater degree to the perseverance and energy of Casebolt in extending his cable through their neighborhoods when they were not far from the wilderness state. It was on the Larkin-street line that Casebolt first showed how a cable car system could turn corners by means of steel drums, which he placed on Post street at Larkin and Polk corners. He was devoted to the Presidio district and if in the early days he built the first hard-finished house in Happy Valley, in his later years he owned a handsome home place on a sunny Presidio slope, overlooking the bay, and attached thereto was an orchard whose fruits it was the delight of young San Franciscans on wandering tours of adventure over the hills and far away to surreptitiously sample.

The example set by the Clay and Sutter street lines and the accompanying stream of profits led to the outbreak of a cable building epidemic in the town. It spread amazingly and was responsible for that marvelous expansion westward, which the city took on in the decade and a half between 1875 and 1890. The third cable line to be laid down was the California street in 1877. It was projected, financed and built by the railroad magnates of Fourth and Townsend streets headed by Leland Stanford, who took a personal interest in the line, riding on it daily to his mansion at Powell and California streets, and visiting the power-house frequently accompanied by his young son, Leland Stanford Jr. It was an unusually well-built and well-equipped line and its early stretch of operations was between Kearny and Fillmore streets. At that time it was planned to make a big thoroughfare out of Fillmore. The railroad interests were so enthusiastic over these plans that they started the erection of a huge temple of amusement on Sutter street, to be called the Crystal Palace, but something went wrong with the whole business and the huge arches and beams, stained and weather beaten, stood long without a protecting shingle until the skeleton was finally dismembered. Fillmore street’s time was postponed until a later date, when the great part of fair San Francisco lay in ashes.

The construction of the Union-street line was one of the greatest necessity for if ever a bunch of cliff dwellers stood in need of cable assistance—those who lived along the line of Union street and the north side of Russian Hill certainly did. About the same time Geary street from Kearny to Central avenue was being torn up for a cable system, the Geary street, Park and Ocean Railroad Company having been organized in 1878 by Charles Main, Reuben Morton and other capitalists. The epidemic was on in full vigor. Franchises were fairly easy to get in those days. There was J. J. Haley, called the “Thirteenth Supervisor,” always in attendance at the City Hall. Haley was one of the most persuasive tongued men that ever sought favors from a legislative body. Supervisors tossed out franchises on his eloquent showings of  “needs caused by the city’s progress” and the “necessity of aiding the home builders in getting to their homes” as slices of pie are handed out at a picnic. His activities were the most conspicuous when the Fourth and Townsend interests decided to make over the Market-street Railway Company into the Market-street Cable Railway Company and to extend its field of operations in many new directions. The cable was not only laid on Market street, but on McAllister, the line first running out to Divisadero street; on Hayes street, where the horse cars had been running, and on Haight and Castro streets. For these new lines franchises were secured. Old Market street took on quite a different aspect when blue, yellow, green, red and white cable cars began to hop along in a colorful procession. They were all one-piece cars, not having any detachable dummies. Next the steep grades of Powell street were scaled, as were also those of Washington, Jackson, Clay and Sacramento streets. But one of the most interesting phases of cable car history was the sudden awakening of the then apparently moribund Omnibus Railroad Company to a life of bustle and activity. The once proud pioneer line had in these later years fallen into such a state of neglect that its service and rolling stock were the butt of ridicule. The old yellow cars that dragged themselves groaningly along Montgomery street and the bobtails that bobbed from Montgomery and Washington streets to Howard via Second street were grim jokes on wheels. In the midst of this condition of wretchedness the Omnibus folk suddenly came to and threw off the shabby raiment like the disguised prince in the pantomime transformation scene, and strode into the limelight with the announcement that they intended to invest a few millions in an extensive cable railway system which would embrace a large part of the city.

The company repainted its Montgomery-street cars and then proceeded to lay out cables on Post, Leavenworth, Tenth and other streets and out Howard to Twenty-fifth street, and it erected a massive brick power-house at Tenth and Howard, and, in fact, cut a wide swath. The rejuvenated and expanded Omnibus line was in the hey-day of popular favor once more. The North Beach and Mission, the Central and City roads stuck to their faithful equines and merrily their bells continued to jingle as a chorus to the whirring of the cables beneath the slots. The grand ensemble to the city’s cable car extravaganza arrived finally when capitalistic interests drifted out from the East and scooped up in one big net the once rejected and flouted cable system, as well as the horse cars, and combined nearly the whole bunch of lines under the title they bear today in their trolleyized state of being.

Yes, the cable car really was a mighty factor in the making of San Francisco in hastening a growth that would otherwise have been delayed probably many years. But few who watched and cheered that first Clay-street car on that September day in 1873 realized what a monumental bearing the car system that was being tried out was to have upon the city’s growth and development, no more than they foresaw the future of the cable car first perfected and proven here in many a far-off city, even as far away as Australia, where it held its grip of the Casebolt model until it was finally electrocuted out of existence by another comer in the field.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 22 April 1917. 28.

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