San Francisco’s National Landmark on wheels

June 2, 1873

On this day construction on the first of San Francisco’s fabled cable car lines began on Clay Street. 

The city’s transformation from bawdy boom town to gaudy metropolis was already underway but it moved into high gear in the 1870s.  The decade saw the creation of Golden Gate Park, the building of the Palace Hotel, transcontinental train service and the invention of the cable cars.

The Scottish-born, English-reared inventor and engineer, Andrew Smith Hallidie, (right) gets most of the credit.  Christened simply Andrew Smith, his early background in mining led to the adaptation of the ore car as passenger vehicle.  The transformation was perhaps inevitable.

Hallidie’s father, Andrew Smith, himself an inventor and engineer, held several patents including one for wire rope.  Lured by the promise of gold, both father and son sailed to California in 1852.   The elder Smith had stock in several gold mines but when each turned out to be a financial disappointment, he returned to England.  His son, however, adopted a second surname in honor of an uncle, Sir Andrew Halide, (right) a royal physician and chose to stay.   He  became both richer and more famous than his uncle.

Miner, blacksmith, surveyor and bridge builder, he’d been a jack-of-all-trades.  While working  in the mines near Helena, Montana, in 1856, he solved the persistent problem of wear and tear on the fiber ropes used to ferry ore cars from the mine to the mill, replacing them with his father’s patented wire rope.

Mine owners couldn’t have been happier.   The improvement extended the life of the cable from just 75 days to more than two years.

Hallidie returned to California, founded A.S. Hallidie & Co. and married Martha Elizabeth Wood, the daughter of a Sacramento pioneer family.

It remains unclear how instrumental Hallidie was in actually conceptualizing the Clay Street line. Some sources say he took over its promotion after purchasing the franchise from Benjamin Brooks and his partner, Abner Doubleday.   Doubleday (below) got famous for erroneously being credited with inventing baseball some years later.  Another story slightly less fictitious and less colorful than the Doubleday fabrication, declares Hallidie was spurred to build a cable car by sympathy for the horses that struggled to pull street cars up the city’s steep hills.

It’s also in question whether the first cable car rumbled down Clay Street on August 1 or sometime later in August of 1873.  Regular service, however, began on September 1.  Hallidie’s cable car design quickly became the state-of-the-art used around the world, earning the former miner a fortune.

A total of 20 cable car lines were established in the city between 1873 and 1890.  Just three still operate today, representing the only manually operated system in the world.  One of San Francisco’s most enduring tourist attractions, they produces revenue from ticket sales in excess of $4 million annually.

In addition to being rich, Hallidie was civic-minded,.  He served as a trustee of the University of California for more than three decades, a trustee of the San Francisco Public Library and president of the California Mechanics Institute.

He died of a heart attack on April 24, 1900 at the age of 65 and was buried at Laurel Hills Cemetery.  

Four decades later, on January 29, 1964, San Francisco’s cable car system became the only National Landmark on wheels.

San Francisco’s Cable Car Musuem, 1201 Mason Street, occupies the Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse.  Three antique cable cars, the Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car, the No. 54 trailer and the last surviving car from the first cable company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car. 

The museum also includes mechanical devices, models and historic photographs.  Authentic cable car bells can be found in the gift shop.   Operated by the non-profit Friends of the Cable Car Museum, admission is free.  Open daily, 10 to 6, April through October and 10 to 5 , November through March.  Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  For more information go to or call (415) 474-1887.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.