Sunday, October 24, 2010

San Francisco's Superstar Train, the Cable Car

After a day of rest in Sacramento, it was a quick 90 minute ride on the Capitol Corridor to Richmond, from which point one can take the BART anywhere in the Bay Area. I am back in San Francisco for one last week of work and travel preparation, so am taking this opportunity to fill your eager minds with "interesting" information about the place fondly known as The City* by us NorCal folks. As I have spent most of my adult life working in tourism in San Francisco, you can trust me as a reliable source in reference to San Francisco's second most famous landmark, The Cable Car.**

But anyway, the San Francisco cable car is the last of its kind on earth! So you've got to come here if you want to witness its majesty and be whisked up and down phenomenally steep hills by its tried-and-true wire rope and grip railway technology. When Andrew Hallidie first invented the thing in 1873, everyone was so skeptical of it that he could barely scrape together any investors to begin with, and on the day of its test run the gripman lost his nerve and refused to get in, forcing Hallidie to operate it himself. After the common folk were convinced, it became the new rage in public transit, at one time having a network of 112 miles and serving most of the city. Now, only 10.5 miles of track remain, but they are a glorious and historic 10.5 miles indeed. What makes them even more alluring is that no one actually knows how they function. When an awestruck Rudyard Kipling visited San Francisco in 1889, he described their mystery by saying, "There is no visible agency of their flight, but once in a while you shall pass a five-storied building humming with machinery that winds up an everlasting wire-cable, and the initiated will tell you that here is the mechanism. I gave up asking questions. If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for many miles, and if for twopence-halfpenny I can ride in that car, why should I seek the reasons of the miracle?" I feel the same way, Mr. Kipling, and please Providence it does. A few more savory morsels of cable car trivia:
  • Originally a fare cost five cents, but now its fame has bloated its ego substantially and it will cost you five US dollars if you fancy that sensation of hanging off the side of a 100+ year old trolley like a very wealthy traveling spider monkey. I probably should not be incriminating myself by bragging about this, but I have been known to hop on and ride for a few blocks without paying just for the adrenaline rush. I usually pretend I am a confused yet well-meaning Dutch tourist if anyone asks.
  • Starting 1949 there has been a nail-bitingly intense Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest in Union Square to determine the most skillful bell-ringing personage in San Francisco. It began as a part of Friedel Klussmann's adorable campaign to save the cars from their annihilation by evil then-mayor Lapham. This year, weirdly, actual cable car operators were having some sort of union strike resulting in a boycott of the event, and a bunch of local radio disc jockeys competed instead.

If you are a real devotee to all of this railroad nonsense,*** then I would heartily recommend the totally free San Francisco Cable Car Barn and Museum, at the top of Nob Hill. The first cable car ever is on display there, along with other antique models and things, and you can watch the enormous wheels and pulleys and brakes and the cables themselves in action. On their website, they helpfully recommend that the best way to arrive at the museum is by cable car. If you are feeling peckish afterward, the most railtastic meals can be found at the Grubstake, an institution famous for their location (in an antique railroad car) their late hours (open until 4am!) and their menu (typical diner fare interspersed with Portuguese home cooking). You really can't go wrong with that combination, folks.

Stay tuned for more on historic, scenic and delicious San Francisco in the coming days.


*or SF, or Baghdad by the Bay, or, my personal favorite, Frisco.
The most famous landmark obviously being El Farolito on 24th and Mission, NOT Taqueria Cancun you tasteless barbarians.
***Don't deny it. I can see it on your face.


  1. Where are the pictures?

    Can't help but think that I would really like to see some pictures.


  2. Of your trip, not Humphrey Bogart's trip back in the 1700's.

  3. There will be pictures soon you unimaginative harpy!