17 Fun Facts and Silly Stories about the San Francisco Cable Cars
Alright, hold onto your hats and get ready for 17 fun facts and silly stories about the San Francisco cable cars!
1- Did you know that the San Francisco cable car system is the last manually operated cable car system in the world? Yep, that’s right! These bad boys are powered by good old-fashioned human muscle.2- Back in 1873, when the predecessor to the cable cars first started running, they were pulled by horses. Can you imagine getting stuck in traffic behind slow-moving horses?
2- The bell ringing that you hear when a cable car is approaching wasn’t always a thing. It was introduced in 1902 as a safety measure to alert pedestrians and other vehicles. Gripmen skillfully ring it to alert pedestrians, vehicles, and fellow cable cars of their approach. But that’s not all – there’s a conductor’s bell too. These bells create a unique language, facilitating communication between the gripman and the conductor. Ding-ding, San Francisco’s street symphony is a blend of safety and teamwork!
3- Have you ever wanted to get married on a moving vehicle? Well, you’re in luck! Couples have tied the knot on cable cars, making for a truly unforgettable wedding experience.
4- Speaking of famous scenes, did you know that cable cars have been featured in numerous movies and TV shows? From “The Rock”, “A View to a Kill” and “The Streets of San Francisco” to “Monk,” these iconic vehicles have made their mark on pop culture.
5 – If you’re looking for a leisurely ride, cable cars are the way to go. They max out at a whopping 9.5 miles per hour, which is slower than a typical bicycle. San Francisco’s cable cars are powered by a 510hp electric motor in the central powerhouse, linked to 1.25-inch diameter cables. It’s an electrifying history ride.
6- But don’t let their slow speed fool you! Each cable car can hold up to 60 passengers and weighs around 15,500 pounds.
7- The cable cars have been through a lot over the years, including the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco. Before the earthquake, 400+ cars were on the many lines that crossed the city. Now 40+ cars glide up the hills on the three remaining lines. These tough vehicles have survived it all.
8- You know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s why cable cars still use the same technology that was invented over 150 years ago. Read more about the 150th Cable Car Celebration in Summer 2023.
9- Cable cars are a popular tourist attraction, with millions of people riding them every year. In fact, they’re so popular that there’s a waiting list for cable car conductor jobs!
10 – If you’re lucky, you might spot a celebrity riding cable cars. Everyone from Carol Burnett to Bill Clinton has taken a ride on these iconic vehicles.
11- In 1964, the cable cars were declared a National Historic Landmark. That’s some serious recognition for these old-timey vehicles.
12 – Despite their historic status, cable cars have kept up with the times. In recent years, they’ve added onboard GPS systems and electronic fare payment options.
13- Did you know that the San Francisco cable car system boasts a web of cables that’s truly mind-boggling? There’s not just one, but four separate cables working their magic beneath the city’s streets. Brace yourself for these staggering lengths: a whopping 16,000-foot cable and an impressive 10,300-foot one join forces to power the Hyde and Mason segments. And just when you thought that was impressive, there’s a 9,300-foot cable handling the Powell section that they both share. But wait, there’s more! The California Street line takes the cake with a jaw-dropping 21,000-foot cable of its own.
14- Did you know that the cable car system is owned and operated by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency? They’re the folks responsible for keeping these beautiful vehicles up and running.
15- The cable car’s maestro of motion is the gripman, or grip operator. With finesse, they navigate the grip lever, clasping and freeing the cable. This choreography is vital for seamless crossings and non-track cable stretches, warding off traffic tangles. The grip game demands muscle, balance, and hand-eye harmony. To start and stop the movement of the car, the gripman opens and closes the grip around the moving cable. The grip’s jaws exert a pressure of up to 30,000 pounds per square inch on the cable. It’s a skillful ballet on top of and below Francisco’s cable cars.
16- After World War II, a cable car ride was a mere 7 cents. Fast forward to today, that charming journey now costs 9 dollars, blending nostalgia with modern fares
17- Last but not least, cable cars have a special place in the hearts of San Franciscans. They’re more than just a mode of transportation – they’re a symbol of the city’s rich history and culture.
150th Cable Car Anniversary Fun Fact:
Get ready to travel back in time as the oldest cable car, car No. 42, triumphantly reclaims its tracks for the 150th anniversary of San Francisco’s cable car system. This vintage beauty, hailing from 1906, is shaking off its decades-long cattle-transporting slumber in Southern California to make a majestic return.
With much fanfare, it will navigate the Hyde Street line, its wooden frame clanking to life once more. This heartwarming resurrection comes as a part of the Municipal Railway’s cable car system celebration, marked by Mayor London Breed’s ride on the fleet’s eldest gem—a 1883-built carriage—across the California Street line.
And that’s not all. Car No. 42 isn’t just showing up for the party; it’s sticking around. Starting this coming month and through November, you can catch this historic time-traveler in action on the first Sunday of every month.
Learn more about the world-famous Cable Cars:
Now is the time to Learn How to Ride the Cable Car Like a Pro
Here are a few of the weirdest or little know San Francisco cable car stories: May (or may not) be completely truthful!
- The “Cable Car Cowboy”: In 1967, a man named Fritz Klapholz dressed as a cowboy and rode a cable car down the steep hills of San Francisco, lassoing the cable car poles as he went. He became known as the “Cable Car Cowboy” and became a local legend.
- Hills, what hills? Brace yourself for a gravity-defying spectacle! The Powell-Hyde cable car boldly conquers the steepest slope in the system, the legendary Hyde Street hill, boasting a jaw-dropping 21% grade. But here’s the twist: whether it’s racing down the incline or bravely climbing it, this cable car maintains its cool at a steady 9.5 mph. That’s some cable car magic that defies the laws of physics!
- The Runaway Cable Car: In 1995, a cable car broke loose from its grip and went on a wild ride down a steep hill, crashing into cars and damaging property along the way. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but it caused quite a stir in the city.
- Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest: In May 1949, Union Square hosted a contest that crowned Alexander Nielsen, a Cal Cable gripman, as San Francisco’s finest cable car bell-ringer. Thanks to Western Pacific Railroad sponsorship, Nielsen and two Muni gripmen showcased their skills on Powell car No. 524 (now No. 24) at the Chicago Railroad Fair. Just earlier, Mayor Lapham’s push to replace cable cars with buses threatened their existence, but Friedel Klussmann’s national campaign saved them. Gripmen became stars, their story captured by Life magazine. Chicago’s cable cars vanished in 1906, surviving mobs for souvenirs.1955 heralded the start of the annual bell-ringing contest The annual Union Square Luly event unites locals and tourists to cheer our iconic cable cars and their vigilant crews.
- Cable Car Weddings: Some couples have chosen to have their wedding ceremonies on San Francisco cable cars. The cars are decorated, and the bride and groom exchange vows while riding through the city.
- The Cable Car Mystery: In 1995, a mysterious man named “Juan” appeared at the Cable Car Barn claiming to have been an undercover inspector for the cable car system for over 20 years. He knew intricate details about the system and even pointed out potential safety hazards. However, his identity and story remain a mystery to this day.
- 53 Miles of track: Back in the day, the Clay Street Hill Railroad had the San Francisco cable car scene all to itself for a cool four years. But the city’s appetite for cable-driven charm grew fast. Enter the Sutter Street Railroad in 1877, crafting its twist on Hallidie’s invention. Then came a parade of pioneers: California Street Cable Railroad (1878), Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad (1880), Presidio & Ferries Railroad (1882), Market Street Cable Railway (1883), Ferries & Cliff House Railway (1888), and Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company (1889). Collectively, these visionaries laid down an impressive 53-mile track mosaic. It connected dots from the Ferry Building to the Presidio, looping through Golden Gate Park, Castro, and Mission. San Francisco’s cable cars became not just transport, but a story stitched across neighborhoods
- The Cable Car Bell Thief: In 1965, a man named William Faulkner (not the famous writer) stole a cable car bell from a parked cable car. He took it home and used it as a doorbell. The theft was discovered, and Faulkner was caught and charged. The bell was returned to its rightful place on the cable car.
- Two Flavors: San Francisco’s cable car charm comes in two flavors. The California Street Line showcases twelve roomier maroon cable cars, flaunting open sections at the ends and a snug middle. Versatile, they’re driven from either end. For the Powell Street dynamos (Powell-Hyde & Powell-Mason), it’s a snazzy set of smaller cable cars. Just one operable end means turntables dance at the line’s ends for a U-turn spectacle. 28 Powell cars stay ready, some flaunting historic liveries echoing styles from the service’s 150-year saga.
- The “Cable Car Dog”: In 2015, a video went viral showing a dog riding a cable car all by itself. The dog, named Cable Car Bella, had learned to ride the cable cars with her owner and would often hop on by herself, ride a few stops, and then hop off. The sight of a lone dog riding the cable car amused and delighted many locals and tourists alike.