• U.S.

Transport: Cable Cars

5 minute read
TIME

Where California’s Coastal Range marches down to the sea at the Golden Gate, one of the most spectacular cities in the U. S. sits upon immense hills. But though these pup mountains give San Francisco many a gorgeous view, they long retarded her development. Horses cannot pull wagons up the steep streets, only the most vigorous people care to walk them, automobiles must go into first gear to get up, into second to get down. The man who cracked this tough civic nut was a wire manufacturer named Andrew S. Hallidie, who in 1873 invented the cable car, started the first one on nearly vertical Clay Street. Overnight, property values doubled on Nob Hill and all real estate boomed for several years as the city spread from Telegraph Hill to Twin Peaks with cable cars sprouting in every direction. Today cable cars are only a small part of San Francisco’s transit system, but they are still one of its quaintest and most distinctive features.

Cable cars look like the Toonerville Trolley, have open sides with seats facing out (which bothers women with short skirts on San Francisco’s frequent gusty days). In the middle stands the gripman holding a lever like an oversized emergency brake. It goes through the floor and under the street through a slot, where it grips an endless line of steel cable an inch and a half wide moving at 8 m.p.h. When the gripman grips, the cable car moves steadily up the steepest hill, protected by three sets of brakes. Busiest cable car is the Powell Street line, starting on a turntable where Powell joins Market Street, San Francisco’s “main stem.” Passengers scurry for seats while the gripman and conductor swing the tiny car on the turntable until it faces uphill. Then with a great clanking (gripmen traditionally play tunes on their gongs) the car rolls up the sharp grade, past the swank Fairmont and Mark Hopkins Hotels while the conductor collects 5¢-fares (conductors traditionally make wisecracks. Sample: “Conductor, do you stop at the Fairmont?” “Gosh no, lady, not on my pay.”). Down one side of the hill the car presently slips, while gripman and conductor heave at brakes, to famed, odoriferous Fisher|man’s Wharf, where Baseballer Joe Di Maggio got his start and where his two brothers still run a stand.

One morning last week riders on this and every other San Francisco cable car folded back their morning newspapers to be jolted by a full-page advertisement j headed: A FAIR FARE TO PAY FAIR WAGES. In a long appeal to the public, the Market Street Railway Co. was explaining why it had just asked the State Railway Commission for permission to jack its fare from 5¢ to 7¢. By noon all San Francisco was jabbering, for cable cars are not the city’s only unique transit pride. San Francisco is also one of the last stands of the 5¢ street car fare and presents the even more unusual picture of two privately-owned street car companies competing with a municipal system.

One private system is the competitively-unimportant California Street Cable R. R. Co., which operates twelve miles of track, was the first to institute the 5 ¢fare 60 years ago, swears it will be the last to drop it. The other private system is Market Street Railway Co. which has twelve miles of cable, 276 of ordinary electric trolley lines, one trackless trolley and a few bus lines. It claims to be the only system in the world supplying all these types of service. An old concern run for profit, it refused to extend its lines when San Francisco held its Exposition off the line in 1915. The city thereupon built its own Municipal System, which now has 82 miles of track, a few busses, but no cable cars.

Lately the Market system has been harassed by what it considers its unfair handicaps—it has to show a profit, while the Municipal line can dip into taxes; it has to pay heavy taxes, while the “Muny” pays none. Also, the city officials, who naturally favor the “Muny,” awarded the Market system the inside tracks on Market Street, which has more trolley tracks than any other thoroughfare in the world.

It is no small feat to reach a white-ended Market car on the inside tracks while the grey “Muny” cars rush past on the outside ones. Hence most purely Market Street traffic takes the “Muny” cars. To meet this competitive advantage, the Market system cut wages, installed a number of one-man cars. These brought public attacks, strikes. Last month it was forced to grant union recognition, raise wages.

In last week’s appeal to the public the Market system declared “we cannot stretch a nickel any further to pay them.” Immediately the operators of the “Muny” system retorted with lengthy arguments that a rate raise was unjustified, that the “Muny”fare would stay at 5¢. But the most significant point to a public frankly suspicious of the Market system was the fact that it blunderingly allowed its year’s financial report to appear in the same paper in which it advertised that it was in dire straits. In 1936 it made a comfortable net profit of $277,173.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com