Cable Car Commute

at 11:43 PM
 (Joe Epstein)

Like most people, I thought cable cars were just for tourists. Little did I know that commuting to work by cable, as many San Franciscans refer to cable cars, can put a spring in your step that can last all day.

I recently moved just one block from the original cable car barn and roundhouse at Washington and Mason. I quickly became a cable car junkie. I suppose I took a more serious look at the mechanics of my new commute on the city's cable car system than most San Franciscans. I toured the barn and roundhouse. I wanted to get a sense of the mechanics of the grips and brakes that engaged the constantly moving cable. I saw the large wooden reels that hold the new cables, and one of the largest mechanical cable spools, similar to what is used on aerial ski lifts, that pull the cable underground through miles of hills and city streets.

Tony Bennett had it right when he sang about leaving your heart in San Francisco, "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.'  Every day, I thank my stars that I am one of the lucky few to have this opportunity. I climb aboard at California and Mason Streets, just two blocks from where Andrew Hallidie, the builder of the first cable car line, first tested the system on Clay and Jones in 1873. I can be in my office, coffee cup in hand, in 10 minutes.

Hallidie moved to the U.S. in 1852 from England. His father had the first patent for the manufacture of wire rope. Young Andrew found uses for wire rope in the mines of the California Gold Country and in the construction of suspension bridges. By the late 1800s, the technology was in place for pulling cable cars. It was simply uphill from there as small electric streetcar companies and horse drawn street car lines were folded into an expanding system of cable powered cars.

My daily commute has allowed me to know some of the gripmen. One of them told me that working on a cable car is the most sought after job that Muni has to offer.  

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It is no small irony that I have moved to the nation's hub of high tech innovation, and yet my life has been made eminently better and more efficient by a 19th century invention.

With a Perspective, I'm Joe Epstein.

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Joe Epstein is president of a steel trading and supply company in San Francisco.

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