Of Cable Cars and Whales
The invention of cable cars in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie is an oft-told saga, with a perhaps apocryphal point of origin on a rainy winter day in 1869 when he saw a team of horses pulling a horsecar up a steep grade on Jackson Street between Kearny and Stockton. One horse slipped, the car man slammed on his brake but it broke, and the horses and streetcar ended up at the bottom of the hill in a mangled, mutilated mess. Andrew Hallidie wrote that he wanted to construct a public transit system that would alleviate the “great cruelty and hardship to the horses engaged in that work.”
Horsepower was the primary means of locomotion at that point in history, but it was another great beast whose bodily fluids gave rise to the industrial revolution that is often overlooked: the whale. While San Francisco was growing by leaps and bounds a relentless industrial exploitation of the great creatures of the sea was unleashed at the same time. Long forgotten now, San Francisco was during the later decades of the 19th century the primary whaling port on the west coast of North America. Before the discovery of petroleum oil, the first oil war wasn’t between nations, but between humans and nature in the form of the vast numbers of whales that once populated the seas. Slaughtered at sea, chopped up and boiled, the resulting precious whale oil when brought back to shore would command handsome prices. It was the essential ingredient to early illumination and lubrication for the burgeoning industrial revolution.
In some cases ships came in with whale carcasses in tow, not yet finished with their brutally simple reduction of complicated life into uncomplicated commodities.
Along San Francisco’s southern waterfront the Arctic Oil Works established itself near 23rd and Illinois where whaling ships would tie up and disgorge their dark cargoes.
While this slaughter at sea provided lubricants and lamp oils to the newly emerging city, most arrivals were involved in the ever-expanding business of mining, a business whose profits gave rise to an endless succession of technological breakthroughs. Andrew Hallidie was luckier than a lot of the men who settled in San Francisco during its first decade, but was in some ways a typical example too. He came from an English family of inventors and machinists, and his father had several patents on wire rope that he developed between 1835 and 1849, his son being born a year after the first patent. By the early 1850s father and son decided to take their chances on a new life in San Francisco and arrived in 1852 after a two-month journey from the Panamanian isthmus, then known as the Republic of New Granada (approximately present-day Panama and Colombia). Both father and son Hallidie were skilled workers and would have had no trouble landing on their feet in booming San Francisco. But like most of the folks rushing in, they headed for the hills in pursuit of gold.
Without much success after a year, the father went home, but young Andrew stayed in California and resumed his study of engineering. He spent his time surveying water ditches and roads, working in machine shops, and blacksmithing in the mountain mining communities. He sharpened and repaired tools for the miners too, when he wasn’t trying to find his own strike. In 1855 when he was only 19, he constructed a wire suspension bridge over a 220-foot span of the middle fork of the American River. A year later he started manufacturing metal rope in the gold country, and demand took off.
In 1857 he returned to San Francisco and started a small wire rope factory at Mason and Chestnut, using all the old horseshoes he could find as raw material. Within a decade he was a big success. Andrew Hallidie had arrived at the epicenter of a technological revolution, driven by the gold rush, and later by the capital-intensive drive to extract more and more wealth from the mountains between California and Nevada. His wire rope helped fuel the exploitation of nature, and his bridge-building efforts spanned rivers throughout the west. The Civil War was a boon to his business, as it was to manufacturing and innovation in San Francisco’s metalworking industries in general, since all manufactured goods from the east ceased delivery during those years.
A decade after he started his business he was a respected and successful businessman. Hallidie, with his penchant for engineering, wasn’t content to rest with the wire rope business and began to apply himself to figuring out how to transport ore out of the mountains by “endless ropeways” that large loader buckets full of rock and metals could move along. A great number of experiments led to successful technological solutions and a number of patents that would shape the coming boom in cable cars.
These days we see capitalists competing in various industries across the planet. Back in 1870s San Francisco, capitalists with an eye on new transportation technology found themselves in competition from one block to the next. Hallidie’s new cable car was built on Clay Street and had its maiden voyage on August 2, 1873. There were several technological alternatives to the particular designs of his system, but his was the first to get up and running over the top of Nob Hill, in spite of his difficulties in acquiring the capital he needed to begin. Once he did, the new cable car proved to be a big success.
Within a few years, the Sutter Street Railroad opened using a slightly altered cable car design (they avoided paying Hallidie royalties when the U.S. Circuit Court held that Hallidie’s system had not yet been perfected and was thus experimental, and could not claim patent infringement), and within the first year they attracted almost a million passengers. By the mid-1880s the Sutter Street Railroad had expanded its cable car lines across Market to Mission and on to Brannan, and out Pacific Avenue all the way to Divisadero. Big powerhouses were needed by each system to keep the “endless ropeways” turning underground.
Leland Stanford took up the challenge by 1878, opening the California Street Cable Railroad in April of that year. Mark Hopkins and other railroad barons began building their mansions at the top of Nob Hill in this era, and all invested in the new Cable Car railroad that made ascending the hill a pleasure. It attracted 11,000 passengers on its first day and eventually was extended westward all the way to Presidio Street at the edge of the city’s big four cemeteries covering nearby Lone Mountain. The Presidio Street terminus became a hub for connections by steam railroad out to the beach and Cliff House, or to other lines that ran to Golden Gate Park.
Several competing companies were opening lines as fast as they could in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Charles Crocker’s Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad ran from Market Street to Central Avenue along Geary Street. At Central the line connected with a steam dummy running further west on Geary before turning south to terminate at the small wooden station at Fulton and Fifth Avenue, still standing today. Cemetery trips were a major source of revenue for all the lines that passed near the big burial grounds where today’s inner Richmond is.
In 1883 Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford of the Southern Pacific Railroad opened a new cable car line on Market Street which became the largest in the city and the fourth largest in the U.S. The cable car altered landscapes and residential development patterns. One historian of the era claimed the cable cars “…leveled the sand dunes, reclaimed the marshes, filled up the gulches, and instead of a desolate and barren waste that was, there have sprung up blocks and streets of comely residences, the home of thrifty and industrious citizens.”
With the spread of cable car lines across the city to the west and south, workers could build homes on the distant hillsides and still get to work in a timely manner. The process of urban sprawl would continue from the cable car-induced boom of the early 1880s, through various ups and downs, all the way to the present era, now turning distant valleys and hills miles to the north, east, and south of San Francisco into endless suburbs. BART has an analogous role to that of the cable car back in 19th century San Francisco, fueling intensive urbanization along its lines.
The cable car was in turn supplanted by the rise of electric streetcars in the 1890s. But a romantic attachment kept them going long beyond the era when they were the cutting edge of modernity. Immediately after WWII, the city planned to take out all the remaining cable car lines and replace them with the new, modern diesel buses that auto, tire, and oil interests were pushing. But Friedel Klussman, a Pacific Heights matron, led a vigorous campaign to save the cable cars. It became a popular cause and a 77 percent vote in November 1947 saved the diminutive vehicles on their remaining lines.
In 1979 the safety and reliability of the cable cars came under scrutiny, and the system was closed for major repairs. In 1982 the cable car system was closed again for a complete rebuild. This involved the complete replacement of 69 city blocks' worth of tracks and cable channels, the demolition and rebuilding of the car barn and powerhouse, new propulsion equipment, and the repair or rebuild of 37 cable cars. The system finally reopened on June 21, 1984.
Today the cable cars are a tourist attraction and the kernel of the now-expanded historic streetcars that run mostly on the F-line. Together they provide a glimpse into an earlier era of public transportation, and thanks to the electricity that powers them, little evidence of the wholesale slaughter at sea that, concurrent to the original cable cars, provided essential lubrication to the opening decades of industrialization.
However, you can catch a glimpse, while riding on the California Street Cable Car, of the old granite walruses that still decorate the front of the Union Bank building. They are what's left of the many granite renditions of wild animals that once graced the facade of the Alaska Commercial Corporation's headquarters on the same spot of California, between Sansome and Battery. The Alaska Commercial Corporation was the de facto government of the eastern Pacific Rim for a few decades in the late 19th century, and during that reign, they mercilessly "harvested" the living creatures that once flourished.
Treating the Arctic as a classic mining region, the Alaska Commercial Company extended its transportation and supply routes until it had 91 stations in Alaska, the Yukon and Siberia. Through these posts, trappers kept the company well supplied, not only with seal furs, but with red, white, blue and silver fox, otters, marten, mink, wolf, wolverine, bears (including polar), muskrat, ermine, lynx, beaver, sable, ivory, swanskin and whalebone. Furs and feathers were shipped to London for auction, then reshipped to the United States for processing and resale.