These one of a kind vehicles celebrated their 100th birthday with a ten-day jubilee in August of 1973, but only nine years later, a problem arose. It seemed that after being in service for over a century, the beloved cable car system had deteriorated beyond repair. To rebuild it would cost $60 million and take at least 20 months.
When it became known that the cable cars’ survival was at stake, contributions came in from every corner of the world to help save them. The City of San Francisco was able to raise $10 million from the private sector alone. The federal government aided the project with a $46.5 million contribution, and the State of California chimed in with a $3.6 million contribution. There are currently 40 cars in service: 28 “single-enders” serve the Powell Street routes and 12 “double-enders” serve the California Street route. The cables pull up to 26 cars at a time on weekdays. The cars have a capacity of carrying more than 60 people, and an astounding 9.7 million passengers ride these cars each year.
As the operators of these nationally designated moving landmarks, the cable car grip persons and conductors constitute something of an elite corps among public transit personnel. While the grip person tends to the brakes, and rings the brass bell, the conductor collects fares and gives a hand with the brakes. It’s a team effort and the audience eats it up. And though it may not be a roller coaster ride, at a grade of 17 percent over Nob Hill and 21 percent along Hyde Street, many people find themselves excitedly grasping whatever they can get a hold of, while the conductor shouts, “Heeeere we go!”
The Cable Car Barn, Powerhouse and Museum is known as “Home Base” to the cable cars. It is here that the cars not only depart and arrive daily on their 11 miles of wrapped steel “rope” going a steady 9 1/2 miles per hour, but also where visitors find a variety of spectacular sights. The Museum houses one of the very first cable cars (1873), a Sutter Street grip car and trailer, as well as scale models of some of the 57 different types of cable cars which were once operated in the city. From the gallery, visitors can look down onto pulleys which thread the cable through big figure 8’s and back into the system via slack-absorbing tension racks.
1201 Mason and Washington Streets
Admission: free; see Website for details and hours