San Francisco’s First Cable Car 


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1988 20¢ Transportation Series: Cable Car, 1880s
US #2263 – from the Transportation Series

On August 2, 1873, Clay Street Hill Railroad inaugurated San Francisco’s now-famous cable car system.

The city of San Francisco, California, is known for its steep hills.  In the early days, horses pulled streetcars up and down the slopes, which was very hard on the animals.  British-born San Franciscan Andrew S. Hallidie felt great sympathy for these horses and sought a better way to transport people around the city.

1988 20¢ Cable Car, 1880s Classic First Day Cover
US #2263 – Classic First Day Cover

In years prior, attempts at creating a cable-run train had failed in both London and New York, and were eventually replaced with steam locomotives.  Hallidie’s work was the manufacture of wire cable, so it was only natural that he invented the cable car as a solution to this problem.

1988 20¢ Cable Car, imperf pair
US #2263a – Cable Car imperforate error pair

With design assistance from William Eppelsheimer, Hallidie patented his cable car design in 1871.  Hallidie’s cable car was propelled by gripping a continuously moving cable that ran under the pavement.  Although similar in principle to a ski lift, the cable car was able to connect and remove itself from the line as needed.

1971 8¢ Historic Preservation: San Francisco Cable Car
US #1442 – from the Historic Preservation issue

Two years later, Hallidie was ready for a trial run.  The maiden voyage was held on August 2, 1873.  Hallidie operated the cable car himself, down and back up one of the city’s steepest hills with no problem.  The 2,791 foot-long track moved the car at just four miles per hour.  Passengers took eleven minutes to travel that distance.  The world’s first successful cable car line began regular service one month later.

1971 8¢ San Francisco Cable Car Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
US #1442 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

After that first successful run, the number of cable cars increased until they became a symbol of the city. Hallidie’s Clay Street Line would remain in operation until 1942.

Soon cable cars became popular in many cities.  Over time, buses and cars have taken over much of their usefulness.  However, the steep hills of San Francisco are still traveled by about 40 cable cars on three lines.

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View photos of the Clay Street Hill and other cable cars at the Cable Car Museum’s website.

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