San Francisco’s First Cable Car 

U.S. #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.

In years prior, earlier 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.

U.S. #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.

U.S. #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.

U.S. #1442 FDC – San Francisco Cable Car 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.

Cable soon 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 37 cable cars.

Click here to view photos of the Clay Street Hill and other cable cars at the Cable Car Museum’s website.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Having had the opportunity to ride cable railways in several cities around the world, I have always been ready to “discover” and ride another. One of my favorites is Sao Paolo, Brazil, which has the steepest grades and where both people and freight are carried. That cable railway was the oldest one and probably the longest one still operating when I rode it years ago.

  2. Loved the Cable Cars and went back after 50 years to try them again. Each operator has his own character and ring, which have not changed but waiting in line to ride, has!

  3. Unique type of transportation system that works. Recent Smithsonian Channel program called Cities Stripped highlighted San Francisco. The program uses CGI cutaways of various aspects of the city to show how they work. The cable car system was an obvious inclusion. Simple in concept and works reliably. Interesting how they handle lines that cross at an intersection.

    Thanks Mystic, for your variety of ‘Day in History’ subjects related to stamps.

  4. In this modern day of airplanes and bullet trains, it’s nice to have a working example of history.

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