Vintage transportation | the cable car
Feb 8, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This week has already felt frantic – from work responsibilities to normal household management to social obligations to making time for family – it has felt a little bit overwhelming. Usually an article idea will come to me right away. I recognize how fortunate I am to be able to write this statement with confidence. The muse visits me regularly and helps me put pen to paper (well…fingers to keyboard in my case!). Today I realized I still didn’t know what to write about. What topic should I expand on in this beautiful vintage online space? To take a small liberty with Shakespeare’s words, “heavy weighs the hand that needs to write.” Just when that ray of hope started to fade, inspiration from my sister saved the day.
I’d like to welcome you to the latest Cause A Frockus series, focused on vintage transportation. We’ve broached this subject before when Ellen mused on the state of fashion choices when we travel and when I shared how to plan a retro road trip. But here we’ll talk more about the vintage modes of transportation themselves. In this first post the mode of choice: the cable car. Now you may be thinking the tale you’re about to hear will be mundane; rest assured it is just as dynamic as the hills of San Francisco itself.
Early cable car drivers competed for person of the year (most popular driver) and got an all expenses paid vacation to Hawaii!
Our tale begins in 1836 London with the birth of Andrew Smith Hallidie. Even before he went on to become a prolific inventor, he was already a member of a diverse and influential family. His grandpa was an educator who served at Waterloo, his dad was an engineer and inventor, and his uncle was Queen Victoria’s personal physician. With this kind of a background, it’s easy to see how a young Andrew would gravitate toward innovations and explorations. By ten he was building all sorts of electrical prototypes and three years later he was working in his brother’s mechanical shop. At an age when most kids were busy being kids, Andrew was busy feeding his brain and future career! All of this focus and work started to impact his health. His dad, concerned for his wellness (and interested in the gold rush), moved the family to sunny California. His dad checked out the mines and Andrew continued his studies. While the mines didn’t prove fruitful for dad, the Pacific sun shone brightly on the son.
Andrew continued to work the mines, becoming a bit of a traveling blacksmith. He traveled up and down the coast, hoping for gold and repairing tools along the way. During bad storms and quiet nights, Andrew continued to read and cultivate his mind. This self-study program paid off as by age 19 he built a suspension bridge and a few years later he patented a long-lasting wire rope. For many years his knowledge of bridge building, coupled with his sturdy rope material, won him many commissions. These commissions however were not without controversy. Some projects had to be abandoned due to conflicts with Native Americans and his tradition of raising the American flag at the bridge site was met with agitation in some areas (keep in mind this was the Civil War era). Given the fact that he was a eccentric, wildly smart Brit it was only a matter of time before he combined all of these transportation-related interests into one invention.
One of the most celebrated traditions with the San Fran cable cars is the annual bell-ringing competition, established after WWII
By 1861 the first patent for the cable car was created. Naturally, Andrew’s cable cars utilized his wire ropes and a self-invented mechanism meant to convey passengers up and down hilly roads. Twelve years later (yes, the R&D for this invention was intense) the first cable car run occurred at 5:00am in San Francisco between Clay and Kearny Streets. And they say nothing good can happen after midnight!
The cable car went on to become not only an iconic way to get around, but proved to be quite revolutionary in unexpected ways. For example, the popularity of the system endeared it so much to the city of San Francisco the government official in charge was paid more than the mayor himself! During WWII the diversity of cable car operators and technicians was considered quite progressive. Many minorities and women became these ambassadors of city transportation – including a young Maya Angelou! One of my favorite revolutionary tidbits is that when the cable cars became the pride of the new city-wide transportation system they were considered socialist. The thought of a city directly managing transportation for its citizens seemed unpatriotic to the conservatives of 1912. Considering the inventor was a man who faced off angry mobs for the right to fly the American flag, I can’t help but think he was proud that his cable car ensured transportation for all! If you’ve enjoyed a cable car journey – let us know in the comments…