My wife and I visited the City by the Bay in September 2004, and I had the opportunity to check out the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It’s well worth the price of admission (which is free), not only for the many artifacts—a few vintage cars, many displays of old tools and grip assemblies, and even the memorial plaque of three guard dogs for the Haight Street Line who met with foul play in 1891—but also because the museum is located on a mezzanine within the main power house that serves all four remaining cable car lines. From the balcony one may see the humming electric motors and the giant sheaves (pulleys) that provide motive power to the cables. In dimly illuminated vaults below street level, one may also see the transfer sheaves that send the cables out to their channels along California, Hyde, Mason, and Powell streets.
In the gift shop, along with the usual t-shirts and cable-car-related tchotchkes were a number of books, including a few San Francisco entries in the extensive Images of America series. But one book had that added geek factor that made it impossible to pass up. A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction is a reprint of an 1887 serial by British engineer J. Bucknall Smith, edited and footnoted by cable car historian George W. Hilton. It’s a detailed engineering overview couched in effusively optimistic language, written during the brief period when cable traction appeared to be a great boon to public transportation—it had moved beyond the infancy of a newfangled technology, but was just a few short years from being eclipsed by electric self-motive power in terms of efficiency and maintenance cost.
The book’s greatest asset is its excellent collection of beautifully-rendered illustrations, fine examples of Victorian-era draughtsmanship. The text explains the diagrams in depth, so that the reader winds up with a firm grasp of cable system designs. And I found it particularly intriguing to see how many different cable car companies criss-crossed San Francisco 120 years ago, where the steep grades are uniquely suited to cable traction’s strengths. The city’s cable-car system today is the merest vestige of what once existed.
I found this book fascinating and great fun to read, but I must be honest: despite my enjoyment of it, the book worked best for me as bedtime reading—two or three pages were the most I could muster before falling fast asleep. Ah, to have sweet dreams of open-sided cars clattering up and down vertiginous hills, steel cables whining beneath the pavement, and wooden brake shoes scraping along the rails.