The Cable Car is one of San Francisco’s iconic symbols. And although the city is currently in the midst of some sort of public transportation identity crisis , these open air cars were once a dominant site on the hilly streets. One of the best ways to experience this part of San Francisco’s history is to visit the totally free Cable Car Museum. The Museum is full of cool old cable car artifacts and interesting history about the rise, fall and re-rise of the cable car. They even have an old cable car which is perfect for posing for cheesy photos (don’t worry I’ve spared you all the results of that photo shoot).
As I mentioned, the cable car’s used to extend over the entire city. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco you will notice that the city is a bit (insanely) hilly. Back in the 1800s these hills possessed a challenge to the standard mode of transportation: horse and buggy. According to the Cable Car Museum, the inventor of the Cable Car witnessed a horrific horse death after the horse lost its footing a steep hill and was crushed by the buggy he was pulling. Cable Cars were able to navigate these steep hills without endangering any more horses. The map below shows the original routes of the cable car.
For me, the most interesting part of the experience was viewing the “Sheave Room.” As it turns out, the museum is also the fully functioning center of the entire city’s cable car system. As you probably figured out from the name, each cable car is powered by a series of always moving underground cables. The giant turning wheels in the museum are what keep the cables moving.
Visitors get a chance to view these giant wheels in action. Each system is even labeled to let you know what line is being powered. (In the photo above you can see the Powell line on the far right). You can’t really tell from the photos (or really in person) but the cable moves in a figure eight shape through the two wheels. This allows the cable to come into contact with the wheel at the maximum number of locations and improves the overall efficiency of the system.
As with many Museum’s there is a large gift shop selling various random nick nacks. But, there was some really cool authentic old San Francisco street signs for sale. They were each around $80 each, so too rich for my blood – but if your in the market….
After checking out the Museum, the cable car stop is only about a block away. We hopped on so we could check out everything we learned about cable car operations in action. The first thing we learned is that San Franciscans love a good sticker.
The cable cars at the Museum will take you strait to the Fisherman’s Wharf area with great views along the way. We rode towards the front so I could see the driver operate the breaks. By pulling on this long poll he is able to clamp and unclamp the car onto the cable so that it will start and stop as necessary.
Overall a nice little morning of cable car action. For your information: The Museum is free, but the cable car ride is $6.