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Hooked on the Cable Car

Summer 1985 | Volume 1 |  Issue 1

My father had a concept he called “gadget value”—the intrinsic interest of machinery unrelated to its use. I have found plenty of it over the years in steam locomotives, steamboats, theater organs, and interurban cars, but never so much as in the cable car. In graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became interested in the city’s cable-car system, which had been the biggest in the country. After finishing my dissertation, I collaborated on a book about the interurbans, and after that was published, in 1960, it impressed me that the cable car lent itself to the same treatment even better. It had more gadget value, there were only 62 companies instead of 496, and all were in cities with surviving newspapers for the entire cable period. The technology consisted of cars gripping and ungripping an endless cable; there were not, as in the case of the interurbans, a lot of borderline cases. The technology was also basically simple, with three elements: a stationary engine, gears and drums for paying out and reeling in the cable, and a device for maintaining tension. Finally, the time period was short: most lines lasted merely a decade, from sometime in the 1880s to the mid-1890s. (The San Francisco system has, for twenty-eight years, been the only cable line in the world.)


The subject was just as good as it looked. The industry’s trade paper, Street Railway Journal, proved to be an excellent source of material, although its coverage was somewhat spotty. I wanted to gather enough information to produce a rope diagram of each city. Grand Rapids, in particular, had had a complex system that encompassed a bewildering variety of routes during a period of only about three years. I had to spend three weeks in Grand Rapids scrutinizing microfilm in the public library before being able to construct my diagram. As it turned out, this had a very helpful consequence. I had learned that a librarian at Harvard had taken extensive notes for a book on the same subject some years earlier and wrote to him for help on some point. He responded that if I could spend three weeks on Grand Rapids alone, I was planning something more extensive than he was. Consequently, he laid bare all he had found, and even directed me to the papers of an old cable salesman who was second only to the Journal as a source.


In the course of my travels, I found some disadvantages of cable traction that I would never have discovered through library research. In Providence, for instance, the line inexplicably ascended and descended College Hill on the wrong (left-hand) side of College Street before looping about behind Brown University. Once I had walked the route, I realized that cable cars could not have rolled downhill past the rope drop at the powerhouse over a mile away if that street had been taken right-handed.


The entire research for the book went much like that, uncovering endless shortcomings in the technology. I had known of the cable car’s ability to traverse curves only at top speed, and of the risks of having the grip caught in a loose cable strand, but obscure problems kept appearing too. To minimize the strain on terminal sheaves, the best place to put a powerhouse was at the top of a hill—where coal was most difficult to bring in. The system expended up to 75 percent of its energy in moving the cable and less than 5 percent in moving passengers. The revelations were enthralling. Gradually it dawned on me that my book would have to be a paean to Frank J. Sprague, the inventor of the electric streetcar, which put the cable car out of business. In the end, I dedicated it to him, with a quotation from Lewis Carroll: ” ‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said, ‘to come and spoil the fun!’ ”


In fact, I got so hooked on the subject I didn’t stop with completed cable lines. I went on to the lines partly built or seriously projected and completed as electric installations. I finished my travels in St. Joseph, Missouri, climbing a hill on Olive Street that never did get the cable line projected for it. As I stood up there on a beautiful, hot, dry day, looking down on the city, I realized I had done something nobody else had done: followed every American cable line that had ever existed and every one ever seriously planned. There was a neighborhood bar up there, and I went in for a Goetz beer, the local brand. Doubtless it was just an ordinary beer, but the heat and the exultation made it one to remember for life.


When the book, The Cable Car in America, appeared in 1971, I had a bet with a friend in New Jersey that it would prompt some reviewer to write that the book contained more than anyone could want to know about the subject. In the very first review, the San Francisco Chronicle said, “This book tells one almost more than any sane person could want to know about the cable car.” My friend agreed that the “almost” and “sane” canceled each other, and I won on the first try.


I am doing a similar book on the narrow-gauge railroads now, but it isn’t the same. You see, I have already written on the best subject.


George W. Hilton is a professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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