The Long Haul
San Francisco's antique cable-car system carries thirteen million people a year.
Max Woods throws his weight against the lever, the grip seizes the rope beneath the street, and the first cable car of the day rumbles past Union Square, tilts its face to the lightening sky, and starts up Nob Hill. As the car rises up out of dusk and mist, sunlight flashes white off the tracks ahead; the perpendicular landscape falls away on the right to show a blue slice of bay; and San Francisco looks every bit as ravishing as San Franciscans say it is.
Woods keeps his eyes on the tracks; he’s seen plenty of splendid views in the quarter-century he’s been on the line. “I only ever wanted three jobs,” he says, letting go of the cable and putting on the brakes so an early passenger can climb aboard. “Politician, scavenger, and this. I tried politics for a while. Scavenging was just too hard to get into.”
The antique and preposterous operation of which he is a part is wholly woven into the town’s character. It’s a working transit system—the steady little cars carry 13 million passengers a year—but it is something more, as the city government well understood when in 1982 it spent more than $60 million to give the cable-car lines their first complete overhaul since 1873.
That was the year a Scot named Andrew Hallidie found a way to put the wire rope he manufactured to use moving people around San Francisco’s impossible terrain. The idea is simplicity itself: keep a rope running in a slot beneath the street and grab hold when you want to move. But the execution is almost unimaginably cumbersome —an immense subterranean cat’s cradle of steel cable, constantly in motion, constantly demanding supervision and repair. Nevertheless, Hallidie’s system worked, and by the 1880s cities all across America had their own cable roads. Then the usurper electricity came in; trolley cars made their cable-powered predecessors obsolete except in towns with steep hills. And no town has steeper hills than San Francisco.
On the eve of the 1906 earthquake, the city had six hundred cars traveling over 53 miles of track. Then the system began to shrink. One night early in 1942 the superintendent of the Sacramento line, which encompassed HaIlidie’s original stretch of track, made a final entry in his log: ”… at 1:00 o’clock of February 16th the Sacramento cables were thrown clear of the winding machinery and left dead on the floor.” But twelve years later the city finally voted to save most of what was left, and in 1964 the system became the first moving National Historic Landmark—56,600 feet of cable pulling a fleet of 27 six-ton cars (twenty tons when fully loaded, as they almost always are) over 4.4 miles of track at any given time.
Max Woods is a gripsman, one of about eighty people who know how to run a cable car. “It takes about a month to learn,” he says, “and five years to get the feel of it.” His car swings past a handsome brick building. “That’s the car barn. The winding machinery that powers the whole system is in there.”
It’s also a museum, home to displays that show how the last cable op- eration in the world works, several vintage cable cars, and models of every car that ever ran in San Francisco. But by far the most impressive exhibit is the machinery itself. Everything is on view: the eight-foot sheaves over which the cable travels as it enters the car barn, and the huge electric motors, each generating 510 horsepower, that drive the endless loops of cable. Those four motors are not old—General Electric built them at the time of the recent overhaul—but they have the scale and the definitive solidity of the great tools that drove the nineteenth century. Each motor powers its own cable (the longest is the 21,500foot monster that pulls the cars on California Street), and all the lines move at a steady 9.5 miles per hour.
Max Woods has forty-six more runs to go before he’s through for the day. That’s a lot of heaving and pulling: vigorous, outdoor work. “Oh, it’s tough in the summer sometimes, in traffic with the emissions all around you. And in the winter when it rains. Sometimes you think of being in a nice warm bus.” He throws the track brake lever, pulls the grip, and the car starts downgrade, the bright little bell chattering away. “But I’ve always had more satisfaction working out on the cables. You know, a job sitting on a bus is no good for anybody.”
Some eighteen hours later, Max’s car will go back to the car barn—all the cars spend the night above the powerhouse floor—and men with jobs as specialized as Max’s will go to work. These are the splicers, toiling under the streets all night long, endlessly weaving fresh cable onto frayed, making sure that the rope will be ready to withstand tomorrow’s punishment. Then, just before dawn, all the machinery will start up again, and the cables will sing and rattle in their slots, the sound of the city itself, awake, alive, and breathing.