August 2nd, 1873 – San Francisco’s First Cable Cars

Today-In-History

The Clay Street Hill Railroad was the first successful cable hauled street railway. It was located on Clay Street, a notably steep street in San Francisco in California, and first operated on August 2nd, 1873.

Cable Car 680

The promoter of the line was Andrew Smith Hallidie, and the engineer was William Eppelsheimer. Accounts differ as to exactly how involved Hallidie was in the inception of the Clay Street Hill Railway. One version has him taking over the promotion of the line when the original promoter, Benjamin Brooks, failed to raise the necessary capital. In another version, Hallidie was the instigator, inspired by a desire to reduce the suffering incurred by the horses that hauled streetcars up Jackson Street, from Kearny to Stockton Street.

SF Cable CarThere is also doubt as to when exactly the first run of the cable car occurred. The franchise required a first run no later than August 1st, 1873, however at least one source reports that the run took place a day late, on August 2nd, but that the city chose not to void the franchise. Some accounts say that the first gripman hired by Hallidie looked down the steep hill from Jones and refused to operate the car, so Hallidie took the grip himself and ran the car down the hill and up again without any problems.

The line involved the use of grip cars, which carried the grip that engaged with the cable, towing trailer cars. The design was the first to use such grips.

The Clay Street line started regular service on September 1st, 1873 and was a financial success. In 1888, it was absorbed into the Sacramento-Clay line of the Ferries and Cliff House Railway, and it subsequently became a small part of the San Francisco cable car system. Today none of the original line survives. However grip car 8 from the line has been preserved, and is now displayed in the San Francisco Cable Car Museum.


 

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