The End of the Clay Street Hill Railroad

Collected by Walter Rice and Joe Thompson

Clay and Van Ness A Clay Street Hill Railroad cable train awaits its departure from the western terminal, Van Ness Avenue, in 1877. From the opening of the Clay Street Hill line in 1873 until it was shut down eighteen years later in 1891, this line operated cable trains.


by Walter Rice

On September 1, 1873, the Clay Street Hill Railroad, the world's first cable car line, began carrying revenue passengers on its cable trains (each train consisted of a dummy (grip car) and a trailer) on Clay Street from Kearny to Leavenworth. The line was successful from the start from both a financial and a technical perspective. During 1877 the company extended its line westward from Leavenworth to Van Ness Avenue. Also, in 1877 the California Street Railroad started construction on a competitive parallel cable line on California Street. This line opened on April 10, 1878 from Kearny to Fillmore Street. Clay Street lost many riders to the new company.

In 1888, the Ferries & Cliff House Railway purchased the Clay Street Hill Railroad to gain access to the Ferry Building -- at the time, the most important public transportation terminal on the West Coast. On September 30, 1888, the Ferries & Cliff House Railway opened a new line (its fourth) known both as Ferries & Cliff House or Sacramento line. This line ran from the Ferry via Sacramento to Powell, Jackson to Central Avenue and California. It returned via Central Avenue, Jackson, Steiner, Washington Streets, Powell, Clay to the Ferry. This line alternated with the Jackson Street via Powell line. The eastern terminal of former Clay Street Hill Railroad was now cut back to Powell from Kearny.

On September 9, 1891 the Clay Street Shuttle (Powell Street to Van Ness Avenue) was discontinued to create the new Sacramento-Clay line. On November 2 of that year the Ferries & Cliff House Railway opened the Sacramento-Clay line from the Ferry via Clay, Larkin, Sacramento to Walnut Street. It returned via Sacramento Street direct to the Ferry.

San Francisco News Letter

September 12, 1891

It is worthy to remark that the Clay-street cable cars have ceased to run. The last car on the old line left Powell and Clay streets at 11:30 o'clock on Wednesday night with a number of railway officials and a few of the old-timers who had worked on the road for a number of years.

At Van Ness avenue Assistant Superintendent Skinner broke a bottle of champagne over the grip, and the line ceased to be. The dummy and car were then turned into the roundhouse, and there they will remain until bought up as curiosities or sent to the World's Fair.

The Clay-street cable line was the first ever operated in the world. The first car ran down the hill on August 2, 1873, A.S. Hallidie, the inventor, handling the grip.

The original line was from Kearny to Jones street. It was afterwards extended to Van Ness avenue. The Ferries and Cliff House Company, which owns the Clay street line, will soon begin laying a new track for its line from the Ferries to Central Avenue, and Clay street will be used as the avenue for the down-town travel.

The Original Cable Road to be Improved

From Scientific American, 31-October-1891, Vol LXV, No 18

The Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, San Francisco, has run its last car up through Chinatown, over the Clay Street hill, and with it the oldest cable line in the world is now a thing of the past. No unusual ceremonies attended the final trip, beyond the breaking of a bottle of champagne over the grip and a formal declaration that the business of the pioneer cable road was finished, but after the car and dummy had been turned into the round house many of the officers and men, some of whom had been with the road since its construction was begun over twenty-five years ago, gathered together and exchanged bits of history concerning the very early days of the famous line. Deep regret was expressed by all that it had become necessary to dismantle the road and reconstruct it, that it might be adequate to handle the growing traffic.

Up in the loft of the old engine house, corner of Leavenworth and Clay Streets, are stored parts of the first dummies which astonished the people of San Francisco, together with the original grip car. This is indeed a primitive affair, consisting of a low platform on small car wheels and supporting the grip. A rough railing surrounds it, while the brakes consisted of steel levers, which were pressed against the four wheels. Five men were necessary to run the dummy, one operating the grip and each of the remaining four standing with a steel lever in his hand ready to lock the wheels should the grip break. The trailer was a common "bobtail" horse car, and the trial trip of the first cable train, as thus constituted, forms a most interesting chapter of street railway history.

Early in the '70s, A. S. Hallidie, now president of the California Wire Works, of San Francisco, conceived the idea of propelling street cars by means of an endless, travelling, underground cable. The scheme was at first considered chimerical, but finally three men of means -- Joseph Britton, H. L. Davis, and James Moffitt -- took the matter up. Then came the almost interminable task of working out the mechanical details of the idea, but it was finally completed, and on August 18, 1878, hundreds of San Franciscans climbed up Clay Street hill to watch the trial trip. As the gripman who was to take the car over the road looked down the steep decline his courage failed, and Mr. Hallidie took the grip. At a given signal the car started off smoothly amid shouts from thousands of throats. The trip was made without a hitch and the innovation was pronounced a success. Soon the line from Kearney Street to Van Ness Avenue was equipped with cable cars, and since then, until the closing of the line on the night of September 9, the road has been in operation, using continuously the same engine and the same roadbed. Arthur S. Chase enjoys the distinction of having collected the first fare, he being the first gripman. Mr. Chase is now in the furniture business in San Francisco, and Mr. Phalon, after a long service, resigned and is now a factory watchman.

The Western Electrician says: It is probable that the now historic train, with its first conductor and gripman, will form a part of California's exhibit at the World's Fair.

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Last updated 01-February-2018