What is a Cable Car?
by Joe Thompson

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A cable car is a public transit vehicle which runs on rails and which moves primarily by gripping and ungripping an endless cable which runs in a conduit under the street. Cable car systems are also known as cable tramways. A cable car is not a funicular, like the Angel's Flight in Los Angeles, California. A funicular usually uses two counterbalanced cars which are permanently attached to a finite cable. Overhead cable cars, like the ones in Singapore and Gibraltar have many of the features of cable cars which run on rails, but are not interesting to me.

This page will explore the history of cable car systems which met or meet most of the conditions above. A few, like the rapid transit lines in Hoboken, New Jersey and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the subway in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, did not run their cables in conduits. Others, like the experimental installations in Newark, New Jersey and Binghamton, New York, tried to transfer motion from the cable to the car without gripping the cable.

The first well documented attempt at building an endless cable cable car line was Charles T Harvey's West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, an elevated line on Greenwich Street in New York, New York, which operated from 1868 to 1870. Its overhead structure was later replaced by the Ninth Ave Elevated.

The first commercially successful cable car line was the Clay Street Hill Railroad in San Francisco, California, which opened in 1873. The line was promoted by Andrew Smith Hallidie, a wire cable manufacturer, and largely designed by William E Eppelsheimer. The first cable car line outside of San Francisco opened in 1881 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The first US cable car line outside of San Francisco opened in Chicago, Illinois in 1882.

Cable cars flourished during a brief period, roughly from 1880 to 1890. Before 1880, the most common method of operating street railways was by horse. Horse power had several disadvantages.

  • Horses could not pull cars up steep hills
  • A horse could work only part of the day, but would eat all day
  • A line's investment in horses could be wiped out by diseases like the Great Epizootic of 1872.
  • Horses deposited tons of feces and gallons of urine on the streets every day

Cable traction systems required a large capital investment -- The Third Avenue Railroad in New York, New York cost $250,000 per mile -- but they still offerred a better return on investment than horse-powered lines in large cities.

Other forms of motive power were less successful than cable cars for public transit. Steam power scared horses and spread soot all around. Cars powered by storage batteries, ammonia, baking soda and vinegar, and compressed air all had disadvantages. Early electric trolley cars were no better than cable cars, until Frank J Sprague successfully electrified a street railway in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.

After Sprague perfected the trolley car, the only reasons to build or retain cable car lines were stubborness, steep hills, or nostalgia. Cable cars survived on Market Street in San Francisco, California and in Chicago, Illinois until 1906 because of opposition to overhead trolley wires. Cable cars survived in Seattle, Washington until 1941 and in Dunedin, New Zealand until 1957 because of steep terrain. Now the only surviving cable cars operate in San Francisco, California because of a combination of stubborness, steep hills, and nostalgia.

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Copyright 1996-2013 by Joe Thompson. All rights reserved.
Last updated 01-March-2013