Friday, July 22, 2011

Cable Cars of San Francisco: A lady saved them from extinction

CABLE CARS of San Francisco and how in 1961, a lady leader

Frieda Klussmann could save them from extinction


San Francisco and its cable cars are so synonymous to each other that a set of photograph of San Francisco without a picture of cable car is an incomplete set. Besides a land mark for tourist, cable cars have become a necessity for San Franciscans for daily commuting.


Cable cars of San Francisco operate on a system, totally different from way trams operate in other cities including Indian metropolis, Kolkata. Kolkata is the only city in India where trams are still running. Cable cars of San Francisco do not have any power of their own. The system is unique and perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. A strong steel cable runs continuously on a pully system. Each area has a power station that rotates cables underground. The main technique lies on turns where the cables are so designed that the alignment between the car and cable remains always intact. In the middle of pair of rail tracks they have a slot where a pole from cable car is lowered and gripped to the “always moving” cable. Cable cars have clutch system on the grip under the rail line. This is a variable grip with a control like clutch system in automobiles. The driver engages and disengages the mechanism as per requirement of movement. This means that a cable car can run slower than the speed of cable running under the tram tracks but never faster than the speed of running cables under ground.


Power to move the cable cars is applied at the main Power House but Cable cars move on action of engaging and disengaging the under ground cable with the car. This requires quite a bit of manual muscular strength. The driver has to remain standing and use power of his legs to apply mechanical brakes and muscular power of hands for engaging or disengaging the drive cable. Owing to limitations of inability to steer, slow acceleration and braking due to high inertia, driving a cable car is more difficult than driving any automobile. The driver has to remain standing and operate the clutch mechanism with hands. Only able bodied and well built personnel are enrolled for the post of drivers. Selection is done on the merits of physique and reflex action which are two main criterion in addition to road reflexes, sense and ability to judge the traffic passing by.

Decision to scrap the Cable Car System: January 28, 1947, the morning news-papers gave San Franciscans a shock as they read the news that a fleet of buses would replace Cable Cars operating on Powell Street. San Franciscans, who had, and still have, a strong bond and affection for their city’s cable cars, could not digest this, and that too in an almost casual manner. The news papers informed that the most colorful transportation system in their city was to perish. Indeed the rout of Powell Street, starting at a turntable at Market Street, slipping past Union Square, Creasing Nob and Russian Hills on its meandering way to the Bay, must have been, as it still is, the most colorful street rail system in the world.

Now that it was announced that the cable cars would be scrapped and their tracks dismantled, a rumble of ignition of quiet anger was heard throughout San Francisco.

Mrs. Frieda Klussmann: At first, this anger remained directionless for want of a leader with energy, sentiments, dedication and intelligent sense of history. It was not long when a combination of all these qualities came forward in a person by the name of Mrs. Frieda Klussmann. San Franciscans found their leader. Mrs. Klussmann organized Citizens’ Committee to save the cable cars and campaigned against indifference and short sightedness on part of planners and decision makers. Mrs. Klussmann and her fellow followers maintained that a decision about Cable cars’ future should be made by people who use them and not by an administrative civil servants sitting in offices, most of whom had no attachment with San Francisco.

Plebiscite: Against odds and disappointments, which would have discouraged a less determined person, Mrs. Klussmann’s efforts secured a place for Cable Cars on the ballot. Fascinated by the sentimental and nostalgic struggle, entire USA looked on as San Francisco went to a general plebiscite. An overwhelming majority said, “Save the Cable Cars.”

This and the future generations are in debt of the “Cable Car Lady”, (as Mrs Klusmann is affectionately known) and to the timely forces which she organized. She not only paved path of transportation that continued to serve and delight, but also saved the city’s “International Trade Mark.”


  1. This time I am the first one to post a comment!! :) I guess I beat Mr. Kuldeep Narain :)
    Very nice post. I like that you kept the post about the history and not just the engineering of the cable cars, which I know fascinates you the most! :) Keep posting...

  2. Oh yes Mudit, you are the first to comment. Nice to note you liked. Your photo has come out well too. Show it to Vihaan too.

  3. Two videos of how cable car is driven


    Inside a cable car