Imagine the effort and struggle it took for horses to haul heavy loads up and down the steep and winding streets of San Francisco in the 19th century. Based on the conveyance systems in mines, inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie patented a cable system in 1861. It took 12 years for the first system to be tested, on Clay Street in San Francisco. That successful demonstration led to a citywide system and production of more than 600 cable cars.
Although the system survived the great earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906, by 1912, fewer than 100 cable cars remained. By the 1940s, buses had become prevalent and were more economical to run. In 1947, the mayor of San Francisco pushed to eliminate the cable car system. Heresy! An outraged public protested and organized, getting the media on board, and the public prevailed. The cable cars remained.
San Francisco’s cable car system received National Heritage Site status in 1964. (The cable cars of New Orleans are the only other such system to achieve that honor.) Today, only 40 cable cars exist in the City by the Bay. Because of their constant usage, the cars must be replaced frequently, and the process is intricate, needing expert craftsmanship, much as in constructing a high-end sailboat. A new cable car can take as along as two years to complete to the exacting standards required.
It currently costs $8 to take a ride on a San Francisco cable car, with discounts offered for seniors early in the morning and later in the evening. In some areas, you’ll see long lines waiting for the unique and surprisingly invigorating experience of riding a cable car. Our expert guides know the best places to catch a cable car ride and when to go. If you do catch a ride on one of the city’s beautiful cable cars, be prepared to feel the presence of those people in history who have shared the adventure, beginning in 1873.