Ding, Ding, Ding, a Ding, Ding, a Dinga Ding. Cable Cars and Other Delights.

We had a great time riding the cable cars in San Francisco.  The California street cable car climbs Nob Hill, past China Town, the Mark Hopkins and Grace Cathedral.  We rode it at night and the next day at dusk climbing Nob Hill, riding the cable car into the sunset.   The Powell & Hyde cable car descends Russian Hill with spectacular views of Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz.  The on the Powell& Hyde Line they practice combat transit.  The cars have seats inside and outside and running boards where standees can hang on for the ride.  Two people swung onto the cable car, their backpacks smashing into the person sitting in the seats.  The grip-man (he operates the levers that grip the cable that runs in a slot under the street and move the cable along the track) had to yell at back packers to remove their packs before swinging onto the running boards.  The grip-man must be careful of traffic.  Our cable car crested Russian Hill to find a tourist was standing just on brink — and on the track — taking a picture down the hill toward Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz.  The grip-man started madly ringing the bell.  The tourist just stood there.  He pulled out a whistle and started blowing adding a shrill tweet to the clanging.  The photographer finally got the idea and got out of the way.  Powell & Hyde grip-men do double duty pushing the cable cars onto a turntable and turning the cars around using muscle power.

As I mentioned cable cars are pulled by cables running in slots under the street.  The grip-man operates levers that attach and release the car to and from cable.  He has to release the cable before cables cross or there can be a real snarl.  There is also a break man on the crew, necessary given the hills.  If you’re climbing a steep hill releasing the grip just before the top may not be a good idea, you better hope the breaks work quickly.  New York City considered a cable car subway system.  The London subway used steam locomotives.  That created a sooty mess in the tunnels.  Cables cars are driven from a central station.  A single large steam engine can pull cables for several lines.  One plan was to run the subways as cable cars creating traction without crating tunnel soot.  Fortunately electric motors became practical at about the time New York built its subway (The El used steam at the beginning).  Early electric motors were not powerful enough to propel a cable car up steep hills like San Francisco’s.  While San Francisco did develop an electric street car system for flatter runs, it kept its hill climbing cable cars, much to the delight of tourists and the future profit (at $7 for a single ride, no transfer) of the Municipal (Muni) Railway system.

Electric street cars, or trolleys, are still, or perhaps I should say again, a feature of San Francisco’s transit.  They run from Fisherman’s Wharf, along the Embarcadero, where the elevated freeway used to travel and along Market Street from the Ferry Building to the Castro (with its huge rainbow flag.)  San Francisco resurrected them when it had to shut down the cable cars for two years to do major repairs on the running gear.  They felt they needed an iconic form of transit to replace the cable cars for those two years.  They brought old San Francisco cars out of retirement as well as buying trolley cars from other cities.  The cable cars are fixed and the electric trolleys are still running.  I saw cars, in their original livery, from Boston and El Paso as well as from San Francisco.  The cars were mostly streamlined post World War II cars made of steel, not the wooden streetcars of New Orleans fame.  Some of them were the 1946 deign I remember as a kid, from Jersey City and Newark.  I loved those trolley cars; it was a special treat to ride the Jackson Avenue line with my grandmother.  The cars seemed to glide along so quietly compared with the noisy and smelly buses that replaced them.  I named my toy box the trolley car.  It was part of my life long after the street cars were gone and Jersey City’s tracks ripped up.

I saw a robbery attempt on one of the street cars.  A man was arguing with the driver over fares, a woman was right behind him on the tram’s steps.  His confederate was standing on the ground below the woman.  The man arguing with the driver stepped backwards knocking the woman off balance.  Her glasses fell on the ground and as she tried to regain balance the confederate reached into her bag and took her wallet.  Fortunately her husband and I were standing behind the confederate and the husband intercepted the wallet grab causing the wallet to drop near the glasses.  We retrieved them both.  The would-be thief had the cahonas (I think that’s the proper California term) to say that he was just trying to help the woman because the wallet had fallen out of the purse.   The British woman did not get on the trolley with a good impression of the Golden Gate city.


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