The Clay Street Hill Railroad

I pity the tourists that queue halfway up Powell St. and stoically endure a barrage of preachers and tap dancers and hot dog vendors in order to ride a famed cable car. I could tell them that they should go up a few streets and hop on a train without the wait, or that maybe they ought to try boarding at Fisherman’s Wharf instead, or even that — gasp! — their City by the Bay experience might still be complete sans cable car. But instead I pass on by, smirking inside, and walk up and over Nob Hill to the totally-worth-the-free-admission-and-no-line Cable Car Museum.

Calling it a “museum” is both generous and doesn’t do the place justice. There are a few diagrams showing how the grip functions: the giant lever you see the gripman/woman heaving back and forth ducks below the tracks to grab the cable below — tightening the grip pulls the car at the full 9.5 mph cable speed, while allowing some play lets the cable slide through and slow the car. A large panel lays out the history of the seven competing cable car companies that existed back in their heyday in the later 1800’s [The Clay Street Hill Railroad being the first]; some photos of pre- and post- 1906 earthquake and fire are interesting but unrelated to the exhibit. The display of wood part patterns [above, used to make metal casting molds] coin holders and ticket punches are pretty nifty . . .

But the real draw here is the up-close view of the giant pulleys that cycle 57,300 feet of cable throughout the city and haul thousands of people up and down our quad-burning hills. With three car lines and three driving sheaves per line [pronounced “shihv,” and technically one driver, one idler to provide controlled friction, and a tensioner to account for gradual stretching of the cable], the combined engine noise, cable whiz, and sheave whirl generates a deafening industrial roar.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop, and you’ll be glad to know that your nightmares of riding a cable car when suddenly SNAP! the cable breaks and you go plummeting backwards down Nob Hill in an uncontrollable slide! are completely unrealistic, thanks to the repairmen on call. A super-advanced warning system triggers an alarm as soon as an unravelling cable strand is detected — U-shaped switches placed at intervals along the cable are knocked over when a loose wire passes through — and that night the repairmen take to the barn to fix it. Old photos of the crew show a bunch of rough-and-tumble men with shaggy beards and stained coveralls; they’re get-shit-done-and-down-a-six-pack-afterwards kind of guys and it’s a job that requires that attitude. The broken section of cable is first pulled into the car barn and cut out, and then a new length of cable is painstakingly spliced in — no lumps or the cable won’t run smoothly — 90 feet in either direction of the break. It takes hours to complete the backbreaking work, and despite all our modern technological advancements, this is one task best done by skilled workers and a few good pairs of hands.

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