Gripping the Streets in San Francisco

Cable cars in Union Square When we talk about gadgets nowadays, we usually think of them in terms of how much memory they have or how fast their processing speed is. But some of the most impressive gadgets, in my mind, are ones that rely solely on ingenuity of design and skill of the operator.

One whirring, wooden and metal example are the wondrous cable cars of San Francisco. I lived in this fantastic city for just over a year, but I only rode the cable cars a handful of times – even though the Hyde Street line took me almost door-to-door from home to work. I suppose the reason I didn’t do the cable car commute was that I was always annoyed by the tourists and their chatter, which didn’t seem to agree with me in the morning.

On a recent trip back to the city, however, I was a tourist. No longer a local, I fit right in with  visitors marveling over the little wooden cars that would climb the hills with the greatest of ease. I had forgotten how much I loved the sound of the cables whizzing by underneath the concrete, their steady hum accompanying me as I walked through the city.

The Cable Car Museum sits on the corner of Washington and Post

The Cable Car Museum sits on the corner of Washington and Mason.

I found myself at the Cable Car Museum on the corner of Washington & Mason.

“Where are you?” my friend Joe said on the other end of the cell phone. “The Cable Car Museum? I didn’t even know that existed! I’ll meet you in the Mission when you’re finished there.”

Joe has lived in the city for nearly a decade and had never heard of the museum. And I suppose that’s a feature of living in almost any place – you overlook the most impressive and glaring pieces of history. I lived with Alcatraz right out my bedroom window for a year and I’ve still never been on the rock.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned when I finally decided to look around:

The winding machines power the cables running throughout the city.

The winding machines power the cables running throughout the city.

The carbarn that is now the Cable Car Museum was built in 1887 by Ferries & Cliff House Railway Company. Cable car service on Powell Street then began in March of 1888. Underneath the museum are huge spools of winding machinery that keeps the cables moving throughout the city at 9.5 miles per hour all day every day. There are four cables, each of which forms a continuous loop that moves within channels under the roads. They’re supported by hundreds of small pulleys and a few large sheaves.

So that’s how the system itself works. What I didn’t appreciate before are the gripmen who actually operate each cable car. They’re called gripmen because they control the “grip,” which is sort of like a huge pair of pliers that reaches into the channel and clamps onto the moving cables.

The grip is used to control the speed of the cable cars.

The grip is used to control the speed of the cable cars.

When the grip holds onto the cable, the car is pulled along with it. The interesting thing to note is that the gripmen can hold the cable with varying strength, and this determines how fast the car goes. For example, if the grip is clamped tightly to the cable, the car will move as fast as the cable – 9.5 mph. If the cable is gripped loosely, however, the car will be pulled slowly. It takes a lot of strength to be a gripman. The grip weighs 327 pounds and does not have any markings to indicate how much the grip is gripping the cable. In effect, the gripmen must “feel” the positions, a skill that takes years to learn.

For a full history of how the cable cars were invented dating back to Andrew Hallidie in the 1870s, I recommend visiting this site.

So much of San Francisco is wrapped up in transportation: the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, the ferry boats and piers, the BART system that travels underneath the bay. For such a small peninsula, the city has so many avenues to travel in and out of the city. But it’s the cable cars that allow you to travel within it, picking up all the senses the city has to offer as you go: the breeze from the bay, the potent smells of North Beach and Chinatown, the sweat and grime of Union Square.

I of course recommend experiencing all the pains involved when the lactic acid in your legs builds up as you huff your way up Hyde Street, but on your way back – by all means – take the cable car.

And tip the gripman.

Instructions for the gripmen are painted on the streets throughout the cable car routes.

Instructions for the gripmen are painted on the streets throughout the cable car routes.

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