Hallidie, horses, and cable cars

Andrew Smith Hallidie   | Photo Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The cable cars in the city of San Francisco are the world’s last manually operated cable car systems. As these were named a national historic landmark in 1964, it means that the city is one of the few places in the world where you can actually ride on a national landmark. What’s more, these rides operate more or less the same way as they did in August 1873, when it was demonstrated successfully for the first time by the inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie.

Born in London in 1836, Andrew Smith adopted the surname Hallidie to honour his godfather and uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, who had been a physician to King William IV and Queen Victoria. With an early training that had a scientific and mechanical focus, Hallidie was able to construct an electrical machine at the young age of 10.

Moves to San Francisco

By 13, Hallidie began working in a shop run by his brother, gaining practical experience to go along with his evening studies. Seeing that the manual labour in the day followed by studying at night was undermining his son’s health, Hallidie’s father decided to take him to California. And so it was that in 1852 Hallidie reached San Francisco, a city that he totally fell in love with.

While his father was disappointed with his venture and returned to England in 1853, Hallidie decided to stay on. He travelled for several years trying his hand at mining – a fruitless exercise that was far from uneventful. From being carried on a piece of timber over the rapids of a river to getting caught in the midst of a forest fire, Hallidie had several near-escapes, experiences that he enjoyed regaling people with in his later life.

Hallidie ropeway

Following his return to San Francisco in 1857 after abandoning mining, Hallidie built a good reputation designing wire suspension bridges. As the construction of bridges not only put him out in nature for extended durations, but also often kept him away from his beloved San Francisco, Hallidie decided to devote himself to work pertaining to wire ropes.

With a rich and diverse working experience to go along with his mechanical genius, Hallidie went on to create a number of things, and took out numerous patents for his inventions. Among these, the “Hallidie ropeway” – a method of transporting ore and other materials in iron buckets even across mountainous districts using an elevated, endless moving line – that he invented was the most popular.

Steep slopes

By 1871, Hallidie had expanded upon the concept and patented ideas for the cable car system.

He mentions in a report that the idea occurred to him when he witnessed the “difficulty and pain the horses experience” when they were employed to haul up carriages over the streets of San Francisco. A number of horses was used in some streets as the slopes in these places were so hard for a single horse to surmount.

Even though he had a sound idea, Hallidie struggled to secure the necessary capital. He was met with a lot of derision, and the only ones who backed him in the project did it for their friendship. A company was formed in 1872 and shares were subscribed by the public to raise some capital. The bulk of the money required still came from Hallidie himself, three of his friends, and a 10-year loan with a property as security.

Hallidie started the engineering work in 1872, with an August 1, 1873 deadline to have a running cable car, barring which his rights would expire. Despite being confronted with several new difficulties on an everyday basis that might have crushed a less determined man, Hallidie soldiered on, devising machinery and innumerable parts, including those required for the difficult task of creating the hole for the underground cables.

Delivers on deadline day

Finally, at five in the morning on August 1, a small group that included Hallidie and a few of his associates stood at the top of the Clay Street hill at the Jones Street crossing. Hallidie assured his friends that there was no cause for alarm and the car made it to the bottom without incident, even though several aspects of its functioning were tested along the way. The dummy was reversed and the car then made it successfully up the steep Clay Street grade.

There was no fanfare surrounding the successful demonstration. It was accepted soberly, with only a round of silent handshakes. Hallidie, however, was able to see the fruits of his tireless labour over the years as cable railroads soon spread to various parts of the country. Many of his inventions were used and he was able to collect royalties, even though he had overlooked the importance of patenting certain important aspects of the system.

Hallidie became a respected citizen of San Francisco, and he devoted a lot of time and effort towards the welfare of the community. By the time he died at his San Francisco residence in 1900, his cable cars were already an icon of the city.

Like many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on the cable cars, and their service was halted in San Francisco. The good news, however, is that they are already back in action for testing and will resume full service come September.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 9:58:54 AM |

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