5 things you didn't know about cable cars

You've seen the postcards, now get the inside rail on SF's corniest cars

Get it out of the way now: roll those eyes. The cable cars are something no native San Franciscan would ever bring up in polite (that is, local) company, let alone write about in a blog post. But fact is, there's a reason why these things are iconic. Those cars have as speckled and quirky a history as the City by the Bay. 

San Franciscans steeped in facts and figures about the tourist-movers probably know that ours is the last operating cable car system in the world and that its design hasn’t changed much since Andrew Hallidie devised it upon seeing an overloaded horse-car slip down a hill in the rain. Perhaps you’ve heard that the four remaining lines each rely on a continuous loop of cable running under your feet at a constant 9.5 miles per hour, powered by electrical motors and a system of pulleys and huge wheels. If you’ve ever visited the Cable Car Museum (c’mon folks, it’s free) you’ve seen the sheaves pulling the cable along, and you’ve learned that the cars operate by grabbing the cable with giant pliers that reach through the floor and into a slot in the street where the cable runs. 

Bored yet? Stifle that yawn, we're just getting started. Read on for five things you haven’t heard about those postcard pretties.


I know why the caged bird . . . rings?

The famous author, poet, and social activist Maya Angelou dropped out of Mission High School at 15 to work the cable cars. “The thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy,” she later recalled in 1969's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou won the job as San Francisco’s first African American (and female) cable car conductor by heckling reluctant company managers until they caved and she was hired to ring the cars’ bells and swing “on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading [her] charges to ‘step forward in the car, please.’”

Smokin’ tracks

Ever noticed a certain funk riding in a cable car? It wasn't the guy next to you. It’s caused by two materials that play a critical role in starting and stopping the car: the pine resin that greases the cable and the wooden brake shoes, made from Douglas fir, that press against the tracks to stop the car. Friction causes the wooden brakes to smoke, meaning they must be replaced every three days with new ones milled locally at a shop on 22nd Street and Indiana. Friction from the pliers-like grip grabbing the cable likewise melts and then vaporizes the pine tar. This results in a smooth, lubricated start-up, but is also responsible for the burning and odor. (And if that sounds a bit too familiar, perhaps you should call your doctor...) Like the wooden brakes, the grip that grabs the cable must be replaced every three days for wear.

The cable car: the Imelda Marcos of public transportation. (Stack of brake shoes at the Cable Car Museum). Photo by Emily Appelbaum

Move over, men

Working as a grip operator requires incredible dexterity and also the nuanced ability to feel the cable, picking it up slowly to ease the car to full speed. Though well over half of trainees drop from the teaching program each year, the required combination of subtlety and strength make gripping the perfect job for powerful women like Fannie Mae Barnes, who became the city’s first female grip in 1997. 

“A lot of guys will try to muscle the grip, but it’s really more a finesse thing – you have to leverage it with your body weight,” Barnes told the Guardian in an interview last fall. Barnes retired in 2007, but when San Francisco’s second female grip, Willa Johnson, took the post last April, Barnes presented her with a pair of custom-made pink leather grip gloves, emblazoned with her name.

Beyond the bells

The Slot Blades, named for the cars’ emergency braking system, is a band composed entirely of SF Muni workers who conduct and grip the city’s cable cars. Their moniker is a tongue of metal that, when deployed, wedges itself so tightly against the tracks it must be removed with a torch. The cable-proud band gets together for practices and jam sessions in addition to playing at Muni and cable car-related events like the annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest – now in its 49th year.

Falling cars and free love

Forget stranded cables and smashed cars: San Francisco’s most infamous cable car victim may be Gloria Sykes, who claimed that a 1964 accident left her with a black eye, bruises, and an unquenchable sex drive.

When a mechanical failure caused the car she was riding to slide backwards down a hill, Sykes – later dubbed the "cable car nymphomaniac" by the daily newspapers -- sued the City of San Francisco for a half million dollars. Her lawyers argued that the sexual abuse she suffered as a child combined with the stress of the accident caused her to seek the company of up to 50 sexual partners a week. After listening to 44 taped transcripts of an electrically hypnotized Sykes, the jury awarded the insatiable (ha) plaintiff $50,000 in damages. Sykes’ case is cited as one of the earliest court-recognized examples of post-traumatic stress disorder.


San Francisco Cable Car Wheelhouse from Emily Appelbaum on Vimeo.

Check out the inner wheelings and dealings of the SF Cable Car Museum. Here, the whirling electric motors that power the cars. Video by Emily Appelbaum


Also from this author

  • Heated debate

    Bikram hot yoga's campaign for copyright has implication for the Bay Area scene

  • Down Dog break down

    We rate the yogis -- which famous Bay Area yoga teacher is right for you?

  • Live Shots: The old-timey escapades of the Edwardian Ball