Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


FROM TIME to time, I have an image of a lovely Judy Garland hanging off a San Francisco cable car as she sings “The Trolley Song.” Ah, but the mind plays subtle tricks.

Though her wonderful CD Judy at Carnegie Hall includes both “San Francisco” and “The Trolley Song,” the latter had nothing to do with the former (other than muddling my mental images).


Judy at Carnegie Hall, Judy Garland, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Sunday, April 23, 1961. Orchestra under the direction of Mort Lindsey, Capitol Records, 1989.

On the album’s song “San Francisco” Judy improvises a line “hanging off a cable car.” And, later, she sings “The Trolley Song,” which actually comes from her 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis.


Meet Me in St. Louis, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1944. Rhino Records CD, 1995. See for film data.

The movie and song celebrate the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, that city’s electrification and its first electric trolley.

One day I’ll study up on the transition of trolley cars from horse-drawn to electrically driven. Here I offer details of the San Francisco cable car, documented in the April 1962 issue of Road & Track magazine and viewable at the Cable Car Guy’s entertaining website,

The first of San Francisco’s cable car lines was designed and built in 1873 by a Scot named Andred Hallidie, who recognized the challenge of transportation up and down the city’s steep hills.


The Powell & Hyde Sts. cable car. Image by John O’Neill.

Hallidie’s response was to propel the street cars not by individual motors, but rather by a single electrically driven cable running at constant speed beneath the streets.


The system at today’s Cable Car Barn and Museum, 1201 Mason Street,. Image from

The combination car barn, workshop, museum and power house is located at Mason and Washington Streets. The cables (there are four separate ones) travel from 10-ft. sheaves through complex arrays of pulleys that take them up and down hills and around corners—all at a constant 9.5 mph.

In motion, the cable car is connected to its cable by a grip fitted through a slot running in the center of its tracks.


The cable is gripped by this sizable device known, appropriately enough, as a grip. Wikipedia image by HaeB.

The cable car grip, designed by Hallidie, is actuated by a long lever that closes a clamping yoke lined with replaceable steel dies. Once gripped, there is no slippage. And because of the importance of this device, a cable car operator is known as a gripman. (The first female grip operator, Fannie Mae Barnes, earned her position on January 15, 1998.)


All cable car controls fall readily to hand—or foot. Wikipedia image by Robert A. Estremo.

There are three separate brake systems, plus a failsafe. The gripman operates a hand brake through a second lever which forces pine blocks directly onto the rails. He also has a pedal that actuates steel brake shoes against the front wheels. The cable car conductor has a hand crank actuating similar railway brakes on the rear wheels.

The failsafe is a red lever on the gripman’s left. It forces a steel wedge down into the cable slot and likely requires a torch to undo its retardation.


Everything you’d want to know about performance of a San Francisco Cable Car. Image from R&T, April 1962.

R&T identifies the San Francisco cable car as “the ultimate town car, with instant acceleration, fantastic wear index, all-weather traction, phenomenal passenger capacity, and an unmatched degree of customer loyalty.”

An automaker should be so lucky. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. William Rabel
    March 13, 2014

    Dennis –
    My wife and I were once aboard a runaway cable car in San Francisco. I forget the route, but it made a couple of noticeably higher-speed runs going downhill, with the gripman struggling to manage. After the second or third stop, we proceeded, but at an alarming rate — definitely over 9.5mph. The grip man hollered for everyone to get ready to jump off when the car turned, adding that it would run away if it got to the next hill. The route had stair-stepped downhill, but came to a left turn at the next level intersection, where we braced for the jump. Fortunately, the car jumped the track and derailed, stopping the car. This happened in the late 80’s, as I recall. We walked the rest of the way back to the hotel.

    • simanaitissays
      March 13, 2014

      Scary! And it makes one wonder about the efficacy of that third “spike” brake.

  2. Jeff Wright
    March 13, 2014

    R&T’s annual April fool’s edition was always my favorite of the year. I just couldn’t wait to see what tongue-in-cheek “road test” the editors would dream up. Ahh, the good ol’ days of a classy magazine with a great sense of humor.

    • Anton Thortzen
      March 21, 2014

      I couldn’t agree more. What happened to that feeling of somehow belonging to the R&T family when you subscribed to the mag for many years. I am on my 31st year and am considering to stop as a subscriber when my subscription ends next year. For an April’s fool test how about a serious radio controlled battery powered car? Fast machines!

  3. sabresoftware
    March 14, 2014

    I imagine that the cable cars must have a battery to power lighting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: