The First Ride On The Rope – The Story of the Cable Cars – Part 6

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cablecar3The details surrounded the first operation of the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company have been told many times; surprisingly, though, except in one or two accounts, the date of this first operation has been incorrectly stated.

Practically all printed accounts (as well as the inscription in what appears to be imperishable bronze on the plaque at Kearny and Clay Streets) give the date as August 1, 1873. For example, the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s official brochure thus pictures the scene:

The morning of August 1 (1873) was cool and damp. Fog rolled in from the ocean beyond Point Lobos in swirling could banks. The rails were damp and everyone feared for the brakes. Only a handful of people climbed out of their beds to watch a small group of men anxiously tinkering with the brightly painted wooded trolley standing at the top of Clay Street. No crowds cheered or bells rang as the first cable car in history made its maiden run that day.

This statement is incorrect: a part street car, part cable car line, the London and Blackwell Passenger Railway, predates Hallidie’s venture by thirty-seven years; it first operated in 1836.

Nothing demonstrated the Scotsman’s complete confidence in his own design better than the fact that he chose to make the initial trip from the top (of Clay Street) down (to Kearny Street) – a distance of six city blocks. An ordinary man would have started at the bottom of the hill. Then, if things did go wrong, he wouldn’t be streaking down six blocks of near precipice to land in a heap of splintered wreckage! Some such thoughts must have passed through the first grip-man’s mind as he boarded the little car poised on the crest. According to reports, he took one long look down the steep, fog-shrouded hill, turned pale and disappeared. Hallidie stepped forward, waved a cheery farewell t the small crowd, took hold of the grip wheel himself – the original grip was tightened by a screw – and began to turn it. The car slowly “took the rope” and rolled smoothly over the brink and down the 20% grade at and even nine miles an hour. Thus was set in operation the first cable car line in the United States, the Clay Street Hill Railroad.

Most probably, this account is substantially correct; however, an examination of several San Francisco newspapers reporting the even in their Sunday (August 3, 1873) issues reveals that they are unanimous in stating that the event took place on the previous day, i.e. Saturday, August 2.

Actually, Hallidie’s franchise demanded that he start operations on or before August 1; it would seem that, because of some unforeseen difficulties, he obtained permission to extend the date by one day and made his successful decent of the Clay Street hill on Saturday, August 2, 1873.

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog

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