It is not surprising that San Francisco’s Cable Car transportation “system” if, indeed, it merited such a name, was not exactly planned.
Before 1850, there simply were no public conveyances. Those who did not walk rode horseback or in the few available carriages. The dislocations brought about by the Gold Rush saw the first beginnings of a transportation system in the growing city when a wooden plank toll road was built between Mission Dolores and Portsmouth Plaza.
This proved to be an expensive project and tolls, for that day were high – 25c to ride from one end of the line to the other in a carriage-wagon behind four horses.
The decade of the 1850s necessarily saw increased emphasis placed upon transportation problems, with the real start of the story coming in 1852 when an “omnibus” (i.e. a vehicle resembling a stage coach) line commenced running from Kearny and Clay streets to the old Mission; a 30-minute headway was maintained as the coaches, which contained room for many passengers, careened along the precarious wooden road with a one-way fare set at 50c – which fare was doubled on Sundays.
This was known as the “Yellow Line Number Two” to Mission Dolores by Folsom and 16th streets (1854), while the next year, still another line started operations between Townsend Street and Meggis Wharf, which was located at the foot post of Mason Street.
Soon competition brought a about the “Peoples” or “Red” Line which, to the delight of its riders, standardized its fares at 10c a ride.
Their “omnibus” seated eighteen persons who were hauled by either two- or four-horse teams, whose drivers received $2.50 for a 12 hour day which included the feeding and care of their horses.
Next there followed the horse-car period which was at its zenith from 1860 to 1873; the first incorporated line was the San Francisco Market Street Railway, which began operations on July 4, 1860, with its main line going from the Waterfront to Market and Valencia streets.
By 1863, San Francisco’s population had risen to an impressive 94,000 and added transportation facilities were needed; this came about steadily if gradually with four more horse-car lines in operation by 1870.
By 1875, eight railway companies were in competitive operation in the city, including the new-born Clay Street Cable, about which more presently.
By the same year, San Francisco could boast of 220 cars running on 80 miles of track which employed 700 men and used the services of 1,700 horses.