The San Francisco cable cars go back to 1873 and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even more special, as our gripman informed on our recent cable car ride, is that they are a moving national monument. And nobody is more important than the gripman when it comes to the very last hand-operated cable car system on earth.
Just How Do the Cable Cars Work?
To find out how the San Francisco cable cars start, get up and down the steep hills, slow down, coast, stop, and turn around, head for the free San Francisco Cable Car Museum. More than a museum, this is a working powerhouse. To appreciate cable car operational magic, you’ll need to see what’s inside and learn the secrets of what’s underground.
The Cables Are Always On
Cable cars don’t have an engine or a motor. A cable of six steel strands containing 19 wires each wrapped around a rope runs underground. The cable moves at a speed of 9.5 miles per hour. The car grabs onto the cable with a giant plier apparatus controlled by the gripman and is pulled along the track, except for when it is allowed to coast downhill. When reaching the end of the track, the car runs onto a turntable to be hand-turned by gripman and conductor. Sounds simple? It’s not.
The Gripman’s Job
Our smiling gripman was pleased to say that a gripman is a highly coordinated and physically superior being who has beaten “98 percent of the competition” and endured rigorous training. He is charming; knowledgeable; helpful to tourists; and perpetually on the lookout for cars, pedestrians, and bikes as he navigates the grip’s tug for correct speed at hills and intersections.
The Conductor’s Job
The gripman and the conductor train and work in tandem, with the conductor as the rear brakeman for hilly descents while also managing passengers and collecting fares. As tourists enjoy hanging off the rails for photo opportunities, his is a watchful eye indeed, especially around famous Lombard Street, the second most crookedest street in the world. “Obviously,” our gripman chuckled, “the crookedest street is Wall Street.”
Ringing the Bell
One ring for a stop, two rings to go, three rings for an emergency stop, and four rings for a pretty girl – that’s how our gripman explained how he uses the cable car bell which hangs above him. However, the plaque in the museum indicates four rings mean back up. Gripmen are known for their good sense of humor.
Cable Car Highlights
Our gripman took us to the cable car turnaround at the end of the Powell-Hyde line. If you like Irish coffee and a world-famous view, you’re in the right place. Before grabbing a seat at the Buena Vista Cafe, check out the most picturesque cable car location in the city, where the Golden Gate Bridge is the backdrop. Here’s a tip from our gripman: When there are long lines at the turnaround, walk a couple of blocks along the route and wave at the conductor, who reserves some space to collect passengers. The fare is $6.
Annual Bell-Ringing Contest
At noon on September 6, 2012, I’ll be looking for our gripman at Union Square for the cable car gripmen’s bell-ringing contest. Listen to three-time winner Leonard Oats. It’s been free since 1949.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
April 1 through September 30: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
October 1 through March 3: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is free.
Open daily except New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.