What could be more San Francisco that a ride on a cable car? In my view nothing – and it is just such unalloyed fun.
Cable cars were introduced in San Francisco in the late 1800s as a novel way of dealing with the hills which were confounding horse-drawn trams. They are like the cable cars of the Swiss Alps in the sense they work by grabbing hold of a moving cable; the difference is that in San Francisco the cable runs underground.
With a maximum speed of 9.55 miles-an-hour, the cars do not reach death-defying speeds and that means that you can sit facing outwards or even stand upon the running-board. Thanks to the hills, it’s an exhilarating experience and the fact it’s so manual makes it… quaint. The driver or ‘gripman’, manually controls the car by pulling on a lever that grips the moving cable. Driving is more about feel and judgement than any defined buttons or positions. Our first driver knew perfectly well that he was driving as many tourists as locals and made the whole experience totally entertaining.
We caught the cable car from the centre of the city down to the waterfront. At the end of the line the car is turned around on a turntable. We couldn’t work out how the whole thing functioned until we realised it was all done by hand. The driver and conductor push the car onto the turntable, stomp round to make it turn and then push it back off until the car engages with the moving cable. It’s just a lovely system.
On the way back up the hills we stopped at the, free, powerhouse where you can see some fascinating history of the cable cars and the City. More significantly you can watch the motors turn and push the cables round the whole system. While, at one level, it’s just some huge wheels turning several miles of metal cable, it’s entirely engaging and mesmerising. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience in every way.