How Andrew Smith Hallidie started a wire rope business and invented the cable car in San Francisco.
San Francisco cable cars were invented by a British immigrant Andrew Smith Hallidie. Once called “Hallidie’s Folly,” San Francisco is now known for his popular cable cars.
Cable Car History
Andrew Hallidie Smith was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1836 but moved to London when he was small. His Scottish father, also called Andrew, was an inventor who held several patents for metal wire rope. Hallidie worked in his older brother’s machine shop until 16 when Hallidie and his father decided to go to Northern California to investigate a gold mine. Life in the gold country was rough – his father went back to England after a year. But Hallidie stayed and kept himself busy. His greatest achievement at the time was his perfection of a product that his father had patented in England – wire rope. He introduced the rope to the Pacific Coast and put it to use hauling ore and workers out of the mines. During this time, he changed his name to Andrew Hallidie as there were so many Smiths in San Francisco.
Hallidie’s Wire Rope
On a wet windy day in 1869, Hallidie and his friend Joe Britton watched in horror as a passenger-carrying horse car struggling up Jackson Street slipped on the wet cobblestones. The incident caused the other horses, unable to escape their rigging, to fall and be dragged down the street. The passengers were not injured but all the horses suffered broken legs and had to be destroyed. “Andrew, why don’t you put that wire rope of yours to use pulling these cars and prevent these accidents?,” said Britton.
Creating a Cable Car System
To cope with the rapidly growing population, San Francisco, a city of many steep hills, desperately needed an inexpensive, effective means of public transportation that would also make land more accessible. Hallidie designed a cable car system that would run along a continuous cable powered by a steam generator. But many people were skeptical as the idea was untried as a form of urban transportation. Over the next few years, Hallidie worked hard to try securing financial backing for his project.
He eventually constructed the world’s first cable car system and his Clay Street Hill Railroad made its first test run on August 2, 1873. To test the dummy car’s safety, Hallidie attached ropes to the car, tied them off on a telephone pole at the top of the Clay Street hill at Jones, and gradually lowered the car down the hill. A crowd of curious people gathered at Clay and Kearny streets to participate in the first public ride. The evening edition of the San Francisco Bulletin praised: “The success of the experiment was greater than the projectors anticipated…The facility with which the fastener can be made to cling to the cable is wonderful. There is none of the jerking anticipated, owning to the gradual tightening of the clamp around the cable.” Once called “Hallidie’s Folly,” his cable car project was a huge success.
- Joyce Jansen, 1995, San Francisco’s Cable Cars, Woodford Press, San Francisco