Hemp and San Francisco’s Cable Cars

by Ellen Komp

Andrew Hallidie, the man who brought San Francisco its cable car in 1873, was in the business of providing wire-rope for suspension bridges, mining hoists and related devices. These took the place of the huge hemp hawsers that were nine inches around and more than a mile long in some cases, costing as much as three thousand dollars. Halladie’s wire-rope design was one and one-quarter inches in diameter, with a hemp center and a steel wrap. A. S. Hallidie & Co. commenced the manufacture of wire rope in 1857 at Mason and Chestnut Streets in San Francisco.

The inclusion of hemp gave Hallidie’s rope better resistance to friction and more flexibility when a load was applied, protecting it against breakage and making for smoother turns. Each of the four ropes, Mason, Powell, Hyde and California, is one continuous loop and each passes through the powerhouse at Mason and Washington streets.

Halladie’s East coast counterpart, Brooklyn Bridge builder John A. Roebling, used no hemp in his wire-rope. He began developing his product, ropewalk style, at a long level meadow in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, using crude machinery to coil wire from a mill in Beaver Falls, northwest of Pittsburgh. A six-hundred-foot wire-rope was tried out in Johnstown in September 1841, but the test failed because someone hired by the hemp rope interests had secretly cut it at a splice. When the sabotage was discovered, Roebling’s invention was retested successfully and soon adopted for the entire Allegheny Portage Railroad system on the canals, as well as for dredging equipment, pile drivers, and coal mines. Production in Saxonburg escalated, where “farmers were metamorphosed into mechanics.”

Roebling had success with a crude kind of cable car, the “incline” in Pittsburgh, which moved vertically but made no turns. He envisioned a bridge train for the Brooklyn Bridge, based on San Francisco’s cable car system. “An ingenious arrangement for attaching cars to a moving rope, devised by Col. W. H. Paine, has been successfully at work for more than a year on Sutter Street Railways in San Francisco,” Roebling informed the Bridge’s trustees. Roebling attributed the smoothness of the cars’ operation to Paine’s grip rather than the hemp fiber core of Hallidie’s ropes.

Cable cars as public transportation reached their peak about 1890, when electric trolleys began to compete. By 1902 all Los Angeles cable lines had been replaced with electric ones, except in a few places like Angels Flight. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city’s cable system and cars. Only the Washington-Jackson, Sacramento-Clay, Powell-Mason, Castro and California Street cable lines were replaced. The rest of the city was connected by electric trolley, with the exception of the Fillmore Hill line’s last two blocks with their 22 percent grade.

In April 1941 the Castro line folded, after a motor bus rammed one of its remaining five cable cars. A year later, the Sacramento-Clay line also ended. The end of WWII lead to plentiful rubber and gas, and new diesel motor buses powerful enough to climb Nob Hill. In his annual message of 1947, SF Mayor Roger Lapham, a steamship owner, demanded that the Board of Supervisors abolish the cables lines that were operated by the Municipal Railway System and expected the privately-owned California Street Cable Railway to phase itself out. Lapham ordered buses to take over the lines in 30 days’ time.

The cable cars were saved when Mrs. Hans Klussman organized the Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars, gaining national press and the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and movie queen Irene Dunne in its successful effort to fund the cable lines’ refurbishment with bonds.

Senator Dianne Feinstein joked about hemp and procuring it for cable cars at a press conference in 2012, as the feds were raiding medical marijuana dispensaries.

Cable Car by Christopher Swan © 1973, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
The Great Bridge by David McCullough, © 1972 Simon and Schuster, New York
The Archaeology of the Cable Car by W. W. Hanscom, © 1970 Socio-Technical Books, Pasadena
“Andrew Smith Hallidie” by Edgar Myron Kahn http://www.sfmuseum.org/bio/hallidie.html (accessed 2/6/2011)

NOTES: Hallidie served as trustee of the First Unitarian Church, and as its moderator in 1883 and 1884. He was a regent of the University of California from 1868 until his death in 1900. In 1873, Hallidie stood for election to the California State Senate, and in 1875 he stood for election as mayor of San Francisco, but in both cases he was defeated.

A. S. Hallidie & Co. became the California Wire Works in 1883 with Hallidie as president. In 1895, it was sold to Washburn and Moen Co., the oldest manufacturers of wire in the United States (established in 1831). Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Smith_Hallidie (accessed 2/6/2011).

The United States Government Master Specification for Wire Rope (#297, issued May 1925) says fiber cores for wire rope shall be “of the required material, either cotton or one of the hard fibers…manila (abaca), java (African, Mexican, or Yucatan) and sisal. Jute fiber shall not be used…In the event of war, jute would probably be unobtainable.” Hemp is not mentioned except for maritime use: “Marline covering for wire rope shall be good quality, hard American or Russian hemp.”