It was the invention of the cable car that put the high in San Francisco’s high society, as it made life on the hills both possible and practical. Since 1873, these trams (trolleys) have been an integral part of life in the city, supposedly thanks to Scotland-born Andrew Hallidie’s concern for horses. Having watched a team struggle and fall, breaking their legs on a steep San Franciscan street, Hallidie designed a pulley system around the thick wire rope his father had patented for use in the California mines (the Gold Rush was slowing, so the Hallidies needed a new market for their product). Despite locals’ initial doubts, a transport revolution followed. At their peak, just before the 1906 earthquake, hundreds of cable cars travelled 110 miles of track throughout the city; over the years, usage dwindled and, in 1964, nostalgic citizens voted to preserve the last seventeen miles (now just 10) as a National Historic Landmark.
The cars fasten onto a moving two-inch cable that runs beneath the streets, gripping on the ascent, then releasing at the top and gliding down the other side. You can see the huge motors that still power these cables at the excellent Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse, 1201 Mason St, at Washington (cablecarmuseum.org).