The traffic cop assigned to control the many San Francisco cable cars passing through the intersection of California Street and Powell-Hyde despairs:
“Friend, one more of these and I'll have to fine you. And look, I don't like to fine pedestrians at all."
For once, the afternoon is sunny. On Powell-Hyde Street, an eager and undisciplined horde of visitors crosses and recrosses, waiting in the middle of the streets, camera at the ready.
He pulls away only at the last moment and moves again to the opposite side, in repeated reckless movements that drive the brakemen to despair.
With cameras at the ready, they resist. They await the sliding cabins in the various bends that the road has imposed on the relief.
the same bumps as Clint Eastwood and the detective Dirty Harry Callahan who represented climbed against the system and in the opposite direction, at the wheel of an emblematic blue sedan, during endless police chases
A Secular Heritage of the City of the Hills
There are two of the main lines of cable cars from São Francisco, similar to the “trams” of Alfacinhas, or the trams of Brazil. The sliding cabins may not surprise outsiders from Lisbon, or from one or another European city or the world.
But, in the unusual scenario in which they are inserted, as they are one of the main brand images of the city, they generate a redoubled enthusiasm that drivers and authorities are used to forgiving.
A Alcatraz prison appears in the background, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. A blanket of purple fog glides behind the island that welcomed it. It adds a mystical touch of beauty to the setting. With Alcatraz, there are now three symbols of the city in a single image, to the delight of various photographers, from beginners to professionals.
Inside each funicular the environment is also far from peaceful. Passengers are also, for the most part, outsiders.
Even though there are vacant seats, some of the younger ones insist on hanging outside. They see travel as a radical new experience, and lean too far out in the name of photography and adventure.
They ignore the repeated warnings from the brakeman patients and the security guards who follow in the rear of the cabins. “Do young people out there mind not surfing so much, please? There are obstacles along the way. If something happens, we're all in trouble…”
Cable Cars from Frisco: Andrew Hallidie's Providential Creation
Andrew Hallidie never imagined that, 138 years later, his creation still made such a rage. And, if most of the admirers and passengers today come out of this frenzy unscathed, it was a terrible accident in one of the city's hills that convinced this Englishman to develop the first funicular in San Francisco.
In 1869, 17 years after arriving from Britain, Hallidie was walking down a steep, rain-soaked street. Without warning, a carriage that barely managed to climb the incline lost traction due to obvious excess weight and began to descend.
It gained such speed that, when it crashed, it killed the five horses that were pulling it, a tragedy that impressed him as well as countless other passersby and the authorities.
In the land of opportunity, Hallidie wasted no time. Overseas, her father had registered the first patent for the manufacture of steel cable and Hallidie had already used it in bridges and mine hoisting systems in various parts of the Californian Gold Country. The next step was to move production to San Francisco and build a transportation system worthy of its hills.
The work was perfected throughout the late 1892th century, but by XNUMX a network of trams was already operating in other areas of the city with construction and maintenance costs much lower than those of San Francisco cable cars, which put them under the pressure of company that managed the trams, the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway.
Since then, in the same way as the itineraries they travel through, their past has had countless ups and downs.
The discussion got worse, polarized between the financial aspect and the unaesthetic of the poles and cables necessary for trams. Until the great earthquake of 1906 destroyed several cabins and other infrastructure of the cable cars and forced United Railroads to give in to electricity.
Journey from Near Extinction to Tourist Glory
In 1912, there were only 8 left and only because they served hills that cable cars could not overcome. By 1944, the decay had deepened and there were only 2 of the famous Powell Street left.
At the end of the 70s, in addition to being diminished, the system proved to be too worn out and dangerous and was deactivated. But after every bass there is a high, and soon history would turn around.
Tourism was becoming more and more important for the city and the successive major they finally saw in San Francisco cable cars, icons that should be valued.
A Democratic Party convention in Frisco helped to justify the huge financial effort, and in June 1984 the system was reactivated in time to benefit from the publicity that the political event would bring.
Since then, its recovery has intensified, as has the interest of visitors and the pride of the city's rulers and inhabitants even more so because the new three-line system is the last in the world to be permanently operated manually.
A Profession That Is Not For Everyone
As we've been able to understand on several trips, it's not just anyone who becomes a brakeman (gripman) of San Francisco cable cars. Only about 30% pass the training course and, to date, only one woman – with the very southern name of Fannie May Barnes – was hired in 1998.
This is a job that requires a strong trunk but, at the same time, it is relatively qualified as the braking and release operation requires common sense, sensitivity and coordination so that the vehicles come to a standstill in the indicated places and anticipate possible collisions and tragedies, something that is not always possible.
The relics' safety record is far from famous. An investigation supported by figures from the US Department of Transportation found that nearly every week the cable cars they crash into other vehicles or hit pedestrians, or they brake too hard and injure passengers or crew.
From time to time, there are serious accidents and even deaths. As Miguel Duarte, a Hispanic brakeman, summarizes: “…many people think they are in Disneyland, that this is a kind of roller coaster.” "We make it look easy but believe me it's not."
The Troubled Financial Management of San Francisco Cable Cars
The same can be said of the mission of the reviewers who have long struggled to defeat the opportunists and quasi-anarchists of the lower-middle class of the city, known for hosting a large number of billionaires but also for its high unemployment and a sub-population of homeless.
Another study carried out in 2007 proved that, until then, around 40% of passengers traveled without paying a ticket. Statistically, the relentless prices charged by Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway), ranging from $5 for a single one-way trip to $60 for monthly passes, are not innocuous.
It was enough for us to travel to and from the neighborhood of The Haight to realize that your community of alternative or noncompliant residents would certainly be part of the statistics.
At the end of another wet day, we went up California Street, most of the way with the San Francisco's gigantic Chinatown to our right.
The sun sets behind the mist, over the western horizon of the metropolis and creates a yellowish curtain from which vehicles are breaking into one of the tops of the hill.
New Hill, New Photographic Epic
Silhouettes attract us. We decided to wait for the arrival of the cable cars of career 61, which have the shapes we really want. But, once again, the operation is delicate and risky. The line runs in the middle of the road which is also a space for cars and buses.
We have, therefore, to act in the smallest times when cable cars appear in the exact top position and other vehicles give us a break, an exercise that gave us the desired images and generated some adrenaline.
When we were done, we realized that neither there, nor at that late hour, were we the only ones chasing the funiculars. A wedding was taking place in a luxury hotel on the avenue.
And, to close the memories, the bride and groom and photographer on duty take some pictures with family and friends right in the middle of iconic California Street.
Luck smiles on them and two pass cable cars in a quieter period of traffic. We also took the opportunity and registered another unusual moment on the historic tracks of San Francisco.