Monday, January 21, 2013

Cable Cars

The fantastic site Forgotten Chicago, has this piece on a largely forgotten piece of Chicago history, its cable car system.

Legend has it that Andrew Hallidie, an engineer and manufacturer of wire rope, came up with the idea for cable cars one day while walking up one of San Franciso's steep hills. In the middle of a snowstorm, he saw a team of horses struggling to pull a streetcar up the slippery grade, then lose their grip on the pavement, sending them and the car and its passengers sliding and crashing at the bottom of the hill.

Hallidie's idea was to propel the cars up and down the hills by means of an onboard mechanical gripping system that a "gripman" would engage onto a continuously moving underground cable. Hallidie's invention is a classic example of 19th Century brilliance and audacity. Building such a system was an enormous undertaking, requiring a tremendous amount of maintenance. But it was a brilliant solution that worked perfectly well for the absurdly steep hills of the City by the Bay. As it does to this day as three lines still exist transporting mostly tourists.

Even without hills, the system worked pretty well in Chicago as well, ours would become the largest cable car system built anywhere. It wouldn't last long however as the cumbersome system was replaced by the much simpler system of self-propelled streetcars in 1906 after only 24 years of operation.

The Forgotten Chicago article lists some extant remnants of the old cable car system, including vehicle barns and power plants. These buildings contained the enormous steam engines with their gigantic pulleys that set miles of cable in motion. One of these buildings stands today at LaSalle and Illinois Streets,  you may know it as the building that once housed Michael Jordan's Restaurant.

The most famous remnant of the cable car system however is the term we use to describe our downtown. The term "the Loop" was originally coined to describe the loop of cable cars that once circled Chicago's central business district, an area much larger than the area defined by today's L tracks.

An interesting fact I recently learned about San Francisco's cable cars is that one of the early investors in the system was one Abner Doubleday, who is today most famous as being the man mistakenly credited with the invention of baseball. He may not have invented the National Pastime but among other significant achievements, was indeed a big player in what would become one of the coolest transportation systems ever invented.

If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, by all means treat yourself to a cable car ride. If you dare, don't sit inside but stand on the platform and hang over the edge as the little Powell-Hyde car makes its way up Russian Hill. It may sound hokey but it is indeed one of the greatest urban experiences anywhere.

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