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30th August 2010

The Fascinating World of the Cable Cars and the Enchanting World of Chinatown

Cable Car Barn, Powerhouse and Museum
    I was fascinated by the workings of the cable cars, so I made it a priority today to visit the Cable Car Museum. It was a sunny day, so the climb up to the museum was enjoyable.
    Andrew Smith Hallidie tested the first cable car in 1873, on Clay Street, San Francisco. His idea for a steam engine powered, cable driven, rail system was conceived in 1869, after witnessing horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horsecar up Jackson Street. As the story goes, the horses slipped and were dragged to their death.
    His system proved to be a success, and by 1889 cable cars were running on eight lines. Before the 1906 earthquake and fire, over 600 cars were in use.
    By 1947, the lower operational costs of buses prompted Mayor Lapham to declare, "the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible." After a huge public outcry, the present three lines were retained.
    The Cable Car Museum was established in 1974, and was operated by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum as a nonprofit educational facility. Located at the heart of the cable network in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the museum deck overlooked the huge engines and winding wheels that pulled the four separate endless cables. Downstairs was a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable lines entering the building through the channels under the street. On display were various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs. The museum also housed three antique cable cars from the 1870s.
Two of the Cable Driving Engines
    I stood on the deck overlooking the four massive winding engines with their drive, idler and tensioner wheels. The cables were zipping along at a constant speed of 9.5mph. The cable used in the present system measured 1.25 inches in diameter, was made of steel with a hemp center to increase flexibility, and varied in length - the California (21,700 feet), Hyde (16,000 feet), Mason (10,300 feet), and Powell (9,300 feet). The cable itself was composed of six steel strands of 19 wires each that were wrapped around the sisal rope center. It had an average life of 6 to 8 months, and if it became worn (detected by strands snapping), the system was shut down at night and a splice made in the powerhouse during the cars' non-working hours between 1am and 6am. The cables stretched up to 100' during their lifetime, hence the reason for the tensioner wheel to take up the slack. The sense of enormous power below me was palpable.
    The cars' propulsion mechanism employed a jaw which grabbed the cable through a slot above the cable channel, and by adjusting the strength of the grip, the car could accelerate up to the cable speed of 9.5mph. The process required great strength from the operator since he was effectively lifting the heavy cable.
    To the side of the huge machinery there was a small workshop area containing lathes, milling machines, drills and other machining devices. It reminded me of my mid-teen years, working in a steelworks. Needless to say, I spent considerable time at the museum.
A Major Thoroughfare in Chinatown
Chinese Grocery
Busy Crossroad
Washing and Drying Day - Chinese Laundry Perhaps
    Once I did prise myself away, I meandered down to Chinatown. An estimated 25,000 Chinese migrants settled in the plaza on Stockton Street during the gold rush era of the 1850s. This now densely populated neighbourhood had been called the "Gilded Ghetto" because its colourful facades screened a harsher world of sweatshops and cramped living quarters.
    I traversed the alleys between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, which echoed the sights, sounds and smells of the Orient, soaking up the atmosphere. Thousands of Chinese people were going about their daily business of running shops, groceries and restaurants, or were just standing on corners exchanging news and gossip. When Dan and I were here a few nights ago for a meal, the streets were deserted, but in the day they heaved with humanity.
    I headed down to Market Street with the vain hope of doing some present shopping, but I lacked inspiration and left empty handed. As I headed back to my hotel, I called in at the John Pence Gallery. The works on display were primarily still life and cityscapes, with the odd seascape and portrait. A variety of media had been employed: oil, gouache, pastel and pencil. I did find one of the large cityscapes inspirational, it portrayed a street junction after a downpour, all lit up at night; the size and colours made it work for me.
    I was glad to get back to the hotel. I had picked up a bug which made it seem as though I had pulled every muscle in the upper half of my body, and I felt the cold, which was unusual for me.
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Last updated 1.9.2010