Trams of North America:

Cable Cars and Other Oddities

Oh, those dummies!

Victorian enthusiasm and good old Yankee ingenuity inspired inventors both amateur and professional to try their hands at creating a mechanized tramcar. All manner of unproven technologies were considered, including ammonia, soda, compressed air, naphtha gas, huge mainsprings and steam power. All of these except steam proved completely unsuitable to street railway needs. Given the volatile nature of these means of propulsion, it is amazing that serious catastrophe was somehow averted during the years when eager tinkerers actually tested several such experimental vehicles in public service.

Steam, in its direct application, was used to power diminutive locomotives called dummies, which hauled otherwise conventional horsecars as trailers. The dummies' pejorative-sounding name arose from the practice of hiding the locomotives' massive steam engines beneath carbodies built to resemble horsecars, in order to assuage panicky horses--and passengers. It was thought wisest to put the passengers safely back of the engine in the horsecar trailers, to protect riders from potential injuries and death in the event of a boiler failure. Thus, the real streetcars rode behind, the dummy in front. In a few cities, larger dummies with passenger compartments, called self- propelled cars, were used.

The use of steam locomotives in city streets was highly impractical. For one thing, horses were easily spooked by these contraptions, often failing to be fooled by their tram-like fašades. More importantly, steam locomotives were ill-suited to the rough start-and-stop operation which was characteristic of urban tram lines. Dummies did, however, find favor on suburban lines in some places, resembling conventional short-line railroads. Some British and European cities used dummies and self-propelled steam trams until the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Intramural Paris operated tramways Ó vapeur until 1914. Sydney, Australia is said to have operated steam-powered trams as late as 1937.

On the Ropes

Steam power would come to serve the urban transport industry more productively through a system of indirect application, in which giant boilers powered a system of moving underground cables. In the winter of 1869, an inventor by the name of Andrew Smith Hallidie stood on a San Francisco street corner one rainy night, watching helplessly as four horses struggled to haul a crowded horsecar up one of the city's infamous hills. The effort proved too great for one of the horses, which lost its footing on the slick pavement and fell. Its comrades followed suit, and the car lunged backwards. The driver's frantic efforts to halt his car's descent failed when its chain-wound handbrakes snapped. The tram careened backwards down the hill, dragging the terrified horses over the pavement so violently that they had to be destroyed as a result of their injuries.

Hallidie, a manufacturer of wire rope, walked away from the hideous scene determined to find a means of substituting mechanical haulage of streetcars for the inhumane, inefficient and unsafe use of horse propulsion. This idea was not entirely new, and Hallidie's special contribution was the invention of a grip mechanism which allowed drivers--or gripmen, as cable car operators came to be called--to start and stop trams by gripping and releasing a moving underground cable which whizzed along inside a slot between the tracks. Previous cable traction schemes failed due to crude grips, which were essential to safe operation in city streets. Hallidie's scheme got off the ground not only due to his grip (which, ironically, was later improved upon significantly by other inventors), but because his system managed to harness steam power in a way which was agreeable to pedestrians and horses. The moving cables ran beneath the streets, practically unseen and unheard, whilst the stationary steam engines which towed the ropes were tucked safely away in massive brick powerhouses. Cable cars were eerily quiet, save for the tinkling of their bells. With the substantial pulling power of the steam engines behind them, cable cars were fast, moving at speeds of 9 or 10 miles per hour--double the average speed of horsecar operation on a level street. San Francisco seemed the ideal place to employ such an invention.

Hallidie's cable-operated line on San Francisco's steep Clay Street Hill opened to rave reviews in 1873. The trams' effortless ascent and descend of the steepest of hills made the technology an instant success in San Francisco, but cable cars soon spread to numerous American cities, most of which were not especially hilly. Among other places, cable cars operated in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, Spokane, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Chicago's 82 mile cable system was the most extensive in the United States, and was as important to the vitality of downtown Chicago in its heyday as the city's elevated railway, with its downtown loop, would be in later years.


Melbourne, Australia operated the world's largest cable tram system. When the network opened in 1885, the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Co. imported its tramsets from the John Stephenson Co., of New York, tram-builders of world-renown. As with many early U.S. systems, MTOC operated tramsets consisting of an open-sided "grip," from which the driver moved the vehicles by gripping and releasing the moving underground cables. The grip cars towed enclosed trailers, which were otherwise convetional closed horsecars. While MTOC and predecessors later built and acquired Australian cable tramsets, the basic design changed little, and some of the 1885 sets were still operating in daily service when Melbourne's last cable cars ran in 1940. The city's gentle, southern hemisphere climate surely contributed to the cars' durability.

Postcard from the collection of Roger DuPuis

Internationally, cable car systems were built in some British and European cities, but the technology never gained wide acceptance in the Old World as it did in the New. Cable trams never ran in Canada, but they were popular for a time in a number of cities in Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne, Australia had the largest and most successful of these systems. With 46 miles of double track (Chicago's track mileage was approximately 41 miles if calculated in double track miles), the Melbourne network was the world's largest. It was remarkable for having been built and operated as a single, integrated system of city transport, whereas Chicago, San Francisco and and other systems where characterized by a multiplicity of operating companies for at least part of their histories (San Francisco at one point had seven cable car companies). Melbourne ran its last cable trams in 1940.

As promising as cable traction may have seemed in the heady days of the 1870s and '80s, it possessed several inherent flaws. While operating costs for cable cars were significantly lower than those for horsecars (on the order of 12 cents per car mile for the cables and 25 for "old dobbin"), capital and construction costs were astronomical: between $100,000 and $200,000 per mile of track. What this meant was that cable lines were most profitable when they were constructed through built- up neighborhoods with pre-existing patterns of high ridership. Extending cable lines into undeveloped districts as a catalyst for further expansion of city boundaries was not practical with cable cars. Speculative land planning had worked to a limited extent with horsecars, and would fatten the coffers of electric tram magnates beyond their wildest dreams. Few investors were willing to risk the high cost of speculating on ridership growth and real estate development with cable cars, given the high initial outlay they required. In no U.S. city were horsecars wholly supplanted by cable cars; in a few instances, horsecars briefly replaced cable cars until electric tram lines were built.

Before the dawn of 1890 electric traction had appeared on the scene, all but eclipsing the cable car in growth and prestige. Cable car mileage in the United States would peak in the 1890s, with 5,000 cars carrying some 400 million passengers over 500 miles of track.The cable car systems in Baltimore, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington were among those which would not serve into the twentieth century. By 1910, almost no cable cars remained, with even the great Chicago system having succumbed, in 1906. America's sole survivors were on the west coast: Seattle, Tacoma, and San Francisco. The Tacoma lines were closed in 1938, followed by Seattle in 1940, leaving only the little cable cars in San Francisco to carry on Andrew Smith Hallidie's legacy-- a task they perform to this day.

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