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From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

Posted March 09, 2009 12:00 AM by John Loz

Although horse-drawn streetcars were common in America's growing industrial cities, these conveyances had limitations. First, the cost to run a streetcar line was relatively expensive. Running a streetcar each day required a team of five horses, adequate feed and water, and a paid blacksmith to maintain horseshoes and other required equipment.

The amount of manure produced by all of a city's horses was also significant, and rail companies were required to recover what was dropped. Such rules weren't always obeyed, however, and the amount of manure on a city's streets became increasingly foul-smelling.

Horses were also prone to fatigue, sickness, and disease; if the horses couldn't work, then the cars didn't run. Not only would streetcar companies lose profits and risk going out of business, but the public would become quite upset after getting used to its newfound mobility. Tragically, the "Great Epizootic" of 1872 killed thousands of horses throughout many streetcar cities in North America.

Horses also behaved unpredictably within industrial cities. The continued mechanization and industrialization of urban life began to make the horse-drawn streetcar a liability. Horses could be scared into frenzy by loud explosions from steam engines or whistles from some of the railroads that passed through the center of a downtown.

In cities with steep grades, horses weren't always able to control a heavy streetcar. Consider the account of one Andrew S. Hallidie, who witnessed a horse-drawn streetcar being pulled ever so slowly up the steep grades of San Francisco. Hallidie saw how hard the horses labored to haul a streetcar full of people, and thought there had to be a better way.

The Cable Car

In 1873, San Francisco saw the first successful use of a streetcar powered by something other than a horse. Instead of a steed, this streetcar (which also ran on rails) was powered by cables that ran underneath the street. A central powerhouse provided the necessary steam power.

The first San Francisco cable car was the invention of Andrew S. Hallidie, a cable and wire rope manufacturer. Hallidie's cable car had a "grip" that would latch onto a continuously moving cable that ran underneath the street between two rails. The cable car ran on these rails, and the car would be pulled along by the cable.

Powered by reliable cables, streetcars were more dependable than horses. This created a much safer means of moving through San Francisco's 23 lines that were created over a 10-year span. A second city, Chicago, then adopted the new technology. This mid-western metropolis was experiencing an incredible amount of growth as immigrants arrived to work in the city's industries.

Ultimately, 27 cities adopted cable-car technology. Hallidie's invention doubled the speed of travel from a horse-drawn 4 mph to 8 mph, yet cable cars were only a short-lived (but necessary) technology for those cities that grew over lands with steep grades. Nevertheless, a cable could handle more weight and was able to operate on a more consistent schedule than a horse.

Editor's Note: Part 4 of this multi-part series will run in two weeks (03/16).

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Location: Cumbria England
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#1

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 5:58 AM

In an era where we are looking again at wind power, tidal power etc, why do those looking at horsepower trot out the same old stuff. The exhaust by product needs to be removed from horses but it is a lot simpler than the various noxious fumes produced by cars. You just need a shovel.

You say horses are prone to fatigue sickness and disease. Does this mean cable car operators aren't? Horses behave unpredictably. yes and have you looked at the accident statistics for human directed powered vehicles.

You have picked san francisco as an example, probably the worst city to run horse powered trams, but I notice you suggest it needs five horses to run a daily service. Would you like to tell me which machine you are going to replace that service with running on 5 horsepower.

Because even America has fallen for the british aristocratic horsemanship nonsense, you are ignoring a power source with massive potential. Horses and ponies are a totally neglected power source because the "horsey set" like to pretend they are an aristocratic pursuit. They are just another power source. Look at my blurb on Organic ATV's http://naturaldriving.co.uk/content_oatv.php and if you are interested in looking at the possibilities of horsepowerr, feel free to contact me. But please try looking at some of tyhe positives of a power source that has served humanity for over 5,000 years.

Dismissing horsepower in this brutal and arbitrary fashion is wrong.

Simon

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 7:46 AM

My father was an entomologist with the US Army; his specialization was with insect borne diseases. He once told me about the incredible drop in diseases in cities after horses were displaced by mechanical streetcars. It turns out that the horses had an incredible amount of flies and other parasites vectoring various pathogens between animals and people. When you see pictures of many third world cities you can still see it today. Pesticides would help greatly, but many are now philosophically opposed to their use (that is another potential thread...).

The insect problem is not nearly as great in rural areas, due to the horse density being much less than in a city.

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#3
In reply to #1

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 9:06 AM

Another goodie goodie trying to save the world from itself! Gee, I am surprised. Horses are evil foul smelling tempermental beast that produce tons of waste and eat like a horse. Wake up and join the 21st century. I for one certainly do not enjoy the smell of horse shit or stepping in it.

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#5
In reply to #3

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 9:50 AM

Somehow, I don't see the article as being one in support of using horses as an alternate source.

I really don't see how your post applies here.

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#7
In reply to #1

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 12:51 PM

Hey Simon,

I understand your points and see that you are very passionate about the benefits of 'horsepower.' I hope I wasn't conveying the wrong idea that horses were not a good resource for working the land or still being used as a transportation source, depending where you are. In this series, I am merely trying to report a short history on the evolution of the public transit rail system here in the United States.

I have never lived on a farm and do not claim to know much about horsepower (something I should educate myself more on), but I have been exposed to horses through an old girlfriend. She broke thoroghbreds and trained them to compete in eventing. Eventing might be considered an aristocratic pursuit, but I grew to appreciate these majestic animals, even on those couple days when I helped her shovel out their stalls. Side note- my mother was brought up on a farm in Central New York and I only have her stories about her experiences with horses to go by.

I read what was on your link and it reminded me of an episode I had seen on TV of a successful small logging business in Tennessee that uses mules to do all of their logging. Besides a chainsaw, mule-power(!) is their only other, extremely versatile, form of power for hauling trees out of the forest. The list of environmental benefits by logging this way is certainly long.

I think though, that using horses to move a large amount of people at once within modern cities and larger towns is unfortunately not practical for today's society. In Pennsylvania, the Amish move their families and goods using only horse drawn carriages to get to and from town. Maybe we can look to their lifestyle to see how we can incorporate their uses of the horse into our modern society.

Thanks Simon, for bringing this important resource into the discussion!

John

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#4

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 9:35 AM

Another aspect of cable car usage, usually not noticed, is power recovery. While it takes a lot of energy to lift the car and passengers up a hill, on the downhill trip, the grip is maintained (except when the car stops in the level intersections to load or unload passengers), so the "braking" energy is recovered to help the others. There is a diversity factor present here, also, because each line has many cars moving, starting, stopping, climbing, and descending all during the same time interval. Since there is a lot of inertia in the overall system, the powerhouse load is much more uniform than if each vehicle were supplied with its own engine. This counters some of the significant energy losses through friction of those miles of cable traveling over the thousands of pulleys needed to run the system.

As a fairly mature, but mostly abandoned technology, the skills for maintaining the system are well-known but more difficult to find. All cars are built in the system's own facilities, by carpenters and blacksmiths, to match the historic designs of the past. Consider the art of cable splicing---the splices have to carry the full strength of the cable, must be as flexible as the cable, and cannot be larger in diameter than the unspliced sections of the cable! Splices are close to 50-feet long.

The controls and signaling systems used to make the system safe today are significant. Each car uses the grip on the cable to limit speed on the downhills, but has three separate brake systems (track brakes, wheel brakes, and an emergency wedge into the slot); the brakes require daily maintenance. Where lines cross, there have to be warning bells to alert the gripman to drop the cable. There is a hook to pick-up the cable whenever it has been dropped. There are trips to control signal lights in the next intersection, so the car can enter it before having to slow to a stop; along with speed-sensitive trips for signal control in the event of a runaway car. The grips are made with continuously variable pressure on the cable so starts can be more gradual....

The cable speed, last I knew, was 9-mph. This is a people-friendly speed, so boarding and debarking are often done while the car is still moving, and seating is quite open. This speed also allows more interaction between the car's passengers and the surrounding businesses and people on the streets (something our rush to speed and limited number of stops makes difficult).

--John M. (born and raised in SF CA).

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#6
In reply to #4

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 10:20 AM

I lived near Frisco for 17 years but never new so much about the engineering of the system. Fascinating!

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#8
In reply to #4

Re: From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars

03/10/2009 1:42 PM

Hey jmueller,

This is fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to explain all this! I've learned a few more things from your post in addition to what Ive researched on the technology behind the cable car.

I've visited my cousin in San Francisco 4 times so far and love the city and surrounding area. The Cable Car Museum at the car barn and power house in the city is really something to see. In fact, it was one of the things that inspired me to focus on transportation planning.

There are so many positive things to say about a public transit vehicle that runs at a constant 9 miles an hour and is open to the streetside. To echo your thoughts in one regard, many more businesses benefit along the cable car routes as opposed to the "nodes" of businesses that spring up at modern rail stops usually located much farther apart. The people-friendly aspect appeals to me as well. There are pros and cons to both types of transport of course...maybe I'm just a little bit nostalgic in the way I like to get from one place to another and meeting people along the way.

Thanks, again!

John

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