St. Nicholas Magazine—November, 1878


CLEAR the track! I want to tell the ST. NICHOLAS readers of a decided novelty I came across the other day, in that young giant of a city, San Francisco. Turning a corner, I saw high on the steep hill—for many of these San Francisco streets are steep hills—two car-loads of gay people, gliding rapidly forward without sign or trace of either locomotive, dummy-engine, or horse. Onward and upward went the little train, stopping itself now and then, and starting again, apparently with the greatest ease. No smoke was to be seen, no steam hissed and puffed, no clank of machinery was heard. No confusion of any kind. The motive power, like some of the greatest forces in nature, was hidden. What was it that pulled this pair of city cars along so easily? You shall hear.

In the middle of the track, running its entire length, we find a continuous opening or slit, about as wide as a man's finger, into which fits a flat iron bar, projecting from the under side of the leading car; while below this opening, and down under the track, continually runs a thick wire cable or rope, in a space about large enough for a small boy to crawl in. The slit in the middle of the track is clearly seen in the picture below, which gives a view of a portion of the road lying between two hills. Our artist was, standing upon one hill, looking toward the summit of the other: the road descending to the valley. The long cable is made to run easily on small pulleys—say, ten feet apart—by a powerful steam-engine located about midway on the route; and this cable always is running down one track, and up the other, into the engine-house, over and around ponderous iron wheels, which keep it in motion.

Whenever a car is to be started, the driver has simply to move a large lever, in the middle of it, shaped like a railroad switch, and the lower end of this lever, beneath the slit in the track, grapples the running-cable, like a vise or jaw, and away move levers, cars, driver, passengers and all.

You can see the driver in these pictures standing at his post. No one is allowed to speak to him, for he must be constantly on the alert, ready for action.

Just imagine, a long rope extending down the street, trailing along behind a team of horses, on a winter's day; and suppose you wanted a ride on your sled, what more natural than that you should grasp tight hold of this rope, and take a tow, as the sailors say, gliding along with it at your pleasure; and when you choose to stop, you would need but to relax your hold, and your sled would be free immediately.

Now, by this time you should have exactly the idea of the wire-cable railroad, for in this case the wire-cable is the rope and the cars are the sled. Night and day, the endless cable, coated with tar, gliding like a long black snake, runs in and out of the grim engine-house on the hill, upon its long journey, while cars all along the track are continually grappling it and letting go. Think of the twelve thousand people carried over the road daily by this unseen giant power working beneath the ground !

We can start from a crowded street of the city, down town, and in three minutes and a half be carried to the top of a high hill, many blocks away,—a hill three hundred feet above the water, half as high again as a tall church spire.

It is the wonder of everybody. The country people gaze, astonished, at the mysterious-looking car, and even the indifferent Chinamen are fairly puzzled over it. They gather in groups, with open mouths and peering eyes, trying to make out the strange proceeding. In China they would immediately suppose it to be witchcraft, as they did recently in the case of a steam railroad which some foreigners had built,—only twelve miles or so. All their troubles, ills and droughts, were attributed to it, and the people and government tore up the track. The screaming locomotive was an evil spirit.

But to return to our road. The huge engine doing all this work is driven as fast as ninety revolutions a minute by the steam furnished from two large boilers, and is rated as a two hundred and fifty horse-power engine. That you may know something of what that power is, let us imagine two hundred and fifty stout horses, in teams of two, standing in the street; we will allow ten feet for a team, which will make our line one thousand two hundred and fifty feet long. Get your slate and see if it would not. That is very near one quarter of a mile in length, and you can judge how far down your street the line would reach. If these horses should all start pulling at a given signal, think of the power they would exert!

Something would snap, wouldn't it?

Well, you may imagine three times as many horses, for a so-called two hundred and fifty horsepower engine can do the work of about seven hundred and fifty horses in the course of eighteen working hours. It is a great satisfaction, when riding in the car, to know that poor animals are not pulling and panting and straining heart and lungs to carry us up over the high hills. On one of the hilly railroads of this city many horses used to die of heart disease, so great was the strain upon the willing animals. Now a few tons of coal, and man's ingenuity, do all the work, and thoroughly well they do it.

The huge wheels at the engine-house, already alluded to, are eight feet in diameter, and there are about thirty of them in all, rolling, rumbling, with a grinding din, suggesting the grim prison-house of some mighty spirit, bound, and faithfully serving little man. As the cable comes running swiftly in, it twists, turns, and circles around eight of these wheels, and before going out, takes as many more turns about another set of wheels. This is to prevent the cable from slipping; for the strain on it of many cars with their loads coming up the hill is immense.

All this complicated machinery is located in a dark, gloomy-looking pit; twenty-five feet deep, under the street, arched over beneath the pavement with brick. Here is located an arrangement for keeping the cable taut at all times. It is a car heavily loaded with five tons of iron, and placed upon a steep, sloping track; a horizontal wheel lies upon this car, and around this wheel the wire cable runs,—thus acting as a heavy pulley, taking up the slack rope. The diagram on above illustrates this.

At each end of the road there is one of these pits with just such a steadying car in it, as well as two in the central pit; for the engine-house is not far from midway of the road.

The length of the entire line is over a mile and a half, running cast and west on California street, called by the street boys "Nob Hill," because it has so many elegant residences and gardens.

This is not the only beautiful street in San Francisco. In nearly all of the new parts of the city, elegant residences abound-spacious mansions and tasteful street cottages, all with projecting bay windows and flowery entrances. The business streets, too, with their fine shops and stately warehouses, give an air of enterprise and activity that fully accounts for the net-work of city railroads stretching in every direction. Even the most wretched part of the city, the Chinese quarter, has its railroad—one of the old style, however, and not in the least suggestive of the airy, mysterious cars which we have been considering.

Now let us hear about the cable. It is one inch and a quarter in diameter, say, the size of a baby's wrist, composed of small steel wires, about the size of grandmother's steel knitting-needle, all twisted into strands and these into one large rope. That makes a very strong tow-line, doesn't it? But tough as this is, it has stretched fully sixteen feet by the weight of the cars, and has had to be shortened and re-spliced by skillful men, just as sailors splice a rope; all the separate strands loosened and deftly tucked away again, so that the strain will be shared equally by all. A cable like this is estimated to last six months, then it must he replaced by a new one. This is a very knowing cable. If any wire strand should break, it would, by a very ingenious device, which I shall not attempt to explain, telegraph its own disorder to head-quarters, and there ring an alarm-bell, which would insure its immediate repair.

Every two days the cable must be freshly coated with tar, to prevent its being too much worn by the grasping and biting of the iron jaws, as the car-driver takes hold or lets go.

Wire cables are very generally used nowadays in many ways. Elevators are run by them, vessels are partly rigged with them; they are used for machinery in place of belting, for tow-lines and by tug-boats; and for many purposes they are both cheaper and better than hemp rope.

Money was lavishly spent in laying the roadbed. The projectors, being wealthy men, members of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, took pride in building something that would prove a model road, and they succeeded. First, a trench was dug, three feet and a half deep and the same in width, then large pieces of railroad iron, bent in the shape of a V were inserted in it, about ten feet apart, upon the top of which were riveted and bolted the rails,—the small T rail, such as is in common use by all the steam roads. These, bear in mind, were all riveted together, arranged, and leveled, and supported by temporary timbers, in exactly the places that they afterward were to occupy. Then the whole trench was filled to the top (excepting the space left for the cable to run in) with concrete and cement. This, hardening, the entire mile and a half of road became one long, continued block of stone, over three feet in diameter, lying in its earthy bed as solid as the "eternal hills," holding in its stony grasp the ties, braces and rails. Such a road, they claim, can never spread, never sag nor sink, and scarcely ever will need repairs, save as the rails wear out, and are replaced. So much for doing a thing thoroughly and well at once, though the first cost be great-in this instance, nearly eight hundred thousand dollars.

The cars are models of beauty and comfort. A blue cadet-cap is worn by the employees, and though no talking is allowed with the driver, a smiling conductor makes up for this loss by standing ready to answer questions at the rate, I should say from a brief observation, of about ten thousand a day, more or less.

One feature of the sitting accommodations is that of a low rail, about an inch high, dividing each seat from the next, just high enough to make it uncomfortable to sit upon; gently hinting to those inclined to crowd their fellows that a seat was intended for one only. The cars are built so low that the feet of passengers are but twelve inches above the street they are traveling, thus giving that charm one experiences when sailing in a low skiff, close to the water, but which is lost on the high deck of a steamboat. The illustration above is made from an instantaneous photograph of the so-called dummy and passenger cars, coming down the grade at full speed. The dummy is a light, picturesque, open car, arranged with outside seats, and is generally preferred by passengers to the close car.

As we ride along, a daintily gloved finger hails the driver, from the sidewalk, and our car comes instantly and quietly to a stand-still, while the gentle maiden mounts the low step and comfortably seats herself; then, at the bell-signal from the conductor, the sturdy driver grasps his lever, clamps down his iron brace grappling the cable, and again we are off, with far less jar and jerk than we receive in a horse-car. Over the hills we go, through a fine broad street, views all about, of shining bay, busy city, and flower-clad mountain, past beautiful private residences kept with a neatness and care peculiar to the front yards of the San Franciscans. Callas bloom luxuriantly among palm-trees, and showy flowers in the gardens regale the eye the year round; and in the summer season the traveler fills his lungs with an air, the purest possible, coming fresh and bracing from the sparkling ocean, laden with the perfume of acres of blue and yellow wild Lupin.

This style of railroad is becoming very popular in San Francisco, where there are already three such lines in successful operation; and others are projected.

Among the oddities here in the car line, is the "balloon car," a picture of which is given with driver and mule attachment. These little "band-boxes on wheels" are intended for turning quickly on their trucks, at the end of a route, without changing the position of the wheels, the driver keeping his seat. A bolt is withdrawn, enabling the mules to pull the upper part of the car entirely around, in readiness for a return trip; the waiting passengers jump in, and off it starts, a fat, lumbering little thing, in jerky contrast to its elegant rivals so delightfully towed by rail.

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