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Andrew Hallidie and Horses

by Greg Pabst

The story goes like this: Andrew Hallidie once saw a team of horses, while pulling a tram up the Clay Street Hill, fall to the cobblestones, exhausted and injured. Deeply moved by the incident, Hallidie became determined to develop a system to save the noble beasts from further fatal exertion.

Voilá (so the story goes)! The Cable Car is born.

Evidence: Hallidie's first cable car descended the Clay Street Hill at 5:00 am (so no one would get hurt in case it didn't work) on the morning of August 2nd, 1873 (well recorded in newspapers of the time). But what really happened here? Things you should know:

• Andrew Smith, the mechanical genius who originated cable railway transportation, was born in London on March 16, 1836.

• His father, Andrew Smith, was an engineer and inventor. Of his patents, those for the making of metal wire ropes, granted from 1835 to 1849, were the most important.

• The Smiths, father and son, arrived in California in 1852 and headed for the gold fields. The senior Smith returned to England within a year. The younger Smith would found the A. S. Hallidie Co. in San Francisco, in 1870, to manufacture wire rope.

• Andrew Smith the younger adopted the surname Hallidie in honor of his godfather and uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, physician to King William IV and to Queen Victoria.

OK. What have we learned so far? That Andrew Hallidie's family made its living from wire ropes. And Andrew himself may have been a bit of a social climber.

He was also somewhat of an inventor and engineer himself. Edgar Myron Kahn wrote in the June 1940 edition of the California Historical Society Quarterly, "In 1867 Hallidie took out his first patent for the invention of a rigid suspension bridge, and in the years thereafter he took out numerous patents for his inventions. Among these was the 'Hallidie Ropeway [or Tramway],' a method of transporting ore and other material across mountainous districts by means of an elevated, endless traveling line, which he had invented in 1867."

Meanwhile, back to the horses. Hallidie wrote in a report to the Mechanics' Institute, of which he was one of the founders, "I was largely induced to think over the matter from seeing the difficulty and pain the horses experienced in hauling the cars up Jackson Street, from Kearny to Stockton Street, on which street four or five horses were needed for the purpose–the driving being accompanied by the free use of the whip and voice, and occasionally by the horses falling and being dragged down the hill on their sides, by the car loaded with passengers sliding on its track.

"...With the view of obviating these difficulties, and for the purpose of reducing the expense of operating street railways (tram-roads), I devoted all my available time to the careful consideration of the subject, and so far matured my plans...." (italics mine).

Would Hallidie have developed the cable car if the invention made operations more expensive? Certainly not. The horses may have inspired his idea, but they were clearly not the focus of his inspiration.

What makes this historian cranky is that the heartwarming (or humorous, patriotic, inspira- tional, what have you) story is a quick explanation of historical events and easy to accept without further inspection. We should all be more critical when thinking about history. Cute half truths (or out-and-out fiction at the "George Washington chopped down the cherry tree" level) are a barrier to truly understanding the past.

Think critically! Be always alert for the happy-face junk version of history.

Next up: Emperor Norton. Read the entire Hallidie article at:

Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series by our Cranky Historian, City Guide Greg Pabst, Class of 1988. Greg is uncovering the myths many of us have heard and retold to our walkers.

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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Wire cables at the San Francisco Cable Car Barn

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The first cable car, operated by the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, 1873. Hallidie sits center front.

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