Tidewater Traveler - January 2008

Charley and the Cable Guy


George Sellers

   The small tin toy that rests on the shelf above my desk is probably a cheap product of China; and it is more than likely decorated in lead paint. But I have promised myself that I will not chew on it or lick it; and it is not an item to which the grandchildren or young guests will be granted access. So it will stay where it is for now. It is about three inches in length and rolls on awkward plastic wheels. The toy/slash/tourist-junk-piece is fondly called Charley.
    Charley is a paltry replica of a San Francisco cable car and its name first dribbled from the lips of my six-year-old son who could not quite form all the sounds in the word trolley. Charley takes up very little space on the shelf, but performs its role here quite admirably as it serves as a reminder of all that a visit to San Francisco offers.
    The Gripman leaned back exerting tremendous force on two levers. One of the levers released the vise-like jaws under the trolley, freeing it from the motion of the constantly moving underground cable, the equivalent of taking your foot off the gas while driving a car. The second lever was applying brakes to the wheels to make the vehicle stop as quickly as possible. With a third hand, or so it seemed, the Gripman was clanging the loud bell of the cable car – the Rice-a-Roni bell.
    Unable to veer from the path predestined by the rails in the street, Charley became the target for a small car whose driver was apparently oblivious to the notion that cable cars can not change lanes or stop on a dime. There was a slight crunching sound and a minor lurch, followed by an expression of mild annoyance on the Gripman’s face.
    The Gripman stayed at his controls but began making notes on a clipboard. The Conductor surveyed the passengers to be sure no one was hurt and then disembarked to conduct the business of collision follow-up. Supposing that we had just experienced an historic occasion – the spoilage of a treasured, national landmark – I asked the Gripman, “Has this ever happened before?” “Every day!” was his temperate reply, “It happens every day!” It was then that I noticed a plaque on the wall behind the Gripman’s position. It read, “Honorable Mention – San Francisco Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest.” I just can’t get the Rice-a-Roni tune out of my head every time I think about that bell.
    Like a routine matter of business had been conducted, the car was moved back, the driver was interviewed by a police officer, and the cable car was on its way. Our vacation had not been interrupted; it had been enhanced. It’s wonderful that you do not need to go to a museum to be able to appreciate these historic rolling relics and the treasured past they represent. Yet a visit to the Cable Car Powerhouse and Museum will give you a greater appreciation for what is happening as Charley rolls up and down the hills of San Francisco.
    At the end of a cable car line, most of the cars must be turned around. Unlike modern metro train cars that have a control booth at both ends and can run in either direction, there is clearly a front and a back to most of the cable cars. To accomplish the turn-around, the Gripman releases the cable at just the precise moment to allow the trolley to coast onto a turn table. Following the 180-degree rotation, the cable car is manually pushed back to the point where the grip can re-engage the cable.
    There are four separate cables in use to operate the cable car lines on the California Street line, and on the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines. Each cable is hundreds of yards long, about one inch in diameter, and is always in motion, running at about nine and a half miles per hour. In the Powerhouse, huge pulleys driven by electric motors propel the cables along the tracks. Cable cars move forward when the Gripman activates a lever controlling a vise-like grip on the cable that is moving under the car.
    Unlike the Chinese tin Charley parked on my shelf, the real ones are fashioned of wood. The summer of 1873 marked the beginning of cable cars that employed a grip on a moving cable. The San Francisco cable car network has experienced uncertain times over the past century as more modern modes of transportation have evolved. But the 1980s brought about a resurgence of energy and commitment to making the system a vibrant working part of the San Francisco landscape.
    Riding cable cars and visiting the Powerhouse and Museum are activities that should be included during a visit to San Francisco, but beyond the sheer fascination with mechanics and historicity, one needs to remember that the Charley system is also a valid means of transportation to access other worthy tourist sites in the city. The cable car system is principally used by tourists rather than commuters. The system serves an area of the city that is also served by a large number of buses and trolleybuses. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both serve only residential and tourist/shopping districts such as Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill, Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf.
    There are numerous choices of places to stay in San Francisco. For the greatest convenience, there are several well-placed 4-to5-star, center-city hotels to consider with locations near Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf. Or, a fascinating alternative to a modern hotel is something like The Queen Anne, an authentically restored 19th century landmark property located just a few blocks from the California Street cable car line.
    A stay in San Francisco would not be complete without a Bay tour that includes incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a walk-around visit to “The Rock,” where the ghostly halls of Alcatraz Prison stand. Much of San Francisco was built between 1850 and 1900 when Victorian architecture was prevalent. A visit to Alamo Square for a Victorian Home Walking Tour will take you to see “The Painted Ladies,” a row of beautifully restored houses.
    A short drive from the city can deliver you to Muir Woods National Monument, one of the last stands of old-growth redwood forest in the world. Here visitors are impressed by the incredible girth and height of coast redwoods, Sequoias.
    San Francisco is a laudable vacation destination on its own, but it also serves as a very entertaining stop-over for a few days preceding or following a trans-Pacific flight or a West Coast cruise. Several major cruise lines depart from the Bay harbor.
    So Charley rests quietly on the shelf with other mementos and souvenirs, gently reminding me that San Francisco is a grand place to visit.
    May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel Web site www.sellerstravel.com