by Robert Gillham

This article, from The Magazine of Western History, Volume X, Number 3, July, 1889, was written by Robert Gillham, the engineer who was responsible for most of the cable lines built in Kansas City. The magazine followed the article with a brief biographical sketch of Gillham.

From The Magazine of Western History, Volume X, Number 3, July, 1889.


by Robert Gillham

WITH the Cable Railway, as with many other valuable discoveries of the age, the credit of the invention does not belong to a single inventor. The progress made in cable traction from the time when its application was first made, in the conveyance of ores or other materials at the mines, until the present time has been slow but sure. Then its use was unnoticed and did not attract the inventor, but now every feature of the system is covered by patents issued to a multitude of inventors. Thirty-one years ago the essential features of the present cable railway system were patented in this country by E. S. Gardner, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It is true that in England more than forty years ago a patent was granted, in which the cable conduit between the tram rails as well as the longitudinal slot in the centre of tracks between the tram rails, were to some extent illustrated, and while not exactly similar to the illustrations in the Gardner patent, yet the similarity is enough to suggest that the principles covered by the English patent are used by the modern cable railway. Yet Mr. Gardner in his letters patent more fully described the principles essential in the construction of cable railways as they are to-day constructed and operated. At a time when the question was being generally discussed the inventor's attention was called to the following description of the London & Blackhall Railway, published in 1852, which may be of interest:

"A pair of powerful marine engines well erected at each end of the line to which the drums for winding up the rope were connected by friction clutches. The drums were of cast iron, each twenty-three feet in diameter, and their circumference revolved on an average of twenty-six miles per hour. The rope was five and three-fourth inches in circumference, and being upward of six miles in length weighed about forty tons and was sufficiently long to reach from one end of the line to the other, when somewhat more than one-half the rope was wound upon the drums. The cable was supported along the line by cast iron wheels or sheaves, three feet in diameter and seven and one-half inches in width, which not only prevented the rope from trailing upon the ground, but also guided it around the curved portion of the line. The carriages were connected to the rope in such manner that they could be instantly released without stopping the motion of the rope and again connected if required."

Prior to the year 1850 street railways operated by animal power had not been in use as a means of city transit, but since that time the street railway has become the generally accepted plan of city transit throughout the entire world, and no better power than that furnished by animals having been offered, this was considered the most approved means of transportation. Animal power for street railway purposes will at no distant day be super- ceded by more economical and approved means. Animal power as applied to street railways was first adopted in this country, and when the success of the plan was demonstrated the larger cities of Europe were not slow in following our lead in this direction.

Many men of genius prior to 1870, and immediately following the allowance of letters patent to Mr. Gardner for his cable traction railway, gave the subject of cable railways special consideration. Some of them proposed to operate elevated street railways by means of overhead cables; others proposed the suspension of the car from the overhead cable; while the great majority of those interested in the matter proposed schemes that were absolutely impracticable. The only attempt to operate an elevated street railway by means of endless cable was the case of the Greenwich street elevated road in the city of New York, the first railway of its kind in this country. Cable traction in that case was thoroughly tried, and the non-success of the plan here was not because it was impracticable, but because the principles involved in applying cable traction were not well understood. With the knowledge, experience and results that we have to-day the plan of cable traction could be successfully applied to the elevated railway system of New York city, and when applied these roads could operate a high rate of speed and increase the carrying capacity of individual trains fully one-third of the present capacity. In view of the great gain in economy, capacity for carrying speed, and the saving in structural repairs by the removal of the heavy locomotives now in use from the structure, we may before long see cable traction applied to one or more of the elevated roads.

Just previous to the year 1872, Mr. A. S. Hallidie, of San Francisco, gave special thought and study to the various methods of operating carrying ropes for mining purposes, commonly known as ore conveyors, and secured many patents for the improvements of the system. It is related of Mr. Hallidie that one day while prosecuting his studies he was seen to be watching an omnibus drawn by two horses laboring up Jackson street, from Kearney street to Stockton street, a very heavy grade. The horses when put to their utmost slipped and fell to the pavement, having exerted all their strength in their effort to draw the load. They were then dragged down the grade some considerable distance. This incident was of daily occurrence, and Mr. Hallidie concluded that a better means of transit over the steep grades of San Francisco could be devised, and his investigations finally resulted in his securing very valuable patents pertaining to cable traction, which are to-day among the most valuable of their kind.

It is true of all inventions that have proven most useful in the development of commerce and in the advancement of mechanical science, that they have been adversely considered and passed upon as being impracticable and visionary; and, too, the inventors many times have been tolerated as cranks by the most learned men of the times. Norwithstanding the prejudices, some of which were urged against Mr. Hallidie at the time, work was begun on the Clay street Cable Railroad, San Francisco, under Mr. Hallidie's personal supervision about June, 1873, and was completed during the month of August the same year.

Notwithstanding the personal standing of Mr. Hallidie in the city of San Francisco, the fact is, that when he disclosed his plan of the Clay street cable railway to a few personal friends, they feared that their excellent friend was a little visionary, and that it was their duty, if possible, to prevent the outlay of the money required to carry out his experiment, as they termed it, and in consequence he did not receive the aid and encouragement he had expected. With the assistance of competent engineers, Mr. Hallidie's plans were finally completed, and the work of constructing the line (one mile of double track) was begun. During the progress of the work the success of the scheme was unfavorably criticised by many of the engineers of the day.

The road was completed and the fixed day for the trial trip having arrived, and a trip up and down the steep grade (16 feet in 100 feet) must be made in order to be with the limitation of the franchise granted by the city. The night previous was a busy one, and was occupied in the examination and adjustment of the important parts of the mechanical features of the road. In the early morning, before the evidences of the eventful day had appeared, the day in which before the sun should set, there was destined to be given to the world the successful results of the first attempt at cable traction, one of the most useful inventions of the age, the inventor and his friends were on the ground. The observer stationed at the foot of the hill notes a buzzing sound. It is the music of the moving cable in the tube beneath the street going faster and faster until it is humming in satisfaction of its ultimate speed. The car that has been standing idly on the summit of the grade moves, hesitatingly at first, as if conscious of the terrible steep before it, which, should the slightest mistake in, or the failure of, the details of grip or brake meant indescribable wreck and destruction. As the rising mist cleared, the water of the bay reflected to the occupants of the car in a multiplied form the dangers of the descent. The car moves forward and lower, gliding along the descending grade of the Clay street hill. Rapidly the car approaches and it will only be a moment ere the base of the hill will be reached. The car stops at the base and a smile of exultation and pleasure is visible on the face of the travelers. A few moments of delay and the car with its occupants starts on its return up the steep grade, which it accomplishes without incident, and the summit being reached the occupants send up cheer upon cheer while all congratulate Mr. Hallidie. The road has proven a success mechanically and this age has new and improved means of transportation. To Mr. Hallidie belongs the credit of bringing into actual use the system of traction as well as the discovery and invention of some of the most important features of our present cable railway, and to the city of San Francisco belongs the distinction of being the first city to adopt the cable railway.

Following the successful completion and operation of the Clay street cable railway, other roads were constructed and new and useful improvements made by Henry Root, Asa E. Hovey, William Eppelsheimer, of San Francisco, and others scattered throughout the country.

In the year 1881, Mr. C. B. Holmes, of the Chicago City Railway Company, who had given special attention to the practical operation of cable railways in San Francisco, and who carefully investigated the results of operation, concluded to apply this principle of traction to the street railways under his care, and converted the State street and Wabash avenue lines.

In view of the fact that cable railways had not been built at any other place than San Francisco, where there is a uniformly even temperature, there was some risk assumed in undertaking to operate a cable railway in a climate where low temperatures and great snow falls was the rule during the winter season.

Many familiar with the lines then in operation in San Francisco expressed grave doubts as to the possibility of operating by means of endless cable in deep snow and with the temperature away below zero. Mr. Holmes being a man of keen judgment and having a clear understanding of the principles involved in mechanical construction, determined to proceed with the work notwithstanding the adverse opinions of those who professed knowledge in the premises. It was also urged that the streets of Chicago were level and there was no need of cable traction, and considering all the conditions it would be more costly to operate than to continue to operate by animal power.

At that time cars larger than any I have yet seen on street railways were hauled on these roads by two animals and consequently the argument seemed pregnant with reason, but nevertheless the directors of the roads supported Mr. Holmes, and the cable on the two streets named were built and have proven successful, not only in mechanical effect, but in the increase of passenger traffic, beyond the most sanguine expectations.

To Mr. Holmes belongs the credit of demonstrating the practicability of operating cable railways through snow and extremely low temperature, and establishing the economy of the operation of a cable railway over the street railway operated by animal power.

In the year 1879, the writer, after investigating in all its details the question of cable traction, became impressed with the many advantages it offered over any known method of operating street railways. In every particular it was, beyond all question, the best method suggested for the new street railway then proposed for Kansas City. It is true that cable railways at this time were by no means the complete mechanical constructions of to-day. They were to some extent experimental. In San Francisco in constructing these roads straight lines were followed. In no case did the main operating cable pass around right angle curves.

The sub-construction has been improved. The driving machinery modified in design, and the general feature of the construction, which in principle is similar to the original San Francisco construction, has been greatly modified.

Shortly after this time, I think in 1880, I had the pleasure of entertaining Mr. Hallidie at dinner, who on his return trip from Europe, stopped at Kansas City a portion of a day, for the purpose of a conference regarding the construction of the cable railway I then had in mind. The location of this road was most discouraging, in so far as the physical conditions were concerned, great high bluffs rising high above the terminus of the proposed road, the summit of which was accessible only by means of a viaduct. Excessive grades throughout the entire line, with right angle curves, then a serious objection to overcome.

The conditions to be met in the proposed road were different from the conditions met in the construction of the only roads in the world, three in number, in San Francisco. The enterprise lacked the confidence of capital, being considered a boyish freak. One daily paper put it, in objecting to the grant said: "To see two-thirds of the streets end in coal shoots, for that is what these elevators are, is asking too much with an untried experiment."

It was this sentiment in the community that prevailed for a time, which with the opposition of horse railway companies, defeated the granting of a franchise to construct this road for quite three years, during which time the Chicago road had been completed and the Geary street and Presidio street cable railways in San Francisco had also been built. In the spring of 1885, the Kansas City Cable Railway was opened to the public, which from the day of opening has been an unqualified success, notwithstanding that the physical conditions in the construction of this road were more difficult to overcome than those met and overcome in other roads.

In 1883, the Market street cable railway, San Francisco, was completed, which road is considered among the most complete roads now in operation.

Great credit is due Mr. William J. Smith, of Kansas City, and Mr. Philip A. Chase, of Lynn, Massachusetts, who sustained the Kansas City cable railway enterprise from the beginning with their capital and influence, the former devoting much personal time to the securing of grants. The successful completion of this cable railway in Kansas City was an event of importance to the city. Directly to the success attending this road can be traced the development of the great cable system the city now enjoys. To-day in this city of over two hundred thousand people the only evidence left of the old horse car lines is that owned by one of the cable companies, and which it is said will soon be changed to cable.

The cable and rapid transit system of this city is truly interesting. In cable construction every imaginable difficulty has been met and overcome. Steep grades, as steep as any in the country, are found here, with cable cars ascending and descending as regularly and as smoothly as on level streets ; also high iron viaducts, and long spans of most interesting design, as a means of ascending the high bluffs, from the summit of which the view is most beautiful.

The long line of elevated railway winds through the western portion of the city, coming finally to the base of the high bluffs as though the rugged side of the rocky steeps was the end of this road, the barrier seeming to be too great to overcome. Where this structure meets the bluff and ends, a large double track tunnel penetrates the rocks, passing under houses and streets, meeting the surface of the streets in the heart of the city. Cable cars glide every two minutes along the elevated approaches and are lost to sight as they pass into the tunnel, appearing again in the business portion of the city beyond. Here can be seen cable roads on the surface of the streets, on the steep grades and sharp curves, elevated above the streets, in tunnels under the ground, below streets, in fact all manner of cable railway constructions.

It is said that Kansas City has the finest cable system in the country, being most modern in construction, and more universally adapted as a means of communication between all parts of the city. The city is a cable city in every sense of the word, having the greatest number of miles in operation and the greatest variety of constructions in meeting physical condition associated with their location.

Cable railway construction is not now a matter of experiment. The cable moves as regular in its daily work of hauling cars as the hands of the clock in indicating time. There have been two roads constructed in this country that have proven more experimental than they should, due entirely to the promoters departing from well established principles of cable engineering, attempting in their constructions to improve the mechanical features by the introduction of untried inventions that seemed on first examination to be correct, but in practical results when used proved failures. Cable traction is growing more and more in favor as the people become more acquainted with its use.

Much has been said about electricity but in so far as power is concerned no more can be accomplished with an electric motor than can be accomplished with a steam motor. The same is true of other motors. I know that it will seem strange to many of the advocates of electricity when I express the belief, or opinion, that it is very questionable whether electricity can ever be used in conduits below the streets, in applying it to the propelling of street cars, as has been attempted in several cities, being very unreliable, due to the lack of knowledge requisite to the absolute control of the electric fluid, if we may term it thus, while passing over the conductors in the conduit. The other objection is based on the question of expense as compared with other methods.

The storage of electricity for street car motor purposes is also experimental, and when by the inventions of men, electricity can be produced at much less cost than at present, by the combination of elements now unknown, generating the electricity on the motor, doing away with the storage battery entirely, this individual motor plan may succeed. The storage plan needs to be further perfected before it can be claimed a success.

The overhead wire bears evidence of success for roads limited in the amount of business, but at present electricity as applied in the overhead wire plan, in economy of operating and cost of carrying passengers amounting to 20,000 and over per day, does not approach the economic results realized in the use of cable traction, all conditions being considered.

Notwithstanding the numerous methods proposed for the operation of street railways, cable railways are being rapidly introduced. Ten years ago San Francisco was the only city that could boast of possessing cable railways; today the cities of Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Omaha, Denver, Sioux City, St. Paul, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Portland, can now claim with San Francisco cable railways in successful operation.

In foreign countries Melbourne and Sydney, Australia; London and Birmingham, England; and Edinburgh, Scotland, have also cable railways in operation.

The question may be asked by those who have never ridden on a cable road, how are cable roads operated, and what are they like?

A power plant is located midway between the two extreme ends of the road in which large stationary engines and driving machinery is placed, of proper capacity. The cable passes from the large driving drums to a variable tension car in which is arranged a large sheave from which the cable passes to the vault sheaves in vault below the street in front of power-house, thence to the conduit or tube in which the cable is supported about every thirty- five feet with small twelve-inch carrying sheaves upon which it rides. These sheaves are accessible by means of small manholes arranged in the cable tracks at the street surface. The cable passes to the end of the road through one conduit, around a large end sheave, returning through the other conduit to the opposite end of the road, passing around the large end sheave at this end of the road; it is then led back through the first conduit mentioned to the power house. It will be seen by this arrangement an endless cable is secured, the normal speed being about eight miles per hour. Communication is had between the moving cable and grip-car on street by means of a grip with horizontal jaws, one stationary, the other or upper jaw having a vertical motion, being operated by a lever in the grip-car. When in use one jaw is immediately under the cable the other above it. The narrow shank or plates of the grip pass from the jaws described, through a narrow slot three-quarters of an inch wide, located in the centre between the rails of the track, at street level, and which extends from one end of the road to the other in both tracks, connecting with the upper frame of the grip where they are fastened to the operating levers. By throwing the grip lever forward the upper jaw of the grip closes down upon the moving cable. The car beginning to move soon acquires the momentum of the cable. To stop the train the lever is thrown in the opposite direction and the car gradually comes to a standstill by the proper use of break appliances. There are two tracks having the tram rails and the slot rails in position, which rest upon heavy cast iron yokes or supports. The slot rails form the narrow slot through which the grip shank passes. The surface of the street between the rails and tracks are paved with the best paving materials; stone paving blocks are more frequently used. The tube or conduit below the street is made from Portland cement concrete, laid around forming cores, which are removed after the cement is properly set, and again used in forming other sections of the conduit. Two cars constitute a train, a grip and passenger car, the former 'being usually an open car, the other a closed coach. The cars move at the normal speed of the cable up hill and down again, as long as the cable is retained by the grip. At the curves a series of vertical conical shaped curve pulleys are arranged which are in constant motion when the cable is moving. The cable is in most cases steel, one and one-quarter inches in diameter, weighing two and one-half pounds per foot, made from six strands of nineteen steel wires in each strand. This, in brief, is a general description of a cable railway.



Some record of the work Robert Gillham has himself performed in the direction of cable railroad extension, and in other lines of public usefulness, seems pertinent in connection with the above. He may be justly termed not alone the founder of Kansas City's Cable Railway system, which is one of the mechanical wonders of the world, but one of the pioneers in cable railway construction ; for when he entered this field of enterprise there were only three cable railways in the country, all in San Francisco, and none of them much like the improved cable roads of to-day which are in no small degree due to his inventive genius and engineering skill. Mr. Gillham was born in New York, September 25, 1854, the third in order of nativity of John and Clarissa Gillham's four sons -- John, Manciellia, Robert and Walter. His preliminary education was received at a private school at Lodi, New Jersey, and at the age of sixteen he became a student in the classical and mathematical institute at Hackensack, New Jersey. Later he entered the office of Prof. William Williams, principal of the institute, and under his private tutelage continued the study of engineering until 1874, when, at the age of twenty, he began the practice of his chosen profession by establishing an office in Hackensack. He worked faithfully and patiently, and one by one numerous important engineering enterprises were entrusted to him, embracing the construction of bridges, special sewerage, sanitary engineering and reports of different kinds; and his rapidly extending reputation as an engineer of growing ability brought him much special work in and about New York city.

Early in October, 1878, Mr. Gillham concluded to visit the great West, and he arrived in Kansas City in the latter part of the same month. A little very superficial investigation was sufficient to firmly impress him with the idea that, ere many years had passed, Kansas City would become one of the most important points in the rapidly developing West. The thing that struck him as one of the most conspicuous drawbacks to Kansas City's speedy advancement was its crude, and in every sense inadequate, street railway system, for at that time the public were compelled, to reach the city proper "on the hill" by a tedious ride up Bluff street to Fifth on slow mule cars, then the only ones in operation; and he found himself studying as to some quick and modern means of transit between Main street and Union depot, and after much consideration and the laying aside of other important projects, he determined upon the well-known and indispensable Eighth and Ninth street cable road, with the viaduct at the Union depot. Through the influence of the horse railway company and others opposed to the enterprise, the granting of the franchise was from time to time refused. Finally the city council promised that if Ninth street, between Delaware street and Broadway was widened, the concession would be granted. Through the influence of Mr. Gillham this measure was finally accomplished, and from a narrow side street, inadequate to the business of the city, Ninth street was widened to its present width ; but again the granting of the franchise was postponed. Undaunted, Mr. Gillham again bent his energies to securing the right to build this road, destined, as he believed, and has been proved, to do more for the city than any other one enterprise within its borders, until at length the franchise was granted to him and his associates at that time, Mr. W. J. Smith, the present president of the company, and Mr. George J. Keating, who withdrew from the enterprise soon after the passage of the franchise. The construction of the line was a great engineering undertaking -- greater than any similar one can be now or hereafter for cable railway construction was then in its infancy, and so far as Kansas City was concerned it was untried, and there were many who doubted its ultimate success.

Not only did Mr. Gillham design and build the road, but every dollar used in its construction was secured through his personal efforts, and he nearly gave his life to the cause. People will long remember the unfortunate accident that befell him upon the completion of the great work, resulting almost in the loss of his life, and incapacitating him for nearly a year to attend any professional business. We refer to the fracturing of his skull by the falling of a grip in the engine-house vault.

Prior to the completion of the Ninth street line, Mr. Gillham conceived the idea of an elevated railway across the bottoms of West Kansas to Wyandotte, and began the circulation of a petition with a view to securing the right to build such a road. Shortly after this, without knowledge of Mr. Gillham's plans, Mr. D. M. Edgerton, of St. Louis, proposed to do the same thing. They soon met upon common ground and speedily united their efforts for their common cause. With the assistance of friends they fought hard and long against injunctions and other litigations, and, slowly but surely, modified the prejudices of property owners along the line of the proposed road. The franchise was defeated twice in the council and finally granted, and then, through their personal efforts, Messrs. Gillham and Edgerton secured the money necessary to construct the road, which, since its opening, has been a marked success. From an engineering point of view the elevated structure has not been equalled in the country for beauty of design, strength, durability and lightness. This is regarded as another great enterprise of Kansas City in which Mr. Gillham was one of the promoting spirits. After operating the road to St. Louis avenue and connecting with the Ninth street line for more than a year, it was found necessary in order to accommodate its patrons and increase its business, to extend it in some means to Delaware street in the heart of the city. A towering bluff intervened. It was not feasible to reach the top of this by an inclined viaduct. The difficulty could be surmounted only by a most skillful and ingenious engineer, and by unanimous consent of all concerned the task was entrusted to Mr. Gillham, who designed a cable railway elevated from St. Louis avenue to the bluff at the foot of Eighth street, piercing the bluff by means of a double track cable railway tunnel, intersecting Washington street on the surface, and extending along the surface of Eighth street to Delaware street -- a bold undertaking, which, by some engineers was considered impracticable. Work was begun in the spring of 1887, and in less than eleven months from the day ground was broken trains were running through the tunnel to Delaware street and return. This, by all competent judges, is considered a remarkable instance of rapid construction, as the work was impeded by different causes, one of which was the caving in of the partially completed tunnel. The securing of money to carry out this project was no small undertaking.

Mr. Gillham was one of the principal organizers of the Grand Avenue Cable Railway Company, and was called to be its first chief engineer, but owing to numerous other duties he declined the appointment. Associated with Mr. W. J. Smith, he purchased by contract a half interest in the Grand Avenue Horse Railroad Company and the Kansas City & Westport Railway Company, and associating with them some of the original owners and many of the present stockholders in the Grand Avenue Cable Railway Company, they organized that corporation. When Mr. Gillham sold his cable stock in this company he resigned from the directory. He is president and chief engineer of the People's Cable Railway Company, in the organization of which he assisted, and is a director and one of the largest stockholders of the Inter-State Consolidated Rapid Transit Railway Company (the Elevated Railway Company). He also constructed the Riverview Cable railway and is largely interested in the Omaha Cable Traction Company, of Omaha, Nebraska, whose roads he constructed, as chief engineer. He is being consulted with reference to the application of cable railways in St. Joseph, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Cleveland, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; Brooklyn, New York, Scranton, Pennsylvania, and many other cities, and is constantly engaged in making reports pertinent to these projects. He was also consulted in the matter of elevated railways in Chicago. He has been also engaged in constructing or preparing to construct the following cable railways as chief engineer: the Kansas City Cable Railway Company (its Washington street line) ; Independence avenue line ; the Omaha Cable Traction Company's lines; the People's Cable old Railway (the Tenth street and Brooklyn avenue); branch lines of the elevated railway in Kansas; the Denver City Cable Railway Company's line, Denver, Colorado; embracing eleven miles of double track, and the West End Street Railway, Boston, Massachusetts, in which system when completed there will be seven " power houses" and over fifty miles of cable railway. These, briefly stated, are the principal gigantic enterprises which Mr. Gillham has projected or been prominently connected with up to the present time. The record is a remarkable one to be made by a man of his years, and one of which any civil engineer in the country would be proud. He has at the same time been identified with other enterprises of special importance to Kansas City. He is president of the Armourdale Foundry Company, a company organized originally by Mr. C. E. Moss, and to whom is due the credit of building up the great business the company now enjoys, and who was associated with him for a number of years as owners. Mr. Moss finally, for the purpose of retiring from business, disposed of his interest in this company to Mr. Gillham, in which he now has a controlling interest. It is an extensive manufacturing concern with the best equipped works of tht kind west of Chicago, and makes practically two- thirds of all the architectural iron work used in Kansas City and the surrounding country. The other members of the company are Mr. Gus. P. Marty, vice-president, and Mr. John Gillham, Jr., secretary. Ten years have scarcely passed since Mr. Gillham came to Kansas City and identified himself inseparably with its future growth and progress, and to-day he ranks as one of its most useful citizens and is probably better known by his achievements throughout the entire West than any other resident here. He married the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Matthias Marty, of Kansas City, and has two daughters, Elsie and Edith, aged respectively five and three years.

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