Henry Casebolt and Robert Morrow -- Cable Car Builders

The Sutter Street Railway - San Francisco's Second Cable Car Line

By Walter Rice PhD and Emiliano Echeverria

A project of the San Francisco Railway Archives

Note-Name changed from Sutter Street Railroad to Sutter Street Railway, November 1879.

Over the three-quarters of century have passed since the last vestige of the cable lines of the former Sutter Street Railway, San Francisco's second cable car company, ceased operation. The November 17, 1929 abandonment by the Market Street Railway (of 1921) of the Pacific Avenue cable not only ended the last vestige of the once important Sutter Street Company, but it also ended in San Francisco the cable train (an open grip car coupled to a closed trailer).

Sutter Street Train
From the start of cable car service on January 27, 1877 the Sutter Street Railroad and its successor companies typically operated cable car trains consisting of a grip car (dummy) and trailer. This view shows what the operation looked like in 1905, the year before the Great Earthquake and Fire ended all of the former Sutter company's cable lines, except the short Pacific Avenue line.

The Sutter Street Railway was organized in 1863 as the Front Street, Mission & Ocean Railroad (FSM&ORR) by a group of property owners in the Western Addition including Henry H. Haight, later Governor of California (after whom Haight Street is named). The Sutter Street Company was one of the more interesting operations in the history of San Francisco transport. It was the first railway to follow Andrew S. Hallidie's concept of the cable car. But importantly, the Sutter Street Railroad's cable lines were constructed to their own designs, not those of Hallidie. Utilizing at various times omnibuses, horsecars, steam dummies, and cable cars, the Sutter Street Railway's operations set the stage for the successful streetcar lines that followed most its routes after the 1906 earthquake

First - There Were Unprofitable Horsecar Lines

Formally incorporated on February 26, 1865, the FSM&ORR was San Francisco's fifth street railway. The company was organized as a result of agitation for horsecar service by Western Addition property owners located north of Geary Street. These property owners felt that the nearest horsecar service (the Central Railroad) was too distant to ensure the development of their properties.

The new company wisely awarded Henry Casebolt the contracts for track construction and car building. Casebolt had extensive experience in both fields. Track construction began during September, 1865 on Sutter Street from Sansome westward towards Polk Street. The initial estimated cost was between $ 80,000 and $ 90,000 for trackage, cars, carhouse and stables.

By March, 1866 the company's tracks stretched from Sansome and Sutter to Polk Street, where they turned north running to Broadway. At this location the company built its car barn and stables. The impact of this construction was both positive and swift - property values began to soar in anticipation of the new railroad.

Six car-kits shipped 'round the horn, arrived at this time. These horsecars were soon erected by Casebolt. Originally, the seats were deeply cushioned red-velvet plush. The cars' bore the company initials and a listing of the streets served. An innovation invented by Casebolt was the spring latch, which kept the car windows when opened from rattling excessively.

The company proudly announced to the citizens of San Francisco its opening:

"Your company is respectfully solicited on the occasion of the opening of the Front St, Mission, and Ocean Railroad, this day May 1, 1866, at 3:00 P.M. The cars will start from the intersection of Sutter & Sansome St."

San Francisco's commercial center during the 1860s centered at Portsmouth Square (Kearny and Clay). Ferry boat service of the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad Company began operation on September 2, 1863 from the Davis Street landing, located today at approximately the intersection of Davis and Vallejo Streets. The Davis Street slips were soon joined by other Ferry routes, such as San Francisco and Alameda Railroad's service. In short, a significant portion of San Francisco's economic base was north of Sutter Street.

Unfortunately, the line was not profitable. The contractor Henry Casebolt was forced to accept shares of common stock as payment for building and equipping the line. These equity shares gave Casebolt effective control of the railway, almost from its opening. Casebolt became superintendent of the railway, a position which he would hold for fourteen years.

Even before the line opened, management recognized that they needed to serve these commercial zones to enhance the viability of their investment. Accordingly, the appropriate franchises were obtained and in addition, trackage rights were granted from the North Beach & Mission to use their tracks on Battery Street. On July 29, 1866 work began on the line's northward extension from Sutter and Sansome. Completed December 1 that year, the extension ran from Sansome east on Market Street one block (using trackage rights), north on Battery Street, and east on Broadway to the Davis Street landing.

This extension was the first in a series of extensions. Casebolt was finding out that, no matter how much he tried, the company line couldn't break-even. Accordingly, he obtained new franchises (to serve new service areas) in an effort to increase revenues by increasing ridership. However, the fundamental economic problem Casebolt faced was that horsecar services were expensive to operate, especially in outlying districts. By the time its horsecar mileage was complete in 1871 the FSM&ORR had the most far flung system in San Francisco. Horses, unlike human labor, could only be worked approximately four hours. Horses had to be fed, groomed and stabled. As of June 1, 1867 the company had 12 horsecars and 90 horses! Because of the extensive mileage, the small cars, the slow speeds, because it was a horsecar railway, all this was costly; the line was marginal, at best. Casebolt would ultimately solve this dilemma by substituting the mechanical power of the cable car and steam dummy for animal power.

On April 7, 1867 the company, using the unused franchise of the Fort Point Railroad, began an omnibus service (a shared stagecoach on a predetermined route) from the western end of its horsecar line at Polk and Broadway to Harbor View (site of the Palace of Fine Arts) and the Presidio military base. This early service ran into multiple problems due to the weather's impact on the ungraded city streets that often created impassable conditions. Service was then rerouted or suspended totally. The fare was 30 cents, however by December 1 in an effort to stimulate patronage the fare was halved to 15 cents.

The summer of 1868 found construction underway on two horsecar extensions - Pacific Avenue and the Presidio Branch. The Pacific Avenue branch, which started at Polk and Pacific, was proposed to serve the then largely undeveloped northern Richmond District. It never did. The franchise awarded to the FSM&ORR stated that the company was to extend the branch westward on Pacific Avenue to "the ocean when Pacific Ave is extended to said location." The first phase was to be to Pierce Street; a point reached by the construction crews in late September. This is as far west as the Pacific Avenue horsecar ever ran. In fact the line was eventually cut back two-blocks to Fillmore Street. A car shortage delayed the line opening until December 10.

Converting the railway's omnibus route that served Harbor View to the Presidio Branch horsecar rail line was Casebolt's solution to the continuing problem of that line's frequent weather related service interruptions. The Presidio branch was completed by the beginning of December. The route ran from Broadway and Polk to Harbor View by going north on Polk to Filbert, then following the contour of the land on it ran westward on a private-right-of-way to a location on Union Street west of Van Ness Avenue, at which point it used again city streets - namely, Union, Steiner, Greenwich, Baker and lastly Jefferson Street to enter the Presidio grounds. On December 19, the first car was tested. January 6, 1869 was date when revenue service started, however "Old Man Winter" stepped in again and delayed any reliable service until March 11. The problem was that the most of the streets traversed were not paved

Also during May 1870, the company in 17 days constructed a new line from Sutter south along Larkin and Ninth Streets to Mission, where a connection was made to and trackage rights obtained from the City Railroad that enabled Sutter cars to continue to Woodward's Gardens - an important recreational destination for San Franciscans of the period.

Shortly afterward, during September, 1870, the company further expanded into the Western Addition (the area west of Van Ness Avenue) with the opening of its Lone Mountain, or Cemetery line. The cemeteries during this period were an important recreational destination. After paying respects at a grave site, it would be time for a picnic. This was especially true until Golden Gate Park was well developed. This new branch ran from Bush and Polk, where passengers transferred from the company's main Sutter Street line, via Bush, Fillmore, California, and Central Avenue (Presidio) to Point Lobos Road (Geary Blvd) - the location of many of the city's cemeteries until the first half of the next century. Those who wanted to continue to an ocean beach resort would board an omnibus for the remainder of their trip along the Point Lobos Toll Road. By May 15, 1870 work on this new line was completed to California and Fillmore Streets. The line opened to this point on May 17. The full line to the cemeteries opened on September 17.

All this expansion meant that the company's original Polk and Broadway carhouse and stables were inadequate to meet the company's needs. A new carhouse and stables were, therefore, constructed at the intersection of Bush and Larkin - a location close to two of the company's branches and its main Sutter Street line. Construction began May of 1870 and involved moving some structures from the original site, in addition to new buildings. Work was completed on September 14 of that year, in time for serving the opening of the Lone Mountain Line.

Sutter Street was the company's main operational street. Both the press and general public, accordingly, continually and ubiquitously referred to the company as the "Sutter Street Railroad" instead of its formal corporate title - Front Street, Mission & Ocean Railroad. The company did not run on Front Street nor did it reach the ocean, and its Mission Street operation was as a result of trackage rights obtained from the City Railroad, although it did have never-used franchise rights in the Mission. Therefore, management by 1872 changed the road's official title to "Sutter Street Railroad" (SSRR).

The hope was that with these extensions, which made the Sutter Street Company one the city's largest horsecar operations, the company would earn a profit. This was not the case. During the years following the 1869 opening of the transcontinental railroad, San Francisco and Northern California experienced a depression that only worsened by the middle of the 1870s. Sutter Street's major losses kept mounting. Something had to be done.

The Famous Balloon Horsecar

Casebolt's solution was to reduce operating costs; not by reduction of schedules but by redesigning the horse car. His car building firm - Casebolt & Kerr - had built more 40 "bobtail" horsecars for the City Railroad. The City Railroad's single-ended bobtail cars ran driven by one man using a single horse. Sutter Street Railroad's double-ended cars used two men - a driver and conductor - and two horses. The bobtail provided considerable operating savings, notably on lightly trafficked schedules. The City Railroad was built for single-ended cars with turntables at each of its terminals. Adding turntables to the Sutter lines Casebolt regarded as prohibitively expensive. His solution was ingenious. Instead of turntables in the street Casebolt incorporated the turntable directly onto the car, creating one of the oddest types of horsecars anywhere: the Balloon Car.

The ingenuity of Henry Casebolt is clearly illustrated in this February 1875 company portrait of one of his famous, but short lived, Balloon Cars -- No.1 -- at the company’s Bush and Larkin car house and stable. To save on operating cost by both reducing crew and horse power to one of each, and avoid construction of costly street turntables Casebolt incorporated the turntable directly onto the car. Nevertheless, when one considers the cost of stabling horses, labor costs and fixed charges it is apparent Casebolt’s Balloon cars had too low a capacity to solve the company’s financial difficulties. Randolph Brant Collection. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Casebolt broadly patterned his "balloon cars" after the standard bobtail horsecar, with a characteristic single rear door and step. At this point however the similarity ended; in place of the conventional bobtail horsecar rectangular body Casebolt substituted an almost totally round body. On top of the body was an overhanging oval roof. The design readily lent itself to the term "balloon car."

The "balloon cars" featured such unusual amenities as floor carpeting and plush upholstered seats. They were small in passenger capacity, requiring but a single horse on flat sections of its routes. On the hilly sections two horses, in tandem, were needed. The Sutter Street Railroad roster, of the period, shows the company had "27 hill horses."

The car's body was mounted on a central pivot that raised it above the truck and undercarriage. This allowed the driver to reverse the car's direction from his seat! The driver by using a latching device would free the upper portion of the car, swivel the car body around 180 degrees on the pivot as he guided the team in a semi circle, thereby reversing direction without turning the truck. He would then secure the car body by latching. The design saved the driver from the task of unhitching the team and walking around the car.

According to a local wag the "balloon cars" were "mostly built from gas pipe and tin." There may be some truth in his observation, after awhile the pivots began to wear causing the cars to rock from side to side as the traveled down the street. This rough and often unacceptable ride produced frequent derailments, often the disgruntled passengers were drafted into placing the car back on the rails.

Balloon cars served the company for three years from 1874 to 1877. They were used on a line which utilized, from the north, the Harbor View/Presidio extension, the central portion being a portion of the mainline on Polk and Sutter Streets, and the southern portion along Larkin and Ninth Streets along the Mission Branch to Woodward's Gardens.

Around 1875, a major change was taking place: the traffic patterns of San Francisco. Ferry boat service was being shifted from the Davis Street wharfs to the foot of Market Street, the present day location of the Ferry Building. As a result the Omnibus Railroad obtained a connecting franchise to operate on Market Street from Sansome and Market to the new Ferry terminal. The Sutter Street Railroad owned the first block of Market Street trackage that the Omnibus needed - namely, the outside tracks on Market Street between Sansome and Battery. Accordingly, the Sutter Street and Omnibus Railroads entered into an agreement that permitted both roads to reach the Ferry. Concurrent with the Market Street direct operation to the new Ferry Terminal the now redundant trackage on Battery and Broadway was abandoned. This was the first abandonment of service on the Sutter Street Railroad. In 1913, horsecar service in San Francisco would conclude with end of the Sutter and Sansome via Market Street horsecar to the Ferry.

A Financial Solution - Cable Cars and Steam Dummies

Balloon cars did not solve the company's financial difficulties. Casebolt was soon convinced that a mechanical solution - cable or steam operation - was the only way to make the line pay. After much study and experience, Casebolt opted for a dual approach - cable cars on the mainline and downtown branches, and steam on the Presidio Branch, given the distances and low population of that line. These decisions were arrived at over a period of time, as technology advanced.

Why a steam dummy?? During Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876 the Baldwin locomotive Works brought out its "Steam Dummy," intended for use on the edge of cities where neither the horsecar nor cable car were economically feasible. Casebolt was impressed by what he saw.

Technology was catching up for urban transportation, as well. August 2, 1873 was an important day in San Francisco's history. On that date Andrew Smith Hallidie successfully tested the world's first cable car - the Clay Street Hill Railroad. Subsequent revenue service proved that the cable car was not only mechanically viable, but financially highly profitable.

Unlike the Clay Street Hill Railroad, the Sutter Street line ran over fairly level ground, its highest point being only 170 feet above the elevation of the lower terminus, and its steepest grade only 4%. However, it was Clay Street's rate of return on investment that attracted Casebolt.

When Casebolt first expressed interest in converting one of his horsecar lines to cable in 1876, the Clay Street Hill Railroad's owners demanded a $50,000 license fee for their patents and a royalty on every grip used by the new line. Outraged, Casebolt determined to design his own system, avoiding Hallidie's patents. Along with Asa Hovey, an employee of Casebolt's car building firm, Casebolt designed the new cable line's physical plant. A court case followed. In 1880 the United States Circuit Court decided the case, ruling that Hallidie's prior use was only experimental use, and that a patent for a device not yet perfected could not be infringed. The court ordered that the Sutter Street Railroad pay $1 in damages to Hallidie. This case was the first in series of patent suits that characterized the cable traction industry throughout its history.

Conversion of the property from horsecar to cable operations took place in 1876, and on January 27, 1877 the line initiated revenue service, running from the intersection of Market and Sutter Streets west on Sutter to Larkin. The change from horse to cable proved immediately successful. Ridership increased by 962,000 during the first year of operation.

Car 46
Grip car No.46 is at Sutter & Powell Streets, 1890s. Where No.46's trailer is is a mystery. However, No. 46 ran until 1929 (1907-1929 on Pacific Avenue). Today No. 46 can be seen on display with trailer No. 54 on display at the Cable Car Museum.

From the start of cable car service on January 27, 1877 the Sutter Street Railroad and its successor companies operated cable car trains consisting of a grip car (dummy) and trailer. At Market Street the trailer or "car," as it was often referred to in the contemporary period, was uncoupled from the grip car and hitched to a horse to continue the journey to the Ferry Building. Former horsecars often were used as trailers.

The Presidio Branch got its attention too, when on September 22, 1877, a new steam dummy service began to Harbor View and the Presidio connecting with Sutter Street Railroad's crosstown horsecar operation at Polk and Broadway. This was San Francisco's first and last true steam dummy operation, lasting a total of twenty-nine years. During that summer Casebolt had purchased two Baldwin steam dummies - the No. 1 named Harbor View and No. 2 the Henry Casebolt.

The success of their first line soon led the company to extend its cable operations. In late 1878 the firm opened the first crosstown cable line in the city, running from the powerhouse at Larkin and Bush south on Larkin to Hayes and Market Streets.

Upon completion of this line the railway extended the main line west on Sutter to Central (now Presidio) Avenue in two phases, as replacement for its Lone Mountain horsecar branch. On June 14, 1879, the Sutter Street cable line was extended west from Larkin Street to Buchanan. A temporary steam dummy shuttle ran from Buchanan to Central (Presidio) Avenue. The steam dummy was diverted from the company's short-lived Harbor View steam motor line. Cable car service reached Central Avenue in October 1879. This extension was the second cable line into the sparsely developed section of the city known as the Western Addition (Cal Cable was the first with service to Fillmore Street as of April 10, 1878), and brought the total amount of track operated by the firm to 2.5 miles on Sutter and .7 miles on Larkin. One month later in November, the Sutter Street Railroad received new 50-year charter under which its name was changed to the Sutter Street Railway.

It wasn't clear, at the time but the Sutter Street Railroad's principle owner, Henry Casebolt had restructured the railway that it was now a sellable commodity. With the abandonment of poorly routed lines, the mechanizations of most of its lines then in service, and the extension of the franchises another fifty years, Casebolt was now ready to make a move he had long desired: the selling of the Sutter Street Railroad. Thus, on January 30, 1880, the Sutter Street Railway was formally taken over by new owners, Robert F. Morrow (a local real estate broker) & Associates from Henry Casebolt.

Robert Morrow wasted no time in upgrading the system. By 1882, the plans were ready. The following year, 1883, Morrow abandoned the powerhouse built at Sutter and Presidio in 1879 to drive the western end of the Sutter Street cable in favor of consolidating the firm's operations into a single powerhouse at Sutter and Polk. He further extended the Larkin line south, across Market and down 9th Street, to Mission.

Dwarfed by the by the company’s imposing three-story brick main car house, powerhouse and headquarters building an inbound Sutter Street train passes the heart of the Sutter Street Railway at Sutter and Polk Streets, 1905. Opened in 1883 this location was selected because it was central to the company’s two cable lines -- Sutter Street and the crosstown Polk, Larkin and Ninth Street line. Central locations for cable car power houses were critical to minimizing strain on the cable. This power house powered four cables -- Sutter east, Sutter west, Polk north and Larkin south. Randolph Brant Collection. Click on the image to see a larger version.

As a result, the original cable powerhouse was abandoned. After all, it was a converted stable, of all-wooden construction, the first of only two instances in San Francisco where a cable power plant was installed in an existing building (United Railroads' 1907 installation at Castro Street being the other). Also in 1883, during the first rebuilding of the conduits, the Larkin line was rerouted off Larkin at Post, then north again on Polk to Sutter. This resulted in San Francisco's first Pull-Curves, which had only recently been developed in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Also during the early 1880s, Robert Morrow also acquired a 40% stake in the Sutter line's cable rival the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad; remaining equity belonged to Southern Pacific's Market Street Cable Railway. This company, which began its cable operation in February 1880. On August 7, 1892 a rebuilt Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad opened being converted from 5'-0" gauge to 4'-8½" (standard gauge) to allow Geary cars to operate on the Market Street Cable Railway's Market Street trackage to the Ferry. This plan was never carried out, largely because Morrow's company stake was large enough to block Southern Pacific's plan. Morrow's action was designed to protect his Sutter Street investment.

After the sale by Casebolt to Morrow, the Sutter Street Company was ready to rid itself of its money-losing Harbor View steam route. This line connected with the Polk Street horsecar, an integral part of Sutter Street Railway system, at Broadway and ran to Harbor View (the northern bay section of today's Marina). This was part of a larger plan of Morrow to eliminate its excess trackage and facilities. Ownership of the steam line passed to the Presidio & Ferries in 1881. The Presidio & Ferries soon shortened the steam line to run from Union and Steiner Streets to Harbor View. That company's Union Street cable line provided the connections to and from for the rest of the City.

In 1887, the firm extended its Larkin Street line farther south on Ninth Street to Brannan. The following year construction crews pushed the cross-town line north on Polk from the powerhouse to Pacific Avenue, and then west out Pacific to Divisadero. The firm's financial success during is shown by newspaper reports of earnings of between $1500 and $1700 per day in 1888. This addition gave the company a total of approximately six miles of cable track, plus a mile of horsecar track that connected the Sutter and Market terminus with the Ferry Building and a few blocks on Polk between Union and Pacific.

Compared to the Market Street Railway (Ex-Market Street Cable Railway) 34-foot double-truck combination standard gauge cable car with its carrying capacity of 130 (foreground) the five-foot gauge Sutter Street Railway train led by dummy No. 24 crossing Market Street from Larkin to Ninth Street appears both quaint and obsolete. It was. The Sutter trains maximum load was about half of the bigger car. Both had the same crew size -- a gripman and conductor. The Sutter company being San Francisco’s second company adopted the "design of the time." Subsequent conversion would mean incurring the cost of expensive turntables, besides the capital costs of the new equipment. Management rejected these changes. Charles A. Smallwood Collection. Click on the image to see a larger version.

It is interesting to note that the Sutter Street system initially opened with an experimental installation which was replaced in 1883 with more permanent structures, both above and below ground. The entire system was again rebuilt in 1890-91. Daily operation of the lines continued throughout the work. This resulted in the most massive cable conduits ever built in San Francisco. The line was now up to the most modern cable standards of the day.

Events during the 1890s, independent of the Sutter Street Railway, were occurring which would profoundly affect the course of its development. On July 2, 1894 the City granted to Adolph Sutro a street railroad franchise for a line between Central Avenue (now Presidio Avenue) and the Cliff House area, with a branch line to Golden Gate Park. A prime purpose of Sutro was to break the beach trade monopoly power of the Southern Pacific's Market Street Railway, whereby that company charged an extra 5¢ fare to transfer from its cable car lines to its steam lines. At first Sutro insisted the new line would be a cable line, he later opted for streetcar service that began on February 1, 1896.

Morrow recognized the new Sutro Railroad provided an excellent business opportunity for his Sutter Street line, which did not have a direct connection for the lucrative beach and park traffic. A free transfer agreement was signed between the two companies, which made it possible to travel from the Bay Front, to the Ocean or Golden Gate Park for five cents.

The economic impact on the Sutter Street Railway of this agreement was both swift and positive. By July the company reported receipts had increased an average of three hundred dollars per day, the equivalent of 6,000 extra boardings. On Sunday July 16 the Sutter Street cable carried 40,000 people, without an injury. Much of this new traffic was obtained at the expense of the Market Street Railway.

Arrangements with the Sutro Railroad were turning out well, but for Adolph Sutro, the strain of the mayoralty was too much and by March of 1898 his affairs were under the conservator-ship of his daughter, Dr. Emma Sutro Merritt. She became the president of the Sutro Railroad in April of 1898, and sold the railway at auction to Robert Morrow in October of 1899. Its operations were integrated into those of the Sutter Street Railway. Like Casebolt before him, Morrow had made the railway a prime property for a sale.

On May 12, 1901, the independent San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway (SF&SM) was purchased by the "Baltimore Syndicate" for $1,650,000. The purchase was financed by Brown Bros & Company, 59 Wall Street, New York City. It was extensively rumored, at the time, that the Syndicate was looking for other railway properties in the Bay Area. The new owners of the SF& SM quietly began negotiations with the Henry Huntington to purchase the Market Street Railway, San Francisco's largest public transit entity.

The Sutter Street Railway was purchased by the "Baltimore Syndicate" during July, 1901, nine months before the creation of the URR and was operated during this period as part of the SF&SM. The Sutter Street Railway then became part of the United Railroads of San Francisco (URR) in 1902, with an electric streetcar company and the Market Street Railway. The URR operated the former Sutter Street cable lines until April 18, 1906 when the earthquake and fire destroyed the powerhouse, most of the rolling stock, and portions of the conduit. United Railroads, intent upon cutting operating expenses to the bone to pay dividends on the firm's watered stock, converted all of the old Sutter Street Railway lines, except the Pacific Avenue route, to the more cost effective electric streetcars following the earthquake and fire. (The Polk, Larkin, Ninth Street line was in the process of being converted to streetcars at the time of the 1906 disaster.) By the time of its purchase by SF&SM in 1901 the company's lines were ready for conversion, though in good shape given the age of the physical plant.

The URR's Pacific Avenue line operated out of a small powerhouse near the northwest corner of Polk and Pacific. Only the final block to Divisadero had a grade beyond the capabilities of the period's electric streetcars. The wealthy Pacific Avenue residents had successfully objected to having "unsightly" overhead trolley wires. This last vestige of the Sutter Street Railroad was ended by the Market Street Railway, who got positive public relations out of the abandonment, on November 29, 1929.

Pacific Avenue
The last vestige of the Sutter Street Railroad's cable car service was ended by the Market Street Railway, who got positive public relations out of the abandonment as shown by this photo, November 29, 1929.

On August 27, 1929 the 48-year-old Pacific Avenue cable line, affectionately known to the district served as "The Kiddies Delight," was officially legislated out of business when the Board of Supervisors votes to abandon the line. The fifty year franchise was about to expire (other expiring franchises were extended ultimately in 1930 by the voters). The Market Street Railway (of 1921) reported loses about $28,000 on the line annually.

The Pacific Avenue remnant, still operating as it had in the 1890s with cable trains (although the URR had briefly tried to implement a one-man cable car to reduce losses) at the time of its November 29, 1929 abandonment was by then an obsolete anachronism. It is ironic that the line that Casebolt built and Morrow nurtured as cutting edge technology, in the name of "progress" would become sentimentalized at the end. It was this sentimentality, however, that gave birth two decades later, to the movement that eventually saved most of San Francisco's remaining cable cars. (Refer to "The Cable Car and the Mayor") for more information.

The Technology of the Sutter Street Cable

The conduits used by the Sutter Street Railroad marked no real advance in cable traction technology from those used by Hallidie for the 1873 Clay Street Hill Railroad. Casebolt and Hovey designed the original installation along the lines adopted by Hallidie on the Clay Street Hill Railroad, using large quantities of wood to keep construction costs at a minimum. In 1879 the firm adopted a yoke of bent railroad iron, modeled after that designed by Henry Root in 1877 for the California Street Cable Railroad. During the 1890-91 reconstruction of the line, a new conduit was installed consisting of square wrought iron yokes embedded in Portland cement. This supported 46-pound rail set at a 5-foot gauge.

During the relocation of the powerhouse and extension of the Larkin Street line across Market in 1883, the firm built the first pull curves used in San Francisco. George Duncan invented the pull curve in 1881 for the Dunedin & Roslyn Tramway Co. of Dunedin, New Zealand. Before this date existing technology restricted the operation of cable railroads to straight lines, except in special cases like that of San Francisco's Presidio & Ferries Railway, which in 1880 built a drift curve that allowed cars to release the cable and simply coast through the turn. This type of construction proved possible only where both streets involved descended as they approached the intersection. Pull curves did not require specific street conditions, but could be built at any intersection. This advantage over the drift curve resulted in their use for most of the turns built by cable railroads, despite their technical complexity, complicated construction and high cost. The Sutter Street Railroad built six pull curves with its 1883 expansion.

The grip used by the Sutter Street Railroad represented that company's most important contribution to the industry. Hovey and T. Day, the chief engineers of the line, designed the grip, the first to take the cable from the side. Hallidie and Eppelsheimer's grip employed horizontally moving jaws that the cable entered from below, while Hovey and Day's used vertically moving jaws that took the cable from the side. The Sutter Street Railroad grip abandoned the screw-within-a-screw principle of Hallidie and Eppelsheimer, using instead a lever and quadrant arrangement to transfer the gripman's motion to the jaws. (Ondisplay at the Cable Car Museum, Clay Street Hill Railroad No.8 illustrates the screw-within-a-screw grip. (See How Do Cable Cars Work? for more details about current and former grips.)

The Hovey and Day grip eliminated the need for turntables at the ends of the line. The gripman changed his position, pulling back on the lever westbound (outbound) and pushing it forward eastbound. This arrangement was selected due to the preponderance of upward movement outbound.

By inconveniencing the gripman in this manner it proved unnecessary to turn the dummies around at the termini, and the Sutter Street Railroad, therefore, used simple switches to change its cars from one track to the other. The lever and quadrant grip arrangement was used on nearly every grip designed after 1877, whether it was a side or bottom grip.

The firm consolidated all its cable driving operations into a single powerhouse, at the southeast corner of Polk and Sutter, in 1883. As was common with most of San Francisco's cable companies, the steam engines, boilers, and winding machinery occupied the building's basement while the upper floors were used for car storage and repairs and offices.

Casebolt and Hovey developed a new driving system for the Sutter Street Railroad to avoid the patents held by Hallidie upon the system used by the Clay Street Hill Railroad. It is unclear whether or not the installation used in the 1883 powerhouse employed the same driving system used in the original powerhouse. In the 1883 installation two driving sheaves, also known as winders, drove each cable. The adhesion necessary to avoid slipping was obtained by wrapping the cable around the winders in a figure-eight pattern, also known as the "American" drive system. (The figure-eight pattern is used today at Muni's Washington-Mason power house.) The sheaves were mounted in line with each other on the two main shafts. In 1883 the Sutter Street Company used one set of 12-foot diameter winders and two sets measuring 10 feet 10 inches in diameter.

In 1883 the Sutter Street Railroad also used a different method for maintaining tension on the cable from that developed by Hallidie. From the winders the cable passed around a vertical tension sheave mounted on a wheeled carriage running on rails. Weights, hanging suspended over a pit and attached by a chain to each tension carriage, pulled the carriages back along the rails as the cable's length varied, keeping it taut.

The physical plant of the Sutter Street Railroad, designed to avoid the patents held by Andrew S. Hallidie, made several valuable contributions to cable traction technology. The most important of these contributions, Hovey and Day's side grip, that differed radically from the device used by the Clay Street Hill Railroad with its lever and quadrant motion. This design has been used on nearly every grip developed after this time. In 1883 the company introduced the pull curve to San Francisco, freeing the cable car from the restriction of straight line operations. The figure-eight drive system and moveable tension carriages used in the 1883 powerhouse represented marked advances in cable technology (both may have appeared in the powerhouses of other firms before 1883). Sutter Street Railroad accomplishments were all outside of the Southern Pacific's Market Street Railway group.

The Sutter Street Railroad was the first cable car company to operate more than one cable car line. This showed the capability of the technology to serve a wider area than previously thought. This, in turn showed the potential of city wide operations in the future. The cable car lines greatly extended the life of the Sutter Street Railway, which would have otherwise remained a money-loser and thus would have been swallowed up soon by a larger operator. Of the pre-cable San Francisco transit operations, the Sutter Street company stayed independent (1866-1901) the longest.

Like the Clay Street Hill Railroad, the Sutter Street Railroad proved cable car technology despite its heavy initial capital costs can earn significant profits for its investors. This fact provided a critical basis for the expansion of the industry. In turn, the expansion of San Francisco's cable car network during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, opened vast areas of the city to development and changed San Francisco's face forever.


Sutter Street was converted to electric streetcar operation during the post 1906 earthquake and fire period. In 1913 the United Railroads purchased 65 state-of-the-art cars from the American Car Company. These cars soon became identified with the Sutter Street lines; in fact they became the symbol of Sutter Street transit. Thirty-one years after arriving in San Francisco car 219, looking a little worse for wartime wear, passes the former cable train terminal of Sutter and Sansome, May 5, 1944. 219 is running on the number No. 2 Sutter & Clement line; a line created by combining the route of the Sutter Street cable line with the Sutro Railroad’s Ocean Beach Cliff House route. Walter Rice Collection, Wilbur Whittaker photograph. Click on the image to see a larger version.

After the April 1906 Earthquake and Fire the United Railroads electrified Sutter Street and combined it with the electrified, since 1905, Cliff line via outer California Street creating the what became known in 1909 as the 1-Sutter & California. At this time, the former Sutro Railway Clement Street electric line was cut back from Geary and Presidio Avenue to California and Parker, becoming a shuttle or "extension" that connected with Sutter & California cars. In 1909, this line was extended via, California, Presidio Avenue and Sutter Street, becoming the 2-Sutter & Clement. Also, in 1906 the Sutter & Jackson line (later the No. 3) began Sutter Street service east of Fillmore. Direct service via Market Street was operated to the Ferry (and later the East Bay Terminal) except between 1908 and 1913, when a franchise dispute between the City and the URR forced the resumption of horsecar service from Sutter and Sansome to the Ferry.

After the earthquake and fire of April 1906, the United Railroads converted Sutter Street to electric streetcar. The new trolley cars continued via Market Street from Sutter and Market directly to the Ferry Building. However, starting in 1908 the City engaged in a franchise dispute with the United Railroads forcing that company to honor the literal franchise terms for the outer Market Street tracks (Market Street east of Sutter was four-tracked) -- namely, to run horsecars on this trackage. URR horsecar No. 45 has just turned off of Market Street onto Sutter and shortly its passengers will board a Sutter Street electric car, 1913. Full electric car service returned on June 3 of that year. Randolph Brant Collection. Click on the image to see a larger version.

In 1935, a fourth streetcar line was added to the Sutter Street - the No. 4 Sutter & Sacramento - which joined Sutter Street at Fillmore. All Sutter Street streetcar service ended July 2, 1949. In late 1906 the former Sutter Street Railway's crosstown line was electrified eventually becoming the No. 19 Polk-Larkin and Ninth Street. This line was converted by the Municipal Railway to motor coach on September 30, 1945.

Early dash sign from United Railroads No. 1 -Sutter & California electric line. Val Lupiz Design Click on the image to see a larger version.


Robert Callwell and Walter Rice, Of Cables and Grips: The Cable Cars of San Francisco, San Francisco California, 2nd edition, 2005.

Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria, When Steam Ran on the Streets of San Francisco, Harold E. Cox, Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, 2002.

Historic American Engineering Record, San Francisco Cable Car System

Return to the Sutter Street Railway page.

Return to the San Francisco page.

Go to topof page.

Home/ What/ How/ Where & When/ Who/ Why
Chronology/ Miscellany/ Links/ Map/ Bibliography

Copyright 2002-2007 by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria. All rights reserved.

Last updated 01-Mar-2007