Zoe Collins Rath, Corporate Heritage Intern.
Today, cable cars are a beloved San Francisco sight and an important part of the city’s identity. But they may have never become reality without funding from Wells Fargo.
A new way to travel
Traveling by horse was the most common way to get around San Francisco in the 1870s. However, the city horses had to trek up San Francisco’s infamous 43 hills. One day, while on an evening walk, inventor Andrew Hallidie saw an overloaded streetcar being pulled uphill by four horses. Since it had rained that day, the ground was muddy, and the horses had a very strenuous task getting the car up the hill on Jackson Street. The ground was so slippery that the horses lost their footing and slid down the hill.
Determined to find a way to avoid such an incident in the future, Hallidie set to work creating a system of metal wires that would pull the cars uphill. He had previously invented a tramway system for transporting mining material over California’s mountains in the 1860s, and his concept for the cable car was similar. The cable cars would be propelled by a continuous wire cable that would run underground. A mechanical grip on each of the cars would latch onto the underground cable, and the grip operator would either take up or release the cable to move the car at a steady pace of 9 mph.
Hallidie patented his idea on Jan. 17, 1871, but he still needed funding.
The first cable cars
Two years after getting his idea patented, Hallidie was still struggling to find a way to fund the project. Despite using his own money and receiving money from local citizens, he had to take out a $30,000 loan from the Savings and Loan Society, now Wells Fargo. With financing secured in June 1873, he was finally able to start his project.
Hallidie tirelessly worked on the project to meet an Aug. 1 deadline. If he did not meet it, he would lose the patent, have to abandon the project, and the money would be returned to the lenders. In early August, the project was finally completed.
There is controversy surrounding when the official demonstration took place, but at 5 o’clock on an early August morning, Hallidie drove his prototype cable car 307 feet up the Clay Street hill. The test was successful, and one month later, the Clay Street Hill Railway opened its first cable cars.
Preserving the cable cars
For decades, cable cars chugged uphill, delighting passengers. But the beloved landmark faced an uncertain future in 1947, when San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham wanted to get rid of them. He claimed that the cable cars were too expensive to run and were antiquated.
Friedel Klussmann, a prominent member of San Francisco society, started the Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars. “The cable cars are the heart of the city, and to lose them would be a real tragedy,” she said. The committee wanted to represent the voice of the people, so the decision to keep or eliminate the cable cars — Measure 10 — was put to a vote. Community groups, civic leaders, and companies endorsed Measure 10. Wells Fargo even donated money to help the cause of preserving the cable cars. On election night in 1947, the ballot measure passed, keeping the cable cars on the streets for another three decades.
A string of accidents in 1979 and an investigation showed the cable car system — the same system that Hallidie invented in 1873 — was old and needed updates, which would cost more than $60 million.
Wells Fargo was one of seven companies to adopt cable cars to raise money for the update, and the Wells Fargo Foundation donated money to the Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars, but the project still required more help. In a Wells Fargo special bulletin issued to employees in 1982, the company encouraged people to donate money to the project. On the cable cars’ last day of service in September 1982, Senior Vice President Jackson Schultz presented then Mayor Dianne Feinstein with three Wells Fargo bags of “money” as a representation of the $9.1 million raised through donations.
In 1984, the updated cable cars returned to the streets of San Francisco, and they have remained a vital part of the city’s tourism and transportation ever since. San Francisco’s cable cars, which have been designated the only moving National Historic Landmark, continue to be beloved, and 9.6 million people ride them every year.