‘Cable cars that climb to the stars’ have a local connection | TheUnion.com

‘Cable cars that climb to the stars’ have a local connection

Without doubt, one of the most recognizable civic symbols in the world is the San Francisco cable car, which originated in the 1870s. However, the cable car’s developer, Andrew Smith Hallidie, had an earlier claim to fame … in Nevada City.

Born in London in 1836, Andrew Smith was an inventor and engineer. He came from a long line of distinguished English subjects.

His grandfather had fought at Waterloo, and his uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, had served as physician to King William IV and Queen Victoria.

In fact, Andrew added the surname “Hallidie” in honor of his illustrious uncle.

In 1852, the teenage Andrew Hallidie and his father left England for the gold fields of California. Father and son tried gold mining, to no avail.

The father gave up and returned to England just a few months after arriving. Young Andrew decided to stay and for the next four years struggled as a miner in various mining camps up and down the Mother Lode.

From all accounts, he was a pathetic miner. But he must have been part cat, as he certainly seemed to have nine lives.

During his stint as a miner, Andrew Hallidie was almost buried by a mine cave-in; in Mokelumne Hill he was attacked by bandits; once he was caught in the middle of a forest fire; he barely escaped injury when a premature blast rocked a mine shaft he was exiting; he fell 25 feet from a suspension bridge; he slipped into some American River rapids and survived a half-mile ride only by clutching a floating piece of debris; he was a passenger on a runaway stagecoach when the horses bolted while the driver was standing alongside the road.

Understandably, Andrew Hallidie decided to find more sedate employment.

During his mining days, he had experimented with “wire rope,” or cable, as a means to transport ore cars. In 1857, Hallidie left mining altogether and entered into the wire rope manufacturing business.

While his primary commerce was in supplying mines, Hallidie also developed a reputation as a bridge builder. Hallidie used wire rope to suspend the bridges, just like today’s Golden Gate Bridge. Starting in the early 1860s, he built a bridge across the American River at Folsom and spanned the Bear, Trinity, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers.

By 1867, Andrew Hallidie received a patent for his suspension bridge system.

In 1861, Nevada City contracted with the 25-year-old Hallidie to erect a bridge across Deer Creek. The $9,000 contract would lead to the building of what came to be called the Pine Street Bridge. By May 1862, the bridge was completed. But not without some controversy related to the then raging Civil War.

Hallidie’s practice was to place an American Flag atop his construction when it neared completion. However, Southern sympathizers objected to Old Glory and threatened vandalism or worse. When a crowd of angry onlookers started to gather, Hallidie grew concerned.

Andrew told his workers, who were staying in a nearby boarding house, of the threats he had received and that they should be on guard to protect the project. He also told his men that tar and feathers would be made available, if need be.

A whistle would be the signal to respond, Hallidie indicated. The workers did not wait for the whistle. They immediately rushed to the bridge, and the protesters hastily departed. The bridge was safe … it appeared.

However, just two months after its dedication, the Pine Street Bridge collapsed. Under the weight of a 20-oxen team driven by four men, an anchor bolt failed. The bridge fell 60 feet to the creek bed below. Fifteen oxen and two men died.

Hallidie quickly set to work repairing the damage. Several months later, with thousands of dollars of additional costs, the bridge was reopened in November 1862. Despite initial misgivings by the public about its safety, the Pine Street Bridge would remain in service for another 40 years. No other problems ever occurred.

With the discovery of silver in the Comstock Lode in the 1860s, wire rope was in great demand in the mines. Hallidie gave up bridge construction and devoted himself exclusively to the manufacture of wire cable. His factory was headquartered in San Francisco.

He also continued to experiment. Hallidie developed a patent for what he called the “Hallidie Ropeway.” It was a method to transport ore and other materials by using an endless, elevated, continuously moving wire cable. Today we would call it a tramway – it is the same principle as that of a ski lift.

In 1871, Hallidie completed plans by which San Francisco streetcars could be propelled by underground wire ropes. The cars could attach to the constantly rotating loops of cable by using a connecting apparatus called a “grip.” By 1873, with sufficient capital having been raised and the equipment having been built, Andrew Hallidie’s cable cars sprang to life.

The rest is history … and to think that the “little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars” have a connection to Nevada City.


Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at gnoy@sierracollege.edu.

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