THOSE FABULOUS CABLE-CARS
January 1, 1956
By William C. Enneking
It was a big surprise to H. H. Peterson, the contractor who laid the new storm-drains, when he ran into the remains of cable-car track on C Street, in front of Marston’s store, last summer. It was as big a surprise to most of our modern San Diegans, who didn’t know that San Diego, as well as San Francisco, had its cable-cars, all done up in bright paint, varnish, nickle-plate and stained-glass.
I went to work as a conductor on the cable-cars on June 7, 1890, the day they started, and I put the last one away in the old power-house at Fourth and Spruce streets a few years later. The first paying passenger, incidentally, was the late Miss Kate Sessions, the famous horticulturist.
The line ran from the foot of Sixth Street up to C, over to Fourth, out Fourth to University, and from there on out to what now would be about Park Boulevard and Adams, where a big pavilion had been built at “The Bluffs,” later more widely known as Mission Cliff Gardens. There were three turntables, like those on the Powell Street line in San Francisco; one was at the foot of Sixth, one was at the Pavilion, and the third was at the entrance to the power-house, which also was the car-barn, at the southwest corner of Fourth and Spruce.
The turntable at the car-barn served two purposes. It was used for switching the cars from the main line into the barn, and it also was the point at which the two cables came in from the street, and where the gripman changed from the “downtown” to the “uptown” cable. The “downtown” cable ran down to the foot of Sixth, and operated at eight miles an hour, while the “uptown” cable, out to Mission Cliffs, ran at ten miles an hour. That part of the line being almost all level, with no hills to climb, the same power could be used to give greater speed. The faster cable was pulled by a “winder” or big wheel sixteen feet in diameter, while the “winder” for the slower one was twelve feet in diameter. Each was turned by a Corliss steam-engine, which transmitted its power by belts of cotton rope.
It was a single-track line, which was unusual for cable-cars, and both cables ran in the same slot, the gripman picking up the cable with the side of his grip instead of the bottom. Sometimes a broken strand of the cable would wind around the grip, and you couldn’t let go; the runaway car then was said to be “carrying in the rope.” However, if you jammed on your track-brake, which worked on the rails instead of on the wheels, you could break loose the strand. They used to have a man who did nothing but sit in the power-house and watch the moving cable for broken strands, until I devised a bell which would ring when a broken strand came in and struck it.
For days when there were big crowds, we had several trailers which could be hooked on behind the cars. When we got to the end of the line with one of these rigs, there was a hatch in the track, and the gripman lifted his whole grip, up out of the track, and put it back through a hole in the floor of the trailer, which thus became the “lead” car for the return trip.
For passengers to signal when they wanted to get off, there were electric bells in the closed part of the car, with a push-button between ea& pair of windows. The bells were run from wet batteries, carried under the seats. The lamps, of course, were coal-oil; there were two in the roof, one at each end of the enclosed cabin (with a colored bulls-eye showing toward the outside) and, of course, a headlight like the old square locomotive headlights.
We wore gray uniforms and caps, the conductors’ buttons being gold and the gripmen’s silver. Each crew was responsible for cleaning and washing its own car, and we were quite proud of our cars. My car, for most of the time I was with the company, was the Montezuma; they were all named, like Pullman cars. The others were El Escondido, Las Penasquitas, La Jolla, Alvarado, Cuyamaca, San Ysidora, San Juan Capistrano, Tia Juana, El Cajon, Point Loma and Las Flores.
The pay we got? It was eighteen cents an hour, and there were lots of hours. But in 1890 – the big “boom” had just collapsed, and with it had gone my job as Assistant Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce – even that looked like a good job. We had a “short day” which ran from 5:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., and a “long day” which ran through from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., with an hour off for lunch. The only other pause came if you got to one of the seven sidings ahead of the car coming from the opposite direction, and had to wait there for it to pass you.
By the time late 1892 came around, the old California National Bank, which had backed the line, had failed, and on October 15 of that year George B. Hensley was appointed receiver for the San Diego Cable Railway. It ran for a while after that, but everyone could see what was coming. As the men were able to find jobs elsewhere they drifted away, and finally I was running old Montezuma alone, as both conductor and gripman.
She was the last one to go, and when I put her away in the car-barn on that night away back in 1893, San Diego’s cable-car days were over.
See our photo-album of San Diego’s cable-cars and streetcars.