The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1969, Volume 15, Number 2
Rita Larkin, Editor

By Susan Haga

Images from the article

Susan Davis Haga, born in Los Angeles, California, on April 7, 1944, is a fifth generation Californian, a descendant of the Alvarado, Pico, and Sepulveda families of the pueblo times of early San Diego and Los Angeles.

Mrs. Haga attributes her interest in her ancestry to being the cause for her love of California history, which she has maintained since childhood.

She attended the University of Arizona and San Diego State College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing in August 1968.

Mrs. Haga was married in June, 1965. Her husband is serving a tour of sea duty as a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy. Their first child, a daughter, a sixth generation Californian, was born in August 1968, shortly after Mrs. Haga was awarded her college degree.

Mrs. Haga’s paper, "San Diego’s Cable Railway" was researched at Junipero Serra Museum Research Library and written under the direction of Dr. David Weber, of San Diego State College history faculty, in the spring of 1968. The paper was presented at the San Diego History Center’s first Institute of History in marketing in August 1968.

Mrs. Haga was married in June, plete with footnotes and bibliography, is on file at the museum library.

[Ed. note: Words appear to be missing from the above line in the original publication.]

On the opening day of San Diego’s Cable Railway the whole city was decked out in flags and flowers to herald the opening of the road.

"Along the line people ran to their doors and windows and gates. A few had flags out and others waved and shouted a cordial welcome to the newcomer."

On that summer day, June 7, 1890, San Diego’s Mayor, Douglas Gunn, summed up the people’s feelings:

"Gathered as we are here on the local heights overlooking our bay and city, there are two thoughts which present themselves to my mind. See what God has done for us in the unexampled site for building a great and beautiful metropolis! And here on my left, see the triumph of the brain and energy of man?this marvelously perfect cable system which you are here today to celebrate as an institution of this city."

The day’s activities began about 1:30 p.m. The first car, "El Escondido," decorated by the Ladies Annex of the Chamber of Commerce with flowers, palms, and flags "was pushed from its barn at Fourth and Spruce for the Southbound run, with J. A. Crow as gripman and William C. Enneking as conductor."

At the foot of Sixth Street the City Guard Band boarded "El Escondido"; followed by the "San Juan Capistrano" with numerous city dignitaries, including California Governor Waterman; and all climbed up the cable road. All twelve cable cars, which were built in Stockton, California, bore familiar names like "Montezuma, "La Jolla," "Alvarado," "San Ysidora," and "Las Flores."

The opening day’s optimism was reflected by a San Diego Union writer: "For many months the people have watched with unremitting interest the process of its construction. Many have been incredulous of its completion and operation. Only within the past two or three months have the people begun to appreciate that San Diego capitalists were perpetrating no land selling joke, but they have invested their money In an enterprise that would be permanent and one that would rebound to the benefit of the entire city and do much to spread its fame abroad. It is a magnificent piece of work and has cost an immense sum of money."

"At the power house a platform had been erected against the westwall, draped in bunting, a flagged table banked with roses, occupying the center."

The program consisted of music from the City Guard Band and speeches by the Mayor, Governor Waterman, and John C. Fisher, who brought reality to a dream. His address was brief:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is impossible for me to make a talk today. Under the circumstances I would be compelled to blow our horn, and as that is expected I will first blow our whistle which goes night and day, and call it ‘Fisher’s hornpipe’."

And thus out over the city wailed the sonorous boom of the steam whistle, drowning the audience’s laughter.

And blow his horn he should, those were the most beautiful cable cars ever designed! Riding in one was a sheer joy. They were ‘composite’ cars; that is, each having an open forward end and a closed rear compartment for passengers. The gripman operated from a center platform in the open end, while on each side passengers enjoyed longitudinal, natural wood seats with a shorter one facing the track.

"The closed portion of the car is beautifully finished in rare woods. There are stained glass transoms along the top, the windows are richly curtained, all the metal work is nickle plated, and electric bells are provided by which passengers, without leaving their places, may notify the gripman to stop the car," plus this there were two coal-oil roof lamps. "They were gorgeous little palaces on wheels."

Maroon and grey dominated the cars’ outside color scheme, plus, specially designed buttons, inscribed in circular fashion with "San Diego Cable Railway" highlighted the dark grey uniforms of the conductors and gripmen. The white roofed cars had gold lettering so ornate as to be difficult to read. In addition the cable cars were almost as long as the streetcars, maybe thirty to forty feet, seating forty to fifty passenger. "They didn’t have any trouble getting up Fourth Street with a full load. The rope pulled them right along."

The cars traversed the entire road, heading up Sixth Street to ‘C,’ east on ‘C’ to Fourth and up Fourth to the power house, which broke the road in half. There the gripman released the downtown cable and coasted over on the turntable to the "mesa" or "uptown cable." He lowered his hook, grabbed it, and fastened the grip to it. The cars headed north on Fourth to University, then east to present-day Park Blvd., and north to Mission Cliff Gardens. At first the cars ran every ten minutes over most of the line, taking passengers all the way from the foot of Sixth Street clear out to Mission Cliff Gardens for a nickle.

The Cable Railway Company built a new and larger pavilion on Mission Cliff late in the year, 1890, improving the gardens and adding terraced paths along the face of the bluffs, "with summer houses at the turnings and other effective view points. Traveling companies put on shows…and there were band concerts and dances."

No real streets went out that far. One night a car broke down and everyone walked in, following the car track because no one knew any other way to get back into town.

For days when big crowds gathered at the pavilion, the cable car company hooked on several trailers behind the car. For the trip back to town, the last trailer became the ‘lead’ car because the gripman would "lift his whole grip up and out of the track, and put it back through a hole in the floor of the trailer."

George D. Copeland had started the whole cable car business. In May, 1889, he operated an electric car line up Fourth Street and out to University Heights. He planned to sell the franchise for his road for the development of a cable road. With that object in view he started taking stock subscriptions. Soon, D. D. Dare, J. W. Collins and John C. Fisher bought the franchise and equipment. Several months later work began at the foot of Sixth on September 8, 1889.

"The two men who have been most actively identified in the progress of the work are John C. Fisher and Frank Van Vleck," said The San Diego Union. Mr. Fisher was vice president and general manager of the company. Though he had "… no previous experience as a cable road builder… he took to the business as if he had done nothing but build cable systems all his life. His energy and all around hustling qualities have won admiration and carried the cable system to a splendid success."

While Mr. Van Vleck was a young man he demonstrated considerable agility, introducing many innovations and improvements?among them, design of the cable cars, machinery, and parts of the power house and its equipment. "It was the most complete single track cable road ever put down."

On the morning of April 11, 1890 at 9:15 Mr. Fisher lit the furnaces at the power house. "Soon the hissing of steam gave a decidedly business-like sound to the affairs at the power house." Its location at the head of the canyon and Fourth and Spruce Streets was particularly well suited for building such a structure, being directly over a large arroyo, which was filled instead of excavated.

The power house was a solid brick building, with a frontage on Fourth of 100 feet, 200 feet on Spruce, and 40 feet on Third. The steam powered two Corliss engines on the Spruce side. Also found in the power house was the cable driving apparatus. It cost $30,000 with all the equipment. Since the road is divided into two parts, the cable moves at different speeds. "The down rope ran eight miles an hour and the outer one running to Mission Cliff Gardens ran twelve miles an hour… there wasn’t as much traffic out there."

Speaking of traffic, Mr. Tonkin, the Superintendent of the Coronado Foundry which supplied the yokes for the cable cars, formulated a plan which allowed a buggy to pass over the rails without any perceptible jar because the track was only deep enough for the wheel of the car, but not deep enough or wide enough for a buggy wheel to get into.

The cable was underground, running along in the middle of the track. As a single track line, unusual for a cable system, both sides of the cable were required to be in the same slot, except at the turn-outs which the up going cable followed. For installation, a team of twenty horses pulled the twenty-six ton, 23,800 foot long cable through the underground conduit. The cable ran around a huge twenty-five foot wheel which the two Corliss engines rotated. The Cable was about an inch and a quarter in diameter?coiled or twisted wire stands, like a rope.

"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."

Broken strands were detected by a bell in the power house which would ring when a broken strand struck it.

It seems that with the collapse of the boom in 1888, and the corresponding drop in San Diego’s population, the cable system was seen as a means of increasing property values and encouraging people to stay.

"But the town couldn’t?or at least didn’t?sufficiently support all that magnificence. The company’s taxes were delinquent for 1891 and it was declared insolvent in March 1892. Sheriff Fols was the first receiver.

When he resigned, … (George B. Hensley) took over the position. The line continused in operation for some time, but when a cable broke, in August of that year, it shut down, not to resume its service."

"The ill-fated Cable Road seems to have been just another case of the misguided generosity of Mr. Dare and his banker-partner, Collins, in handing out California National Bank Funds, without much security, to about everybody wanting to start some project in San Diego. The road could make running expenses?sometimes a little better?but was strangled by its big debt to that rotten bank."

Finally in February 1894, the San Diego Cable Railway was sold at public auction by the current receiver, R. H. Dalton, to George B. Kerper, of Cincinnato, Ohio, for $17,000. He installed machinery in the old cable power house, "placed motors in the old cable cars, and equipped the road as an electric railway under the name, ‘Citizen’s Traction Company’."