San Francisco’s Cable Cars

while now the San Francisco Cable Cars are primarily a tourist activity (carrying some 7 million people annually) , they grew from a need for a better method for hauling vehicles and people over the city’s famously steep hills. prior to development of the current wire-rope system, horses hauled cable cars around the city, enduring extreme hardship on the often-slick cobblestones. one story contends that the man who initiated the system, Andrew Smith Hallidie, witnessed a terrible accident between cable cars and a vehicle that resulted in the death of all five work horses. (another version has him taking over the Clay Street Hill Railroad when the initial promoter couldn’t raise the necessary capital to get the project off the ground.)

Hallidie immigrated to the United States with his father during the gold rush. while his father returned to the UK after several unsuccessful years prospecting, Hallidie remained, finding success in mining, engineering, and bridge building in the 1850s. in 1856, returned to San Francisco to start a wire rope manufacture, using principals his father previously held a patent on.

the first test of Hallidie’s Clay Street Hill cable car occurred on August 2, 1873, and it went into public operation on September 1 of the same year. for four years, Clay Street was the sole cable car company operating in San Francisco. in 1877, the previously horse-drawn Sutter Street Railroad converted to cable operation using a newly-patented side-grip style (designed to avoid paying Hallidie royalties on his patent), followed in short order by the creation or conversion of several other street railroads. in all, between 1873 and 1890, twenty-three different cable car lines run by eight different companies covered some 53 miles of cable track. of all those tracks, only three remain in operation today (all run by the San Francisco Municipal Railway).

popularity of cable cars began to decline with the advent electrical streetcars, which first arrived in San Francisco in 1892. the cost of constructing and operating electric streetcars proved significantly less than those of cable cars and by 1906 United Railroads of San Francisco (which owned most of the cable lines at that time) was campaigning to convert their existing lines to electric. opposition to the “unsightly” overhead electric cables was effectively silenced by the great earthquake and resulting fire, which destroyed most of the power houses, car barns, and 117 of the cable cars contained therein. by 1912, only 8 lines remained, all climbing gradients too steep for the electric cars to surmount. by 1944, facing competition from improved buses, only 5 cable car lines remained (two operated by Muni and one by Cal Cable – the third cable car company, established in 1878). in 1947, the Mayor proposed closing the remaining city-run lines but fierce community opposition scuttled the idea, though difficulty that Cal Cable encountered in procuring insurance in the early 1950s ultimately resulted in the closure of several lines and consolidation into the lines that remain today.

by the late 1970s, the existing cable car infrastructure had become unsafe and desperately needed repairs. then-mayor Dianne Feinstein spearheaded the effort to acquire the necessary  funds to completely rebuild the system; over two years, the entire system was replaced and updated. efforts to maintain the system are ongoing, with cars occasionally being refurbished and replaced and turntables for the single-end cars being updated.

our San Francisco wanderings found us at the end of the Powell-Mason line, running from near Fisherman’s Wharf to Powell & Market. taking the street car, rather than walking, wasn’t exactly convenient for our day’s activities – but riding the cable cars is one of those iconic things that you really ought to do while visiting the city. most of the riders seemed tourists – apparently the east-west California line is the one more often frequented by commuters.

Golden Gate Bridge

the last time I was in San Francisco, I was still very new to the idea of “running” and certainly didn’t consider using the descriptor on myself. but I’d brought my shoes with me and one morning a couple of us headed out from our hotel for (what now seems remarkably) an easy out-and-back run to Ghirardelli Square. I distinctly remember thinking, when my friend quipped “I’m going to sprint the last block!”, that she was completely nuts.

three years later, I proposed a run across the Golden Gate Bridge as one of our pillar sightseeing activities. what better way to see one of the most impressive engineering feats in American history than on foot! at slightly-faster-than-walking pace! the journey to get to the visitor’s center proved its own adventure and gave us a more street-level introduction to the city than perhaps anticipated (riding local public transit will do that).

prior to the construction of the bridge, getting from the city across the bay to Marin County required a ferry ride, which was subject to certain weather-related travel constraints and ultimately hampered the growth potential of the city. as the city and area grew, the need for a better means of travel became increasingly apparent as the growth rate of comparable cities outstripped San Francisco. ferries began running as early as the 1820s and regular service began in the 1840s, eventually becoming an extension of rail service. discussion of a bridge began around the same time but did not bear fruit until the 1930s.

for a long time, engineers held that, due to the depth of the channel, strong currents, persistent fog, and winds, building a bridge across the strait was impractical, if not impossible. in 1916, the City Engineer estimated, while theoretically possible, the cost of constructing a bridge could exceed $100 million – a prohibitive price tag – but allowed that a project might work, should it prove possible to do it for less. engineer Joseph Strauss (who designed a 55 mile railroad bridge over the Bering Strait) presented a plan for a cantilevered system joined by a suspension in the middle, the price of which came in at $17 million. the city assented to let him proceed on the condition he consult additional experts, who determined a suspension system the most practical for the site.

it took quite a few years of litigation and negotiation, however, before the project ultimately began construction. the Department of War feared a bridge could interfere with ship traffic or be a target for sabotage (terrorism); the railroads litigated because a bridge would compete directly with their ferry business. eventually the Department of War came around, even granting necessary land for construction on the San Francisco side; the fledgling auto industry supported the project, providing a useful counterbalance to the railroads, and serious design discussions began in 1923.

while Strauss was officially the chief engineer on the Golden Gate project, his initial design was both impractical and visually unappealing; in later years he spent a good amount of time downplaying the contributions of his collaborators, with an eye to posterity. Leon Moisseiff, who designed the Manhattan Bridge, championed the suspension design, while Charles Alton Ellis did much of the technical and theoretical work for the design, including figuring out how to preserve Fort Point at the foot of the southern end of the bridge. in 1931, Strauss fired Ellis from the project (for “wasting money” sending telegrams to Moisseiff for consulting purposes) but Ellis, who could not find subsequent work during the Depression, continued to work some 70 hours a week on calculations for the project. as a result of this dispute, Ellis received no credit for his work when the bridge opened in 1937 (that snub was corrected in 2007 in a governmental report, which gave Ellis major credit for the design).

funding for the Bridge, once it was ready to go up, proved challenging. after the crash of 1929, the Bridge & Highway District incorporated by the legislature to see the project through, was unable to raise funds for the project; they lobbied for a bond measure, which voters approved in 1930, but the bonds didn’t sell. ultimately, the founder of Bank of America (Amadeo Giannini) agreed to buy the lot in an effort to boost the local economy.

construction began on January 5, 1933, under Strauss’ supervision, and was completed in April 1937 (ahead of schedule and under budget. at the time of its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world; today it is second only to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. until 1998, it was also the tallest, with the span towering 746 feet high and the span some 220 feet above the surface of the water. steel in the bridge was fabricated by Bethlehem Steel in plants in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. it contains some 1.2 million rivets and over 80,000 miles of wire (with some 27,572 wires comprising one cable).

during the project, eleven workers died; one in October 1936, and ten in February when a portion of scaffolding fell through a safety net that hung below the work area. by contrast, the net saved the lives of some 19 men who fell from the work area; they became members of the informal Half-Way to Hell club.

proposals to install netting or higher fences to reduce suicides from the bridge in recent hears have not yet borne fruit. impediments to such measures have included cost, aesthetics, and concerns about what kind of effect additional weight might have on the structural integrity of the bridge. in 2008, the Bridge’s Board of Directors voted to approve a plastic-covered stainless steel net beneath and extending out from the bridge, but cost has prevented that from being installed. instead, information about a suicide helpline is installed at frequent intervals along the bridge, have trained volunteers and law enforcement officers to watch for people in distress, and closed the bridge to pedestrians at night. despite those efforts, however, the number of suicides each year remains high.

it remains one of the most iconic and visited landmarks in the United States. we saw countless pedestrians and tourists on rented bicycles traversing the span as we ourselves took it in on foot. San Francisco City Guides runs free walking tours of the bridge as well, for those that want to know more about the history of the bridge and its construction.

back to relying on power generated by others

after traveling for more than a month on your own power, getting anywhere you wanted to get by virtue of your own two, weary, worn-out feet, it is a singular experience to return to the world of motorized transportation. you mean I can get more than 15 miles in one day?! how spectacular!

while in hindsight it might have been easier to fly in and out of Madrid and taken a train to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and from Santiago de Compostela, it was a treat to take even a short trip by train from Santiago to Vigo (and to visit with Felix & Kate at the beginning of the trip as they kindly transported us to our point of departure). when one lives someplace with limited (to use a staggering understatement) train travel opportunities, the prospect of taking shelling out a few bucks to ride an hour down the tracks is a wondrous prospect. I’ve traveled a fair bit by trains on my travels and I’m still impressed each time I walk into a station as to how seamlessly one can procure a ticket, walk out onto the platform and hop on a train. (of course, there’s a small chance I went about it all wrong in the Czech Republic and just lucked out not getting nabbed by transport police … but I think I did ok.)

our last day in Spain dawned drizzly though not unpleasant. after a slow start and a leisurely exploration of the old town, lunch at a tasty Italian cafe in sight of the cathedral spires, (and an ultimately unsuccessful quest to send some wine home) we grabbed our packs and headed for an earlier-than-planned train to Vigo and its airport. the ride south was uneventful and odd in both its novelty and normality. lots of young people heading from one town to anther for a Saturday, couple of people with suitcases also heading to or from an airport.

rather than figure out a means of getting to the airport by public transportation from the Vigo train station, we opted for the luxury of a taxi, which whipped us up the hill — and into fog bank blanketing the coast — in record time. our flight to Madrid wasn’t scheduled to depart Vigo until after 9:00 p.m., but we took a gamble leaving early in the hopes we’d be able to catch something earlier; we arrived at the airport in just enough time to catch a 5:00ish flight that would get us in about three hours early.

… if the fog hadn’t been bad enough to cancel all flights in and out of Vigo for the duration of the day! they put all of us Madrid-bound passengers on a bus (back) to Santiago and the airport there, which wasn’t completely fogged in. we still ended up in Madrid two hours earlier than scheduled and managed to find some food and experience something of a real night out in a Spanish metropolis on our 34th night in the country.

public transportation

I’ve had a draft post on public transportation waiting for me to expound on it for months — I use it whenever I travel and it has a sameness/ foreignness from place to place that begs comparison. the more I travel, the easier it become to adapt to different systems and, whether because of that or not, the public transportation systems of the Czech Republic were the easiest I have ever navigated. despite the occasional language barrier (most window clerks understood English), I always got to my destination — more or less leaving and arriving on time.

the systems are a public-private hybrid that offer a quite a variance in speed, comfort, and accessibility. the ones most heavily patronized by tourists were often much nicer (the train to Karlstejn versus the local I rode from Olomouc to Prague, as seen to the left, illustrates my point), which makes sense for an economy that relies as much on tourism as that of Czech. the one to Karlstejn reminded me of riding the Metra into Chicago from the nicer suburbs on a Saturday; on the ride from Olomouc I had the car to myself until a Czech woman with a fully-stocked traveller’s backpack joined me. (she chatted to people on the platform before the train departed, and then picked up a Czech romance novel once we got going.)

in the two larger towns I visited — Prague and Olomouc — there is a combination of buses, trams, and (in the case of Prague) metro. for the trams and subways, fares are collected on a kind of honor system. passengers are expected to purchase tickets from tabacs or yellow fare machines in stations for the correct fare, and then validate them upon boarding the tram or train. there aren’t any turnstyles in the metro stations, just validation machines, which struck me as rather odd after experiencing the lengths to which other cities go to prevent people from skipping turnstyles.

I say it’s regulated by a kind of honor system, though, because there are routine checks by transport police, who stop passengers and demand to see validated tickets. I encountered them twice while I was traveling, once on the Prague metro and once on the tram in Olomouc. the guys in Prague were standing in the exit tunnel in obvious police garb, trying to catch as many people as they could streaming up from the station platform. in Olomouc, a couple of (rather ratty-looking) plainclothes officers got on the tram before a long stretch between stops to check tickets, then got off. that pair even dutifully validated their tickets on boarding the tram, then tucked them away as they got off. (tickets are usually good for 60-75 minutes, to allow for transfers — I wonder if these transport cops validated new tickets every time they got onto a new bus or tram?)


apparently there have been problems (whether past or present) with non-police types taking it upon themselves to check passengers for tickets — and then collecting the fine of upwards of 500 crowns (around $30) for not having a validated ticket. to rectify that, legit officers carry silver-dollar sized, red shields that identify them as such. I had no idea what the guy who stopped me in Prague wanted, until I realized that he was half-heartedly holding up his transport badge, not just holding his arm at an awkward angle by his belt.
(the issue of transport police doesn’t arise on longer-distance buses, as you purchase your ticket from the driver, and then it’s on your honor to get off at the destination that you paid for.)

is the honor-system profitable? probably not as much as the tightly regulated systems of London or New York, but it does make for easier ingress and egress and an overall faster metro or tram ride.

railroad trestle in Drogheda

the railroad trestle in Drogheda crosses the mouth of the Boyne River, a “great feat of 19th century engineering” as Louth Hospitality Ltd would like you to know. completed in 1855, it is 1,400ft long an comprises 18 arches with 60ft spans. as elsewhere in Europe, rail travel is rather big in Ireland (though I’d argue that Bus Eireann does an even better job of connecting locations; the train is just faster) and the completion of this railroad bridge made rail travel north from Dublin much easier. until the viaduct was built, passengers had to disembark in Drogheda and travel six miles (on their own) to meet up with the train again on the other side of the Boyne.

the importance of viaducts like this came into sharp relief while I was traveling. in the second week of my travels, the viaduct at Malahide (just north of Dublin) collapsed into the sea just after a train passed over it. the driver of the train noticed the problem and alerted appropriate authorities, who suspended operations before the bridge actually collapsed or resulted in real disaster. small consolation to those on board the train that nearly ended up in the sea, and even smaller for the regular commuters that use the line. officials were predicting that service on the line, which runs from Dublin to Belfast and transports some 20,000 passengers a day, would be disrupted for three months. around 90 trains pass over that bridge, some freight, but many carrying passengers.

when Katerina was getting ready to leave Drogheda, she was advised against taking the train from Drogheda to Dublin, as the bridge collapse at Malahide complicated things. (instead, take the bus to Dublin and the train across to Galway.)

here’s the Independent’s article on the bridge collapse (the title is the best bit: ‘My legs turned to jelly as I saw the bridge collapse’)

Bettystown Beach

on my last full day in Ireland, in addition to browsing in three bookshops (one used, two new) and buying three books (Waterstone’s was having a three-for sale, how could I resist?!), and not seeing Saint Oliver Plunkett’s head a second time, I took the bus out to the beach at Bettystown. it being a) the first week in September, b) after kids had returned to school and c) rather chilly, there was hardly anyone on the beach. as in Florida (and unlike San Diego), you could drive out onto the beach. since there weren’t many people on the beach, more than a few of the compact little cars went tearing up and down, thorugh the pools of water that had gathered along depressions the sand as the tide receeded, sending water spraying fifteen and twenty feet in the air. who knows, maybe they do that even in the height of tourist season?

in any case, the quiet made for a good stroll and time for mulling all of my experiences in Ireland. I even sat for awhile and read the campy book I borrowed, getting my butt rather damp in the process from the still-damp sand. not as damp as if I’d sat on the rippled surface seen in the second pic (that’d just be silly), but mildly uncomfortable all the same. the damp didn’t help my core temp, either, and I was thoroughly glad to get a cup of tea in a cafe around the corner from where the bus was to pick me up. good thing I asked in the cafe where the stop was — no sign, just an understanding that anyone loitering around in front of the laundramat at the appropriate time would luck out and the bus would stop. in most small towns there was a small post with a little Bus Eireann sign at the top, but for whatever reason, this particular location (in the middle of Bettystown, the closest stop to the beach!) had no signage.

vehicular travel

driving a manual transmission on the other side of the road was a great adventure in itself. apart from the motorways and major arterial roads designed to handle lots and lots of coach traffic, everything is two lanes. and by two lanes, i mean wide enough to accommodate two cars smaller than the one that i drive now (which is considered compact), and nothing else. no hard shoulder, hedgerows everywhere so if you’re not in open fields, like in parts of Co. Kerry or Co. Clare, then you’ve no idea what is coming around the bend. makes for exciting driving, that’s for sure.

when i didn’t have a car, i availed myself of the public transportation systems, local, regional, and international. for the most part, that meant Bus Eireann, the national bus service that connects pretty much everything in the Republic of Ireland. during the tourist season they run a bus from Drogheda to Bru na Boinne — very handy. round trip to central Dublin took about 40 minutes, and out to the beach at Bettystown in about 20. bus stations varied in size and amenaties — Busaras in Dublin, and Europa in Belfast are large and bustling, no surprise. and play host to all kinds of people. the one in Drogheda is mostly just a building to in which to shelter in colder weather. when i went through on my way from Belfast to Cork, our bus was heavliy subscribed (it was a Sunday), so they split us in to two groups: one heading to Cork city and one heading to points in between. it was there that i managed to capture a photo of a hairstyle that seemed to be quite the rage, in Belfast at least. not quite mohawk, not quite … i don’t even know, but certainly special!