They used to be more than just a San Francisco novelty. In the late 19th century, cable cars were a widely used public transit solution in cities across the United States—including Los Angeles. There, they replaced the city's first generation of streetcars, horsecars, and brought real estate development to previously inaccessible terrain, encouraging the growth of the city's first streetcar suburbs.
When it opened on October 8, 1885, the Second Street Cable Railway was L.A.'s first mechanical street railway. In a city that had never seen a streetcar move without hearing the clip-clop of horses' hooves, the new cable cars were a technological marvel. Based on the design of a London-born engineer named Andrew Hallidie, who founded San Francisco's Clay Street Hill Railway in 1873, the railway used a 75-horsepower engine to pull a constantly moving steel cable. The cars moved by gripping the cable, which was hidden in a conduit beneath Second Street. To stop, they released it.
Better than Horsecars
Cable cars offered several advantages over horse-drawn streetcars. They were clean and quiet; since their motive power came from a remotely located engine, the only noise they emitted was the high-pitched ring of the cable moving through its conduit. Horses tended to foul the streets and were spooked easily.
They also performed well on hilly terrain. Horses struggled to overcome the inertia of a stopped streetcar, even on slight grades. Cable cars had no such problem.
It's no surprise, then, that the driving force behind L.A.'s first cable railways were real estate speculators invested in hilly land. Hilltop subdivisions could be the city's most profitable, but only if prospective residents could rely on easy transportation between their houses and the city center below.
Criss-Crossing the City
Workers install cable car tracks in Boyle Heights. The tracks to the left were used by horse-drawn streetcars, which cable cars replaced. [Metro Transportation Library and Archive]
Above: The Second Street Cable Railway ascending the west slope of Bunker Hill, near Second and Flower, circa 1885. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Above: Cable cars opened up previously inaccessible lands like L.A.'s Crown Hill neighborhood, seen here circa 1890. A cable car of the Second Street line is visible at bottom-center, near a real estate office. [Metro Transportation Library and Archive]
Above: The Second Street Cable Railway's powerhouse in Crown Hill, circa 1890. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
After purchasing a large tract of land west of Bunker Hill, the Los Angeles Improvement Company financed construction of the Second Street Cable Railway as a means of promoting its Crown Hill subdivision. To build the railways, workers extended Second Street beyond Hill Street, where it had previously come to end at a the foot of a steep cliff. Deep cuts through the rolling hills helped moderate the slope, but the line still boasted the steepest stretch of cable car railway in the nation.
Starting at Spring Street, the line ran west to Crown Hill, located near the present-day intersection of Second and Glendale. To move some 1,400 lots, the Los Angeles Improvement Company advertised "Pure Air - No Fogs - Cheap Lots in the Western Addition of the Cable Road." Mechanical problems plagued the line, though, and it closed for good after an 1889 storm buried part of the railway in twenty feet of mud.
The city's second mechanical streetcar line, the Temple Street Cable Railway, opened on July 14, 1886. Backed by land speculator Prudent Beaudry, who first developed Bunker Hill in the late 1860s, the Temple Street line extended 8,725 feet between Spring Street and Belmont Avenue. There, the streetcar line fueled the growth of Angeleno Heights (today spelled "Angelino Heights"), an early suburb promoted by Beaudry and his brother Victor. "Have a house in the hills!" encouraged the Beaudrys' marketing materials, which advertised the subdivision's street railway link. "Stop paying rent in the Valley!"
A third cable car system, the Los Angeles Cable Railway, arrived in 1889. By far the most ambitious of the three, the railway included two separate lines that snaked through much of the city. The first featured a soaring viaduct over the Los Angeles River and Southern Pacific railyard, stretching from East Los Angeles (today, Lincoln Heights) to Jefferson and Grand. The other extended between Westlake (today, MacArthur) Park and Boyle Heights.
Above: A soaring viaduct carried the Los Angeles Cable Railway's tracks over the Southern Pacific railyard and Los Angeles River on their way to East Los Angeles (today, Lincoln Heights). [UC Berkeley Bancroft Library]
Above: A cable car crosses the First Street bridge between central Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. [Metro Transportation Library and Archive]
Above: A cable car on Broadway in central Los Angeles. [UC Berkeley Bancroft Library]
Above: Powerhouse of the Pacific Cable Railway (formerly the Los Angeles Cable Railway) at Seventh and Grand. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Above: The Temple Street Cable Railway's powerhouse in Angeleno Heights, circa 1890. The station was located at the northwest corner of Temple and East Edgeware Road. [Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library]
Above: Residents celebrate the 1889 opening of the Los Angeles Cable Railway's line to East Los Angeles. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Although a marked improvement over horse-drawn streetcars, cable cars soon became obsolete themselves after engineers perfected an even newer streetcar technology: the electric railway. Whereas cable railways constantly ran their engines at full power—regardless of how many cars were active on the line—to pull the heavy steel cables, the newer railways delivered electricity directly to motors located on the streetcars themselves. Cables lasted only a few years before needing replacement and were costly to bury; overhead catenary wires were inexpensive by comparison.
By 1896, much of the city's cable car trackage had been converted to electricity and incorporated into a growing electric railway network. In 1902, a mere 16 years after the city hailed its first cable railway as a technological wonder, the last of L.A.'s cable cars rolled down Temple Street and into obscurity.
Above: Workers dig up abandoned cable car tracks on Second Street. [Metro Transportation Library and Archive]
Top image: A cable car on Second Street at Broadway, circa 1889. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. This post previously appeared on KCET.org as "L.A. Once Had Cable Cars, Too."