Monday, March 16, 2015

Andrew Smith Hallidie. His little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.

At 130 Sutter Street, between Montgomery Street and Kearny Street in San Francisco, stands the Hallidie Building. Built in 1917, it was the first glass curtain-walled building in the nation. What a fitting tribute to Andrew Smith Hallidie. The building inspired the San Franciscan skyline.

Hallidie gave San Francisco its soul: The cable car.

Andrew Smith was born in London on March 16, 1836. He later added the surname of his uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, the royal physician to King William IV and his niece and successor, Queen Victoria. Somehow the Smith family name lived on without him.

His father was an engineer and an inventor who held several patents. Of particular importance were his patents of wire rope -- cable. Young Andrew Smith was apprenticed to a machine shop and drawing office. In 1852, they "sailed" to America (it was a steamship). They stayed in New York long enough to get coveted tickets aboard a ship crammed with 700 passengers to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus and boarded a third ship -- the Brutus captained by D.C. Mitchell -- for California. The Gold Rush was on. It had taken them nearly six months to get there.

But they did not get rich quick as planned. His father returned to England but Hallidie stayed and tried mining for four more years before packing it in and heading for San Francisco. He was 20.

"Under the name of A. S. Hallidie & Co., he commenced the manufacture of wire rope in an unpretentious building at Mason and Chestnut Streets. Through the courtesy of Captain D. C. Mitchell (of the ship Brutus), office space was given them in the ship chandlery firm of Southgate & Mitchell, on Battery Street between Jackson and Pacific. Thomas Bradford was also associated with Hallidie in the manufacture of wire rope, and they continued their experiments, using some of Hallidie's father's inventions. Bradford withdrew from the company in 1860, and his interest in the firm was acquired by J. M. Eckfeldt and Hiram T. Graves," historian Edgar Myron Kahn wrote.

He built suspension bridges, which given the sea-to-mountain terrain of the West Coast were in great demand. The work was harrowing. At times they had to fight Indians, as well as the elements.

Here is part of Hallidie's account of what it took to erect a bridge 10 miles above Fort Yale on the Fraser River in British Columbia:
Everything of iron or steel for the bridge was prepared in San Francisco and shipped by steamer to Victoria, Vancouver Island – which at that time was a free port – thence by [another] steamer to New Westminster on the Fraser River and thence by light-draft steamers to Fort Yale. These latter steamers were owned by Captain Wright, who was generally called Bully Wright.
The material for the bridge formed a pretty good load for the stern-wheel steamer, but everything went well until on the third day we reached Emery's Bar, about three miles below Yale–here the stream proved too much for her. Spring lines were run out, and every device known to steamboat men tried without success – even a barrel of pitch was broached and fed into the furnace to keep up steam and a sixty-three-pound bundle of wire was hung on the safety valve. The heat of the fires blistered the paint and drove the passengers clear aft, but all without effect, and the captain, one of Bully Wright's sons, decided to land his cargo on the Bar, and returned to New Westminster, where his father gave him a blessing and sent him back with instructions to land the freight at Yale [even] if he made a dozen trips.
He returned, took on one-fourth of the cargo, tried again, again was defeated. He then arranged with Indians to canoe the material up the river to Yale....
In course of time the material was all landed at the site of the bridge, which was a long distance from anywhere or any place where anything could be obtained, hence great care had to be exercised in providing everything that was likely to be required for the work.
The hard work paid off. Like his father before him, Hallidie received patents, most notably for the invention of a rigid suspension bridge in 1867.

The idea of cable cars began in 1871. His success in bridge-building brought him wealth and social prominence. He secured rights to construct a streetcar line on the steep slopes of Clay Street from Kearney Street to the top of the hill, 307 feet above. The city gave Hallidie a deadline of August 1, 1873, to get the cable car operation going. He ran into financial and mechanical difficulties, but never the less, on August 1, 1873, with fingers crossed, Hallidie yelled all aboard.

From historian Edgar Myron Kahn:
The final moment of success or failure had arrived. At five o'clock in the morning on August 1, 1873, the group, consisting of Hallidie and his associates, stood at the top of the Clay Street hill at the Jones Street crossing. Day was breaking. A dense fog was coming through the Golden Gate and was rolling over Nob and Russian hills. The bottom of the steep Clay Street grade was obscured by the early morning mist. From the open slot near the middle of the street came a mysterious rattle. Hallidie listened intently, nodded with an air of satisfaction and ordered, "All aboard."
The workmen next pushed the car forward to the brow of the hill at Jones Street where the slot and tube commenced and adjusted the curiously shaped grip wheel. The grip, which was Hallidie's invention, moved up and down by means of a screw and nut on a hand wheel, and fastened its jaws securely to the cable. Hallidie, assuring his friends not to become uneasy as there was no cause for alarm, sprang to the levers; instantly the car and its human freight dropped out of sight into the mist below.
The bottom was reached in safety, after the grip had been tried several times on the way down. The car was stopped at the crossings, then started up, the cable was dropped and picked up again, and various tests were carried on. At the bottom of the hill, at Kearny Street, the so-called "dummy" was reversed by the operation of a turntable, the grip was again fastened to the cable, and off went the car up the Clay Street grade.
The successful test was accepted soberly. It was a solemn affair and only a round of silent hand shaking gave expression to the men's feelings. The town was asleep. An enthusiastic Frenchman thrust his nightcapped head out of a window as the car went by and threw a faded bouquet. His was the only demonstration.
The Clay Street Hill Railroad had begun! It began commercial service a month later and became a financial success. 15 years later, it became part of another cable car line. Today, none of the original line remains, but one grip car is in the San Francisco Cable Car Museum.

Hallidie became involved in the Mechanics' Institute, a museum and library. He died at 65 in 1900. A generation later, another San Franciscan pioneer -- architect Willis Jefferson Polk -- would design the building that bears Hallidie's name.

Jay Turnbull, Founding Principal of Page & Turnbull, the firm that would design the renovation of that edifice nearly a century later, said: "Willis Polk's all-glass facade foretold the modern cityscape by allowing buildings to grow exponentially in scope while incorporating light and air. The Hallidie Building embodies fundamental architectural elements that make the modern city livable in design and form, and we all benefit from its example."

The same could be said of those little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars.

Traveling from Liverpool, England, to San Francisco posed a daunting challenge in 1852. Hallidie met it. Having streetcars serve the steep streets of San Francisco also posed a daunting challenge in 1873. Hallidie met it. Post-earthquake architecture posed a daunting challenge in 1917. Polk met it. Crossing the San Francisco Bay posed a daunting challenge in the 1930s. San Franciscans (and the rest of the Bay area) met it.

Fittingly, it is a suspension bridge like the ones Andrew Smith Hallidie used to build.

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