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Andrew Smith Hallidie

By Edgar Myron Kahn

Andrew Smith Hallidie, the mechanical genius who originated cable railway transportation, was born in London, on March 16, 1836. His grandfather, Smith, a [Scottish] schoolmaster and soldier during the Napoleonic wars, had served at Waterloo. His father, Andrew Smith, had been born in Fleming, Dumfrieshire, Scotland, in 1798, and his mother, Julia Johnstone Smith, was from Lockerbie, Dumfrieshire. Andrew Smith was an engineer and inventor. Of his patents those for the making of metal wire ropes, granted from 1835 to 1849, were the most important. Young Andrew Smith later adopted the surname Hallidie in honor of his godfather and uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, who had been physician to King William IV and to Queen Victoria.

His early training was of a scientific and mechanical character, and at ten years of age he successfully constructed an "electrical machine." When he was thirteen he began work in a machine shop and drawing office operated by his brother, and there gained the practical experience that stood him in good service during the remainder of his life. In the evenings he continued his studies, but manual labor during the day and study at night began to undermine his health, so his father decided to take him to California. His father was interested in the Frémont estate in Mariposa County where he thought the prospects for financial reward were extremely bright.

On January 28, 1852, the father and son left Liverpool for America on the steamship Pacific of the Collins Line. Several of the other passengers were also bound for California–one a sea captain from Glasgow who was going to San Francisco to bring home a vessel which had been abandoned by its crew during the rush to the gold diggings. Another fellow-traveler planned to assemble a company in New York for the purpose of working the gold mines by a newly-invented method of his own, from which he expected to make a large fortune in two years. The Pacific arrived in New York on February 12, after a fifteen day crossing.

After a stopover of sixteen days, the father and son departed for Chagres on the Brother Jonathan. This ship had been fitted up hurriedly for the California trade and was poorly built and badly equipped. She was of 1700 tons burden, with accommodations for 700 passengers. So great was the demand for accommodations that passengers were crammed and jammed together in most unsanitary quarters, many close to the engine room and ship's galley where the atmosphere was stifling. After crossing the Isthmus the travelers reached Panama on March 15. On the 26th they embarked on the ship Brutus, Captain D. C Mitchell, and landed at Clark's Point in San Francisco fifty- nine days later.

Andrew Smith and his son first went to inspect the mines in Mariposa County, but, being disappointed in his venture there, the father returned to England in 1853. The son remained in California, and for the next three or four years tried his hand at mining–first with pick, pan, and rocker, then with long tom and sluice. Traveling the trails, he set up claims in Mokelumne Hill, Campo Seco, Volcanoville, Michigan Bluff, and elsewhere. With his mining activities he interspersed other work, such as blacksmithing, surveying water ditches, roads, and trails, and building bridges.

The winter of 1852 found him in Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County. There, in a ravine near the town, with two companions he worked a claim faithfully for six or seven weeks, making from $3.00 to $4.00 per week, "just enough to starve on, with beans, pork, and coffee, and pork, coffee, and beans for a change." When just about to quit, they found a crevice in the rock which yielded them each over an ounce ($16.00) per day. This petered out, however, in a few weeks, and Hallidie moved on to another camp called Buckeye. Unable to work his claim there profitably, he returned to San Francisco.

Hearing reports of rich diggings in the Kern River region, in 1853, Hallidie and some companions rigged up a wagon and team and started for the new diggings. Once again he met with failure and disappointment, for "the dirt showed little more than a color of gold to the pan, and after a very brief stop we turned back–sadder, but I am not sure if much wiser.

For the next three or four years he drifted from one mining camp to the next, in Calaveras, Amador, El Dorado, Placer, and Nevada counties, hoping for a change of luck, and made occasional visits to San Francisco. Several times he almost lost his life: once a bank under which he was working caved in; in Mokelumne Hill he was attacked by a band of Mexicans; once he was caught in the midst of a forest fire; he barely escaped when a blast exploded prematurely in a shaft at the end of a 600-foot tunnel; at another time he fell twenty-five feet from a suspension bridge; at Gray Eagle Bar, on the Middle Fork of the American River, he was carried on a piece of timber over the rapids for half a mile; and the four horses pulling a Concord stagecoach in which he was riding from Nevada City to Lincoln ran away with him when the driver left them standing in front of a hotel.

At Gray Eagle Bar, on the Middle Fork of the American River, he did blacksmithing for the miners, repairing and tempering their tools. Before the winter of 1854-1855 set in, he gathered all the old rifles and firearms available, repaired them, and joined a company organized to drive out the Indians who had been committing depredations among the miners on the "Divide." This campaign was successful and rid the district of the molesters, but the company was overtaken by snow and suffered considerable hardships. Later in the same winter, with an experienced caterer, he took charge of Cunningham's Restaurant at Michigan Bluff. This venture was anything but profitable, and it was only by hard toil that he was able to make ends meet. Through a supreme effort and with the aid of his few books, he managed to keep his mind active and overcame the depraving and depressing influences surrounding him. In 1855, at Horse Shoe Bar, on the Middle Fork of the American River, when he was only nineteen, he constructed a wire suspension bridge and aqueduct of 220 feet span for conveying water in an open flume, three feet wide and two feet deep.

In I856, Hallidie built a ditch and flume for a quartz mill, situated at American Bar, two miles above Gray Eagle Bar. The mine was on a hillside eleven hundred feet above the mill. The rock was delivered to the mill in car running by force of gravity. The loaded cars in descending brought up the "empties" for refilling. The rope to which the cars were attached wore out after seventy-five days. He proposed to substitute a wire rope which would cost less and last longer. The owners accepted his proposition. He improvised machinery, sent to San Francisco for wire, and made a wire rope one-eighth of an inch thick and twelve hundred feet long consisting of three pieces spliced together, which did its work for two years. This was the beginning of the manufacture of wire rope in California.

Hallidie abandoned mining in 1857 and returned to San Francisco, bringing with him the machinery he had constructed at American Bar. 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.

Hallidie's reputation as a builder of suspension bridges grew. In 1861, he constructed a bridge across the Klamath River at Weitchpeck, but had to leave it unfinished because of an uprising of Indians. During that and the next year he built bridges at Nevada City, across the American River at Folsom, and across the Bear, Trinity, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne rivers, although hampered by severe floods.

Hallidie enjoyed recalling his experiences when he was constructing a wire suspension bridge across Deer Creek in the vicinity of Nevada City in the fall of 1861. In all his construction work after the outbreak of the Civil War he made it a rule, as soon as bridge towers were raised, to erect a flagstaff and float the American flag from sunrise to sunset. The towers of the Deer Creek span rose forty-five feet above the road, and from the top waved a sixteen-foot American flag attached to a thirty-foot pole. The Stars and Stripes were thus made a permanent feature that could be seen from all parts of the town.

Demands were made upon Hallidie that the flag be taken down. His reply was, "The flag is here to stay." As it happened, the men employed on the bridge were good Northern sympathizers, and were ready for any form of excitement. Nothing of any consequence occurred until one noon, when the men were all at dinner in the rear of the nearby boarding house. Hallidie remained in the front room, where he could observe what was going on outside without being seen. Three men arrived, seemingly to look at the bridge, which was not an unusual procedure. Other men followed, casting furtive glances toward the halyard and the flag. Hallidie stepped into the dining room and told the boys what he suspected was going to happen, and reminded them that both tar and feathers were available on the premises. He then ordered his employees not to come out unless he whistled. By that time there were ten or twelve men on the bridge, and their intentions were evidently to haul down the flag. While waiting for a move on the part of the raiding party, impatience overcame obedience, and the entire crew came tumbling out of the boarding house and rushed to the bridge with such impetuosity that the outsiders beat a hasty retreat. The flag continued to fly.

Another favorite story of Hallidie's concerned his experiences in the summer of 1862 when he was constructing a bridge across the Bear River. In conversation with one of the political bosses of Grass Valley, Hallidie was informed of an election which was to take place shortly and was asked whether he was interested in politics. He replied that he did not generally participate in local elections outside of his own town. When he was advised that the district was Democratic and for the past several years there had been no opposition, in fact, no Republican votes had been cast, he became interested. Finally he asked, "Do you mean, Mr. Brush, no Republican votes are cast?" "Yes," he replied. "As I am a Democrat and have quite large interests here, I have tried to keep it so [Democratic]–with the aid of my friends." Hallidie remarked that there were some well-to-do farmers in the neighborhood and asked if they were all Democrats. "Well, I don't know," replied Brush, "but I would not like to have our uniform Democratic returns disturbed." "I suppose every man can vote as he pleases," said Hallidie. "Oh yes," Brush replied, "if they vote the Democratic ticket." Then he added, "I notice that you have a flag flying on top of the bridge tower." Hallidie replied, "I always do when the tower is raised. It is good luck, and the flag of our country." The conversation became quite heated, Brush insisting that the flag be taken down and warning Hallidie that if it were not he would soon have many enemies in Grass Valley. Brush left in a fit of anger and warned Hallidie not to interfere in the coming election.

The more Hallidie reflected, the more he was disturbed. Several days later, two of his men came to him and asked for time out to get a flagpole for the coming election. Hallidie approved, since there was none at the polls. He gave them permission to do this on company time and offered $16.00 extra pay if they got a really good pole. He next called in his bookkeeper, a bright, pleasant fellow from Philadelphia, a loyal Union man. Hallidie instructed him to call on the neighbors to see whether they all were Democrats, and if not, why they did not vote. The report showed a large number of Republicans, but.... "as they did not care to get their heads broken, they stayed away from the polls." Hallidie sent for his foreman and asked him to ascertain the political views of his men, and to put on the job as many additional Republicans as he could. Thus the payroll increased considerably around election time. Farmers and others were told to come to the polls and were assured that peace would reign and that they could vote as they pleased. The result of the election was not only a Republican victory, but also the regaining of political freedom for the district.

In 1863, Hallidie was called upon to design and erect a wire suspension bridge, ten miles above Fort Yale on the Fraser River. He has left us a record of some of his experiences in this engineering project:

....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 work of bridge building required long exposure to the elements and lengthy absences from San Francisco. This experience hastened the decision which he made, in 1865, to devote himself exclusively to the development and manufacture of wire rope. The discovery of vast deposits of silver in the Comstock greatly increased the demand for cables.

Hallidie was married to Martha Elizabeth Woods, the daughter of a prominent Sacramento pioneer, in November 1863. They had no children. On January 4, 1864, in San Francisco, he was admitted to United States citizenship under his own name of Andrew Smith.

In 1867 Hallidie took out his first patent for the invention of a rigid suspension bridge, and in the years thereafter he took out numerous patents for his inventions. Among these was the "Hallidie Ropeway [or Tramway]," a method of transporting ore and other material across mountainous districts by means of an elevated, endless traveling line, which he had invented in 1867.

He foresaw that one of the greatest drawbacks to the successful working of the arrangement would be the mutilation or breaking of the cable, and to counteract this he developed a crucible steel cable with six strands of nineteen wires each. Each wire was .062 of an inch diameter, had a tensile strength of 160,000 pounds per square inch area, and was capable of bending over itself with a round turn, straightening out and repeating at the same spot without fracture.

In 1871, he completed plans by which street cars could be propelled by underground cables. In a report to the Mechanics' Institute he tells of the inception of the idea:

I was largely induced to think over the matter from seeing the difficulty and pain the horses experienced in hauling the cars up Jackson Street, from Kearny to Stockton Street, on which street four or five horses were needed for the purpose–the driving being accompanied by the free use of the whip and voice, and occasionally by the horses falling and being dragged down the hill on their sides, by the car loaded with passengers sliding on its track.....

.... With the view of obviating these difficulties, and for the purpose of reducing the expense of operating street railways (tram-roads), I devoted all my available time to the careful consideration of the subject, and so far matured my plans that I had California Street (a very steep street in San Francisco) surveyed [between Kearny and Powell streets, a distance of 1,386 feet] in 1870 by an engineer of the name of David R. Smith, and in the Sacramento Record, a newspaper published in the City of Sacramento, California, in 1870, a statement is there published in its telegraphic news of what I proposed to do, viz: to run a rope railway to carry passengers from the city to the plateau above.

At that time Hallidie had successfully installed a number of rope-ways in the mining districts of California. Great iron buckets containing rock and ore were carried across deep chasms and up precipitous mountain sides, where it was impossible to build bridges or roads. He undertook to adapt the same system to the propulsion of street cars up the hills of the city. The enterprise called for an endless wire rope, underground, to which a car could be attached, and from which it could be released at will.

The next step was to secure the necessary capital for a demonstration. Discouragement only served to make Hallidie more determined. During the following twelve months Hallidie succeeded in interesting three men, the only ones among his friends and business associates who could be induced to help. Even they were dubious about the feasibility of the project and were induced to participate under the pressure of a strong friendship. Their names were Joseph Britton, of the well-known firm of lithographers and mapmakers, Britton & Rey; Henry L. Davis, a former sheriff of the City and County of San Francisco; and James Moffitt, of the long established wholesale paper house of Blake, Moffitt & Towne–all of whom had been associated with him in organizing the Mechanics' Institute. With their assistance, a company was formed in 1872, and Clay Street, in preference to California Street, was selected as offering lower construction costs and being a generally more suitable location to "try the thing."

The cable railway was constructed from the intersection of Clay and Kearny Streets to the crest of the hill, a distance of 2,800 feet, making a rise of 307 feet.

Accordingly, a franchise was obtained, a new survey made, and subscriptions to purchase stock were invited. The public responded only to the extent of one hundred and twenty shares. Even those few shares were soon turned back to the company, so great was the force of unfavorable public opinion, concurred in by the best engineering talent in the West. Periodical newspapers, of discouragement seized the three men. Hallidie would spent hours using convincing arguments to show that the plan would actually work. A circular was issued carefully describing the project. An office was taken in the Clay Street Bank Building, and a working model was placed on exhibition. Finally, by persistent solicitation through canvassers among the property owners on the hill, pledges totaling $40,000 were obtained, to be paid upon completion of the undertaking. However, pledgors to the total of only $28,000 met their obligations. Hallidie himself contributed $20,000, all he had, and his three friends, about $40,000. An additional $30,000 was obtained (through Mr. Burr, of the Clay Street Bank) by a ten-year loan bearing ten per cent interest–a mortgage on the property being given as security.

Meanwhile, the expiration date of the franchise was approaching and the cable road still existed "only in the fertile mind of its inventor," and there everybody assured everybody else it would remain. In May 1872, money matters were finally arranged, and courageously, although with precious little encouragement from others, Hallidie started his engineering task. Each day brought a new difficulty to solve. Undreamed of problems swarmed up out of the so-called hole in the ground. A less determined man would have given up in despair. Patterns had to be devised for the machinery and the numberless parts–all by the one man on whom rested the responsibility for ultimate success or failure.

The first day of August 1873 was approaching. If on that date no cable car was running, all rights would expire and everything would be lost. Desperate efforts to complete the building of the cable road were made, and at a little past the midnight hour Of July 31, a few tired, nervous men met at the power house located at the corner of Leavenworth and Clay Streets. All night, with feverish anxiety, they had been watching the hurried efforts of the workmen.

Within the power house, furnace fires roared under the boilers which were blowing off their overload of hissing steam which seemed to be angered at being harnessed to do such unaccustomed work. At last, all was ready. The engine started, very slowly at first, and as the tension took up the slack of the several thousand feet of cable, the steady hum was heard of the endless rope in its long tube under the surface of the street. The grip car was put in place. The brakes, crude, straight levers pressing on the wheels, were applied and found to be effective.

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.

Hallidie lived to see the fruition of his many years of strenuous efforts. Cable railroads spread to Oakland, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, London, and Sidney. Many of his inventions were used, and the collection of large royalties for a long period made him wealthy. In later years he enjoyed relating how he lost a substantial sum through an oversight. In spite of being thoroughly familiar with the problems and after years of experimenting with the cable system, he overlooked the importance of patenting a slot sufficiently narrow to keep out the carriage wheels. The practical application of a narrow slot made it possible to operate cable cars on the city streets.

Hallidie deservedly took his place among San Francisco's honored citizens and devoted much of his time to the general welfare of the community. In a reminiscent mood, Hallidie commented:

"California that has become so endeared to me was an accidental love, and brought about by circumstances over which I had no control. I was a passenger in the bark that carried me on in the voyage of life and took me to a land in which my experiences of early youth were not accompanied by the gentleness of polish of the family surroundings which sweet memory still treasures of in the dim shadows of boyhood."
He gained recognition and prominence through his participation on the platform and in the press in the discussion of the burning issues of the day. His brilliant articles on labor organization and kindred subjects attracted wide attention.

Hallidie's desire to associate with men of intelligence brought him into the Mechanics' Institute. Almost from the organization's inception he worked tirelessly toward its progress. Much of the credit goes to Hallidie for laying the solid foundation upon which this organization was established. Hallidie became a trustee and vice-president in 1864 and served as president from 1868-1877. The beginnings of the Mechanics' Institute were reviewed in an address delivered by Halladie before the Librarians' Association of Central California on December 11, 1896, when he summarized some of the Institute's historical highlights:

....On 21 June 1865, the Institute hired a room on the 4th floor of the Express Building [Kohl Building], corner Montgomery and California streets, owned by Sam Brannan. As there were no mechanical elevators in those days, the ascent of four flights of stairs showed a devotion to the cause, both inspiring and elevating.

Mr. Root was appointed librarian on April 5, but failing to qualify, the Board on July 31 appointed Mr. P. B. Dexter, perhaps considering it more appropriate for an institution not yet firmly rooted and requiring dexterous manipulation for its successful maintenance.

The press of the city contributed two copies each of the daily journals and thus the reading room was inaugurated....

September 12 a financing statement was rendered, and it was found after providing for all liabilities $125.00 remained in the treasury and that the library possessed 75 volumes.

It was due to Hallidie's efforts that the British Patent Office made a gift to the Institute of a full continuous set of its reports. This was the only complete set west of St. Louis and was unfortunately destroyed by the fire of 1906. In 1893 Hallidie resumed the Institute's presidency and served until 1895.

Hallidie's chief efforts were directed toward promoting educational progress. He was most active as a regent of the University of California from the first meeting of the board in 1868 to his death, and acted as secretary at the preliminary meetings. He was a member of the building committee, and from 1873 was chairman of the finance committee. The successful handling of the funds of the University was attributed to him. He made the first donation to the University Library in 1869, when he presented it with several hundred volumes of rare theological works. He was also deeply interested in manual training and was one of the leading spirits in the management of the California School of mechanical Arts, and the Wilmerding Training School.

In 1873 he served as a commissioner to investigate the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution. That same year he was nominated for the State senate, and in 1875 for mayor of San Francisco, by the Independent party; but in both cases he was defeated. For several years he was president of the Manufacturers' Association of California and also of the board of trustees of the Children's Hospital.

In 1878, and again in 1886, he was elected a member of the Board of Freeholders to frame and propose a charter for the City and County of San Francisco. In December 1884, the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade, and the Manufacturer's Association appointed him a delegate to represent California at the inauguration of Porfirio Diaz as President of Mexico.

The California Wire Works was incorporated in 1883 with Hallidie as president. The company was the outgrowth of the A. S. Hallidie Co. (1870). On June 29, 1895, the wire rope manufacturing machinery was sold to Washburn and Moen Co., the oldest manufacturers of wire in the United States (established in I831).

Hallidie served as trustee of the First Unitarian Church, and as its moderator in 1883 and 1884. He held memberships in the American Society of Inventors, American Geographical Society, California Academy of Sciences, and other scientific and literary bodies. He was a member of the old California Historical Society and of the Pacific-Union, Olympic, and Sierra clubs. Hallidie served for many years as a trustee of the Free Public Library of San Francisco.

Although he traveled extensively, Hallidie was a man of domestic tastes. He felt at his best in his library, and his books were his closest friends. He was uncompromising in his ideas of right and wrong, and his standards with respect to fair dealing and general morality were very high.

On April 24, 1900, at the age of sixty-five, Hallidie died of heart disease at his San Francisco residence. Impressive funeral services were held in the First Unitarian Church. Dr. Horatio Stebbins delivered the eulogy and said in part:

....Hallidie belonged to that class of men who are called by way of distinction, self-made men. He was not only an intelligent, but, in a certain sense, a learned man....

He had that background of reserve power and discipline.....

....For those who were dependent upon him in any way, for those in whose blood flowed a kindred strain, he was surpassingly good..... All he could do was for them, and he left a host of silent friends.... into whose hearts that kindness has fallen like gentle showers upon the thirsty earth.

His body was laid to rest in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Hallidie's name is perpetuated in the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter Street, between Montgomery and Kearny, San Francisco. Within the entrance of this building is a plaque bearing the inscription:



  • Edgar Myron Kahn, a graduate of Stanford University, is associated with the brokerage firm of J. Barth & Co., San Francisco. His manuscript on San Francisco during the period of Hallidie's activities, entitled "Cable Car Days," will be published in the near future by Stanford University Press.

    California Historical Society Quarterly
    June 1940

    For more about San Francisco street and cable cars, see History by Subject.

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