A Look Back At 1880s Cable Car Service In Los Angeles

Cable car on what is now North Broadway in Los Angeles (Click to enlarge)

If you asked anyone to put the notion of “cable cars” and “California” together, they would undoubtedly imagine San Francisco and its long history of cabled transit.

But Los Angeles enjoyed its own cable car era, roughly between 1880 and 1890.

When Andrew Hallidie’s cable cars debuted in San Francisco in 1873,   Los Angeles could not boast of even a single horsecar.

By 1884, after a decade of horsedrawn cars reaching the outlying areas of the growing city, a 1.5-mile cable railway was proposed Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Cable Railway's "Cape Horn" viaduct over Southern Pacific River Yard, October 1890 (Click to enlarge)

The following year, the Second Street Cable Railroad Company was incorporated and work was underway to grade the route.

For the rest of the decade, cable railways slowly grew out from downtown Los Angeles.

The Temple Street Cable Railways ran from Main Street westward down Temple to Hoover Street in what was then known as Dayton Heights.

The Second Street Cable Railroad ran parallel to the Temple Street line, westward down Second Street from Spring to Belmont Street.

At their peak in 1887, cable cars ran 17 1/2 hours a day, every 5 minutes.

Cable cars in downtown Los Angeles, October 1885 (Click to enlarge)

However, ridership shrank by one-third in 1890.

With the development of practical electric streetcars in the late 1880s, a debate ensued between the partisans of trolleys and those of cable cars.

Electric railways seemed more promising than cables for the rapidly growing city.

Los Angeles’ population more than doubled to 11,000 between 1870 and 1880, and exploded to 50,395 by 1890.

The 1880s remain the decade of most rapid population growth in Los Angeles to this day.

As Robert C. Post notes in Street Railways And The Growth Of Los Angeles: Horse, Cable, Electric Lines:

“At a constant speed of 8 miles per hour, the prodigiously heavy cables traveled 100,000 miles in two years and then had to be replaced.  The cables cost thousands of dollars.  The sheaves, the grip dies, elements of the winding machinery — at once delicate and ponderous — all required constant attention.

The maze of machinery and the weight of the cables themselves so sapped the power of the engine that only about 16 percent of the power actually served the purpose of running streetcars.

That is, the loss of efficiency in the transmission of power was so great that just keeping the winding machinery and cables in motion — no cars — devoured more than four-fifths of the energy produced by the power plant.

All things considered, it is no wonder that the search persisted for something better.”

Cable car decorated for 4th of July, ca. 1890 (Click to enlarge)

Bad weather played a part in the decline of local cable cars as well.

Torrential rains washed away roadbeds on Christmas Eve of 1889, and a massive cave-in on January 9, 1890 took out an entire block of track.

After 1898, Temple Street Cable Railway was the only remaining independent transit company in Los Angeles.

Henry E. Huntington, who would ultimately monopolize Los Angeles’ street railways, purchased the line.

It was the last in the city which had not been electrified — the conversion of which took place on October 22, 1902.

That event took place just three months after Pacific Electric opened its rail line between Los Angeles and Long Beach which ran for nearly 60 years.

The images presented here are just a sampling of this important piece of Los Angeles transportation history.

Many more can be found in our Flickr online Cable Car photo collection.

Los Angeles Cable Railway construction in Boyle Heights, 1888 (Click to enlarge)

Sample section of cable railway track, ca. 1880s (Click to enlarge)

Second Street Cable Railroad car (center foreground) rolling through Los Angeles (Click to enlarge)