Every day and night, beneath the streets of San Francisco, huge wheels turn, pulling cable cars to their far-flung destinations and back again.
Every day and night, beneath the streets of San Francisco, huge wheels turn, pulling cable cars to their far-flung destinations and back again, as if weaving them across the city in loops.
The cars shuttle passengers up the peninsula's hills and down again, around the city's densely built core, through neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Russian Hill, and the Financial District, riding atop a geometry of iron tracks, underground cables, and spinning sheaves embedded in the streets themselves.
These wheels -- and the spider's nest of cables they pull -- are free and open to the public for daily visits, courtesy of the surprisingly fantastic San Francisco Cable Car Museum.
An otherwise nondescript brick building at 1201 Mason Street hides a cavernous and open interior that stands all but gutted to make space for these vast winding wheels and the electric motors that drive them.
Inside, steps bring visitors up to a viewing platform for a bird's eye view of the loud and clanking operation, amid rich smells of fuel and industrial lubricants, as if wandering into a scene from a Jules Verne short story.
The museum itself opened back in 1974, and, in addition to the spectacular engine and winding wheel overlook, it holds a series of plinths and display cases located off to the sides, showcasing "various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.
However, it's not until you descend into an underground viewing area to see the the spinning "sheaves" that bring each of the four cable lines back into the building from their channels beneath the streets that the immense strangeness of the cable car system really becomes apparent.
The fact that something so familiar and over-photographed -- in an era dominated by notions of urban software, immaterial metaphors of "the cloud," and the very idea of "smart cities" -- actually operates by way of shadowy, clockwork mechanical systems so exhilaratingly titanic, analogue, and, frankly, bizarre was an astonishing thing to learn.
Walking down into a cramped and under-lit vault in which it's too dark to take an effective casual photograph, you peer out through thick glass windows onto what appears to be a medieval guild room, a giant's collection of oversized seismic gyroscopes, or perhaps the villain's lair from some as-yet-unmade sequel to Spiderman.
-- actually connects onward to other halls and sheave rooms, and that those, too, are connected by way of subterranean trenches through which tar-covered steel cables are pulled at a steady 9 mph, and that those very cables are then responsible for the constant whirring and machine-like patter one hears coming from grates in the middle of the street on certain routes through San Francisco.
It's as if a huge stringed instrument has been wound through the basements of the city, a singing nervous system that hauls vehicles the size of small buildings up and down fog-shrouded hills.
In his classic essay on the prison images of Piranesi, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein writes of chaotic spaces in which architectural fragments, arches, and "broken balconies" constantly "leap" and "explode" beyond their gravitational bounds. He describes a centrifugal space that "whirls off somewhere," as if "in a hurricane, dashing in all directions: ropes, runaway staircases, exploding arches, stone blocks breaking away from each other."
It is in "the nature of architectural fantasies," Eisenstein writes, that such a space might "carry the eye into unknown depths, and the staircases, ledge by ledge, extend to the heavens, or in a reverse cascade of these same ledges, rush downward."
San Francisco's cable car system is a wonderfully mundane "architectural fantasy," in Eisenstein's terms, an everyday piece of urban infrastructure formed by a literally marvelous webwork of cables and tracks that collaboratively strain to pull together the city. It is also the only mobile National Monument in the world.
Even better, the Cable Car Museum remains free to visit. It can be found at 1201 Mason Street, where the Herculean wheels await your wonder.