JILL DIAMOND | Uptown News
While the cable cars and underground wiring they once were operated by have long disappeared from the Bankers Hill area and throughout Downtown San Diego, there is still a reminder of the San Diego Cable Railway Co.
A one-level building designed by William Hebbard in 1913 stands at the corner of Spruce and Fourth streets that served as the railway’s powerhouse, according to Bruce Semelsberger, archivist and historian of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum.
“The powerhouse was made of brick and used steam power to turn the large wheels around, which the cables were wound. There were 12 cars, all had names rather than numbers,” he said.
As for the railway, he said it was incorporated in August 1889 with the goal of building a cable car line like the one in San Francisco to go up and down Bankers Hill. It started at a turntable at Sixth and L streets and went up Sixth to Spruce streets, he said.
“The cars were latched onto a steel cable with a hemp center that ran through a slot in the street and was guided by cast iron yokes,” he explained. “People used the railway to go to and from one part of town to another; to work, to shop … It was a popular way to get around in those days and not that expensive for a roundtrip, perhaps about 5 cents.”
Semelsberger said the capital stock was $50,000 and it was financed by the California National Bank, a local bank. At Spruce Street, the line moved onto Fourth Street and latched onto a second cable up to Adams Avenue where Mission Cliff Gardens was built.
“Mission Cliff Gardens featured Japanese gardens overlooking Mission Valley where people went to be entertained, picnic and visit the ostrich farm. It also had a huge dance pavilion with dances on Saturday night,” he added.
Semelsberger said the former cable car line went into operation on June 10, 1890, when it had a trial run, and a few days later on June 12, 1890, a gala opening took place. Seven cars were decorated for the occasion and a platform for speakers was set up.
The project was completed at a cost of $300,000 and when fully operational the cable cars essentially ran on a loop and went from Sixth and L streets to Spruce, and at Spruce made a little jog to Fourth Street. There were two separate loops that ran from the powerhouse — an upper and a Downtown loop — the later breezed along at 8 mph, which was considered high speed in 1890. All in all, the cable car line went about four miles.
End of the railway
While popular in its day, the line only ran for 13 months, at which time the owners of the bank, J.W. Collins and D.D. Dare, absconded with all the money and the line was forced into bankruptcy, Semelsberger said.
“The story goes that they ran off with all the money from the bank and the company ended right then and there,” he said.
Semelsberger said others tried to raise money to keep the railway going, like company Vice President John C. Fisher, but it never happened due to the collapse of the great land boom in San Diego. He said by 1890 the boom was over and the population in San Diego was reduced to about 12,000 people. At the height, there had been 40,000 but after the boom ended, it had dropped and financing for anything was hard to come by, Semelsberger said.
Eventually the San Diego Cable Railway Co. was purchased and converted to an electric trolley line called Citizens Traction, which was later bought by John D. Spreckels and incorporated into his San Diego Electric Railway that ran until 1949.
“It was San Diego’s original trolley system and was an extensive system,” Semelsberger said. “It was a popular way for people to get around in San Diego from the Mexican border all the way to La Jolla.”
— Jill Diamond is a Southern California freelance writer with a penchant for interesting historical pieces. Reach her at JillDiamondHistory@gmail.com.