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Origin of Wire Rope

Wire Rope: A Manufacturing & Transportation Pioneer
Origin of Wire Rope
Early Life

Andrew Smith Hallidie was born Andrew Smith, later adopting the name Hallidie in honour of his uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie. His birthplace is variously quoted as London in the United Kingdom. His father, Andrew Smith (a prolific inventor in his own right, responsible for inventing the first box door spring, a floor cramp and had an early patent for wire rope) had been born in Fleming, Dumfrieshire, Scotland, in 1798, and his mother, Julia Johnstone Smith, was from Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire.

Andrew Smith Hallidie

The younger Smith was initially apprenticed to a machine shop and drawing office. In 1852 he and his father set sail for California, where the senior Mr. Smith had an interest in some gold mines in Mariposa County. The mines proved disappointing, and he returned to England in 1853. Andrew Smith Junior, however, remained in California, and became a gold miner whilst also working as a blacksmith, surveyor and builder of bridges.


In 1855, young Hallidie built a wire suspension bridge and aqueduct 220 feet long at Horse Shoe Bar on the Middle Fork of the American River. During 1856, whilst working on the construction of a flume at a mine at American Bar, the now, Andrew Smith Hallidie was consulted over the rapid rate of wear on the ropes used to lower cars of rock from the mine to the mill. These ropes wore out in 75 days—unsatisfied with this, Hallidie manufactured rope for the project consisting of three spliced pieces one-eighth of an inch thick, 1200 feet long. These lasted for two years—a vast improvement from the previous 75 day standard.

Hallide invented the Hallidie Ropeway, a form of aerial tramway used for transporting ore and other material across mountainous districts in the west, which he successfully installed in a number of locations, and later patented. After a few years of drifting from camp to camp working claims, narrowly avoiding disasters both natural and man-made, and briefly running a restaurant at Michigan Bluff in the Mother Lode, he abandoned mining in 1857 and returned to San Francisco. Under the name of A. S. Hallidie & Co., he commenced the manufacture of wire rope in a building at Mason and Chestnut Streets, using the machinery from American Bar.

In addition to aerial tramways, his rope was used to build suspension bridges across creeks and rivers throughout northern California. He was often away from the City on his bridge projects until in 1865 he returned to San Francisco and focused his energies entirely on manufacturing and perfecting wire rope. The discovery of the Comstock Lode silver mines in Nevada increased the demand for wire rope.

The city became a major industrial center for mining operations in the 1860s and Hallidie prospered, becoming a leading entrepreneur, US citizen, husband to Martha Elizabeth Woods, and in 1868 President of the prestigious Mechanic’s Institute.

Hallidie’s ‘Endless Wire Ropeway’—Precursor to Cable Cars

It was about this time that Hallidie began to implement a scheme for urban transportation he had been considered for some time, based upon his use of wire rope for the aerial tramways. He worked on improving the tensile strength and flexibility of his wire to develop an “endless” wire rope that could be would around large pulleys, which could then provide continuous underground propulsion for a car that could be attached or released at will from the cable. Hallide took out a patent Endless Wire Rope Patentfor this “Endless Wire Ropeway” and for years it dominated the construction of tramway at mines throughout the West. However, it was the implementation of his Endless Wire Ropeway for moving streetcars in San Francisco that brought him lasting fame and a place in the history books.

It is here accounts differ as to exactly how involved Hallidie was in the inception of the first cable car at Clay Street Hill Railway. One version, has him taking over the promotion of the line when the original promoter, Benjamin Brooks, failed to raise the necessary capital.

In another version, Hallidie was the instigator, inspired by a desire to reduce the suffering incurred by the horses that hauled streetcars up Jackson Street, from Kearny to Stockton Street.

There is also doubt as to when exactly the first run of the cable car occurred. The franchise required the first run no later than August 1, 1873, however at least one source reports that the run took place a day late, on August 2, but that the city chose not to void the franchise. Some accounts say that the first gripman hired by Hallidie looked down the steep hill from Jones and refused to operate the car, so Hallidie took the grip himself and ran the car down the hill and up again without any problems.

The named engineer of the Clay Street line was William Eppelsheimer. Given Hallidie’s previous experience of cables and cable haulage systems, it seems likely that he contributed to the design of the system.

wire rope cable car

The Clay Street line started regular service on September 1, 1873, and was a financial success. In addition, Hallidie’s patents on the cable car design were stringently enforced on cable car promoters around the world and made him a rich man.

A. S. Hallidie & Co. became the California Wire Works in 1883 with Hallidie as president. In 1895, it was sold to Washburn and Moen Co., the oldest manufacturers of wire in the United States (established in 1831).

Hallidie died on April 24, 1900 at the age of 65 of heart disease at his San Francisco residence, but his name lives on. In San Francisco, Hallidie Plaza (near the Powell and Market Street cable car turntable) and the Hallidie Building (an office building in the city’s Financial District) are named after him.