Andrew Hallidie is famous for inventing the cable cars that take tourists “half way to the stars” in San Francisco, but few people know he built a tramway that stretched more than 7,300 feet from his home in Portola Valley to the Santa Cruz Mountains.
At the time of its construction in 1894, many doubters wondered why Hallidie wanted to build such a spectacular and apparently useless device in Portola Valley. The late historian Dorothy Regnery wrote that the reason was the simplest and most logical.
“Hallidie was in the wire and cable business and his aerial tramway was a working demonstration of his product,” Regnery wrote in a 1959 article in La Peninsula magazine.
A marker on Portola Road informs visitors that the tramway ended at a station near the intersection of Skyline Boulevard and Old La Honda Road, a vertical rise of 1,168 feet. Heavy timbers created the towers from which the cable hung. The longest span between towers was 630 feet. The highest point above ground was 120 feet.
The device had 20 buckets for up to 300 pounds of cargo that could include ore, wheat or wood products. There were also three cages capable of carrying two passengers on the 30-minute ride to a turnaround platform from which the entire Bay Area could be seen. The system was powered by a 10 horsepower steam engine.
On Aug. 2, 1894, the Redwood City Democrat reported on the “novel form of railway” at Hallidie’s Eagle Home Farm on the west side of Portola Road. Hallidie, the newspaper reported, had built many such tramways that are “working very satisfactorily.” The Portola Valley system “is perfectly straight and passes over very rugged country.”
According to Regnery’s account, crews of Chinese laborers cleared the land and helped build the towers. The workers were housed in tent camps on Hallidie’s land.
“The buckets suspended from the cable, much like some ski lifts, swung out over young orchards and mounted the steep slopes, keeping a straight course over canyons, gulches and hills, from the rough timber tower to the next, and on to the summit,” she wrote. The summit platform was near what was then a dirt ranch road.
The tramway’s operations were limited, usually as a sales pitch to prospective customers, but there were also special occasions, such as the dedication of a school in 1894 when the climax of the ceremony was the sight of the tram’s buckets moving slowly up and down the hillside.
Hallidie died in 1900 and, shortly after, the tramway was sold, dismantled and taken to a copper mine in Mexico. All that was left were a few remote tower bases. The land that was cleared to make way for the line was soon overgrown by oak, madrone and dense shrubs.
According to historian John Edmonds, Hallidie, who was born in England, learned early in life how to braid wire to increase its strength. When news of the Gold Rush reached him, Hallidie went to the United States where he soon discovered that his engineering talent was as good as gold.
Among other things, he designed and built a cable system to haul rock and then built a 220-foot bridge that carried mining equipment over a river. From that day on, Hallidie gave up his search for gold and worked with wire cable. He set up shop in San Francisco as the California Wire Rope and Cable Company in 1857 and was quickly inundated with orders for cables and machinery.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.