The Bow Flume Cable-Car

(notes edited by David Page)

Publication history

First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 10 September 1889. Collected Volume VII, No. 50 of Turn-overs, 1889,and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.


Kipling had left India on 9 March 1889, travelling with Professor “Aleck” and Mrs Edmonia Hill via Burma, Malaya, China, Japan and the U.S.A. on his way back to England. The reports that he sent back to the Pioneer describing his travels were collected in From Sea to Sea (1899). His arrival in San Francisco on 28 May 1889 and his stay in that city until 17 June at the Palace Hotel on the corner of Market Street and Third Street, is described in Chapters XXIII to XXV.
In Chapter XXIII he recounts some of his experiences with the San Francisco cable-cars:

Later, I began a vast but unsystematic exploration of the streets. I asked for no names. It was enough that the pavements were full of white men and women, the streets clanging with traffic, and that the restful roar of a great city rang in my ears. The cable-cars glided to all points of the compass. I took them one by one till I could go no farther. San Francisco has been pitched down on the sand-bunkers of the Bikaneer Desert. About one-fourth of it is ground reclaimed from the sea—any old-timer will tell you all about that. The remainder is ragged, unthrifty sand-hills, pegged down by houses.

From an English point of view there has not been the least attempt at grading those hills, and indeed you might as well try to grade the hillocks of Sind. The cable-cars have for all practical purposes made San Francisco a dead level. They take no count of rise or fall, but slide equably on their appointed courses from one end to the other of a six-mile street. They turn corners almost at right angles; cross other lines, and, for aught I know, may run up the sides of houses. There is no visible agency of their flight; but once in a while you shall pass a five-storied building, humming with machinery that winds up an everlasting wire-cable, and the initiated will tell you that here is the mechanism. I gave up asking questions. If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for many miles, and if for twopence-halfpenny I can ride in that car, why shall I seek the reasons of the miracle?

The San Francisco Cable-Cars

The information here has mainly been gleaned from the website of the Cable-Car Museum –

The system operates by the use of a steel cable which is running constantly in a channel under the street, the cable being guided by a series of pulleys and sheaves. The car runs on two tracks laid in the street, with a slot between them that gives access to the cable. A vice-like lever mechanism on the car called a grip is lowered into the slot, and when the gripman (or driver) pulls a lever, the grip is tightened and the car starts to move. To stop the car, the grip is released and if necessary, up to three brakes are applied as well.

The first car ran in 1873 in Clay Street, and the network reached its maximum coverage of the city in the 1890s. Over the years, the network slimmed down to three routes, and in the mid-1980s it was shut down for two years and refurbished, so it still operates in the way that Kipling experienced in 1889.

The story

The narrator of this “Bret Harte” style story has met with a stranger in San Francisco who tells him a story of events which result from the misapplication of that city’s cable-car technology.
In a gold-mining town named Bow Flume “way back there—beyond the Sacramento”, the stranger and his partner O’Grady ran a saloon which was christened ‘The Wake Up an’ Git Bar’ by its customers. “Bow Flume city was three hundred feet above our saloon” up a road that is bad and almost perpendicular.

One day, after a visit to San Francisco, O’Grady comes back with the idea of building a cable-car to run between the saloon and Bow Flume city, forms a company on the spot, and at once gets going on organising the cable-car. Unfortunately, O’Grady is something of an inventor, and departs from the tried and tested machinery being used in ’Frisco. All goes well in the beginning, but soon the customers start asking for more speed on the downward journey to the saloon. O’Grady moved her up from fourteen miles an hour to twentyfour.

On a memorial day, when all the prominent members of the company were on board the car, the gripper which held the car to the cable became jammed and there was no way of slowing the car. It struck the end of the track where the rope passed round a pulley for the return, was catapulted off the track, through the saloon roof, and ended up smashed to bits three hundred feet down at the bottom of a bluff behind the saloon with most of the occupants dead. The saloon owner, who is telling the story to the narrator, had fallen out of the car as it smashed through the roof of the saloon and survived the catastrophe. However, he deemed it wise to get out of the area as quickly and quietly as possible since “he suspicioned that any lawsuits that might arise would be complicated by shooting.”


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