Streets of San Francisco

Riding the cable cars of San Francisco is a great experience.

These iconic cars are the last of their type in the world and who knows how much longer they’ll operate.

Of the 23 lines originally established in San Francisco, only three are left – mainly catering for tourists.


If you’ve ever wondered how they move, San Francisco’s cable cars don’t have any motor.

Cables run along a trench beneath the street and each cable car has at least one mechanical ‘grip’ which reaches down into the trench and grabs the cable like a huge pair of pliers.

This hauls the car along at a constant speed of about 9.5 miles an hour – and a little faster when going downhill.

Bells clanging

The cable cars are colourful and wonderful to watch in action – rattling up San Francisco’s legendary steep streets with bells ringing and the driver, or gripman, working the controls and calling out the names of impending stops.


We rode the Powell Street cable car to the end of the line, especially to see another highlight of the system – the turntables that swing the cable car around and allow it to return in the opposite direction.

As children, we remembered watching old steam trains turned on a similar system in rural Australia. So it was particularly nostalgic to watch the cable car rotated in the same way.

The cars are also a fantastic way of seeing the sights of downtown SanFrancisco.


Each cable car has outward facing seats flanking the gripman and a small platform at the rear. These provide an awesome view of the road ahead and behind, as well as the passing parade through the city.

The rest of each car is enclosed and, overall, 29 people are able to sit while about the same number can stand.

Established between 1873 and 1890, the San Francisco cable car system is the last manually-operated network of its type.

The three remaining cable car routes run from downtown San Francisco near Union Square to the Fisherman’s Wharf area and along California Street.

Each car is 27 feet 6 inches (8.4 m) long and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and weighs 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg)

They are listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

San Francisco

Bay Bridge milestone

Mention San Francisco and many immediately think of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

But, for the time being at least, another lesser-known crossing of San Francisco Bay is taking the limelight from its famous neighbour.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, known by locals as simply the ‘Bay Bridge’, is passing its 80th anniversary.

Opened in late 1936, about six months before the Golden Gate crossing, the Bay Bridge is said to have one of the longest spans in the US and carries more than 240,000 vehicles a day.


Like many of the world’s long water crossings, the Bay Bridge is actually a combination of two halves with an island in the middle.

The older western section of 3,141 metres, links downtown San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island.

This part is a double suspension bridge with two decks, westbound traffic is carried on the upper deck and eastbound below on the lower deck. In days gone by, trains ran on the lower deck.

A 160 metre long tunnel carries traffic through Yerba Buena Island and joins with the bridge’s eastern section, which is a relatively new, sleek single deck with eastbound and westbound lanes of each side of the span – making it one of the widest bridges in the world.

The eastern side of the Bay Bridge connects with vibrant Oakland, which is the third biggest city in the San Francisco Bay Area; the eighth biggest in California; and the 45th biggest city in the U.S.

The Bay bridge has not escaped damage in San Francisco’s notorious earthquakes.

In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a section of the eastern span’s upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck and the bridge was closed for a month.

However, in a similar program to the Golden Gate, much of the Bay Bridge has been retrofitted to help it better resist earthquakes.

San Francisco

Remembering the native occupation

Few people in busy San Francisco, United States, would realise that it’s rapidly approaching the 50th anniversary of an event that gained the city international headlines – the occupation of Alcatraz.

On a foggy November morning in 1969, boats carrying 89 native American Indians headed across San Francisco Bay on a five mile journey from Sausalito. On arrival at Alcatraz Island – the ‘Rock’ that once housed one of the world’s most famous prisons – the occupants of the boats claimed the site as Indian land for a Native American cultural centre and university.

And thus began a bizarre chapter of the late 1960’s – a 19-month occupation that helped the plight of American Indians develop into a national issue.

As you approach Alcatraz today, signs of the occupation are obvious.

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When we visited the Rock, our boat landed almost directly below graffiti reading “Indians Welcome”.

And, as we wandered among the buildings on the famous island and explored the empty cell blocks, there were many other signs of the occupation.

As Alcatraz guides tell the story, Native Americans from the San Francisco Bay turned their eyes to the windswept Rock soon after the prison closed on the harbour island in 1963.

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Word has it that the Native Americans offered to buy the island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, which is said to be the price that Indians received for Manhattan.

Wary of a public backlash, the U.S. government of the time decided to leave the occupiers alone – and the movement gradually withered. After a fire destroyed some buildings, electricity to the island was cut and federal marshals finally removed the remaining six men, five women and four children in June 1971.

Two years later, Alcatraz became a national park and the island in the bay now attracts more than one-million visitors a year. It is a fascinating place to explore and boasts some intriguing stories, some of which were immortalised in movies such as ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ and ‘The Birman of Alcatraz’.

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From a Native American point of view, the occupation of the Rock put the island front and centre in in social campaigns. Apparently, nationwide walks to protest against the plight of American Indians have started at the island. And, since 1975, people have met at Alcatraz every November for an “Un-Thanksgiving Day” celebrating Indian culture and activism.

Visiting Alcatraz Island is one of the most rewarding experiences of any stop in San Francisco. The actual anniversary of the American Indian occupation is November 20.

The island is operated by the National Parks Service. See information about tours.

As a prison, Alcatraz housed well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and Alvin Karpis (said to be America’s first ‘Public Enemy No 1)

San Francisco

Review: Visiting Alcatraz

Even in typically sunny Californian weather, Alcatraz still sends a chill down the spine.

The 161 year old former fortress, lighthouse and prison is an isolated, wind-swept guardian in San Francisco Bay, passed by hordes of vessels daily.


These days, the island is in a national park and the cell house doors are almost exclusively the domain of  tourists who flock to ‘The Rock’ in huge and ever-increasing numbers.

Most visitors are keen to uncover the true story of Alcatraz; much of which has been lost in a fog of myths,  books and movies.


Tours of ‘The Rock’ are run almost year-round by the National Park Service, which is working to interpret the history of Alcatraz, preserve the buildings, protect wildlife and sustain gardens.

For example, you can peer through the bars into cells once occupied by Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert Stroud, the so-called ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’.

The tours discuss many escape attempts, including the time that one prisoner leapt into the bay while on rubbish detail and how another hid on a visiting military vessel.


Then there was  the 1962 escape attempt when three men slipped into the bay using raincoats to keep afloat.

Although their bodies were never found, they are assumed to have drowned.

And, visitors also hear about the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ – over two days in 1946 – when an unsuccessful escape attempt led to the death of two guards and three inmates.

Another convict and 11 guards were injured and two prisoners were later executed for their roles.

As well as the prison years, the tours touch on the  use of Alcatraz as a fort during the American Civil War, when it boasted 111 smoothbore cannon.


Another fascinating episode in the history of ‘The Rock’  occurred from 1964, when Native American political activists occupied Alcatraz on three occasions.

The activists claimed the island  in the name of “Indians of All Tribes”, however living on such a harsh and isolated landscape gradually took its toll on the occupation, which withered away.

Graffiti from the Native American occupation remains today and is one of the most striking features of ‘The Rock’ for tourists arriving on the dock.

Alcatraz is indeed a memorable and striking attraction for travellers to San Francisco. There is a range of tours, designed to suit most needs. Don’t miss it!

San Francisco

‘G’day, jump an Aussie tram by the dock of the bay

As historic streetcars glide along San Francisco’s waterfront, Australian travellers can be forgiven for staring.

Streetcar Number 496 – with its distinctive green and gold colours – is a former Melbourne ‘tram’, which operated in the southern Australian city for more than 50 years before joining San Francisco’s colourful fleet of cars.

One of the famed ‘W Class’ trams, No 496 was built in 1928 and ran through Melbourne streets until it was purchased by the San Francisco operators in the 1980’s.

The streetcar clearly bears the logo of the City of Melbourne and carries signs that explain its pedigree and background.

A second Aussie ‘tram’ – this one a more modern SW6 class – was donated to San Francisco in 2009.


Ofter overshadowed by San Francisco’s famous cable cars, the bay city’s vintage streetcars are wonderful to watch in action as they run up and down the F-Line and Market Street alongside the dock of the bay.

Besides the Australian ‘trams’, there are others from Italy, Japan, Portugal, the UK and several other US cities.

Restored to sparkling condition, the often brightly-coloured vintage streetcars are an eye-catching sight passing San Francisco icons such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square – and providing travellers and locals with a memorable glimpse of a romantic transport past.


Light rail San Francisco