Ideas for the return of cable cars to Dunedin
prompted Lois Galer, of Ophir, to reflect on the success of the
San Francisco cable cars, to reminisce on their Dunedin
counterparts and to wonder what the future could
Cars and cable cars vie for their own space on a San
Francisco street, this one reminiscent of High St, Dunedin.
Photo by Lois Galer
We were well advised: "Go early in the morning if you don't
want to queue for more than an hour to get on".
When our ship docked at San Francisco at 8am, top of our list
of things to do and see was to ride on the San Francisco
By 8.30am, we had made it to the terminus.
There, at the foot of one of that city's steepest streets,
our little car awaited, with just two empty seats left on the
If listening to the "rope" singing under the floorboards was
not nostalgic enough, then the jolt as the gripper grasped
the rope, released the brake and proceeded up the incline,
soon had me back in the 1950s on my way home from secondary
school on the High St, Dunedin, car.
Then came the clanging of the bell as we crossed an
intersection and a further jolt as we ground to a stop to let
passengers on and off.
I could have sat there all day, but a short distance up the
hill was the Cable Car Museum, situated in the original
building still used for winding the ropes, not just for this
route, but several others in the city.
This we had to see.
It housed not only early cable cars from the 1870s, when the
system began operating, but displays of early equipment and
interpretive panels on how the system worked.
There were illustrated stories and news clippings about the
earthquake of 1906, showing the building's collapsed smoke
stack and damage to the equipment.
There was its reinstatement and later attempts by local
authorities to do away with the system altogether, for more
modern methods of transport.
The latter, of course, immediately took me back to 1957 and
the arguments for and against retaining its Dunedin
But with one subtle difference: the citizens of San Francisco
won a reprieve for their system.
Those in Dunedin lost.
Watching the crowds of visitors spending up large on cable
car memorabilia at the museum shop, then stepping outside to
join a formidable, fast lengthening queue for the next car to
take us further up the incline, I was suddenly aware of just
how much Dunedin did lose.
But it could still be Dunedin's gain if enough enthusiasm is
generated for reinstating at least one cable-car route.
Considering the Dunedin cable-car system was originally
designed to specifications already patented in San Francisco,
a revisit to the 136-year-old Californian system just could
be the ticket.
Of the routes recently suggested, the Mornington route is the
most logical, as it remains unchanged.
Even its terminus stands complete with its original carshed,
albeit now used for a different purpose.
For if anything from the past is reinstated, its historic
integrity needs to take priority.
By comparison, the Stuart St route is totally changed, with
the later Stuart St Extension replacing the original cable
Stuart St has also since become a main arterial route to
suburbs beyond Roslyn and Kaikorai.
As I recall, one of the reasons for the demise of the cable
car was the increase in private vehicles and the danger to
those alighting from cable cars in the middle of busy roads.
High St is busy, too, but any disruption to traffic movement
would surely be less than any in Stuart St.
But perhaps a more important reason to consider Mornington is
that the Exchange area is in greater need of visitor
attractions than the Octagon, with its municipal buildings,
information centre, art gallery, cathedral and cafe scene.
Visitors do like to walk around a city and the Exchange area
is a perfect link with the Chinese garden, the proposed
harbour development, the Settlers Museum and the railway
It is also where the majority of hotel guests are
Private building owners have invested heavily in the Exchange
over recent years and an additional incentive to further
enhance this former dead area of the city would, I'm sure, be
As for the experience of the cable-car journey, the views
over the city, harbour and peninsula are superb from both
High St and Stuart St, but where the Mornington terminus
borders the town belt, a stunning opportunity exists for a
lookout with unimpeded views over the city.
Combined with a cafe, the "view from the top" would be worth
the cable-car ride alone, as it certainly was from the top of
the San Francisco route.
But alas, on this occasion, we had to make our own way down
All the little cars were full.
And the queue for the next? A good 100m long!