Here, in this warehouse that combines a museum experience with a real inside look at the inner machinations of the system, four mighty winding machines work the underground cables that propel the entire system, and if there’s a cable break, this is where engineers splice it back together using some seriously medieval-looking implements. From decks overlooking the roaring machines, you’ll see the cables shoot in from the streets, wind around huge wheels, and be sent back underground to carry more tourists up the city hills. You’ll find out how the whole system works, including a look at the gripping mechanism that every car extends below the street level. I find it remarkable to think that nearly every American city of size once had systems just like this, but now only San Francisco maintains this antique (1873) but highly functional technology.
Don’t miss the chance to go downstairs, under the entrance to the building, where, in the darkness, you can peer at the whirring 8-foot sheaves that hoist in the cables from their various journeys around the city. Now and then, a real cable car will stall as it attempts to navigate the intersection outside, where drivers have to let go of one cable and snag another, and a worker will have to drive out in a cart and give it a nudge.