SF Chronicle TotalSF Premieres James Morehead’s Cable Car Museum Inspired Poem

The San Francisco Cable Car system celebrates its 150th anniversary in August 2023. The Andrew Smith Hallidie invention, a visit to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, and a ride on the Powell-Mason line inspired the poem “nine point five miles per hour” by James Morehead (Poet Laureate – Dublin, California). The poem premiered at the SF Chronicle TotalSF Movie Night on August 25, 2022, hosted by the SF Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub and Heather Knight. The September 23 episode of the TotalSF Podcast featured an interview with a Cable Car Gripman. Below is the poem “nine point five miles per hour”.

James Morehead performing “nine point five miles per hour”
A time lapse ride on a San Francisco cable car
Peter Hartlaub, Heather Knight, James Morehead
nine point five miles per hour
After the San Francisco Cable Car Museum (San Francisco, California) 

caution cable car crossing
              stenciled yellow on asphalt
              outside a cavernous brick powerhouse 

it all starts and ends here:
              four continuous loops—wire rope
              stretched tight by tension sheaves

turned precisely nine point five miles per hour
              by winding machinery—
              motors and gears, massive and dripping with grease

until night falls and cars sleep
              when workers wake to splice worn cables
              in time for the morning rush


gold rush inventor andrew hallidie
              dreamt of designs for carrying 
              ore from mines to mills

and corseted ladies, men in top hats
              children sporting their sunday best
              up the steep sandy slopes of san francisco 

he wrote of the great cruelty and hardship
              of horses pulling streetcars
              up rain-slicked cobblestones

until one slipped, brakes failed,
              dragging the terrified standardbred down
              leaving it mutilated between truck and rail

hallidie’s cables fanned out, rattling in trenches
              past union square to fisherman's wharf
              from van ness to embarcadero


a century later i wait at the base of powell
              listening to buskers drum on trash cans
              as two operators shove #16 on a turnaround

i cling to a handrail right upfront
              feet balanced on a wooden running board, 
              jostling with tourists smiling for selfies

with two distinct clangs on the cable car bell
              our driver pulls hard on a long iron grip
              so its jaw can clench cable as ratchet teeth chatter

through an intersection we go
              nine point five miles an hour
              chilled by wisps of fog up and over nob hill

First performed at the SF Chronicle’s TotalSF Movie Night August 25, 2022
copyright 2022 James Morehead
San Francisco Cable Car Museum (and main powerhouse for all cable lines)

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