A Poetic Journey by Cable Car (from Exploring San Francisco)

This week’s episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast features a special excerpt from the Exploring San Francisco podcast by San Francisco Travel. Award-winning host and travel writer Aaron Millar invited Viewless Wings founder and City of Dublin Poet Laureate James Morehead to recite his poem “nine point five miles per hour”, recorded while riding a San Francisco cable car. Aaron also interviews James about his work with the City of Dublin and how he discovered the art of poetry.

James’ poem was inspired by a visit to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. The museum, “operated by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum as a nonprofit educational facility,” is “located in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the museum deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables.” Incredibly, San Francisco’s cable cars are operated by the cables flowing in and out of this single building at nine point five miles per hour.

nine point five miles per hour
by james c. morehead
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
San Francisco Cable Car Museum

Here is the complete episode of Exploring San Francisco featuring James Morehead’s poem and much more:

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