Highgate Hill in North London stretches from Archway to the village of Highgate. For those unaware, it’s steep – reaching a 10% grade as it culminates near the top. If you’ve ever tried to lug your purchases around, I wouldn’t recommend it.
It is for this reason that the first cable tram in Europe was inaugurated here in 1884: to transport passengers, goods and livestock up the hill. Less than a mile long, the tram stretched from Archway Tavern, the pub now opposite Archway Station, to Southwood Lane at the top of Highgate Village.
“The successful opening of the Highgate Hill Cable Tramway, the first of its kind in Europe, heralds a new era in tram construction,” wrote the Times in 1884. True, tram technology was booming: steam and cable. pulled streetcars had begun to give the old horse-drawn models a hard time.
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The world’s first cable tram opened in San Francisco in 1873, pioneered by Londoner Andrew Smith Hallidie. It worked by pulling the cable cars along a fixed track by a moving steel cable, powered by static motors at the top of the hill. The car started to move when the handle was applied to the cable and stopped when released.
The Highgate streetcar system was designed by William Eppelsheimer, the same man who designed San Francisco’s pioneering streetcar and created the grip system. Cars ran every five minutes and fares were 2 pence up and 1 pence down.
Archway was already a busy terminus for horse-drawn trams, but Highgate Hill was considered too steep for horses.
When the tram opened in 1884, its first passengers were the Lord Mayor of London and the City of London Artillery Band. Nevertheless, some skepticism persisted, with The Times mentioning that “it remains to be proven whether the general application of the steam or cable system would be unattended with serious loss of life or limb”.
They were right to have doubts. The tram suffered from financial and operational problems, and there were several reports of accidents in the years after its introduction.
Later that same year, the tram’s braking system failed, with two tram cars and two dummies – cross-seat cars – falling off the line, and a car and a dummy escaping down the the hill. Two passengers in the getaway car were injured and the driver “remembered nothing until he was home in his bed”, according to the Times cover story.
In December 1892, there was another accident after a cable snapped and the getaway car crashed. As a result, the tram was closed for five years, only reopening in 1897 under new ownership.
After a difficult life, the cable car finally closed in 1909 after being sold for £13,000 to the London Country Council. It was replaced by an electric system, which remained in place until London Transport began to decommission trams in 1952.
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