It has been over 131 years since the Peak Tram opened in Hong Kong though, technically, it is not even a tram but a cable-hauled funicular railway. Below is a brief, visual history of one of the city’s most iconic treasures.
The son of Queen Victoria, Alfred, became the first royal visitor to make a ritual trip to The Peak in 1869. It was noted how His Highness expressed “surprise that the wealthy merchant princes of the colony had not yet availed themselves of the opportunity of the presence in the vicinity of their city of a position offering so bracing a climate, in the hottest time of the year.”
The ‘Rush to The Peak’ had commenced with Hong Kong’s population rising to 173,475 by 1883. Several dozen of the city’s elite families were now living on The Peak and it was also home to The Peak Hotel. The area remained accessible only by horse or sedan chair. One local eccentric, E R Belilios, reportedly preferred to travel the winding paths by camel, though none of these options were comfortable, especially in Hong Kong’s heat.
Thus, Peak Hotel owner and Scotsman Alexander Findlay Smith, planned to open up the area with a new tram system to connect Victoria Gap to Murray Barracks.
The Hong Kong High Level Tramways Company was born on May 30, 1888 and the line was opened by Hong Kong’s governor and Lady des Voeux.
Little is known of how the tram lines were constructed – but – with each piece of rail weighing over 136kg, and each measuring around seven metres, it was presumably very difficult.
On its opening day, a local journalist wrote that “there is nothing to cause the least of nervousness and the car rises smoothly and steadily to the Victoria Gap.”
The first carriages were made of timber and seated 30 in three classes. The first two seats could not be occupied until two minutes before departure, as they had brass plaques which read “This seat is reserved for His Excellency, the Governor”.
It served 150,000 people in its first year alone.
The tram rose from 18 metres to 396 metres (about 1,300 feet) above sea level.
Between 1904 and 1930, the Peak Reservation Ordinance had designated The Peak as an exclusive residential area reserved for non-Chinese. In 1924, the first road to The Peak was constructed – many wrongly believed this would signal the end of the tram service.
The tram was suspended during the WWII occupation of Hong Kong as the engine room was damaged in an attack. The Japanese pummelled the barracks on the Peak during the initial invasion whilst Jack Chubb, the superintendent engineer at that time, spent hours cutting essential wiring to make the system unusable to the invaders.
The system reopened after the war on Christmas Day, 1945.
In 1959, a 72-seat metal tramcar was introduced.