Article From the Spring 2001 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
LAST TROLLEYS THROUGH FOUR CORNERS
Weíve said before that anniversaries are a great excuse for an event, and theyíre also a good time to reflect on the past and see how much our world has changed. When we in the museum realized that it would be 60 years since the final demise of streetcar service in Rochester on March 31 of this year, the idea of commemorating the day with a "trolley tour" fell quickly into place.
Before we report on the tour, however, think back to that late winter night over a half-century ago and the events that led to it. With the growing popularity of the automobile, a balance was changing. In earlier years, horsecar and streetcar companies were responsible for much of the city street cleaning and plowing. This was done out of self-interest and as part of their franchise with the municipality. The general population rode the cars, walked, or stayed home, a select few rode in horse-drawn buggies or carriages, and that was that.
But automobiles brought a degree of personal mobility not heretofore generally available, and people began to take a little ownership of "their" streets. They didnít like getting caught in the two icy grooves of rail in the winter, and tracks in the street made for a rough ride. Many of the streetcars abroad in the land were starting to show their many hard years of service. Also, as the technology of motorbuses advanced, their ability to pull to the curb for boarding, or even switch to another street in case of obstruction, came to be seen as a safety and service advantage. And they were shiny and new.
By the winter of 1940/1941, Rochester Transit Company was near the end of a wholesale conversion to buses that would soon make Rochester the largest city in America with no surface streetcars. By mid-March, RTC was down to one lineóLake-Main Eastóand the end of the month was set as the date for the change-over.
Does RTC 1208 have any idea what its role will be in the cityís streetcar history? Do you? NYMT Bulletin No. 3 will tell you.
Photo by Francis J. Goldsmith, Charles Lowe collection
The following excerpt from NYMTís Bulletin No. 3, "The Last Day of Rochester Streetcars", begins just as the final streetcars are making their way south on State Street to Rochesterís Four Corners. The "Last Trolley Wake" was a buffet dinner given by Rochester Transit Corporation on the evening of March 31, 1941, the last full day of streetcar operation in Rochester:
With the last car about to approach, the "Last Trolley Wake" celebrants began to make their way to the nearby Four Corners some time just before midnight. A vast crowd that eventually numbered 6,000 had begun to assemble, much to RTCís surprise. Before long, three green and cream colored "Submarine" cars came into sight as they worked their way south on State Street. Car 1220 led the group, followed by 1208 and 1249. Car 1249 had been selected as the last car since it was the highest numbered RTC streetcar then in service; the 3000ís and 1400ís had all been retired several years earlier. Specially cleaned, 1249 was for the use of officials and politicians in riding a last car. As 1220 and 1208 approached the Four Corners, [Rochester Street Railway Commissioner] Harold MacFarlin and some 20 other persons pushed their way into the crowded 1249 at a State Street stop just north of the Four Corners.
The enormity of the crowd at the Four Corners prevented much of a ceremony. Cars 1220 and 1208 inched through the assemblage and turned onto Main Street East. When 1249 finally reached the Four Corners, RTC General Manager John Uffert, MacFarlin, and motorman Roy Martin posed for photographers on 1249ís front platform. Many in the crowd were intent on riding this last car but no one was admitted. Car 1249 was then run through the Four Corners, turning onto Main Street East. Immediately, the first Lake Avenue bus, carrying an "XX" destination sign, turned left from Main Street East onto State Street. Councilman Harry C. Frank, a longtime bus advocate, had donned a bus driverís uniform and drove the bus a short distance. A finality to these events was provided when RTC linemen lowered a section of copper trolley wire to the ground on State Street. With great bravado, Uffert and RTC President Benjamin E. Tilton wielded giant wire snippers and cut through the trolley wire. With that, the Lake Avenue streetcar line was in fact abandoned.
Meanwhile, trouble had erupted on Main Street East. Cars 1220 and 1208 had been engulfed by a destructive crowd. After years of hearing or seeing commands such as "Pay as you enter," "Watch your step" and "Step lively", it was as if the rebellious riders were determined to have a final say. Windows were smashed, interior light bulbs removed and boisterous riders were loudly declaring to the crowd that they were riding the last trolley car even though 1249 was following.
Motorman Martin on 1249, at 73 a 49-year veteran of RTC and its predecessors, was also having a rough trip. As Martin turned 1249 onto Main Street East, someone in the crowd yanked on 1249ís trolley cord, firing the trolley pole skyward and off the wire. Police assisted in re-wiring the pole. At Graves Street, just a short block along Main Street East from the Four Corners, the trolley cord was again pulled, stalling 1249 for a second time. Either here or at the previous dewirement, most of the remaining dignitaries left 1249, leaving James C. Moore, RTC Division Superintendent, as the only passenger on 1249 serving in an official capacity. Thus freed of any restraint, the remaining passengers opened 1249ís windows, allowing a dozen or so on the street to climb in. Several youths climbed onto 1249ís roof and were forced down with difficulty. Souvenir hunters dismantled 1249ís headlight and removed other fittings. Others in the crowd took to smashing any remaining window glass. Seat cushions were tossed off the car and someone stole the carís switch iron. As the Rochester Times-Union put it, "in short, the ancient vehicle had been stripped."
Our anniversary tour omitted all the rowdy vandalism of the last night of streetcar operations, but we managed to have a good time just the same. Betsy Overacker and other staff members at Regional Transit Service saw to it that tour goers were welcomed with refreshments in the Board Room, and after Charlie Lowe gave us an overview of the dayís events, we were off in articulated coach 325.
Driver Joe Bell kept us on schedule as we proceeded downtown on Main Street then headed north on State/Lake to Charlotte. Each of us had a handout produced by Charlie that included a montage of maps detailing the original streetcar track plans for a number of sites along the route. Charlieís running commentaries over the busí PA system kept us all informed and easily carried us back to that last night of trolley operations.
John G. Woodbury photo; NRHS, Rochester Chapter Photo by Kathy Mielke
On the last afternoon of streetcar operations in Rochester, March 31, 1941, car 1208 traverses the NYC-RW&O bridge in Charlotte; 60 years later to the day, our chartered RTS bus 325 recreates the scene during a stop to view the Charlotte substation.
Several photo stops were made, including an unscheduled one to see a remaining steel pole at the Parselles loop, and before long we had retraced the entire last route and had returned to RTS headquarters on Main Street East. There, Dave Kester gave us a complete tour of the modern facilities in which the RTS fleet is maintained and repaired. We covered everything from the two-bay paint shop to the pristine engine rebuild facility and learned about the computerized stocking system, "wrapped" buses for advertising, tire leasing, and the fact that in 2000, RTS experienced its second year in a row of increased ridership.
The tour pauses at Blossom Road Loop for a group photo and some reflection on the trolley scrapping that occurred nearby.
Jim Dierks photo
Charlie Lowe did the planning for this event, assisted by Jim Dierks and Ted Strang, with several other museum volunteers helping with the details. Charlie and Shelden King served as tour guides. Thanks to all of these people and fine cooperation from Regional Transit Service, the tour was a great success. We hope you were along for the fun.