Article From the Spring 2002 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


We are indebted to Bill Matthews and the family albums that he is carefully putting together for the background information and photographs in this article. We hope you enjoy this look at a unique aspect of local transportation and the people who built and maintain a tradition of quality service to the Rochester community.

We’ve said before: if our museum had a motto, it would probably be "Big Things That Move!" Of course, moving those big things takes a lot of work…building track, providing 600 volt DC power, changing the oil on the fire truck. But sometimes the task is even too much for us, and we have to call in the heavy haulers. In Rochester that has to be the good people at Matthews Building Movers.

We first met the Matthews family when we realized that steam locomotive 47 had to be turned 90 degrees (amid a forest of poles supporting the barn) if we were ever going to put a cab back on it for visitors to enjoy climbing into. After a brief telephone description of the problem, Peter Matthews assured us that, "Yep, we can do that", and a Saturday was agreed on. Working instinctively and drawing on years of experience, Pete, his brother Dan, and their Uncle Bill smoothly jockeyed the 0-4-0 into an orientation parallel to everything else in the car house. They used heavy jacks, 6" diameter black gumwood rollers, planks, and a come-along, occasionally whacking a roller or plank to "steer" the heavy load into position. After a quick lunch, brought out by Aunt Helen, the team then rolled 47 back to its intended display position, all as easily as picking up an HO model.

Matthews Building Movers also played a key role when we moved North Texas Traction Co. interurban 409 out of the old Spaghetti Warehouse Restaurant downtown. Pete and Dan were invaluable "general contractors" in the effort to extricate the car and safely transport it to NYMT. They checked all the dimensions, rolled the car body out through the tight building opening, managed the delicate hand-off to the C. P. Ward crane, and set it properly on the Silk Road flat bed semi. The next summer they returned when we took our own building’s wall off and moved the 409 inside.

Apparently, having big things in the wrong place isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon. The Matthews clan has been in the building moving business here in Rochester since 1867. That’s right…135 years, over five generations, in continuous operation. The company history goes back to 18-year-old William Matthews (Bill’s great grandfather) who came to the

       NTT car 409 eases into our car barn under the watchful eye of
      Peter Matthews (and a local news video cameraman).

United States with his parents from England in 1842, and began work as a carpenter. While still in his twenties, impressed by burgeoning traffic on the nearby Erie Canal, young Matthews opened a sawmill on the Eastern Widewaters, and began building barges. The business was successful, but eventually as the Rochester community grew and prospered, he saw a growing need for relocating structures. Perhaps a neighborhood had changed, or a road or rail line was being widened. For whatever reason, houses, commercial buildings, and other large items needed to be moved…across the street, to the next town, or maybe just lifted up a couple of feet to have a decent foundation installed.

The first job for the new company was a house at the corner of Walnut and Jay Streets, near the family homestead. In those early days, buildings were moved much like our steam locomotive was, using long wood rollers. Soon, Matthews progressed to wood-wheeled dollies. Looking like something out of the Middle Ages for their rustic construction and signs of wear and tear, these antiques still survive at the present-day company yard, but are no longer used.

The all-wood dollies were followed around 1900 by similar units with cast iron wheels, and later by specially built steerable assemblies with pneumatic tires. For power, the only thing available in the 1800’s was a horse or mule. Actually, lots of them…unless a little mechanical advantage could be employed. For a lot of reasons houses don’t want to be moved very fast anyway, so Matthews used a clever arrangement with a windlass and a block and tackle. The block and tackle multiplied the force, while the windlass provided further leverage and also converted the horse from a linear power supply to a rotating one (more controllable and taking up less space). Eventually the pulling duties were passed to tractors and trucks.

Matthews son, William H. Matthews, took over the business on the death of the founder in 1906, employing another son, Oliver who had worked with his dad in the business since childhood. When William H. died in 1929, Oliver Matthews took over, but then handed the reins to his own son, Francis, two years later. Oliver continued to help in the business until his retirement at age 83, and died in 1946.

Francis "F.O". Matthews was at the helm for 44 years, and began that tenure with a challenging job, moving the 2-story State Bank building in Livonia, NY from its corner location to make room for a new building. The bank was made of brick, and was estimated to weigh 400 tons including the safe inside! Judging by the photos in the Matthews family album, that wasn’t the only challenging move F.O. completed successfully. The general approach was usually the same: carefully and evenly jack up the structure, place long wood beams through the basement and support them on dollies or rollers, lower the jacks, and slowly move to the new location. Of course, it isn’t that simple. And one of the keys to F.O.’s success was in the detailed planning he did before any move. In addition to consulting with utility companies and government agencies, he would carefully study the structure itself to develop a safe support scheme, and would map out the route in detail. Even the actual move often became one of subtle modifications in roller angles at the front and rear of a structure to steer, rotate, translate, or whatever movement was needed to avoid trouble and get to the destination safely. Ask the Matthews folks today if they can remember any disasters, and they’ll tell you honestly that there may have been some difficult moments, but the true horror stories involve other companies…the ones that didn’t have the patience and skills bred over a century of good business practices.

 Steerable "wheels", designed and built by Francis Matthews,
could also be rigged with dual tires. Matthews family photo

This house and shoe shop at 3988 Lake Ave. were separated and set      The brick Terminal Service Station at Broad and Plymouth in
back to clear the trolley tracks and enlarge the total structure.              1938 shows a typical assembly of blocking, rollers and beams
Note chimney and plate glass window both intact.                                     Note the oil cans stacked in the window! Matthews family photo
Matthews family photo

The main supports used today are usually steel I-beams, but in an interesting connection to the museum’s world of trolleys, in 1955 Matthews salvaged enormous spruce beams when the State Street car barns were being torn down in Rochester. These massive timbers, still on call when needed, measure 12" x 14" in cross-section, and over 67 feet long!

A glance at some of F.O.’s old business cards reminds us that there were (and still are) many related aspects to the business of moving structures, and the Matthews company has handled them all: Leveling, shoring, roof raising, structure raising, stabilizing, trailer and roller work, and so on. The truly amazing part is they take on houses, garages, and commercial buildings of wood frame, brick, steel, or stone, and containing plate glass, tile, stucco, fireplaces and chimneys.

Francis Matthews’ retirement didn’t stop the Matthews family from carrying on the tradition of quality workmanship. Bill Matthews brings us up to date: "In the early 1970’s, F.O.’s son, Richard, returned from ten years missionary work in Taiwan to join his father in the business. F.O. retired in 1974, and I joined Dick in running the business until he moved to Wheaton, Illinois to pursue another mission-related venture. The business passed to Dick’s son, Peter, with whom I worked until I retired. Following college, Peter’s brother, Dan, joined the firm, and that is the situation today."

Through the unique transportation service they provide, the Matthews family have enabled the Rochester area to preserve numerous historic buildings, like the Oliver Loud Tavern, Irondequoit Historical Society’s Strawberry Saltbox House, the 20-room convent of St. Ambrose Church, and the beautifully restored Rochester, Syracuse and Eastern interurban "stop 22" waiting station that graces downtown Fairport. Not to mention some railroad and trolley equipment near and dear to our museum!

Near the end of 2001, Peter Matthews and the firm made local transportation news taking on the immense task of moving the South Butler Opera House a distance of 100 miles, across four counties, to the Genesee Country Museum. The good people of Matthews Building Movers are now doing business in a third century, and doing it well.

Matthews’ World War II-era Oshkosh truck "walks the plank"
to position a house over its new foundation. Matthews family photo