Article From the Winter 2002 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation

The Great Trolley Boat Trial
on the Erie Canal

by Donovan Shilling

When member Don Shilling isn’t leading group tours for us at the RGVRRM depot, he’s deep in research on local history. From his vast trove of historical material he’s brought us an interesting tale from that fascinating period in the late 19th century when the world was going to abandon horses and mules, and start propelling every imaginable conveyance by steam or compressed air or electricity. Time would eventually sort things out, but for now, get a load of this…

Most of you know about those teams of horses and mules that once towed hundreds of packet and freight boats along the old Erie Canal. Their muscle power moved many tons of cargo and many thousands of passengers helping New York State to win its title as being the "Empire State." However, did you know that a very modern form of energy was once strongly considered to replace old dobbin? Long before the gasoline engine was to dominate our transportation systems, there were efforts to use ELECTRICITY as a means of propulsion on the Erie Canal.

The year was 1893. President Grover Cleveland had taken office, Thomas Edison had just patented a camera that he called the "kinetoscope", and trainloads of people were flocking to Chicago to enjoy a spectacular world’s fair, known as the Columbian Exposition. New York State engineers were eager to apply electricity to the Erie’s huge fleet of cargo vessels. The concept was met with enthusiasm. However, the practicality of such a plan needed to be demonstrated to the public and to potential financial backers.

Thus in March $10,000 was appropriated to string electric lines above a portion of the Erie Canal’s waters. To accomplish this, a site was needed where the canal’s course was relatively straight and had an abundant power supply. Accordingly, state engineers chose a location near Rochester, New York for the demonstration. The community was well known as the birth place of many inventions, and more importantly, the city’s Cataract Electric Company could furnish an ample supply of power.

On November thirteenth, 1893, a crew of workmen descended upon a section of the Erie Canal just east of the village of Brighton, New York in an area between locks 63 and 64. Here they converted a packet boat into a utility vessel. A twelve foot platform was added above its deck enabling workmen to install trolley span wires above the canal. Others anchored the wires to poles lining the canal every fifty feet stretching along both sides of the waterway for over a mile. In record time the overhead wiring project was complete.

Meanwhile, in Pittsford, New York, electrical engineers leased a packet boat called the Frank W. Halley. The boat was overhauled, removing its steam boiler and adding two 25-horsepower Westinghouse motors connected to a fifty-one inch dish pan propeller. Additionally, two long poles bearing the tiny trolley wheels needed to deliver current from the overhead wires to the electric motors were installed.

With this accomplished, word was sent to dignitaries from Albany, Rochester, Brighton and Pittsford. The Frank W. Halley, decked out with American flags fore and aft, was proudly anchored just beyond an area called the eastern wide-waters. On the morning of the eighteenth of November the boat was berthed in the shade of Cobb’s Hill in water not yet drained at the season’s end, where a skim of ice was still visible on the canal’s frosty waters.

Buggies arrived, some from Rochester’s New York Central Railroad terminal, others from that city and surrounding villages, all bearing great numbers of men dressed in warm top coats, bowlers or high top hats. Over 300 engineers, electricians and political leaders massed along the canal banks. Many boarded the water craft assembled around New York State’s Governor Flowers, who was personally interested in the outcome of the novel experiment. Stationing himself astern at the boat’s steering wheel, the governor struck his best political pose. Ashore, a group of photographers took pictures of the historic occasion while other newspaper artists made sketches of the unique "trolley boat".

At a signal from the Governor, an official threw a knife switch. This produced a small flood of bubbling water at the vessel’s stern. At first, nothing seemed to happen, then slowly the vessel moved. With ever growing speed the Frank W. Halley floated quietly along at just under five miles an hour, its passengers shouting their approval, applauding and waving their hats to spectators lining the canal banks. Governor Flowers deemed the experiment "most satisfactory".

So, why wasn’t the Erie Canal electrified…? There are several possible answers, chief among them the financial panic of 1893. And too, political wrangling over the electrical contract hampered the plan. There were numerous engineering problems that also needed solving, including how to place the trolley wires to accommodate boats traveling through locks, over "wide water" stretches or under rising and lowering lift bridges. Further was the difficulty of traveling in rural areas not yet served by electricity, plus the fact that water and electricity can often create a potentially hazardous combination. Finally, there was the introduction and rapid acceptance of the internal combustion engine.

State engineers had a great idea, well ahead of its time. However, it just didn’t float. What kind of world might we have had today if we’d built our transportation systems based on electricity instead of gasoline….? Maybe we’ll do it yet…


History has its unusual coincidences. One deals with the 1893 trolley line erected above the Erie Canal near Brighton. On September 3, 1927, the city of Rochester initiated its first run of subway passenger cars over that same mile stretch used in the trolley-boat demonstration. Built thirty-four years later, the Rochester Rapid Transit and Industrial Railway electrified the canal bed corridor as part of its new subway line. Like the proposed canal electrification project, the subway succumbed to the internal combustion engines of the Rochester Transit Corporation on June 30, 1956.


These headlines appeared on page six of Rochester’s morning paper. Mr. Hawley was an influential resident of Pittsford, New York. In 1888 he owned a large stock farm and most impressive Victorian home on the village’s Main Street. It was said that he "made quite a splash" traveling around the community in a handsome tally-ho carriage driven by a uniformed coachman accompanied by a footman who blew a long brass bugle at intervals.

On his estate he established a baseball field and a deer park, and on the nearby Erie Canal he operated a boat line. It was also remembered that he once had many New York City connections and once owned a private rail car on the New York Central and Hudson River Rail Road.

His life style caused him to run up considerable bills of credit. Sometime around 1895 – 96 he mysteriously disappeared with a mountain of unpaid debts. The Rochester newspaper account stated that Hawley was a "Director of the Cataract General Electric Company, the New York and New Jersey Ice Lines, the Elcho Mining and Manufacturing Company of Randolph, New York, and the Erie Canal Traction Company." The article continued adding, "he has risen from a fifteen-dollar-a-week reporter to the distinction of owing $100,000 worth of bank notes… Socially, Mr. Hawley is one of the best fellows that ever lived. He is past master in the art of saying pleasant things. If words were dollars, he would be a multi-millionaire."

Some said he wound up in a debtors prison in Scotland. Others, that he secretly returned to his home from time to time. Hawley’s wife, Mrs. Estelle Hawley, continued to manage the farm. She became locally famous for the fine line of Shetland ponies she bred on the farm up until the First World War. Today, the estate, known as the Pittsford Dairy Farm, is still in operation in the heart of the village. It boasts of selling the highest quality dairy products, and its rich Guernsey milk eggnog is a holiday necessity for hundreds of local citizens.