Our pioneering mass transit system consisted of horse and trolley cars operated on city streets. Then, in time, interurban trolley cars challenged even the railroads on relatively short runs. Urban, and rural, Western New Yorkers had considerable more mobility than we might judge to be the case if considering only walking and individually owned horse-pulled rigs, especially on the quite poor rural roads.
Rails laid along often-used city streets considerably eased the pulling burden of horses and mules, enabling them to pull two or three times as many passengers as earlier public conveyances. For a decade after 1833 Rochester had a pioneering horsecar running north from Main Street, but it was nearly two decades after its demise that major use of street railway horsecars began.
The City franchise regulations for the Rochester & Brighton Railroad Company required its horsecars to run daily every quarter hour from 6 am to 8 pm, and possibly every half-hour until 11 pm. They should run no faster than seven miles per hour, slow to a walk turning corners, and stop wherever passengers hailed them. The fare was five cents, with children of five or under free.
Service began on July 13, 1863. For a while a property owner prevented the cars from running in front of his place on State Street—"…passengers had to change cars and walk across the prohibited territory…"
Everywhere else however horsecars were popular enough that rush-hour overcrowding was common. They were also cold in winter, hot in summer. In 1870 William Dean Howells wrote of the Boston-area system:
…the people who are thus indecorously huddled together, without regard to age or sex, otherwise lead lives of at least comfort…wherein furnaces make a summer heat…light is created by the turning of a key [on the gas jet]…Yet…when they ride to or from business or church, [they] fail to assert rights that the benighted Cockney, who never heard of our plumbing…or even the oppressed Parisian, who is believed not to change his linen from one revolution to another, having paid for, enjoys.
Locally, the cars were later provided with coal stoves, undergirded with springs and furnished with somewhat more comfortable seats. According to memoirist Lloyd Klos, "'By 1880, the company was operating eight lines, involving 213 miles of track, 70 cars, 225 horses and mules…" and was carrying about three million riders.
As late as 1900, national statistics show "28,000 cars drawn by 105,000 mules or horses…along 6,600 miles of track," but growing pollution from horses in the streets and a hoof-and-mouth epidemic that spread across the country in 1870 had continued the search for something better. (The last horse car—refurbished—paraded from East Main Street via State Street to Edgerton Park to be featured in the 1934 Rochester Centennial Exposition.)
The first electric trolley car was run in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887. "As electric motors gained power, streetcars could be enlarged to handle three or four times the passenger load practical in a horsecar."
In 1889 Rochester's first electric car "ran from Lake Avenue and Ridge Road to Charlotte." By the following year Rochesterians could board a trolley car for Charlotte's "Coney Island of Western New York" from Main Street, and by 1895 all city routes were electric.
The new trolley service had its own problems. "Hard feelings developed among some of the older [horsecar] drivers who could not qualify as motormen… Most citizens, delighted to have the travel time of the old horse cars reduced, opposed efforts to regulate the speed of the new trolleys." According to Blake McKelvey, "The result was an appalling number of casualties, including three fatalities in six months, which prompted the…head of the Humane Society…to condemn the trolleys as 'massacres of children.' [More fatalities] spurred the company to experiment with new brakes, to issue more stringent rules for its motormen, and to order a supply of 'Cleveland nets,' the newly invented cow catchers designed for attachment to the front of trolley cars. The city was so eager to see the car lines extended to the outlying parks and the service improved in various parts of town that every possible allowance was made for the inconveniences of electrification, but when the new trolleys accentuated the congestion around the Four Corners, merchants in the area demanded relief."
In the years before World War I matters were complicated further by the company's monopoly and its eventual control outside the community. Successive mayors jockeyed with the company on Main Street congestion, especially through the bridge bottleneck, poor maintenance of pavement between tracks, snow removal, the city's financial return on the franchise, fare levels, and other issues. "The company endeavored…in 1912 to stir public enthusiasm…[by disclosing] that Rochester street cars traveled a total of 27,000 miles a day—further than once around the world…[but]…failed to appease the disgruntled riders, many of whom welcomed the opportunity to switch to the new jitney busses which invaded Rochester in 1915. As many as 600 of these flimsy conveyances chugged about the city's streets for months…until a ruling of the Public Service Commission, requiring them to secure a license, brought their free-wheeling careers to an end and turned Rochester back to its transit monopoly."
In 1923 trolley busses that ran on tires were introduced and by 1929 were running over 200,000 miles a year, but by that same year gasoline-fueled busses began to take over from both kinds of electric trolley vehicles.
The last two trolley cars made their final runs on Rochester streets on March 31, 1941.
© 1992, Robert G. Koch