June 1993

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in Rochester


Robert Koch

From the beginning, automobiles raised issues of speed and safety, utility and social effects, and Rochester was part of the testing out that was taking place early in this century. While Europe had a long tradition of fine roadways, less than 10% of American roads were surfaced at all. Nor did paving-stone surfaces and trolley car tracks make ideal city thoroughfares. Even as railroad and interurban trolley tracks were being extended and consolidated in our area, the call for better roads was being raised, and the first quarter of the century found Monroe County first in the state with 1,000 miles of improved and surfaced roads.

As the search for automotive speed intensified, automobile makers and enthusiasts raced on the available quality surfaces—Florida beaches, lake ice, and horsetracks. A speed record of 57 miles per hour was set at Daytona Beach in 1902; bettered slightly the following year; pushed to 92.3 mph in 1904 (a mile per hour faster than Henry Ford had recently achieved on the ice of Lake St. Clair in Michigan). In 1906 a Stanley Steamer hit 127 mph and in 1911 a 200 horsepower Benz was clocked at 141-plus mph on the Florida sand.

At Rochester's own Driving Park horse-track, horseless carriage speedsters were making their own tests. They also sometimes carried their enthusiasm into the city streets and soon the Common Council restricted them to 6 mph downtown and 8 mphelsewhere. Later the limits were extended to 10 and 15 mph. Even at these speeds accidents were common. It may be that Americans were falling in love with their horseless steeds, but some of them weren't yet out of the habit of thinking of them as responsive animals. Gaines Town Historian, J. Howard Pratt, recalled one driver who, forgetting "for the moment how to stop his car on entering the barn, shouted, 'Whoa! Whoa! You damned critter.'" But the critter knocked a hole in the back of the barn anyway.

The population of such more or less directed vehicles was increasing rapidly—Rochester had 50 cars in 1901, more than 4,000 in 1912. Nearly 1,000 electric cars were included here in 1910. In their genteel elegance they were not so much speed menaces as threats from the near silent stealth with which they purred along the streets.

Congestion grew; parking was limited to 30 minutes downtown; pedestrian crosswalk markings were instituted in 1914. But each measure was soon made obsolete by still more automobiles. The 1912 total had been multiplied nearly 20 times by the mid-1920s. By 1920 Main Street parking was prohibited and the following year the first sizable off-street parking area was provided. At intersections, Stop-Go lights began to appear; jaywalking was forbidden; and better markings at pedestrian crosswalks were provided; and when two school children were run down in front of their schools in 1922, schoolboy traffic guards were trained.

The Automobile Club, founded in 1900 to promote the interests of automobile owners, at first seemed somewhat to view the vehicles as sporty playthings, a view that many who could not afford automobiles shared. As the Automobile Club of Rochester grew—becoming the largest in the nation by 1914—the convenience, comfort and safety of drivers and their passengers came to the fore, and, shortly, the need to protect the public against the worst abuses of careless automobile users while not enchaining the more responsible.

Rochester's first automobile fatality had occurred in 1903, the same year that the State began to require registration of the vehicles, which were given rear plates costing $1. Motorcycle police dated from 1906, when the folly of chasing autos on foot, horseback, or bicycle was recognized. One motorist was fined for speeding through the Four Comers at 30 mph. By 1913 the number of deaths had increased to 13 and exceeded trolley and railroad fatalities. Two years later fatalities were up to 24 and, before strenuous efforts reduced them again, surged to a temporary peak of 30 in 1919. Then, as now, drunken driving was one factor. Drivers were newly responsible for their own and others' safety. The machine, as one man mourned, didn't have "the brains of my little brown mare," a creature that might, on its own, have returned a drunken driver home safely.

The automobile, ushered in as a novelty and a terror to horses, became part of the national search for speed. It was feared, then accepted with growing enthusiasm; it was treated casually, then began to exact its toll in life and limb. But above all it changed the face and even the inner workings of daily life, in Rochester and across the country.

At first, according to J. C. Furnas, the "European flavor [of the new machines] combined with their high cost to make most people consider them playthings for the rich. Popular fiction was full of willowy Newport heiresses wooed and won by level-browed, spade-chinned young scions of wealth mistaken for chauffeurs because first glimpsed lying under a car and covered with grease. The comic papers were always picturing encounters between farmers and beefy plutocrats whose cars, topped off with expensive-looking women in veils and dusters, had got stuck in the mud. Resentment of the automobile as ostentatious symbol of wealth had as much as dislike of noise and bolting horses to do with the many ordinances hampering or forbidding the use of such vehicles in town—and with the popular taunt of 'Git a hoss, mister, git a hoss!' whenever a car was disabled."

In 1904 Leslie's Weekly gave detailed, illustrated instructions to long-skirted women on the complicated art of "right and wrong ways of entering a 'motor-wagon.'" But the following year Judge magazine pictured a long-skirted lass turning her back on her downcast horse, jilted for a new automobile, before which she stands in an ecstasy of admiration.

Again in 1905, Leslie's Weekly ran a photograph of "A statesman automobilist, Senator Depew, of New York, en route to the Capitol at Washington in his horseless carriage." Five years later, Hiram Johnson campaigned for the governorship of California by stumping the state in an automobile. He won; of course, not solely on that account, but it fit the Republican-Progressive style that he would exemplify into the 1920s.

The year before Johnson's election tour of California, Henry Ford's production lines began to turn out the millions of cars which, along with others, transformed American life. In and around Rochester, as elsewhere, the effects were multiple and deep.

The 1890s had been the decade of the bicycle. By the end of the decade 40,000 were registered in Rochester. "Bicycle racks cluttered Main Street in the late nineties when they could be found even at church entrances, and," writes Blake McKelvey, "Rochester won a new nickname, 'cycle town.'"

"Now," continues McKelvey, "Not only was the bicycle age cut short and the horse-and-buggy era brought to an end, but much of the time and energy available to other sports were also redirected into the new field of motoring. The team spirit and club life, which had such a remarkable development around the turn of the century, received little benefit from the automobile in spite of the auto club's efforts to develop group activities. Instead, it lent encouragement to the exhibition movement, stimulated a wider use of regional facilities for bathing and camping, and, most significant of all, helped to re-emphasize the family as an important unit in the social world."

Later, McKelvey adds: "Although mass spectacles were abandoned during [World War I], the popularity of the parks was maintained because of the increased number who arrived by auto. Indeed the major difficulty seemed to arise from the excessive use such visitors made of the parks. Numerous complaints against the cars which parked until late at night along romantic drives prompted the [city] council to pass an ordinance prohibiting that practice, though the police had a hard time enforcing it." In addition, seekers of sex-for-hire had also begun to take to wheels.

Housing and servicing the new machines brought changes. By 1920 about 500 gasoline stations had sprung up in the city and 1000 new garages were built each year, often replacing family vegetable patches. (When trolley lines served neighborhoods, it made sense to shorten walking distances by building houses on relatively small lots. Even today many older city streets are lined with houses too close together to allow driveways for automobiles.) By 1925 "the number of cars in the county...exceeded the number of its dwelling units." Shoppers and employees in cars ranged beyond neighborhood and centrally located businesses and factories. The suburbs beckoned ever more seductively.

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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