December 1994

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A Vintage Year?


Robert G. Koch

Was 1894, a century ago, a vintage time for Rochester? It depends on your perspective. The year had some significant beginnings, or at least continuations. As is any year, it was also a time in which Rochester fortunes could be compared with events at large in the United States.

1894 is remembered as a year of continuing economic depression with resulting social and labor unrest. April brought the gathering of the so-called Coxey's "army," a band of about 500 unemployed who started from the belt of Ohio's heavy industry to make their much-noticed symbolic march on Washington to carry their petition for relief down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. There Coxey and two others were arrested on the steps for trespassing and the "army" quickly disbanded. In Rochester, according to Blake McKelvey, "Coxey's army was ridiculed, and the local leader, 'Colonel' Michael Nellis, was thrown into jail on a disorderly conduct charge."

No sooner had the Coxey affair been squelched, than the Pullman strike erupted at the manufacturing plant of the Pullman Palace Car Company in the supposedly "model" town of Pullman, Illinois. Workers had taken 25% wage cuts and a third of them had been unemployed during the past year. The American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs boycotted the plant, Federal troops were called, violence escalated, and among its depredations was the torching of the unoccupied buildings of the previous year's Columbian Exposition. Debs was sentenced to six months in jail.

In Rochester there was also union unrest in the building trades, in shoemaking, the garment industry, and others. Now, writes McKelvey, "All unions were in a precarious state…Their leaders, generally frustrated by management's refusal to negotiate, urged caution, yet a number of spontaneous walkouts in the shoe factories forced the manufacturers to abandon or compromise their second wage cuts. Similarly in other lines, the breakdown of industry-wide bargaining resulted in a rash of strikes against individual companies—carriage factories, breweries, and three local railroads which greatly disrupted business.

"Some cuts were warded off, but hope for positive gains vanished when the violence which accompanied the Pullman strike in Illinois stirred popular indignation against all union leaders. The name of Debs became anathema, and when the Knights of Labor endeavored to call out its members in sympathy, none responded in Rochester. Sermons in behalf of the unemployed gave place to sermons against strikes and violence…Everybody rejoiced when the economic difficulties appeared to taper off…" The recovery however left several union-management disagreements in place, which led to conflict the following year.

Local unemployment continued and in this era long before unemployment insurance the Chamber of Commerce collected nearly $12,000 for relief, and a meeting of some of the jobless asked the Parks Department to appropriate $40,000 to create temporary jobs.

Building the local infrastructure continued. An East Side Trunk Sewer was commenced and completed. A second conduit from Hemlock Lake was also completed and fed a city reservoir, enabling Rochester to cease taking water from Brighton wells. If urban-suburban cooperation was undergoing change in that regard, the expanding territorial needs, or ambitions, of the city provoked protest against annexation of Charlotte and Irondequoit. The City also let its first contract for garbage removal. Rochester's second court house building was torn down and the contents of its cornerstone were filed in the archives of the Rochester Historical Society. The cornerstone for the new Court House was laid on the Fourth of July. Other institutions were also expanding and renewing themselves. The Homeopathic Hospital (now Genesee) was moved to Alexander Street and new wings for it were donated by Mrs. Hiram Sibley and Mrs. Don Alonzo Watson. Christ Church, now the Episcopal Diocese cathedral, was dedicated as were Mt. Hope Presbyterian Church and the second Berith Kodesh Synagogue. Individual communion cups were first used in Rochester at the downtown Central Church. Imbibers of another sort were doubtless among the 24 conventions held in the city in 1894. It seems likely also that some of their attendees and devotees of other sorts flocked to the new ballroom of the Powers Hotel.

Also opened was the New Mechanics Institute, which with the Rochester Athenaeum eventually became the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Rochester Times was sold and, in an era of overt journalistic partisanship, became a Republican paper.

Meanwhile, in New York City Thomas Edison gave a public demonstration of moving pictures, showing two men boxing, a dancing girl, and a child being bathed. While motion picture film would become one of Eastman Kodak's most important products, the quite new company was specializing in snapshot film and cameras and Rochester was not yet the Image Centre that it has become.A kinetoscope or moving picture machine was not exhibited here until early the following year, and it would be another year and a half before the first public moving picture was shown here.

© 1994, Robert G. Koch
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