Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tales Told by AGH, Installment #2: Motorman's Memories

Street Car Stories

Electric trolleys on North Salina Street, circa 1915 - 1917, when Arthur G. Harrington was a motorman. (From the collection of Michelle Stone.)

Editor's notes:
These reminiscences by my grandfather, Arthur George Harrington, were transcribed by his daughter Mary when he was an old man. See the sidebar pictures for birth and death years of each.
The three illustrations in this post are from a wonderful collection of old Syracuse postcards from the collection of Michelle Stone, presented on this Onondaga County Genweb page. Please visit that page for more images and captions. - SH

Note [by MEH]: Before Dad worked for the Syracuse Rapid Transit, there had been a number of horse car lines. For example --

The People's Line - with a carbarn on Colvin St. [Syracuse, NY] near cCannon - ran from Elmwood to Onondaga Lake.
The Geddes Line - up Fayette St. to the Onondaga Pottery -- 5 cents all the way, or 3 cents just to Geddes St. The barn, just beyond the Pottery, burned one 4th of July, killing 13 horses.
The 5th Ward Belt Line
The E. Genesee Line
The W. Genesee Line
- first to be electrified.
Salina Line

All these were owned and run by separate companies, until Syracuse Rapid Transit bought them up. -- MEH

(Now Dad speaks -)

1) That winter (probably 1906 - MEH) we lived in your grandmother's (really my great grandmother, Betsy Prisby West Hobert - MEH) house on Gifford Street. I used to get up and walk down to the carbarn on Tallman Street. It was cold, and almost every night it would snow, and I'd have to break a path for myself in the morning. But I didn't seem to mind the cold at all. It didn't bother me. Then on Washington's birthday we had quite a bad storm. We were out with the plows all night. In the morning they told us to back in there by the Weiting Opera House, and stop to eat and rest. I got some breakfast, then I went into the sleeper and turned on the electric heat and lay down. Three or four others came in to sleep, too. A few hours later, I woke up, almost frozen. Some smart guy had turned off the heater, and opened both doors. I never got warm again that winter. Whoever did it knew what I thought of it. I told the whole crew in plain language.


2) One morning when I was going to work there was an awful snowstorm, a regular blizzard. I got down on Tallman St., just below Onondaga Circle. I heard a woman. I could barely see her out in the middle of the road, and she kept saying "Oh, my God, where am I" Oh, my God, where am I?" I went out to her and asked her where she lived. She was about nuts, she was so scared. It was dark, only about 5 a.m., and the snow was coming thick. She said she lived on Putnam St. I asked her what she was doing here, and she said she was going on her way to St. Lucy's Church. I said "You'd better forget St. Lucy, and come with me."

She did. I took her to the barn, and put her on the first Dudley car going out.


3) One night in the fall, some of the University students were having a dance at Empire Hall, and they had us take a couple cars to run up to the University at 2 a.m. The rails were slippery -- it had been raining, and there were lots of wet leaves. We could hardly make the hill, and of course somebody wanted to get out at nearly every corner, but we finally got there. Then coming back down, the brakes wouldn't hold it. At the crossings the rails were sanded some, but not enough to slow us down, then we'd be going faster at the next crossing. I opened the door, and yelled to the conductor to get down on the steps ready to jump. I was down on the steps, too. When we hit that corner at the end of Crouse Ave., I guess we went around on two wheels. I don't see how we ever kept on the track. The trolley yanked off, of course. Wand when we got it on and got going again, -- SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! The wheels were flat.

The next day, Holstack (a boss - MEH) called me in and told me the chief mechanic wanted to see me in the barn. I went out and asked him what he wanted. He asked if I'd had car number so and so the night before. I said I had. He said "I just wanted to know how you put four flat wheels on that car." So I told him.

"Well," he says, "That eye-talian is paid to sand the whole length of that hill, and either he'll do it or somebody else will have the job."

That night, the whole of Crouse Avenue was sanded, and we never had any more trouble there.


4) One night when I was on the Elmwood - Eastwood run, I took the car from old Jim Ferguson down on Genesee and Jefferson. When one motorman relieves another, the one taking off is supposed to sign a card and give it to the relief. The card has places to check anything wrong with the car. But there was never anything wrong with old Jim's car. He never put anything on the card.

In the very early 1900's, the New York Central railway ran through downtown Syracuse on city streets. The above postcard, from the collection of Michelle Stone, is probably circa 1905 -- note the early electric trolley car at far right. Below, from the same era and the same collection, a big train steams along Washington St. near City Hall.

Well, this night I hadn't gone far when I found there wasn't any sand in the box. You let some down on the rails in front of the wheels when you stop, besides using the brake. I got along as well as I could without it. But coming down from Eastwood, down James Street hill to the railroad, I put on the brakes and it began to slide. I could see an engine coming. I figured if I left on the brakes, I'd stop on the tracks in front of the engine, so I took off the brakes, gave it the power, and shot across just ahead of the engine.

The street inspector was at the crossing and saw it happen. The next day Duffy called me in the office.

"I thought you were a good motorman," he said.

"I never claimed to be," I told him.

Then he went on to ask how I came to do that. I explained.

He said "If there's no sand in the box, no one else would have as good a chance to know it as the motorman."

"Listen," I said, "I took that car from Jim Ferguson downtown, and he reported nothing wrong with it. There was a standing load on it, and I had no chance to lift up the seats to see if the sand boxes were filled."

Next week: forward to the 1920's again, and the Coal Delivery Sleighride


  1. NYC train down the street in downtown Syracuse!

    Every week I visit with a 90 year old man who was a subway conductor in NYC and he will love hearing these stories. Thanks.

  2. I am perfectly clear about the difference between a NYCentralRR train on the street in Syracuse, and a NYCity transit system subway below the streets of NYCity. The distinction was perhaps not clear to anyone else.

  3. I'd love to sit and talk with the old guy. I think once he got over the long hair, we'd have one hell of a visit.

    Where's that dang flux-capacitor?

  4. He'd like it too - and perhaps the hair wouldn't be too much of a problem. Old folks can be very surprising, having dropped a lot of foolishness along the way.

    I love his stories and he loves telling them!

  5. Oh - and he was very familiar with the Jim Fergusons of the world. Had them in the subway system too.

  6. Ronnie: The distinction between the NYC RR and subways was clear to me -- and, I'd bet big money -- to the other few folks who read this -- that it was to them, too. Not to worry. And I love your further comments to Adam.

    Adam: What Mrs. Peterson said. Also, remember that Art, your great-grandfather, was born in 1874, so your long hair might have just struck him as being a little old-fashioned, nothing more.

    And, yes, you probably would have liked him a whole lot, based on Mary's stories, and he you.

  7. Y'know, I was just thinking that my long hair is looking a little old fashioned NOW. Everything comes full circle eventually, I guess.

    Mrs. Peterson: I was actually speaking of my great-grandfather. But I'm sure I'd love to visit with your distinguished conductor as well. :)