If you lived in Albany in 1840 and you wanted travel in the city you either walked or if you were well to do, rode your horse or carriage or rented from one of the scores of livery stables that dotted the city. So mostly you walked. While the City’s population grew rapidly after the building of the Erie Canal, the actual area occupied by Albany’s population pretty much stayed the same. Think of 2/3’s of the population of today crammed into a quarter of the area covered by today’s Albany. Everything was in walking distance.
But the city WAS growing slowly. By the mid-1840s there came to be destinations just at the fringes of the Albany – not easily reached. The answer was the “omnibus” for locations that were only several miles away from State St. – the city’s hub. The omnibus was a horse drawn vehicle that could accommodate multiple passengers and traveled on a regular schedule (an innovation, believe it or not!). The omnibus was simply a streamlined version of the “stage coach” used for long distances. It was pulled by a single horse or team over dirt roads or cobblestone streets. There were less than a handful of regular omnibus destinations: the Albany Rural Cemetery and in the South End near the growing village of Groesbeckville in the town of Bethlehem (the Second Ave. area today) and beyond to the Mount Hope hamlet where homes clustered near the large Rathbone and Prentice estates on South Pearl, and then farther south to Kenwood knitting mills in Bethlehem.
By the late 1850s, however, the city was bursting at the seams and Albany finally started to expand to accommodate its ever growing population. (In 1855 the population was 57,000, almost 5 times greater than before the Erie Canal, but people and businesses were basically crammed into the same area.) A construction boom began as the city pushed westward, moving towards the wilderness near what would become Washington Park; the Bowery – an area of farms on what is now Central Ave., and to the north beyond the Lumber District to North Albany. By 1860 the population had grown by another 5,000.
It became clear the city needed a system of regular transportation to get from here to there. In the early 1860s, two groups of investors came forward to establish “horse car” trolley companies. (Horse cars has been running throughout New York City since the late 1840s.) The horse car was very different from the omnibus. To make it efficient and faster, the cars which (resembled the omnibus) ran on metal wheels on a system of grooved iron or steel rails. This allowed the horses to haul larger loads in all weather conditions and provide a smoother ride. (Think “horse railroad”.)
The Western Turnpike Railroad Co. incorporated in 1862. (Its parent company ran the toll road that we know as Route 20.) Its first horse car started regularly scheduled trips from South Ferry St. up Broadway to North Ferry St. (in the Lumber District) in June 1863. The Albany Horse Railroad Co. was also formed and its horse cars started running in February 1864. The cars were 12’ long, accommodated 10-12 passengers and trundled along at breathtaking 3 mph. Its first run started up State St. from Broadway, over Eagle to Washington and Central and Northern Blvd. (then Knox St.). Soon the Albany Company became dominant and added other lines; to the West Albany Railroad shops, up Clinton Ave., down South Pearl to Kenwood and into North Albany. Routes expanded rapidly; horse cars were running to and into Troy and Cohoes and Watervliet.
In the 1870s the original Pine Hills line began; it started at North Pearl St. and Maiden Lane, down to South Pearl St. up Beaver St. to Grand St., west to Hamilton St. north to Lark St. , south to Madison Ave. and then past Washington Park over Madison to Quail St. and then expanded to Partridge St. By the late 1880s horse cars ran over the old Greenbush Bridge to Rensselaer and over the bridge into Troy.
Initially there were 2 horse car barns: on South Pearl near Second Ave. and on the corner of Broadway and Erie St. in North Albany ( we believe one of the original horse barns on Broadway remains; the other Broadway barns were demolished for I-90). In 1886, a third barn was added on Quail St., below Central.. By the mid-1880s Albany had 30 miles of track, 71 horse cars and 400 horses owne by the two Albany horse car companies.
Depending on the route grade, there would be a 1 horse or 2 horse team. State St. cars required 2 horses and on Market Days (Wednesday and Saturday) when farm wagons clogged State between Eagle and North Pearl, a “midget” horse car (called a bobtail) was needed to avoid the wagons. In heavy snow horse cars could be fitted with runners to function as sleighs. (During the Blizzard of 1888 a team of 8 horses tried to pull a car up the hill; it didn’t work and the car was abandoned in the street.)
Generally there was a driver and a conductor to collect fares and keep order. In the winter there were small stoves in the center of the car and hay lined the floor; there were open air cars in the summer. The cleanliness of the horse car generally depended on the conductor. By the 1880s cars were larger and some could handle 20 passengers (and often more – having to stand on a horse car was not uncommon). Some lines ran cars every 20 minutes during high use periods. There were regular stops but you could hail a horse car and you could ask to be let off in front of your house. Our favorite story from a newspaper of the time: a woman and her son got on a Pine Hills line; after a couple of minutes the female passenger told the conductor to halt the car, so her son could run back to their house and get an umbrella. It did and he did, as the rest of the passengers waited.
Horse cars obviously depended on the horses; they represented a significant investment. The animals were generally well tended, but there is no getting around the fact that it was grueling work. Depending on the route and whether the horse was part of a double team, the horses were expected to travel 14-20 miles/day. The average life span of a horse was 3-5 years. Overcrowding posed problems. While teams were switched on routes as passengers waited, there are stories of some animals simply dropping dead in the street. At one point many of the animals of one company died from drinking contaminated well water in the barns. There were accidents – with pedestrians and wagons and carriages.
Nevertheless – horse cars were wildly popular and successful. They allowed the city to finally expand and they shortened the time of the commute as people increasingly chose to live farther from their place of business. The fare within the city was a nickel. While they made money for investors they were still expensive to operate. Horse car companies all across the country were looking for alternatives. Car systems involving electric cables and steam were tried, to eliminate the need for horses, but none were really successful.
But a number of inventors were working on a more practical electric system. Frank Sprague is generally credited with the invention of the first viable electric trolley system (in Richmond in 1888), but it is Leo Daft* with Albany connections after whom the “trolley” is named. Leo devised a mechanism to collect electric current using a wheeled device on the car; the device was called a “troller,” after the way it was towed behind the car. Daft’s system proved less than practical and electric poles as a means of providing electric current, but the name “trolley” stuck.
The first test of an electric trolley in Albany was on a Sunday in 1889 on State St. (much to the surprise of St. Peter’s Church parishioners who has not been told this would happen). Soon trolley poles dotted the city, as electric trolleys were phased in. The power plant was located on South Pearl and Gansevoort, near the location of an old Mohawk and Hudson railroad round house). The transition to all electric cars in Albany was completed in 1894. **
In the next 2 decades, car routes were extended and new routes established with electric cars. The Pine Hills line was extended to S. Allen St., then to Manning Blvd and ultimately to the Albany Country Club (where the University at Albany is today) over Western Ave. This was the farthest point of the trolleys in the city; the trip from downtown to the Country Club took about 30 minutes (about what it would take today). As development started on Delaware Ave. above Lincoln Park (then Beaver Park) a line was added from Lark St. down to Second Ave. A route was added over Clinton Ave. (although a route through Arbor Hill, eagerly awaited by residents, never materialized), a new route in the South End over Broad St. and Trinity Pl. was established.
The Albany Railway Co. started buying competitors in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. The name was changed to the United Traction Company (UTC) in 1899. It commissioned anew office on the corner of Broadway and Columbia St. designed by the preeminent architect Marcus Reynolds (who also designed the D & H Building and the Delaware Ave. fire house). The building, although it needs some TLC, remains on that corner.
The trolleys continued to be popular and lucrative; ridership grew as the population increased (by 1900 Albany’s population was 100,000) and new routes were added.
But the 20th century would take its toll on the trolley. If we recall correctly the first automobile in Albany made its appearance in 1901 (it was owned by a physician). By 1912 there are reports of parking problems in downtown. In 1913 Henry Ford’s assembly line was churning out Model-T’s at the rate of 1 every 15 minutes, and they were affordable for the working class. Larger vehicles (a/k/a buses or coaches) that could accommodate multiple passengers were not far behind. They could go anywhere and were not restricted to rails and overhead electric current.
There was also trouble in worker’s paradise as company profits rose. In May 1901 there was a strike by UTC workers who wanted a pay raise and union recognition. It turned violent and 2 people were killed by the 23rd National Guard, deployed by the Governor at the request of the county sheriff, to guard the trolleys driven by strikebreakers. (The 1901 strike is the pivotal event in William Kennedy’s “Ironweed”.) The end of the strike was negotiated with a modest raise for strikers and the UTC’s agreement to meet with labor representatives. Labor issues continued to plague the UTC for decades, from small walk outs to protracted negotiation and arbitration.
In 1921 a major wage dispute (the UTC proposed to cut wages on Troy lines) erupted into a strike of over 1,000 UTC workers. It started with violence in the late January; the newly formed New York State Police were deployed to protect strikebreakers running the trolleys in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. After initial clashes, the strike moved into a battle of attrition. For the most part trolley riders supported the workers. Private “jitneys” (think “gypsy cabs”) proliferated. The strike lasted throughout the summer; when it ended neither side has gained anything substantive.
(The strike helped end the longtime Republican machine rule over Albany; it was viewed as supporting the UTC over workers. In November 1921 Democrat William Hackett was elected mayor, with the help of Dan O’Connell – one door closes; another opens.)
Buses began to run in areas of the city and adjacent suburbs in which residential development was growing exponentially, including New Scotland Ave. and Whitehall Rd. where there were no trolleys. By 1922 there were already bus companies serving these areas. It simply wasn’t financially feasible for the UTC to invest in trolley infrastructure. The UTC started acquiring bus lines and substituting bus service for trolleys. An owner of the Consolidated Care Heating Co. on North Pearl St. (it’s still there as CMP industries) which a had long history making parts for UTC cars) was experimenting with alternative vehicles- trackless trolleys.*** The new Versare Corp started to manufacture the vehicles; the UTC purchased at least one for its Western Ave. line. But the trolleybus, as it came to be known, didn’t catch on; it still required infrastructure to carry electric current, and once in place, it was difficult to re-route.
In 1930 at the beginning of the Depression Albany’s population was now about 127,000 and had dispersed farther westward; real estate development had extended to Washington Heights (upper Washington Ave.), So, Manning Blvd, Buckingham Gardens (the area just west of So, Manning along New Scotland) and to Whitehall Rd. near Cardinal Ave. (the city line at the time). All these new homes were built with garages for the owner’s car. In 1927 a City Planning Commission was created to establish standards for this new development, including roads and traffic signals. (This was also the first attempt at citywide zoning in Albany.)
Throughout the Depression and into World War II trolleys continued to roll through the streets of Albany, but they became a much less important part of the UTC’s business model, which was now focused on buses.
By the end of World War II the era of the trolley was over; the last UTC trolley ran on August 31, 1946, with Mayor Erastus Corning taking a turn on the throttle. The #834 car did a full circuit of the Belt line route on a hot night and then returned to the Quail St. barn as a small crowd, in the hot still night, sang “Auld Lang Syne”.
Private automobile ownership in the post War era was on the rise. The population pushed out into the suburbs and businesses followed. (The first shopping center in the area, Delaware Plaza, was established in Elsmere in 1955.) UTC profitability declined and it continued to be plagued by labor disputes. A 25 day strike in September/October 1967 was a crippling blow to a company already in financial toruble.
Similar financial problems were playing out among all the bus companies in the region at the same time. In 1970 the NYS Legislature created a public corporation, the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) to provide regional transportation services as the UTC and other companies went out of business. It took over the operations of the UTC and the Schenectady Transit Company.
There are 2 vestiges of the glory days of the trolley in Albany besides odd fragments of track buried under layers of street paving materials that come to light now and then. Two trolley poles remain – there is one on Hamilton St., just below Lark and another, recently restored through donations of concerned Albany citizens, on Quail St., between Madison Ave and Western Ave.
*Leo Daft was an English inventor and electrical engineer who married Catherine Flansburgh, with Dutch roots going back to the mid-1600s in Albany. Their daughter Matilda married another Brit, Alfred Williams and the family (including Grandpa Leo) lived in Pine Hills for least 3 decades. (Grandpa Leo’s son was my great uncle.)
** The last horse car, in the Lumber District, ran into the early 1900s. As we understand it, it was never discontinued when the others were because of an odd clause in an abstruse UTC contract. We’ve heard that the horse car ended up in the Ford Museum in Dearborn.
*** The Versare Co. was sold to the Cincinnati Car Corp. in the late 1920s; that company closed in the 1930s in the midst of the Depression.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor