Several times recently I have passed a trolley on an Ithaca street. It is, of course, just a bus in the shape of a trolley, all shiny and emblazoned with the TCAT logo. Public transportation today is fairly extensive, with about 40 routes and many to outlying areas of the county. Going back in time, we find another well-developed system, with more frequent and economical service-our Ithaca Street Railway and its trolleys operated for 50 years.
Ithaca knew a time of great prosperity in the 1880s. The State Street business district was growing, railroads were thriving with a wide network of train service, the steamboats were moving up and down the lake, and residential areas up the hills, East Hill especially, were being developed. And early in the decade a new industry, using large electric motors and steel rails, led to the first trolley systems, using the electric streetcar.
The Ithaca Street Railway was incorporated in 1884. The original plan was to use a cable propulsion system like San Francisco's, but it faltered. In early 1887 the Haines brothers from New York obtained a franchise for the right to build a electric, single-track railway from the west end of West State Street through town to Aurora Street, then to East Buffalo, up the hill to Eddy Street, and along Oak Avenue to the East Ithaca railroad depot on Maple Avenue. Also, a route was granted north along Cayuga Street to Willow and Lake Avenues, then along the creek to Railroad Avenue (Lincoln Street today) and the Steamboat Landing on the Inlet.
The East Hill part of the route was put aside for the moment, but construction began on the State Street route in July 1887. The Daft Electric System, with two overhanging wires, separated horizontally, propelled the car up to 15 mph. On these wires rolled a small, four-wheel "troller" (origin of the term trolley) from which two flexible cables hung down to the streetcar roof. These wires made up the circuit, and the rail was used only for guidance and support of the cars.
The original plan was for two cars, with a capacity of 20 people each, and seating 14. On November 17, 1887, the Lehigh Valley evening freight rolled into Ithaca, carrying two handsome cars, built by the Feigel Car Company of Troy, New York. Numbered 1 and 2, they had five windows on a side. On each end was written "Hotels" and "Depots", and "No Smoking" appeared in large letters over the doors. Near the roof was painted Ithaca Street Railway. The cars were bright yellow.
The trial run-eastward along State Street-took place on Dec. 12, 1887, and the service formally opened on the Dec. 27. Ithaca became the third operating electric railway system in the state (the first was in Binghamton and the second being the Jamaica and Brooklyn line, which opened just a few days ahead of Ithaca), and was one of only 13 electric lines in operation in the country.
The operation, now owned by D. W. Burdick and C. H. White, was small, running on 20 horsepower electricity bought at $6 per day. The company scheduled its two cars to run between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily, at intervals of 10 minutes (the time of the trip), running from end to end, meeting at the passing, siding at the middle.
At first numerous mechanical problems plagued the business-parts broke, skittish horses on the streets caused accidents, snowfall hindered and often halted service. Yet pressure was mounting to extend the service, especially up to the Cornell campus.
In fall 1891, a small group of men came in from Scranton, Pa., including financier Horace E. Hand and Swedish-born electrical engineer Herman Bergholtz. They purchased the Ithaca line for $5,000, and in December, 1891, obtained a franchise to lay tracks up State Street to Eddy Street, then to Dryden Road and the depot (in the end the route went on Oak Avenue instead), and in May 1892 another franchise was granted for the route out Tioga Street to the steamboat landing.
That line was completed in two weeks in June, with a new electric system completed in July. Two more cars were brought in, and on July 15 a company representative took 80 people for their first ride down Tioga Street. New, heavier rails were installed, a fare register replaced the old coin boxes, employees wore blue uniforms. The cars had headlights for night service and the State Street route operated in both directions on a seven-minute schedule, 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. One car operated on Tioga Street every 10 minutes.
In spring 1892 the company had managed to run cars up State street as far as Spring Street (Schuyler Place today), and in September Cornell University allowed the railroad to continue from the end of Eddy Street on its right of way over an private iron bridge, with the extension ending on South Avenue about 100 feet from the Armory building. By then 160 men were working on building the new lines.
In January, 1893, the first run was made up East Hill. Crowds gathered, bets were placed. The only alternate transportation, the horsecab drivers, stationed themselves at various vantage points on the hill to collect the passengers when the streetcar failed. One elderly woman in front of the Ithaca Hotel claimed the car would never climb the hill. Herman Bergholtz, by now an Ithaca resident, was motorman at the controls, and with 29 dignitaries as passengers (adding weight for better traction perhaps), the four-wheeler climbed past the cabs and out of sight. The elderly woman then proclaimed, "It will never, never come down again." She was so wrong.
Regular service on East Hill began on February 1, with the fare at 5 cents. In June the two State Street lines were consolidated; four open cars and two baggage trolleys were added to the fleet.
At this time a popular trend in the country was to promote amusement parks through public transportation. On March 31, 1894, Hand and Bergholtz obtained title to most of the one square mile of the Renwick Tract, and began work on building what became Renwick Park (Stewart Park today). Within days of their purchase they had a franchise to build a single-track line from Tioga and Falls Streets along Lake Road to the city line, and then to Port Renwick. A 120-foot bridge was built over Fall Creek for the trolley line.
The park sported a new boat landing-for steamboats, sailboats, canoes, rowboats and a bath house, restaurant pavilion and "tea house" (a concession stand), a bandstand where very soon the popular Patsy Conway and his band were playing two concerts a day. The trolley fare to the park was 5 cents each way, and people started coming in late June. On July 4, more than 12,000 people arrived, and over the first summer more than a dozen railroad excursions from out of town brought more visitors, as many as 7,000 per trainload.
On the hill, despite opposition from President A. D. White (apprehensive about unsightly poles, wires, and tracks, noisy cars, disruption of student life and professors' electrical experiments), the trustees in 1895 allowed a single-track extension along the north side of South Avenue and then the west side of East Avenue to a terminus at the new Boardman Hall (today the Olin Library building). White pronounced the system a success.
In 1898, Bergholtz and Hand sold all their electrical properties in the city to Edward G. Wyckoff, who was about to develop the land across the gorge north of the campus. In 1897 the Triphammer Bridge was built, wide enough to accommodate streetcar tracks, carriages, and a five-foot sidewalk. The trolley line, extended across the bridge through Cornell Heights to the Stewart Avenue Bridge, was completed in May 1900. In 1904 this route was supplemented by a bigger loop (fare was 10 cents), which went through the future Village of Cayuga Heights as far as Upland Road, and then descended by gentle degrees to Renwick Park. The "loop" was advertised to be one of the most picturesque trolley rides to be had anywhere in the world. The new spur, dubbed the Great Northern and short-lived, was abandoned in 1907.
About 1910 double tracks were installed on West State and Eddy Streets and on parts of Thurston Avenue; after 1914 all the Cornell routes were double-tracked, and two routes operated regularly around the Cornell loop. From then on the service just kept on going. Over its long history, the street railway had an amazing safety record.
Only two passengers were killed, both in an accident in 1920, when a car broke loose by Eddy Gate and plunged down Eddy Street out of control, reaching a speed of 40 mph. It leapt the curb at State Street and was split down the middle by a tree. Most riders jumped out in time, but about 20 were injured. Through the years a few pedestrians, mostly children, were fatally injured stepping in front of moving streetcars. Student pranks, sometimes dangerous, created problems; soap on the tracks caused one serious accident. The trolleys played roles in the old movies; one thriller showed a trolley careening off the Stewart Avenue Bridge into the gorge below.
In 1928, Frank Morse, president of Morse Chain, purchased the company at public auction for $160,000. By then it had modern one-man safety cars, equipped with air brakes. Morse attempted to streamline operations, but slowly the trolleys fell off in popularity.
The last run to East Ithaca was on April 30, 1930, with a group of dignitaries on board, including then-mayor Bergholtz, who had taken the first trolley up the hill 37 years before.
On its return trip students lined the route to say good-bye. In 1934 the railway was sold to a bus company for $25,000. On June 22, 1935, Bergholtz, now retired as mayor, rode on the last scheduled trolley run.
As the trolley went around the loop about 50 autos followed, horns blowing. Not quite the end, as on July 4 of that year the new bus franchise could not accommodate the crowds wanting to go to Stewart Park. By noon the company brought out several trolleys to run for the remainder of the day. The end came the following Sunday, when the devastating flood of 1935 washed out a portion of the tracks to the park; they were gone for good.
Old streetcars went up for sale, some went as trolleys elsewhere. One became a diner in Varna, another was adapted as a car garage, others became vegetable stands, retreat cabins, even chicken coops. But the perks of the old trolleys, including the "jag run" taking revelers up the hill after a night of drinking, the student pranks, the dogs as regular riders, and, best of all, the red ball or flag on the front to indicate good skating on Beebe Lake, not to mention service every seven minutes, those shiny buses in disguise can't match that.