Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Fight Against Electric Trolleys on Baring St.

     Powelton is a classic example of a “streetcar suburb.” However, for nineteenth century Poweltonians this meant horse-drawn streetcars. In the early 1890s, a furor erupted over plans to replace horse-drawn cars with electric trolleys. One of the first lines to be electrified was the Baring St. line which ran from Market St. up 33rd St. to Baring, then 37th St. to Fairmount Ave. and on to 44th St. and on the return from Fairmount to Baring along 36th St.
     In 1892, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that:
     “There is talk along Baring street, Fairmount avenue and other streets traversed by the Baring street division of the Traction Company of a mass meeting to protest against the defacing presence of trolley poles and wires. Aside from the physical danger of the system and other potent objections, the erection of the poles along the Baring street route would disfigure one of the fairest portions of Philadelphia county. The great charm of West Philadelphia’s residence section, which lies largely along or adjacent to this route, is the semi-rural aspect of the streets and houses.
     “The horse-cars are an abomination, but 99 per cent. of the residents and property owners feel that even these easy-going vehicles are preferable to the unsightly appurtenances of the trolley cars with their attendant noises. At any rate the attractive vistas of the streets are unmarred, and everyone wants them to remain so.” (Phila. Inquirer, March 27, 1892)
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 19, 1892
      The same issue of the Inquirer included a petition against the trolleys on its front page and encouraged readers to sign it. It stated, in part: “We believe the trolleys to be dangerous to life, limb and property. The franchises have been granted without any adequate restrictions or compensation. They allow the increase of poles and dangerous overhead wires to an alarming extent.”
     A few months later, 15 prominent residents of Baring St. took the lead in a law suit to prevent the Philadelphia Traction Co. from electrifying its trolleys through West Philadelphia. The action was brought by Howard Watkin [3305 Baring], Henry D. Justi [3401 Baring], Thomas Scott [3437 Woodlands], Marcus H. Darrow [3413 Baring], Samuel H. Troth [3309 Baring], David Masters [3308 Baring], Theophilus Hassenbruch [3316Baring], Edward M. Willard [718 N 40th], George G. Erickson [3955 Wallace], Joseph S. Erickson [720 N 40th], William Garrett [3404 Baring], George W. Kendrick, Jr. [3507 Baring], Walter Erben [3415 Baring], Samuel R. Skillern [3509 Baring], William H. Brown [3510 Baring], John F. Craig [3417 Baring], William J. McCahan [3419 Baring], Elijah Pugh, Jr. [3501 Baring], and Charles H. Alexander [3626 Baring] against the West Philadelphia Passenger Railway Company, the Philadelphia & Darby Railroad Company, the Philadelphia Traction Company, the city of Philadelphia, and Abraham M. Beitler, director of public safety of the city of Philadelphia.

An Earlier Cartoon Against the Street Car Companies (Phila. Inquirer, May 22, 1889)

     The suit alleged that “this overhead electric trolley system, if so erected upon the streets of West Philadelphia as set forth in the plans, will not only be a public nuisance, dangerous to both life and property, but will inflict private injuries upon your orators by largely decreasing the values of the various properties owned by them, and rendering them undesirable as residences….” Part of the argument was that the charter of the West Philadelphia Passenger Railway Co. (which had been granted the route) only authorized it “to lay a double or single track of railway, to be used exclusively with horse-power….”
     Surprisingly, the list of claimants includes several Poweltonians whose professions would suggest more acceptance of modernization. William H. Brown was Chief Engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. William Garrett was a paper manufacturer who was only about 38 at the time the suit was brought. Henry D. Justi owned a large factory that made dental supplies and he was a member of the Franklin Institute. Walter Erben was a wool merchant who was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1895.  In addition, they were all neighbors of the Brill family which controlled J. G. Brill & Co., the largest producer of the electric trolleys.
     The West Philadelphia Passenger Railway Co. was among the first of many lines leased by the Philadelphia Traction Co. (PTC) which in 1902 became the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co.  Who was behind the PTC? The list of principals includes some of Philadelphia chief moguls: William H. Kemble (who was known for his close ties with many powerful officials), Peter A. B. Widener, William L. Elkins, George R. Yarrow, George W. Elkins and George D. Widener.
     In January, 1893, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the trolley owners quoting a previous decision that a railway "is bound to keep pace with the progress of the age in which it continues to exercise its corporate rights."

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia) Feb. 16, 1920 (click to enlarge)

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