Remembering the trolley that once linked Guilderland to the city

— Photo from the Albany Institute of History and Art

Trolleys travelled under police guard on Albany's Washington Avenue in February 1921.

Nary a trace remains of the long, slim, silver tracks that once carried the olive-drab, wicker three-seated trolley cars through our neighboring city of Albany to the town line of Mckownville in Guilderland.   Those trolleys once brought businessmen to work, students to school, and shoppers to the super clothing stores at Whitneys and Myers on North Pearl Street in the heart of the Capital City.

The United Traction Company provided transportation for the city from 1890 to 1946. The operation had 93 miles of tracks with 434 trolley cars.

But there is a more historic story about the trolleys that for so long were the transportation in Albany.

“The big metal doors were shut on the car barn in North Albany and the streets were quiet on February 8, 1921,” the Albany Evening Journal story read, “when suddenly the barn doors burst open.”

The trolley leaving the barn had a police guard aboard, a strikebreaker as a motorman, and an escort of six mounted policemen. Stout steel wires encased the car’s windows.

“The street soon became black with men, women and children. Boys still in knickers, women wearing long serge skirts beneath their winter coats joined 200 men as they tried to surround the trolley,” the story went on. “Anger permeated the air as police cleared a passage. The trolley completed its first run without incident. When the second run started,  the crowd pulled down guy wires and immobilized the cars.”

This started Albany’s Great Trolley Strike.

 

— Photo from the Albany Institute of History and Art
Anger shot through the crowd when a trolley left the North Albany car barn on feb. 8, 1921.

 

On Sunday mornings, the cars were usually filled with picnickers headed for the Six Mile waterworks on Fuller Road and Lagoon Island, or with families traveling to relatives in Troy.  This came to a temporary halt when the trolley strike began.

The dispute was over salary when motormen and conductors wanted a raise to 85 cent per hour from 45 cent per hour and other employees wanted raises as well. The  UTC, owned by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, refused these demands.

Following post-World War I inflation, the cost of labor and materials had doubled, and in some cases had gone up by 500 percent, according to management.

Dickering about wages continued and UTC officials responded by cutting back a recently negotiated 60-cent hourly wage to the former 45-cent per hour.  Idle trolleys in North Albany and North Troy car barns left Albany without public transportation.

Several enterprising automobile car owners started a “jitney service” and charged riders 10 to 25 cents to drive people across town.

A three-day riot on the streets of Albany started. Mayor James A. Watts ordered the Albany Police force to maintain order, yet violence continued in Albany and Troy as trolleys attempted to make their runs.

Trolleys were cut, switches were clogged, and cars were stoned. Policemen were assigned a 12-hour-a-day duty.  State Troopers were called in.

Near the final days, about 300 men, women, and children armed with stones and bottles gathered outside the building where newly employed UTC workers were housed. The recently retired police captain, John T. Begley, on duty at the time, recalled the thunderous sound of about 150 mounted Troopers galloping down Broadway and charging into the crowd.

People dispersed quickly. No one was injured. The Troopers stayed three days and that was the beginning of the end of the violence, but not the end of the strike.

Although violence began in smaller episodes and trolleys had no schedules, it was a long labor dispute that never came to a decisive end. Citizens urged UTC to arbitrate. Many families were without salaries.  Just a small number of the original employees were ever rehired.

By 1922, however, the city of Albany was dealing with a new problem that overshadowed the trolley strike. Motor buses were being considered that would eventually bring an end to the electric trolley in the city.

Twenty-five years after the Great Trolley Strike ended, Albany’s government authorized a renewal of bus franchises, and trolleys and their tracks started to be removed from the city. In September of 1946,  Trolley 834 made its last run through the city.

Albany residents, including this historian, lined the old trolley line, and awaited the final clang, clang of the trolley’s bell.

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