New York City Street Car History

The peculiar shape of the island of Manhattan allows the city to grow in one direction only.  The pressure of business is steadily bringing the mercantile district higher up the island, and compelling the residence sections to go farther to the northward.  Persons in passing from their homes to their business go down town in the morning, and in returning come up town in the evening.  Those who live in the better quarters of the city, or in the upper portion of the island, cannot think of walking between their homes and their business. To say nothing of the loss of time they would incur, the fatigue of such a walk would unfit nine out of ten for the duties of the day.  In consequence of this, street railways and omnibuses are more necessary, and better patronized in New York than in any city in the Union.

The street cars are the most popular, as they constitute the quickest and most direct means of reaching the most of the city localities.  There are about twenty-two lines in operation within the city limits.  The majority of these run from north to south, and a few pass “across town” and connect points on the North and East Rivers.  A number centre in Park Row at the new Post-office, and at the Astor House.  The fare is usually five cents below Sixty-fifth street, and from six to eight cents to points above that street.

The Street Railway Companies are close corporations.  Their stock is very rarely in the market, and when it is offered at all sells readily at high prices.  The actual dividends of these companies are large, often reaching as high as thirty-five per cent.  This, however, is carefully concealed from the public, and the companies unite in declaring that the expenses of operating their roads are too heavy to admit of even a moderate profit.  This they do, no doubt, to excuse in some degree the meanness with which they conduct their enterprises; for it is a striking fact that the heavier such a company’s business grows, and the more its profits increase, the more parsimonious it becomes towards its employees and the public.

There is not a line in the city that has a sufficient number of cars to accommodate its patrons.  More than one-half of those who ride on the cars are obliged to stand during their journey.  As a rule, the cars are dirty and filled with vermin.  The conductors and drivers are often appointed for political reasons alone, and are simply brutal ruffians.  They treat the passengers with insolence, and often with brutality.

One meets all sorts of people on the street cars, and sometimes the contact is closer than is agreeable, and keeps sensitive people in constant dread of an attack of the itch or some kindred disease.  Crowded cars are much frequented by pick-pockets, who are said to be frequently in league with the conductors, and many valuable articles and much money are annually stolen by the light-fingered in these vehicles.
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If the drivers and conductors are often deserving of censure, they have their grievances also.  Their employers are merciless in their treatment of them.  They lead a hard life, working about fifteen hours out of every twenty-four, with no holidays.  The conductors receive from $2.00 to $2.50 per day, and the drivers from $2.25 to $2.75.  In order to make up the deficiency between their actual wages and their necessities, the conductors and drivers have fallen into the habit of appropriating a part of the money received from passengers to their own use.  Many of them are very expert at this, but some are detected, discharged from the service of the company, and handed over to the police.  The companies of course endeavor to put a stop to such practices, but thus far have not been successful, and plead as their excuse for the low wages they give, that this system of stealing prevents them from giving higher pay.  Spies, or “spotters,” as the conductors term them, are kept constantly travelling over the roads to watch the employees.  They note the number of passengers carried during the trip, and when the conductors’ reports are handed in, examine them and point out such inaccuracies as may exist.  They soon become known to the men.  They are cordially hated, and sometimes fare badly at the hands of those whose evil doings they have exposed.  This practice of “knocking down,” or appropriating money, begins with the conductor, as he alone receives the money paid for fares.  Those interested in it defend it on various grounds.  The President of the Third Avenue Railway Company, the principal horse-car line in the city, once said to a reporter for a morning paper:

“We try and get all honest men.  We discharge a man immediately if he is found to be dishonest.  You see, conductors are sometimes made more dishonest by the drivers, who demand so much a day from them.  You have no idea how much a driver can worry a conductor if he wants to.  For instance, he can drive a little past the corner every time when he ought to stop.  He can be looking the other way when the conductor sees a passenger coming.  He can run too fast, or let the car behind beat his, and so on, annoying the conductor continually.  The only way the conductor can keep friends with him is to divide every night. . . . The conductors ‘knock down’ on an average about thirty-five or fifty cents per day. . . . I don’t think the practice can be entirely stopped.  We try all we can.  Some will do it, and others think they have the same right.  We can’t stop it, but discharge a man mighty quick if he is detected.”  The Third Avenue line runs 200 cars, so that the loss of the company by the “knock-down” system is from $70 to $100 per day, or from $25,500 to $36,500 per annum.

A conductor gave his explanation of the system as follows:

“Well, I’ll tell ye.  When a conductor is put on a road he has to wait his turn before getting a car; it may be a month or p. 215six weeks before he is regularly on.  He’ll have to know the ropes or he’ll be shelved before he knows it.  He’ll have to be a thief from the start or leave the road.  His pay is $2 to $2.25 per day.  Out of that sum he must pay the driver from $1 to $2 a day; the starter he has to conciliate in various ways.  A lump of stamps is better than drinks and cigars, though drinks and cigars have a good deal of influence on the roads; and then the ‘spotter’ has to get $5 every week.”

“Why do the conductors allow themselves to be imposed on in this way?”

“Why?  Because they can’t help it.  If they don’t pay the driver, the driver will not stop for passengers, and the conductor is short in his returns; if they don’t have a ‘deal’ with the starter, the starter will fix him somehow.  You see the driver can stop behind time, or go beyond it if he likes.  The latest car in the street, you understand, gets the most passengers.  So it is that the drivers who are feed by the conductors stay from two to five minutes behind time, to the inconvenience of passengers, but to the profit of the driver, the conductor, the starter, the spotter, and for all I know, the superintendent and president of the company.  It is a fine system from beginning to end.  The amount of drink disposed of by some of the fellows in authority is perfectly amazing.  I know a starter to boast of taking fifteen cocktails (with any number of lagers between drinks) in a day, and all paid for by the ‘road;’ for, of course, the conductors saved themselves from loss.  Oh, yes, you bet they did!  The conductor’s actual expenses a day average $5; his pay is $2.25, which leaves a fine tail-end margin of profit.  How the expenses are incurred I have told you.  What ken a man do?  Honesty?  No man can be honest and remain a conductor.  Conductors must help themselves, an’ they do!  Why, even the driver who profits by the conductor’s operations, has to fee the stablemen, else how could he get good horses?  Stablemen get from $1 to $2 per week from each driver.”

“Then the system of horse railroad management is entirely corrupt?”

“You bet.  ‘Knocking down’ is a fine art, as they say: but it is not confined to the conductors.  The worst thing about the car business though, and what disgusted me while I was in it, was the thieves.”

“The thieves?”

“Ay, the thieves.  The pick-pockets, a lot of roughs get on your car, refuse to pay their fares, insult ladies, and rob right and left.  If you object you are likely to get knocked on the head; if you are armed and show fight you are attacked in another way.  The thieves are (or rather they were until lately) influential politicians, and tell you to your face that they’ll have you dismissed.  Ten to one they do what they say.  I tell ye a man ought to have leave to knock down lively to stand all this.”

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