Friday, June 15, 2018

The Era of Electric Transport

Artistic snowplowing in  Oswego
We're on the Oswego Canal--actually, the Oswego River, with locks to get around the rocky bits. Some stretches are green and wild, others packed with cottages on the shores.

Rising from the  Ashes

We were wind-bound yesterday at Lock 1 in Phoenix, NY, a town whose emblem is the firebird, reborn from the ashes--it's the high school mascot, and even enlivens a snowplow at the town maintenance building.

You might think the name comes from a key event in town history: 100 years ago, a fire destroyed 80 buildings in the downtown district, along the canal.  You would be wrong. Phoenix is named for an early settler, Daniel Phoenix

Traces of Trolleys

One curious thing we've noticed as we've cruised the Erie and Oswego Canals is the many bridges )or abandoned bridge abutments) labeled "trolley bridges." Really? Trolleys in lightly settled, rural upstate New York? I thought you only found trolleys in cities!  I wanted to find out more, so I did some research in the (very nice) Phoenix Public Library on our windy dockside day.

Notice all the places we've been on our cruise: Newark,
Lyons, Clyde, Baldwinsville, Phoenix, Oswego.
Turns out that, as early as the 1850s, there was a horse trolley system in upstate New York. With electrification at the turn of the 20th century, this became an electric trolley system--or as it was called at the time,  the "Auburn and Syracuse Electric Railroad."

This was a private, not public, enterprise, a syndicate headed by one Clifford D Beebe. Just check out this map of the terrain they covered!

The entire route we have just traversed over the past two weeks under electric power could also have been covered thanks to electricity in the early 1900s!  (And much, much faster.)

Electric Transport Ruled--for a While

Remember, this was the era when cars were only just starting to be seen on the roads.  The electric trolley gave mobility to rural residents far beyond horse and buggy transport.

 People in tiny rural towns could hop a convenient trolley to almost anywhere they might wish to go. One man who lived in the rural town of Victor and worked as a clerk in the big city, Rochester told of a 20 minute commute via trolley, faster than  you an drive it today.

Sadly, this and other "Intraurban Electric Railroads" faltered and failed around and after the Great Depression. Why?  Historians aren't clear.  One possibility: Model T's were cheap and available, and individual transport fits with the American ethos of rugged individuality. 

Why didn't the government, or the states, or the municipalities subsidize electric railroads in the way that roads for cars are subsidized? Who knows.

It's fun to fantasize what might have been, if electric transport still ruled in upstate New York.

Where in the World is SlowBoat?

Today we ran from Phoenix 22 miles up to Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario.  If weather permits we'll "go outside" tomorrow, leaving the placid confines of the canal for the truly big waters of Lake Ontario.

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