Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Attack on the Toonerville Trolley Line by Strikers in 1916

Pelham and nearby localities suffered through a violent, months-long strike of trolley line workers in 1916.  In October of that year, the Westchester Electric Railroad Company decided to try to reopen the strike-closed line between New Rochelle and Mount Vernon that ran through Pelham.  That line included a portion of the tracks along which ran the Pelham Manor trolley that inspired Fontaine Fox to create the Toonerville Trolley portrayed in his long-running Toonerville Folks comic strip.

Pelham Manor detailed members of its police force to ride along the line to protect the cars and their crew members as the cars bounced along the tracks through the Village of Pelham Manor.  When the trolley cars passed from Pelhamdale Avenue onto Colonial Avenue toward Wolf's Lane, however, they entered the tiny little Village of Pelham (today's neighborhood known as Pelham Heights).  Pelham Manor police considered the area out of their jurisdiction.  They hopped off the trolley cars as strkers approached the cars for a coordinated attack. 

Charges were leveled against members of the police forces of the Villages of North Pelham and Pelham Manor for allegedly standing by during the subsequent violence.  One report even accused a member of the Pelham Manor police force of skulking away through vacant lots as strikers approached to attack.

An extensive article about some of the violence appeared in the October 28, 1916 issue of the New Rochelle Pioneer.  A large excerpt from that article is quoted below.


Temporarily stopping trolley cars on main line between this city and Mount Vernon, and a collision between cars in this city, were the chief incidents that marked the seventh week of the strike.

Fifty striking trolleymen from this city made good their threat to stop the traffic between New Rochelle and Mount Vernon last Saturday afternoon after the main line had been opened by the Westchester Electric Railroad Company that morning, by resuming the service with three cars on a twenty-minute headway.  While the police of Pelham Manor, headed by Chief Marks, who claimed the trouble was taking place in Pelham Heights and therefore he had no authority to interfere, witnessed their tactics, the crowd savagely attacked the cars and their crews, hurling stones through the windows.

Because it is alleged that the Pelham Manor police who up to that time had been riding on the cars got off and gave no protection, the trolley company accuses the police of neglect of duty and insinuates cowardice.  One policeman is alleged by the company to have jumped off the car he was detailed to guard and to have left the scene via vacant lots when he saw the crowd of strikers approaching.

Not only were two New Rochelle-Mount Vernon cars stoned, but the Pelham Manor car was damaged.  All three cars were discontinued in service temporarily, and with the motormen behind the screened vestibules, the cars were finally run through the gauntlet of stones and sticks into Mount Vernon, a sanctuary.  No arrests were made, although the trolley company officials claim that Chief Marks and four or five men as well as Chief Holden of Pelham Heights with one other policeman, were witnesses of the happenings.  The service on the main line was resumed yesterday morning.

After leaving Pelham Manor the crowd of strikers returned to this city, where on Mayflower Avenue the men bombarded a Webster Avenue car, breaking six windows and denting the car.  The crowd evidently was after William Smith, a motorman who had remained faithful to the company but Smith came through unhurt.  Three New Rochelle policemen drew their guns and started after the crowd, but the strikers ran away.  As the police were pursuing them, they saw another crowd approaching the car from the opposite direction and had to give up the chase to protect the company's property.  There were a number of women and children in the car, and several of them were hit and cut by glass.

Strikers were again active in this city on Sunday in stoning cars and two arrests were made.  A crowd gathered on Drake Avenue and threw stones at a Glen Island car, breaking several windows, so William Hubbard, Saul Levy and Walter Pickwick, striking motormen, were arrested, in connection with the disturbance.

Wednesday witnessed the first accident since the cars were resumed here.  A rear-end collision between two cars occurred on North Avenue near Elk Avenue, about 8 o'clock in the morning, and as a result, four persons were injured.  Three were taken to the New Rochelle Hospital -- Mrs. Elizabeth Dunn of 8 Morgan Street, for a sprained ankle; Motorman John Peters for wounds received when glass cut his face, and Special Officer Michael Buckley, whose arm was bruised.  Officer John E. Godding was bruised on one leg, but he remained on duty.

Leaves on the rail is given as the probable cause of the accident.  Two cars were sent up North Avenue together.  According to witnesses the first car was stopped to let Mrs. Dunn get off.  The second car, some distance behind, was following at a fair rate of speed, and it is believed that the motorman could not stop it when it slid on its brakes over the rails.  The second car crashed into the first just as Mrs. Dunn alighted, the front vestibule of the former being smashed and a piece of its door hurled forward, striking Mrs. Dunn on the ankle.

Other than these incidents, nothing violent or of a serious consequence has occurred.  Ten cars are being operated on almost schedule time in this city and an increasing number of passengers ride every day.

On Monday, a number of strikers and their sympathizers, concealed in the grass near East Main Street, in the Dillon Park section, waited for the approach of the Larchmont car.  They were seen by Motorcycle Officer Sutton and the special policemen on the car.  The car was stopped and the three policemen charged into the lot with drawn clubs.  The crowd did not wait, but ran for the weeds, where they disappeared.  Then the car proceeded unmolested.

Mayor Griffing sent an invitation to ten of the strikers to appear at a conference on Wednesday with Edward A. Maher, General Manager and Superintendent William E. Wheeler of the trolley company, in order that a solution of the strike might be reached, but Messrs. Griffing, Maher and Wheeler were greeted by a letter which stated that the men declined to attend the conference on the ground that the officials of the trolleymen's union had been ignored, and that it was discoureous to these officials.

Failing to get the assistance they had expected from the two federal mediators, John A. Moffit and James A. Smyth, Secretary of Labor Wilson's staff, the strikers on Tuesday night called on Governor Whitman to use his good offices in procuring a settlement with the companies by sending the following telegram, which was signed by presidents of the eight local unions:

'The undersigned officers, representing 11,000 striking street car men of New York City and vicinity who have been on strike for the last seven weeks to establish the right of organization and permit the execution of collective bargaining recognized by the law of the supreme court of the United States, have been instructed by the unanimous vote of the membership of the several different divisions to request of you, as governor of the state of New York, to use the power of your great office and your personal influence to adjust the present difficulty between the street railway companies and this great army of men now on strike, which will relieve the demoralization existing on the traffic lines of New York City and vicinity.'

So far as the Westchester Electric Railroad Company is concerned, the strike is practically broken, according to what the officials say now.  Practically every line of the company is in operation, the service is gradually being extended to include the running of cars at night and more strikers continue to return to work.  It has been stated by the trolley company's representatives that twenty of the regular motormen and conductors including John Gotti, the motorman who is well known in this city, who had remained faithful and refused to go out on strike, were now working regularly.  Moreover the men are receiving double pay.

Estimates are made that a majority of the striking carmen have found employment elsewhere.  Attendance at the daily meetings of the men has dwindled until now only a handful of strikers gather in the various meeting places.  These are mostly the old men who have not secured work anywhere else and who have found it possible to subsist on whatever earnings they might have laid by, supplemented by the strike benefits which come through occasionally from Detroit.

One of the men said to newspaper men yesterday:  'This is the forty-eighth day since the strike began and all I have received from the union has been $10.  That doesn't go far toward supporting myself, my wife and three children, does it?  Last week I worked as a driver in a meat market, twelve hours a day except on Saturday when it was fifteen, and I almost killed myself with the hard work, but I needed twelve dollars.  Before going on strike I had a clean job.  The hours were not long.  The pay was good and I could live well.  Now all is changed, and I am standing here on the corner trying to make up my mind whether I ought to go back to the trolley company again. . . . ."

Source:  Another Riot and an Accident Mark Seventh Week of Strike, New Rochelle Pioneer, Vol. 58, No. 29, Oct. 28, 1916, p. 1, col. 1.

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