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.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Has One of the Most Enduring Pelham History Mysteries Been Solved? The Mystery of Charles A. Voight!

On August 8, 1909, a man named Fontaine Fox arrived with his wife at the Pelham Station in the Village of North Pelham.  The couple hopped on the rickety little trolley that met all the trains.  

The little trolley shuttled back and forth, at that time, between the Pelham Station on the New Haven Line and the Pelham Manor Station on the New Haven Branch Line.  In 1909, the rattletrap trolley click-clacked along tracks laid on Wolfs Lane to Colonial Avenue where it turned toward New Rochelle.  It traveled along Colonial Avenue for a few hundred feet, then turned east onto Pelhamdale Avenue along which it traveled to its final stop near the Branch Line railroad trestle above Pelhamdale Avenue.  From there, the trolley operator reversed the trolley and returned along the same route to the Pelham Station.  (The following year, 1910, the trolley line was extended all the way to the end of Pelhamdale Avenue at Shore Road.)  

On that summer day in 1909, Fontaine Fox and his wife were on their way to visit their cartoonist friend, Charles A. Voight, who lived in Pelham Manor.  On the couple's brief trolley ride, as Fox later described in numerous letters and magazine interviews, Fox was struck by the folksy trolley operator with his Airedale beard, the idiosyncratic and rickety little trolley car known locally as the "Pelham Manor Trolley," and the concept that the little trolley met all the trains.  Fontaine Fox was so inspired by the ride that he created caricatures of the trolley operator, whom he named "Skipper," and the rickety little trolley that he called the "Toonerville Trolley that Meets All the Trains."  From there he created the wildly successful comic strip entitled "Toonerville Folks" that ran in syndication for the next forty years and made Fox a famous and wealthy man.  As Fox stated in one interview:

"After years of gestation, the idea for the Toonerville Trolley was born one day up in Westchester County when my wife and I had left New York City to visit Charlie Voight, the cartoonist, in the Pelhams.  At the station, we saw a rattletrap of a streetcar, which had as its crew and skipper a wistful old codger with an Airedale beard.  He showed as much concern in the performance of his job as you might expect from Captain Hartley when docking the Leviathan."

Source:  A Queer Way to Make a Living, The Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 11, 1928, p. 6.

Example of Sunday Comic Strip "Toonerville Folks" by
Fontaine Fox Featuring the Toonerville Trolley and its
Skipper.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

For decades, one of the most enduring Pelham history mysteries has been the location of the Charles Voight home that Fontaine Fox and his wife visited on August 8, 1909.  Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog attempts to shed light on that question.

Charles Anthony Voight was born in Brooklyn on April 28, 1887.  He showed artistic talent as a youngster and dropped out of school at the age of fourteen.  He became a member of the art staff a the New York World, a New York City newspaper, and did freelance advertising art work on the side.

Voight became an early comic strip artist.  Eventually he became best known for his long-running comic strip entitled "Betty."  According to one brief biography:

"In 1908, he drew his first comic strip, Petey Dink, for the Boston Traveler.  When [the comic strip] moved to the New York Herald it became simply Petey (sometimes titled Poor Little Petey).  He also drew for the New York World, and for Life, he created a series titled The Optimist.

The Sunday page of his popular glamour girl strip Betty began April 4, 1920 in the New York Herald, there was no daily strip.  Comics historian Don Markstein described the strip and characters [as follows]:  Betty Thompson's life was filled with cocktail parties, cotillions and affairs of that nature.  She wore all the latest high-class fashions, amply displayed by Voight's lush, stylish and highly individual illustration.  While Tillie the Toiler, very much a working girl, may seem to have little in common with Betty, they had one strong point of similarity.  Both went through handsome dashing men by the carload. . . ."

Source:  "Charles A. Voight" in Wikipedia -- The Free Encyclopedia (visited Jan. 2, 2017).

The comic strip Betty ended its run in 1943.  Thereafter Voight created art for comic books.  He died on February 10, 1947.

Voight and his wife, Nina, lived in Pelham Manor for a time.  The million-dollar-question, of course, is "where did they live on August 8, 1909."

Recently, while researching World War I draftees from Pelham, New York, I ran across a newspaper reference to the drafting of Charles A. Voight in July, 1917.  According to that record, Voight's address at the time was "541 Rochelle Place" in Pelham.  It turns out that there was no such address in Pelham at the time.  A quick review of World War I draft registration records, however, quickly revealed that on June 5, 1917, Charles Anthony Voight lived at 514 Rochelle Terrace in the Village of Pelham Manor.  (See immediately below.)

World War I Draft Registration Record for Charles
Anthony Voight of 514 Rochelle Terrace in Village
of Pelham Manor.  NOTE:  Click on Link to Enlarge.

The address is a starting point, of course, but certainly does not answer the question of where in Pelham Voight lived eight years earlier when Fontaine Fox visited him.  Thus, the 1910 Federal Census for Pelham was next consulted.  Neither Charles Voight nor his wife Nina, however, may be found anywhere in Pelham in the 1910 U.S. Census.  Nor has research yet revealed either of them anywhere else in the United States in the 1910 Federal Census.  If correct, this suggests, of course, that as was so often the case, they were among the members of the population who were missed in the census count that year.

This leaves us to review the 1905 and 1915 New York State census counts to try to find Charles Voight and his residence.  

Sure enough, the 1915 New York State Census shows Charles A. Voight and his wife, Nina, living with a live-in servant (a cook) in the Village of Pelham Manor at 457 Pelham Street.  There no longer is a street in Pelham Manor named Pelham Street.  That street once was located essentially where today's Monroe Street runs between Hunter Avenue and the end of Monroe Street.  The area was profoundly changed by the construction of the New England Thruway (I-95) through the neighborhood during the 1950s.  (See map detail immediately below.)

Detail from Map Published in 1910 Showing Location of
Pelham Street in Lower Left Quadrant of the Detail.
in Bromley, George Washington, Atlas of Westchester
County, New York, Vol. 1, p. 18 (Philadelphia, PA:  G.W.
Bromley & Co., 1910).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Detail from 1915 New York State Census, Westchester County,
Pelham, Assembly District No. 2, Election District No. 2, Page
14 of 21.  (Note:  Access via this link requires paid subscription).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The Voight home at 457 Pelham Street in 1915 was very near the terminus of the Pelham Manor trolley in 1909 when Fontaine Fox took his fateful ride.  That fact, of course, is encouraging.  It turns out, however, that Voight and his wife seem to have moved into the home at 457 Pelham Street some time after 1909.  At the very least, someone else was living in that home in 1910.

Returning to the 1910 U.S. Census for Pelham, it is possible to find the home located at 457 Pelham Street and identify the occupants of that home at the time the census was taken in May, 1910.  There were five residents in the home:  Felix J. Rush (father and head of household), Centa Rush (wife), Marie G. Rush (daughter), Philomena S. Rush (daughter), and Joseph Dirnago (a brother-in-law).  Neither Charles Voight nor his wife is listed.  Thus, it would seem that the couple did not live there in 1910 and may well have moved into that home at a later date.

Detail from 1910 U.S. Census, New York, Westchester
County, Town of Pelham, District 0110, Page 48 of 65
(Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Alas, although this research has added to the body of information regarding various homes in which famed cartoonist Charles A. Voight resided during his time in Pelham, the question of precisely where he lived on August 8, 1909 when Fontaine Fox visited him remains an unanswered question.  It remains, for now, one of the most enduring Pelham history mysteries to be resolved, hopefully, in the future.

*          *          *          *          *

Below is a bibliography including links to a few of my many previous postings dealing with the topics of the "Toonerville Trolley," horse-drawn railroad cars, electric trolleys and other trolley-related information pertinent to Pelham, New York.

Bell, Blake A., Pelham and the Toonerville Trolley, 82(4) The Westchester Historian, pp. 96-111 (Fall 2006).

Bell, Blake A., Pelham and the Toonerville Trolley, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 11, Mar. 12, 2004, p. 10, col. 1.

Thu., Sep. 15, 2016:  Pelham Manor Residents Complained of Awful Service on the Toonerville Trolley Line as Early as 1899.

Fri., May 27, 2016:  Was Max "Maxie" Martin the Man Who Was the Skipper on the Pelham Manor Trolley the Day Fontaine Fox Rode the Line and Was Inspired?

Thu., Sep. 10, 2015:  Pelham Manor Citizens Voted to Reject Bus Service and Keep Their Toonerville Trolley in 1936.

Fri., Jul. 24, 2015:  The Day the Brakes Failed on the Pelham Manor Trolley, Inspiration for the Toonerville Trolley.

Tue., Jan. 06, 2015:  Extension of the Toonerville Trolley Line in Pelham Manor in 1910.

Wed., Mar. 19, 2014:  Another Confirmation the Famous "Toonerville Trolley" was Inspired by the Pelham Manor Trolley in 1909.

Wed., Mar. 05, 2014:  Trolleys Came to Pelham in the 1890s.

Tue., Jan. 05, 2010:  More on the Extension of the Pelham Manor Trolley Line in 1910 -- The Toonerville Trolley Line.

Wed., Dec. 30, 2009:  Opening of the Extension of the Pelham Manor Trolley Line in 1910 -- The Toonerville Trolley Line.

Wed., Dec. 23, 2009:  Attack on the Toonerville Trolley Line by Strikers in 1916

Thu., Aug. 27, 2009:  October 19, 1898 Report that the Tracks of the Toonerville Trolley Line Had Been Laid in Pelham.  

Mon., Aug. 17, 2009:  Efforts by Pelham Landowners in 1900 to Halt Construction of a Trolley Line on Shore Road.

Thu., Jul. 30, 2009:  Pelham-Related Trolley Franchises Granted in 1897.

Wed., Mar. 25, 2009:  Another Brief Account by Fontaine Fox Describing Trolley in Pelham Manor as Inspiration for Toonerville Trolley Comic Strip.

Mon., May 28, 2007:  Brief Biography of Henry De Witt Carey, 19th Century Pelham Justice of the Peace.

Mon., Mar. 05, 2007:  An Ode to the Toonerville Trolley and its Skipper Published in 1921.

Tue., Sep. 19, 2006:  Toonerville Trolley Cartoons Available For Free Viewing Online.

Tue., Sep. 19, 2006:  Toonerville Trolley Cartoons Available For Free Viewing Online.  

Wed., Aug. 9, 2006:  The Saddest Day in the History of Pelham Manor's "Toonerville Trolley"

Thu., Jul. 06, 2006:  Who Was the Skipper on the Pelham Manor Trolley the Day Fontaine Fox Rode the Line and Was Inspired?

Thu., Mar. 09, 2006:  Photographs of the H Line and A Line Trolleys on and Near Pelhamdale Avenue.

Tue., Oct. 11, 2005:  The Toonerville Trolley Pays Its Bills -- Late!

Tue., Sep. 20, 2005:  Pelham's "Toonerville Trolley" Goes To War.
Fri., Jun. 17, 2005:  "Skipper Louie" of Pelham Manor's Toonerville Trolley

Tue., Apr. 19, 2005:   Pelham Manor Residents Fight Construction of the Toonerville Trolley Line

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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