Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1910

 As Syracuse approaches the 75th anniversary of the elevation of the railroad tracks, this blog will revisit the history leading up to this most divisive decision. Call it (Dis)Union Station, if you will.

Corner of Salina and East Washington Street, October 1909
In the first decade of the twentieth century, under Mayor Fobes, Syracuse bought the land for Kirk Park, opened the Frazer playground and started work on Lincoln Park. At the time, there was a movement nationwide for increased development of open spaces for recreation, as cities became more crowded and congested. In Syracuse, of course, this meant parks that provided an escape from the noise and pollution associated with the New York Central Railroad running down Washington Street.

In 1910, another young Mayor took over City Hall. Although attorney Edward Schoeneck and former mayor James McGuire exchanged a war of words during the campaign (Schoeneck viewed his opponent, George Driscoll, as “a creature of McGuire” (Post-Standard, November 1, 1909); McGuire considered Schoeneck “weak clay in the hands of his political maker and his candidacy an affont to the citizens” (Syracuse Herald, October 20, 1909)), once elected, Schoeneck picked up the grade crossing elimination battle where McGuire had left off almost a decade earlier:

Mayor Edward Schoeneck yesterday took up the serious consideration of ways and means by which the removal of the New York Central tracks from Washington Street may be effected and a plan worked out by which scores of railroad crossings at grade may be abolished in Syracuse.

Mr. Schoeneck has had the matter under advisement for some time, according to statements made yesterday by members of his administration with whom he has discussed the question. He is said to have agreed with the declaration of Judge Irving G. Vann at the Chamber of Commerce banquet Saturday evening that the time is at hand when definite steps should be taken to secure the removal of the railroad tracks from the business center of Syracuse. (Post-Standard, March 22, 1910).

Not much had changed regarding grade crossing elimination since McGuire’s time: the grade crossing act required the railroad to pay for fifty percent of the solution, with the state and city covering the remaining half evenly. Of course, the cost of project had been revised, with the estimate increased to $4 million. Mayor Schoeneck felt “as much as Syracuse desired the removal of steam railway traffic from its streets, the city was neither able nor willing to assume a bonded debt of $1,000,000 to bring about the results” (Post-Standard, July 30, 1910). 

Post-Standard, May 15, 1907
Another difference since McGuire’s time were the scores of additional injuries and deaths that continued to be caused by grade crossings. Although the New York Central Railroad had earlier insisted they were not contractually obligated to take any action on the Washington Street tracks until 1917, repeated headlines about amputated fingers and crushed legs could be considered as bad for the corporate brand. When Schoeneck met with New York Central President W.C. Brown in April 1910, he found the railroad chief to be more “liberal” towards the grade crossing situation:
 “President Brown showed a disposition to treat the matter in a broad and liberal spirit,” said the Mayor yesterday. “From his attitude I feel confident that we will be able to solve the grade crossing problem satisfactorily without recourse to the grade crossing act.” (Mayor Schoeneck, quoted in Post-Standard, April 4, 1910).

Brown and Schoeneck discussed alternative means of reimbursement for Syracuse’s share of expenses, including allowing the New York Central to buy a franchise of streetcars which would operate on East Washington Street, absolution of any costs incurred by the city associated with street closings during construction, and “the remission to the New York Central of taxes which would accrue to Syracuse as a result of the increased taxable valuation of its property here, incidental to the construction of a new station, the elevation of its tracks and other betterments and improvements.” (Post-Standard, July 30, 1910).

But it wasn’t only the expense of the project that caused unease for the Syracuse city leaders:

It was learned that the construction of an elevated structure by the West Shore route was the basis of discussion. City Engineer [Henry] Allen, it was ascertained later, impressed upon President Brown that the street crossings, particularly at North Salina Street, must be built to mar the street as little as possible and to avoid damaging adjacent property.
It was pointed out that in the case of recent elimination of grade crossings in Schenectady, that State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, had suffered severely in its most important part. There, the heavy, closely built elevated structure practically shuts off all overhead light from the underlying street. These points, it is understood, were made note of by Mr. Brown, who gave his assurance that the cross streets would be marred in no way by the change. (Post-Standard, April 2, 1910).

Almost a year after Mayor Schoeneck first met with the New York Central, the city announced that two plans that had been submitted to the railroad for considerationessentially the same two plans that been considered twelve years earlier. The Post-Standard expected the possibility of elevated tracks might cause a “warm controversy”:

A decision on the two plans to be offered will be reached only after a warm controversy. Opposition to the elevation of the West Shore tracks has already been voiced by the First and Second Wards Citizen Improvement Association and the North Side Citizens Association.
Residents of the North Side have taken the position that elevated tracks along the West Shore route would be unsightly, and that they would form a wall dividing the city into two parts more effectually than does the Erie canal. The division, they contend, being farther to the north than the canal, would be detrimental to the development of the North Side. (Post-Standard, February 17, 1911).

former Schoeneck residence, 500 North McBride Street
The issue may have been particularly sensitive to Schoeneck, a resident of North McBride Street.  Endorsement of elevation would not only alienate constituents, but his own neighbors. As the election year continued (at the time, mayors served 2-year terms), grade crossing elimination had become the most unique of political issues: while the progress Schoeneck had made with the New York Central railroad had been the most substantial in twenty years, any public support of the West Shore Elevation plan could lose potential voters.  Schoeneck, perhaps sensing this precarious position, asked the Common Council to approve the creation of a Grade Crossing Commission:

The five men who form the Grade Crossing Commission, which the Common Council authorized Mayor Schoeneck to appoint, are Alan C. Fobes, former mayor of the city; Henry H.S. Handy, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Alexander T. Brown, manufacturer, capitalist and inventor; Albert J. Will, manufacturer, and John T. O’Brien, labor representative.
The commission, under the ordinance that the Common Council adopted, authorizing its appointment by the mayor, is directed to investigate not only the physical plan of doing away with the crossings at grade, but also to take into consideration the question of the financing of the project. The commission has no authority under the ordinance to bind the city, but is directed to investigate and make report of its investigations to the Common Council (Syracuse Herald, October 18, 1911).

from Schoeneck campaign ad, Syracuse Herald, October 31, 1911
Democratic Aldermen in the Common Council voted against the ordinance to create the commission, as the Schoeneck-named commission could be in place for years. However, Alderman Patrick Cawley of the First Ward (residing at 617 Bear Street) had his own reasons for voting no:

“It is said that it is an absolute fact,” Cawley declared, “that Mayor Schoeneck and the New York Central have entered into an agreement by which the tracks of the West Shore railroad will be elevated and will in consequence, greatly damage the principal streets of the city.”
He said he understood that the plan that had been agreed on would damage James and Salina street and would cut the city in two. He referred to the elevation in Rochester as an argument against the same procedure in the city. “I am against any ordinance that is going to damage Syracuse and divide the North and the South side. We want a united city. We don’t want an elevated road over the main streets.” (Syracuse Herald, October 10, 1911)

From Ludington campaign ad, Syracuse Herald, November 2, 1911
Democratic mayoral challenger James Ludington contended that the Commission was a political maneuver to avoid a public statement on the elevation issue:

“If it is true that the plans for the elimination of the grade crossings have been practically agreed on, as they say they have, you have a right to know now before election what the plans are. If he has a plan that will divide the North side and the South side you have a right to know.” (Ludington, at an speech at Hoffman Hall, 303 North Salina Street, quoted in Syracuse Herald, November 1, 1911)

Schoeneck won re-election, serving a second term as mayor until 1913 (and later as lieutenant governor of New York from 1915-1919). By the time of the election for Syracuse’s next mayor, the issue of grade crossing eliminationmore specifically, track elevationhad progressed from a “warm controversy” to “the hottest municipal row in the history of Syracuse” (Syracuse Herald, March 11, 1914) . And not only would the next mayor state his opinion on the matter for the public record, he would turn the cause into a battle for Syracuse’s future.

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