In all my trip in the West I saw no city situated as is Syracuse is in the matter of railroads. The railroads invariably along the line of the Southern Pacific, where the towns are new and the railroad controls the town, either did not go into the heart of the city or were raised or depressed. (Mayor James McGuire, quoted in Post-Standard, May 6, 1901)
|Grade Crossing Elimination in Rochester, Sunday Herald, April 23, 1899|
While Syracuse has been known for having some staggeringly long lead times for its municipal projects, perhaps none quite matches grade crossing elimination. By 1900, Syracuse had managed to build miles of sewers and paved roads, but could not remove grade crossings in the city, most notably on Washington Street. As pictures and postcards of the era captured, the New York Central Railroad ran down the center of Washington Street, sharing the road over the years with streetcars, horses, wagons, buses, autos and pedestrians. Syracuse wasn't alone as a city with dangerous grade crossings, but some of these other upstate cities, such as Rochester, had elevated their rail tracks by the turn of the century. Mayor James McGuire, referred to as "The Boy Mayor" due to being only 27 years old at the time of his election in 1896, made grade crossing elimination a priority. In 1899, the city hired a renowned engineer, Henry B. Seaman, to propose a solution to the city's grade crossing problem. In April 1899, the Evening Herald announced the news that Seaman had arrived at a solution for the abolition of grade crossings:
Engineer Seaman has proposed two plans after the exhaustive study of the conditions. One of these, which he regards as the most desirable, is known as the West Shore plan, because, while it sends no freight trains through the city, it contemplates the elevation of the West Shore tracks for the use of the passenger trains of the Central, the West Shore and the Chenango Valley roads. The other plan, which is based on the suggestion of William R. Hill, Chief Engineer and Superintendent of the Water Department, contemplates the bringing of the passenger trains of these roads, like those of the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburgh road, into the city, from the north and the northwest by means of a loop from tracks north of the city, the West Shore tracks, as well as the Central tracks in Washington Street, being abandoned.
|drawing from Henry B. Seaman's plan, Evening Herald, April 10, 1899|
Granted, this would be no small undertaking:
The plans presented provide for a stupendous public improvement, and the accompanying estimates show the cost will be two and a half millions of dollars [sic]. According to the State law, one half of the expense of abolishing grade crossings is borne by the railroad companies, one-fourth by the State, and one-fourth by the city. (Evening Herald, April 10, 1899)
Although Mayor McGuire mentioned the elimination of grade crossings in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for re-election six months later, by 1901, not only had no progress been made, but the state proclaimed that it only had $100,000 to contribute to Syracuse for such a project:
The words of the annual report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of New York State, as made public yesterday, are important in the grade crossing discussion. Referring to Syracuse, the report says:
The subject of the abolishment of grade crossings of the railroads in the city of Syracuse has been under consideration in that city. The board has had some correspondence with the city on this subject, and has had filed with it a general plan for the work.
It is evident, however, that the cost will be so great that the appropriation made by the State [$100,000], even though it were entirely apportioned to the city of Syracuse, would not be sufficient in any one year to pay the State’s proportion of the expenses. (Post-Standard, January 16, 1901)
One week later, when a Post-Standard reporter asked Edgar Van Etten, Superintendent of the New York Central Railroad, about the railroad’s assistance in grade crossing elimination in Syracuse, Van Etten asked why the railroad should even consider such a question:
“In the first place,” said Mr. Van Etten, “there is little reason why we should take active steps in this matter and spend millions of dollars as long as we have the right of way through Washington Street for nearly twenty-five years more. It will be remembered that not many years ago the New York Central paved and reconstructed its tracks from Pine Street to the station at Franklin Street. In round numbers this work cost about $150,000 and the new station which was constructed about the same time cost not less than $270,000.
I know of no corporation that is fond of spending this amount of money and then do the work all over again in the course of a few years at a still greater expense. When we placed the street in its present condition there was a contract drawn up giving us the right of way for twenty-five years.” (Post-Standard, January 24, 1901)
Mayor McGuire appeared undaunted by this revelation, still hoping to enlist the assistance of the New York Central in the grade crossing elimination project. This brief one-sentence news item appeared in the Feb. 3, 1901 edition of the Post-Standard:
Mayor Inquires About Grade Crossings
The Mayor has again written to S.R. Callaway of the New York Central to see if the Central is going to act in the matter of abolishing grade crossings.
One week later, the Mayor received his reply:
New York, Februrary 7, 1901
Honorable James K. McGuire, Mayor of Syracuse, N.Y.:
Dear Sir—I am in receipt of your favor of the 31st ultimo, with reference to grade crossings in your city. My absence from the city has prevented an earlier reply.
This company is extremely anxious to abolish all dangerous grade crossings as rapidly as possible and is constantly spending large sums of money for that purpose. The plans of the Board of Railroad Commissioners have uniformly had our approval and active-cooperation. We have also gladly united with municipalities for the same purpose in any improvement which could be made on fair terms, as in the case of Albany, to which you refer.
I have every reason to believe that the directors would authorize a similar course in Syracuse, but the expense would be so large as to constitute a considerable burden upon the city as well as a much larger one upon the company.
I therefore asked you, at the conference which I had with yourself and other representatives of Syracuse, to advise me what share of the cost, in your city, the city would consent to bear. I understand that you expected to take this inquiry under consideration and give me an answer, but I have not yet received one.
The answer to this inquiry is especially pertinent and important because the company has so recently incurred a large expense in satisfying what it believed to be the wishes of the people of your city.
Callaway continues on, explaining the right-of-way contract that had never been mentioned at the time of the 1899 Seaman plans, despite being signed only seven years earlier:
As you are aware, the right to use Washington Street was granted to the predecessors of this company many years ago. The meaning of some expressions in the grant was at times the subject of some contention between the city and the company, and as lately as 1892, when the city was desirous of having Washington Street repaved and the freight facilities of the company increased and a new passenger station built, the city and company, after much deliberation, entered into an agreement under which it paved Washington Street with first class stone pavement on a concrete foundation, according to the plans of your City Engineer, laid a new rail in the same street and agreed in the future to remove all snow and ice from its tracks so that the street should not be obstructed.
It also agreed to enlarge its freight facilities and within two years to construct a new passenger station suitable to the needs of the city. It has carried out this agreement in good faith and your people expressed their approval of the plans of the station which was soon after completed.
In consideration of this action on the part of the company, the rights of the company in the street were confirmed and continued and it was relieved from all obligation in reference to paving for the ensuing twenty-five years.
In these circumstances, if we consent, after a lapse of less than nine of the twenty-five years, to take up the question of eliminating the grade crossings, the expense of the change should be divided between the public and the company upon some fair terms, and I shall be glad to have you indicate what portion of the cost the city would be willing to bear. You are, of course, aware that under the State law, the company bears one-half, the municipality one-quarter and the state one-quarter.
As a matter of fact, the accidents on Washington Street have been very few, and are confined almost wholly to cases where people have attempted to jump on the trains.
(Post-Standard, Feb. 10, 1901)
The situation proved to be quite baffling. Had Syracuse really entered into such a contract in 1892, a full decade after Rochester had eliminated their grade crossings by elevation? Would Syracuse be stuck with a train running through the center of its city until 1917, at the earliest? Mayor Jacob Amos, who had entered the contract with the railroad, wrote an article for the Post-Standard one month later on March 17, 1901, explaining how the deal came to be:
It has been customary for the different city administrations for a good many years to antagonize the New York Central Railroad Company and try to compel it to do certain things in a way that did not bring good results. They tried, even, to have the company plank between its tracks east of State Street, which it absolutely refused to do.
I discovered that we could not compel the company to make any improvements, as under its franchise we could only compel it to keep the street in proper repair. The phase “proper repair” is a misnomer and means practically nothing. That is a construction that was given to it in the high courts.
Mr. Vanderbilt and Dr. Depew came here on a special train to see me and I asked them not only to pave Washington Street to State Street, but to do so for the entire length of the street, also to erect a new station and make improvements in their freight yard and in their freight house.
After consulting with them a number of times, they agreed to comply with all these requests if we would release them from further paving the street for a term of twenty years, they to repair any part of the pavement that they might destroy. This I considered a good contract since we could not compel them to pave the street.
While Mayor Amos had accomplished much during his two terms as mayor, including completing the municipal water system (started under Mayor Kirk) and introducing a new sewer system into the city, his negotiating power could never have matched the first tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Yet this may very well have been a good contract in Mayor Amos’ view, as his main concern was paving Washington street, and not grade crossing elimination:
In relation to eliminating the crossings in the central part of the city, I do not think at this time there is any very great demand from the citizens of Syracuse to do away with the tracks and also with the new station. Attention has been called to that improvement, and I have no doubt in time it will be done, but how soon I cannot say.
He also, perhaps, did not want to be the mayor associated with elevation:
There is quite a question in my mind if the citizens of Syracuse would like an overhead structure over James Street that would last us practically during this whole generation. They might want to have that changed again in ten or fifteen years.
Mayor Amos concluded his editorial by informing the citizens of Syracuse that they were essentially powerless in the face of the relatively new entities of corporations:
I have come in contact in the past few years with very large corporations, and it has been my observation that little is to be gained by trying to force these large companies when the matter is beyond your control, as is the case with the New York Central.
As a citizen I take just as much interest in any improvements for Syracuse as I did when I had more authority. To use a homely expression, “You can catch more flies with molasses than you can with vinegar.” In this case, the New York Central cannot be compelled to do away with its grade crossings unless the city and state carry out their part as laid down by law.
The idea that the city could “catch more flies with molasses” led to slippery slope between acceptance and accommodation, as this editorial by Milton H. Northrup, former Syracuse postmaster and editor of the Syracuse Courier, clearly demonstrates:
The Central-Hudson Railroad owes much to Syracuse, it is true; but what does the city owe to the railroads which center here? What built up Syracuse to a city of an eighth of a million inhabitants at the close of its first half century? Was it the Erie Canal? If so, why do our citizens look with such complacency to the proposition to deprive us of the canal altogether, moving its line miles to the north?...Was it the salt works? They, too, were important factors but they have ceased to be regarded as essential to the city’s life and growth. Take them away altogether, along with the canal, and Syracuse would go on just the same.
But suppose the cities were to be stripped of its railroads: Suppose we had but one within ten miles, where would Syracuse be then? The railroads were the pioneers of our civilization and progress. They are the pillars on which our growth and prosperity rest. We can no more afford to antagonize them than could the members of the body, as described by Esop of old, afford to rebel against the stomach. The obligations are reciprocal, and no horseplay to the galleries should be permitted to array the two in hostility.
Some will ask what all this has to do with the change of grade of the Central-Hudson tracks, by elevation or depression. Nothing, I grant. That is a question sooner or later to be met—grade crossings must be abolished. But this will not be brought about by a policy of bulldozing or bluff. Whatever right to our streets comes by priority of possession belongs to the railroad corporation and not to the city. The railroad came first, and when the city came later it found the tracks already down and trains running over them. Under such conditions the Mayor’s policy of coercion seems unlikely to win. An appeal to the company’s sense of justice and good will might bring better results. (Post Standard,March 3, 1901)
While Mr. Northrup argued for the importance of railroads based on the obsolescence of earlier markers of Syracuse history, he failed to comprehend the same could be true for railroads in the future. If the corporate railroads were the pillars of Syracuse, once they disappeared, Syracuse would be left with, well, pillars. (Or, in a related scenario, concrete bunkers attached to malls.)
Shortly after Mayor McGuire received his reply from the New York Central Railroad, he took a two-month leave of absence due to his health:
Mayor McGuire said last night that he would probably leave Sunday for Las Vegas hot springs, New Mexico where he will remain two months for his health. The trip is being taken by the advice of his physician. The Mayor says he has never fully recovered from the illness he contracted while he was in the South. (Post Standard, February 22, 1901)
McGuire returned nine and a half weeks later (during which time, the president of the common council, Martin Yann, acted as interim mayor) and completed his term, but lost a re-election campaign to Jay Kline. Sadly, the “Boy Mayor” died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1923, with grade crossing elimination still more than a decade away.