NY: The long forgotten story of Syracuse’s streetcar ‘riot’: Justified protest? Or violent anarchy?

May 10, 2024
The Syracuse streetcar event has lessons in community outreach, transit management, state of good repair - all folded into tale where right and wrong depended on which side of the city you called home.

When James McGuire became the Democratic nominee to be Syracuse’s next mayor in 1895, he had a simple message.

“The streets of the city belong to the people,” he said in his acceptance speech.

After his election in November, this stance would put the 27-year-old “Boy Mayor” at direct odds with his predecessor, Jacob Amos, who thought that the streets of Syracuse belonged to whichever transportation company had built tracks on them.

That included the Rapid Transport Company, which ran Syracuse’s new electric streetcars.

Tensions between McGuire and the company exploded in early 1899, and, soon after, an angry mob would flood the streets of Syracuse’s North Side in what competing newspapers described as either a violent riot, or a righteous protest.

Reacting to complaints by citizens, McGuire began enforcing all the regulations that had been placed on the company but were often ignored.

The health department ordered cars cleaned after each trip; The ten-mile-an-hour speed limit was enforced; and the company could not plow snow off their tracks into the city streets.

At the same time, North Side residents — mostly German immigrants, led by the North Side Citizens’ Association — began lobbying McGuire for improvements on the Butternut Street line they used.

The rails were deteriorating, and they complained that there was not a direct line to Syracuse’s business center at Salina Street or one to Woodlawn Cemetery where they could visit their deceased relatives. The transfer system was confusing, and passengers were often charged two fares for a single trip.

The company ignored their complaints. At an all-day meeting of Rapid Transit managers on April 16, 1899, the subject of the Butternut Street line was not even discussed.

Angered that their voices were not heard, North Side residents decided to take to the streets.

It was no secret what was about to happen on the evening of April 21.

“It is said that the north side citizens intend to rip up the tracks with their own hands,” the Herald said.

The Syracuse Telegram, the paper most favorable to the residents’ side said a group had “gathered at the mayor’s office this morning and decided upon the course they will pursue this evening.”

“They have already procured the necessary tools to remove the tracks and they intend to do the work themselves.”

Starting from the corner of Butternut and Townsend Streets, the tracks for the Rapid Transit Company’s streetcars would be torn out and thrown down an embankment. The mayor and the police knew what would happen and did not stop it.

At 7 p.m., an estimated crowd of 5,000 gathered on the North Side (Syracuse’s population in 1900 was just over 108,000). Over the next four hours, they ripped out hundreds of feet of track with crowbars.

Pretty much everything else that happened that night was up for debate.

If you were pro- Rapid Transit Company, you would have believed the account the next day from The Post-Standard, one of anarchy and mayhem.

“For nearly four hours the wildest confusion reigned,” the newspaper reported. “Passing cars were stoned, officers of the railroad company were hissed and hooted. The citizens were aroused to the highest pitch of indignation and general pandemonium reigned.”

The crowd had formed from inside bars and beer halls, filled with rage, and ready for violence.

A boy had his toes crushed beneath a rail, two women were struck by flying stones, and a conductor was rendered unconscious after being struck by a cobblestone. Rocks smashed the windows of street cars.

C. Loomis Allen, general manager of the Rapid Transit Company, said the violence that night was “without parallel in the municipal history of Syracuse.”

“Mob law prevailed, sanctioned by the presence of the mayor and police, both of whom refused protection to the property of the Syracuse Rapid Transit Company.”

The next day, The Post-Standard had accounts of “indignant” citizens, livid at their fellow citizens’ behavior and especially outraged at the conduct of Mayor McGuire.

“I am not in favor of the action as a law-abiding citizen,” L.A. Witherill said. “I think it was not a proper thing to do. It sets a bad example and gives the town a bad name. People outside will think we are a hard lot of citizens.”

“I think the Mayor made a mistake in being present at the wild demonstration last night,” grocer Charles Crouse said. “It is simply an outrage and demonstrates what the city will come to.”

On the other hand, the Syracuse Telegram reported an entirely different scenario that night.

There was no rioting in the streets, no anarchy.

Instead, the thousands in the street “participated in the admirable display of their great power and independence.”

Yes, the rails were torn out of the road, but there was none of the mayhem reported in The Post-Standard. This was a fed-up community voicing their displeasure.

“The people gave vent to their feelings vehemently with cheers and loud exclamations of joy,” the Telegram reported, “as the old, crooked, and worn rails were torn from their weak fastenings by the strong and calloused hands of the workingmen. There was no breach of the peace committed.”

The Telegram had 75 interviews of citizens published on April 24 which contradicted the reports of rioting.

“There was no rioting,” Rev. Fridolin Oberlander said. “There was no swearing, no quarreling and no drinking, except when a boy passed a pail of pure Skaneateles water.”

In a statement that night, Mayor McGuire stood solidly in support with the North Siders and harkened back to his acceptance speech nearly four years before:

“The citizens in the vicinity of Butternut Street did exactly what was right this evening. They have been abused and goaded beyond the point of endurance. They arose in righteous indignation and demonstrated that they owned the street.”

The hard feelings between the city and the Transit Company continued.

The company promised lawsuits and there were rumors that local Republicans were in contact with New York’s governor, Theodore Roosevelt, to have McGuire impeached.

The mayor threatened to drop the city’s franchise agreement with the company and the North Side Citizens’ Association started their own private bus line as a form of boycott. It was well patronized.

On May 8, 1899, the company broke.

In an agreement between the Rapid Transit Company and the people of the North Side, the company agreed to fix the tracks, run cars from Butternut to North Salina Street every 15 minutes, and have regular runs to Woodlawn Cemetery.

When Mayor McGuire kicked off his reelection campaign, he was triumphant about what looked like a win for the people.

“They never would have done so,” he said of the Rapid Transit Company’s agreement, “but for the tearing up of the tracks and the uprising of the taxpayers in that section of the city.”

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