The following was taken from the Spring, 1948, issue of the “North Country Life.”
The author was my cousin’s grandmother. We cannot determine if the article is under copyright. Mrs. Fred Warn has two living grandchildren, who are my cousins. Cousin Charles Hasner, of Cape Vincent, has given me permission to use Mrs. Warn's articles on my website. Thank you, Charlie.
(by Shirley Farone)
Street Cars and Collar Buttons
A SIDELIGHT ON LIFE IN WATERTOWN DURING
THE HEYDAY OF TROLLEY CARS
BY MRS. FRED WARN
STREET CARS and collar buttons---an odd combination, but strange as it may be, money made from the manufacture of collar buttons once financed a Northern New York street railway.
The button manufacturers were Lebkeucher and Krementz of Newark, New Jersey, and the street railway was that of the Watertown Traction Company. It was, of course, in the heyday of trolley cars. A few “last leaves” of the older generation in Watertown know the somewhat romantic history of this transportation company and there are those who think the tale should be recorded, for its very telling preserves a picture of life in the early 1900’s.
Backed by A. D. Remington, the Ingleharts, and the other prominent citizens, the Watertown street railway was first built about 1891. The original line extended through Main Street to the Watertown Steam Engine Works, over the Court Street bridge, up State Street to High, and over High Street to Water Street, where a Remington mill was located. The Remington family, operating mills also at Glen Park, were instrumental in getting the line extended to Brownville. Although the lines were consolidated, they did not pay, and the entire line finally went into the hands of the receivers.
Still the company did not prosper and the line was finally sold about 1897. The buyers were Julius A. Lebkeucher and George Krementz of Newark, New Jersey, who had made a fortune from one-piece collar buttons. Already they had held some bonds in the company. Since the era for traction companies had begun, the men decided to buy. They believed that Watertown with its magnificent water power had a great future as a manufacturing center. Mr. Lebkeucher and Mr. Krementz were quiet, unassuming men, but there was considerable feeling against them because they were “furriners.”
When the new owners took over the controlling interest, they found their possessions consisted of two rusty tracks running through the city. The cars were owned by a car trust from which they were rented; the car barn was owned by John C. Thompson of the New York Air Brake Company. Power was purchased from the Taggart Brothers’ paper mill, the current being generated by a couple of old antiquated generators which were driven by belts from Taggarts’ water wheels. The company did not own even any pavement as there was very little pavement in the city at that time. With money earned in the Newark factory, the road was extended to Dexter. They bought cars and started construction of car barns and an auxiliary steam plant.
While these changes were being made, A. H. LeFebvre became manager, and the Watertown Traction Company, the Brownville, and the Dexter lines were consolidated under the name of the Black River Traction Company.
Mr. LeFebvre, who was a man of vision, not only had new tracks laid but also bought several power rights, and the present hydro-electric plant was equipped with turbines and generators. Edward A. Barber, who had completed a course in electrical and mechanical engineering under Mr. LeFebvre, invented and installed the self-operating power station for the trolley line. It would run itself six days a week. On the seventh an attendant would oil its bearings and see that the entire mechanism was in first class order.
Mr. Barber also designed and built the “Barber single truck trolley cars,” which were used here for some time. These cars were built in the West Main Street barns. All this was accomplished at a time when man power was cheap and plentiful.
The original plans of the new company called for an extension to Guffin’s Bay, for Mr. LeFebvre thought if the government would build a breakwater and piers, the Lake boats could land freight, and flat cars could haul it to the mills. The line from Brownville to Dexter was built on private lands. To persuade the landowners that they should allow the trolley tracks to be laid on their property was not always an easy task. Some private owners took out their spite on the business by throwing their garbage on the tracks.
My husband and I used to get in our little boat and row down to Kirby’s Point to watch the excavating of the road bed.
There were a number of curves and grades and three wooden trestles over the bays on the way to Dexter, and it would have been dangerous to carry heavy loads over this road, so a new right of way was bought with more collar button money. Grades were cut down, curves straightened, expensive fills made where the trestles had been, and double tracks laid between Brownville and Dexter. The old cars were scrapped and new streamlined ones took their place. For summer there were provided “trailers,” open cars very popular with young people and picnic parties.
So far as is known, the Watertown trolley cars were the only street cars to use the Eames Vacuum Brakes. (These were invented in 1875 by F. W. Eames of Watertown and were widely used by railroads.)
There was a big car barn built at the lower end of Brownville, and the “Owl” -- as the midnight car was nicknamed--was kept there overnight and made the early morning run to the city. Several of the motormen and conductors lived in Brownville. After a few years, this barn burned and was never rebuilt. It was rumored that the fire was caused by a late picnic party lighting their way up from the docks with matches.
Searchlight excursions to Dexter were run on Saturday nights. A small steamer named “Pastime” was owned and operated by Brownville men: John Brennan, Byron Walrath, LeRoy Buchanan, and John Sharlan. There was a big landing dock behind the trolley car barn with stairs leading up to the street. Round fare to Dexter was forty cents.
Glen Park used to be Watertown’s “Coney Island.” In the gay nineties a bridge was built from the village of Glen Park across to the James A. Parker farm, (by typist: on Coffeen Street - half-way between Watertown and Brownville) where there was a cave and a secluded glen. The cave was well-lighted and open to the public. There was a rustic theatre where vaudeville and play companies came each summer. There were all sorts of concessions, always bands, and other attractions. Among some of the special attractions which I remember were LaCrosse games, a spiritualist medium demonstration, baseball games, and a visit from the highly-publicized saloon wrecker, Carrie Nation. (The whiskey dealers honored her memory with a full-blown bottle and cork, the latter representing her hat.) Older folks in this section will recall other incidents at “the Glen.” Lincoln G. DeCant managed this recreation center for about ten years. The trolley service made it possible for whole families to go “picnicking” at small expense.
Of interest may be this set of rules which was posted in the early cars:
1. Riding or standing on steps or platform, or getting on or off while cars are in motion, is prohibited.
2. Fare, five cents within city limits. Twenty-one tickets for a dollar.
3. No half fares. Children under four years of age free. Policemen and mailmen free.
4. Intoxicated or disorderly persons are not allowed to ride.
5. Passengers not allowed to ride on the front platform or talk to the motorman.
6. DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR!
The first cars to run on the line were housed in a building on Court Street below the City Hall. It is said that several days before the trial run a car was left in lower Court Street so the horses could become familiar with the strange sight. The first cars were crude and made a grinding noise. It was a very skillful driver who could keep his horse on all four feet when the car came clanging down the middle of the street. There were numerous runaways and accidents. The old Court Street bridge was a hazardous place, and one winter when it was icy, a car came up West Main Street, missed the turn, and slid into the river.
On June 18, 1917, the thirty-seven employees of the Black River Traction Company struck at noon, moved their cars into the barn on West Main Street, and quietly went home. Mr. Leon Schwerzman, then general manager, refused to recognize a union.
By 1917 there were a great many automobiles. Jitney busses were run by friends of the employees. Some time later, however, matters were settled and people began to board the trolley again. But their day was over, and soon car and bus service crowded the trolley out of existence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mrs. Warn became my* field collector of folklore over sixty-six years ago, when she and her brother, Hal Starkweather, used to examine their Grandfather Rowe’s almanacs from the Old Country and eat such North Country delicacies as red and yellow bananas from Albany---when they played with sticks and stones out back of the old farm on the shore of Black River and gathered in pure childish imaginative fancy the songs and stories of their people.
Buttons were people. When the youngsters played church, the big silver jet button always played the organ and led the singing, for she was Fanny Warn, one of the old-time singers of the North Country. And what pioneer son or daughter hasn’t heard of “Button, button, who’s got the button?” The practical minded may want to remember (incomplete - will have to get remainder from Flower Memorial’s copy of “North Country Life.”)
*Note by typist: I have to assume that "my" means that Rowena Peterson wrote this incomplete article about the author, Mrs. Effie Warn.