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Original Text and Graphics Copyright 2015 by David Griffin,

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Utica's Trolleys and Buses

AROUND TOWN - Buses and Trolleys

I always thought public transportation was a great idea, until I met my first Boom Box-er. I don't know if loud music machines are still allowed on buses. It might depend upon the size and courage of the driver. In any event, I didn't stick around to find out. I went back to using an automobile. Price of gasoline be damned. My ears and aesthetics are worth it.
I can say with some certainty you would not have done anything ill mannered on Angie LaPorte's bus, which he drove for 8 hours each day back and forth between Union Station and the Blessed Sacrament Church at the end of the bus run on Cornhill's James Street. When the buses with a rear exit door came into use at the Utica Transit Authority, my favorite stunt in the winter at age 12 was to jump off the bus through the rear door with enough speed to fly over to the snow bank on the curb. The manner in which Mr. LaPorte had to angle the bus out of traffic at each bus stop left about 3 or4 feet of road surface between the rear door and the snow bank on the curb. Just using my knees to jump wouldn't do it. Getting as far back from the doorwell on the opposite side of the bus and launching myself out the door when it opened didn't quite get me to the curb either. But using a little science, one could find a way to fly.

     If you stood in the aisle a couple of rows back from the door  facing the front of the bus you could take advantage of the Physics of the situation.  When Mr. LaPort swung the bus to the curb and put on the brakes, I used the forward momentum to launch me down the aisle. In two steps I was moving pretty fast toward the front until I grabbed the stanchion next to the doorwell and whipped myself around the corner and catapulted out the rear door, which opened a half second before I came flying through it.  The results were spectacular, if I  didn't kill myself.  I literally flew out the door, my body twisting in the air, and landed on my back right on top of the snow bank.  On my third flight ... the first two being unqualified successes ... my hand slipped off the stanchion and I went tumbling straight down the aisle.  At 12 years old I was able to come up on my feet as fast as I had fallen and so continued down to the front door.
     "Sorry," I said to Mr. LaPorte," I guess I slipped."
     "If you'd like to fly, young man," he said in his gruff voice, "buy an airplane."

     A week later I decided I'd risk Mr. Laporte's ire with one final launch before the spring temperatures melted the snow banks.  As we got closer to Brinckerhoff Ave.,  I got into position in the aisle and braced for takeoff.  Mr. LaPorte pulled to the curb at the bus stop and applied the brakes as I took off and firmly grabbed the stanchion, whipping my self around and slamming right into the rear door at a terrific rate of speed.    The door didn't open and just as I crashed into it I said to myself, "I knew he'd do this to me."
     Mr. LaPorte put on the parking brake and came to the back of the bus, where I was picking myself up and crawling up out of the doorwell.
     "Did you slip again, young man?" he asked.
     "Uh, yeah, I guess so."
He pulled out a pair of handcuffs.  I hadn't known he carried them.
     "You ever try that again, bub, and I'll handcuff you to the seat and run in Luizzi's Drug Store and have them call the cops.  You got that?"
I got it.   What he probably would have done was extract our phone number from me and called my house that night.  My parents would have been seriously embarrassed over it and I would have been grounded for a month.

We should probably start this section back in the days of trolleys.  I'm not old enough to have a trolley story, but we really should begin back thenWe'll open with photos from the most familiar place in the city, the Busy Corner.


Can you recognize the scene above?  You've seen it here before in our Busy Corner section.  You're standing in the road in front of what my generation remembers as The Boston Store, facing south, up Genesee Street.  But in the above photo it's 1906.  You can see the tower of old City Hall in the distance. The corner near left (northeast)  will someday hold a Daw's Drug Store, the southwest corner (far corner, right will hold a Rexall in my memory.  In this photo on that southwest corner is one of the oldest buildings in the photos we've seen here of the Busy Corner.

The trolley's weren't very large.  The tracks appear to be standard gauge, which would have been larger than necessary.  But they no doubt accommodated the interurban electric trains that ran west past Syracuse and east down the valley to Albany on the tracks installed for the big steam locomotives.  Standard gauge is 4 feet, 8 and 1/2 inches between the rails..The Interurbans may or may not have stopped at Union Station,  I don't know.  But there are plenty of  photos showing them crossing through the Busy Corner, a convenient place to come from the beautifully executed Hotel Utica and catch "the electric" east to the gun factory in Ilion or the capital in Albany. 

Below an Interurban Electric passes through the Busy Corner, probably in the 1920's since the Utica Trust appears on the southwest corner.  Look ... the billiards sign points to a pool hall around the corner on Lafayette Street.  We hung out there as teenage boys from time to time thirty years later.

Just for perspective, let's back down the hill from the where the Boston Store was in my youth to the north side of the bridge over the Erie Canal (now Oriskany Boulevard.)  We'll look south up the hill.  Here is the view across and around the Hump Bridge.  Originally the canal bridge was flat, just  as it was on other streets crossing the canal.  But the new electric trolleys were so heavy the State of New York closed the Genesee Street bridge fearing collapse.
Building in a hump dramatically increased the load bearing capacity of the bridge.  More info is here in the post on "The Erie Canal."

Here we are standing below where Oriskany Boulevard is today, which means somewhere near Liberty Street.  This photo is actually a super enlargement from a small part of a much larger photograph.  Grabbing a piece of the photograph has the effect of a telephoto lens (a long lens) and all the objects become foreshortened, or jumbled into each other from foreground to rear.  The grey sided building on the extreme right of the photo is the Devereux Building, the triangular shaped structure that forms Franklin Square, just below (north of) the Busy Corner.  Look how close the buildings are on Columbia Street and farther up the hill to the old City Hall.  They almost look as though they're all in the same block, but the distance is in fact from Liberty Street up to Pearl Street.

Above, you could use any kind of power for a trolley.  No need for electricity or coal or wood-fired steam engines.  How far out Genesee Street this trolley has traveled from Union Station or downtown Utica we don't know.

The electric trolleys went all over, up and down the valley, to Whitesboro and Rome.  The larger trolleys were Interurban electric locomotives, built to look like passenger cars.  The electric motors were relatively small, certainly smaller than a steam engine.

 Here's the hard working crew.  I don't have the name of the company.

 Below,  if you wanted to run them in winter, you had to send one out with a plow on it to clear the snow off the tracks.  In the photo below, the trolley is plowing its way out of Columbia Street into Genesee Street near Grace Church.

You'll have to do a little imagineering to see the above device on the front of a trolley.  First, put in your mind the human traffic patterns apparent on Utica's downtown streets  as the trolleys began to take over.  Genesee Street was filled with people who were used to only each other and usually slow moving horses and wagons in the street.  The Busy Corner was probably more like a park... a busy park, but it moved at a human pace.
Then came the trolleys and as they strived to serve a population on the move, the speed of the cars eventually increased and began to run into people.  Getting hit by a trolley became a real threat.

The Scoop Fender .... and there were many designs ... served to scoop up a pedestrian and safely hold him up off the tracks so the car didn't run over and further injure him or her.  I have no statistics as to how successful these devices were.  I suppose eventually pedestrians learned to be more careful and then traffic lights came into vogue.  During my time in Utica I don't remember anyone ever being hit very often by a car, truck or bus on the Busy Corner.  But although I began reading the newspaper at age 7 or so, I started with the comics.

There is a much more complete presentation on trolleys in Utica and the Mohawk Valley on the MoreStories and Utica History Forum.

The late Jon Hynes did a terrific job of collecting photos and newspaper articles for the thread, transcribing all of them so you don't have to squint to read the old newspaper stories.

Frankfort Station:


Here are examples of what I call the "small" buses I remember in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Utica.  There was no rear door.  If there was an emergency exit in the back, I don't remember it.  The windows may have been considered useable in an emergency.

Wider view shows Utica's 
Gas and Electric
Building, as it was informally called.
During my years in Utica it was the city's
headquarters for the Niagara-Mohawk 
Power Company.

You can see these buses were not very large, below.

Interior of one of the "small" UTA buses, below . I remember at age 7 or so going downtown with my mother on the bus.  I looked around at all the ads up toward the ceiling and asked, "What is pee-sorry-asis (psoriasis), Mom?"  "What's a hernia, Mom?"  "What are "women's troubles," Mom?"  What are ...."

I don't remember the year I began to see these larger buses, below.  Certainly by the end of the 1950's.

I remember a mix of the small and larger buses for a couple of years.
I have only the above photo of this larger bus, but I found the photo below on the Internet so you could see the side and rear door.  It's a very similar bus from Canada.

 Next came these larger buses around 1960.  The crowd down the street near the door of the second bus looks like high school students, probably from UCA.

 And below there is another group of teenagers as the next bus pulls to the front of the line.  In fact, they were  all a year ahead of me, the Utica Catholic Academy's Class of 1960, the last class of young men and women to graduate from the John St. School.


 And  with magnification I recognize Tom, Helen and Kathy in line for the bus..

 I should have enlarged the Diamond Shop in the background, because I remember their recessed doorway very well.  At age 15 and 16 on cold winter nights waiting for the James St. bus around midnight I would coop up back toward the door away from the winds and snow blowing down the wide expanse of Genesee Street. There was a mirror through the window behind the jewelry and I would try out different faces to see which looked the most friendly, intelligent and handsome.  I could never make up my mind which face looked the best, until my wife some years later told me that any open face was better than a closed one.

Beyond my time, but I guess today what buses are left are part of a more modern fleet of vehicles.

Immediately below, next to Grace Church.   Other pix from other locales.


Above, if this isn't the Greyhound Station from the early 1970s, it is much like it.   (I photoshopped the bus and body into the scene for another story illustration.)  

 Below, I won't forget this Greyhound Bus Station just down from Franklin Square on Hotel Street.  It served Utica throughout most of the 1950's and 60's.  It was your basic hole-in-the-wall bus station.  Every two weeks or so I stood around it waiting  for the Sunday Midnight Express back to New York City after spending the weekend with Carolyn when she was back in school in Utica and I was still in Manhattan.  Sometimes I'd meet Fred Heintz III on the bus up on Friday night on his way to see Nancy.  Fred is gone now, much missed.  I imagined a story last year with him still somehow on the job, coming to bring us home.  I  hope it won't embarrass anyone and his family won't mind.  Fred was a wonderful man.  The world is empty without him.

Master Story List  at

That's it.  I'm done.  I may do Cornhill, but I'll need more photos than I have.   Thanks for your "likes" and kind words.