Commander Edwin J. Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy

Edwin J. Quinby

“Cranks are noble,” says Charles P. Peirce, author of Idiot America, “because cranks are independent.Their value comes when, occasionally, their lonely dissents from the commonplace affect the culture, at which point the culture moves to adopt them and their ideas come to influence the culture.”

A footnote in Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead has gotten me reading and thinking about Commander Edwin Jenyss Quinby (1895-1981). Brilliant, eccentric, and very likely a crank, Quinby was one of those rare conspiracy theorists who was right.

One of Quinby’s formative experiences, according to this on-line tribute, was seeing the visionary scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla demonstrate a remote controlled submarine in Madison Square Garden. A Marconi radio operator on a tramp steamer (and later a Commander in the Naval Reserve), Quinby would be one of the first electrical engineers hired by RCA. He went on to patent a slew of inventions himself, but his life-long passion was for railroads and trolleys. He’d scandalized his wealthy parents when he took a job as a conductor and motorman on an interurban trolley that ran between Patterson, New Jersey and Suffern, New York after graduating from college; in 1968 he published the definitive history of the line, Interurban Interlude , A History of the North Jersey Rapid System.

In the 1950s, he was instrumental in efforts to save the paddlewheel riverboat The Delta Queen; he spent the final years of his life developing a prototype for an electric car in his basement. A 1960 article in American Heritage magazine describes the remote-controlled steam-powered calliope he created for the Delta Queen. At the time, he was also developing a calliope that could be installed on a trolley car–he’d helped set up a trolley museum in Branford, Connecticut so he had access to forty of them–“a kind of ‘trolleyope,’ which will use compressed air from the brake pump (the panting organ under the floor that used to go thump-thump thump when the cars paused) to play airs on various trolley bells, horns, and whistles.” Amazon lists a quaintly-titled book he published in 1974 (out of print and unavailable) that reflects the whole range of his interests: A Few Glimpses of the Passing Scene: Involving the Strange Combination of Steam Calliopes, Steamboats, Pipe Organs, Telegraphs, Cables, Radio, Electric Railroads and Gyro Monorails .

Quinby earned his footnote status in history in 1946, when he wrote a 24- (or 26- or 37-page–different accounts provide different numbers) pamphlet, ran off dozens of copies on a mimeograph machine in his basement, and mailed it to Congressmen, mayors, and city managers across the country. “This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you,” it began, “that there is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway system! Who will rebuild them for you?” Quinby was a well-known figure in the subculture of ‘juicefans’ (trolley enthusiasts). As far back as 1934, he’d founded the Electrical Railroaders’ Association, a group that, according to Colin Divall and Winstan Bond’s Suburbanizing the Masses: Public Transport and Urban Development in Historical Perspective (Ashgate, 2003), “had an explicit political agenda, not merely to preserve and publish information on electric railways, but also to lobby on their behalf wherever they were threatened.”

The threat Quinby had uncovered was a deadly one. In short, General Motors and a consortium of other large corporations, working through holding companies like National City Lines, had been buying up streetcar companies, scrapping their electric trolleys, and then locking the cities into contracts that required them to buy buses, parts and fuel from themselves. Mass Transportation magazine (which had named National City Lines’ president E. Roy Fitzgerald its Man of the Year) ridiculed Quinby and his manifesto. “Edwin J. Quinby took full advantage of the great American privilege of the free press to feed the lunatic fringe of radicals and crackpots springing up like weeds in the United States today,” Ross Schram wrote in a five-page cover article headlined “The Queer Case of Quinby.” “The document, printed on cheap paper, is natural fertilizer for suspicions, for disunity. What is the Quinby pattern? Was he used by some strange political influence?”

A year later–thanks in no small part to Quinby’s efforts–National City Lines, Inc., American City Lines, Inc., Pacific City Lines, Inc., the Standard Oil Company of California, the Federal Engineering Corporation, the Phillips Petroleum Company, the General Motors Corporation, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company and the Mack Manufacturing Corporation were all indicted on anti-trust and conspiracy charges, along with seven executives: E. Roy Fitzgerald and Foster G. Beamsley of NCL; H.C. Grossman of General Motors; Standard Oil of California’s Henry C. Judd, L.R. Jackson of Firestone Tire & Rubber; and Frank B. Stradley and A.M. Hughes of Phillips Petroleum. They were convicted in 1949 and received slaps on the wrists. Each corporation was fined $5000; the executives were fined just $1. America’s trolleys continued their march to extinction.

Whether or not GM and its cohorts killed the trolleys by themselves or merely hastened their demise, there can be no doubt that they had spearheaded an illegal conspiracy that placed their corporate interests ahead of the public’s. Quinby’s mimeographed pamphlet might have looked and read like ravings from the fringe, but it was anything but. Just because you’re paranoid, as the saying goes, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Bashar al- Assad “labeled pro-democracy demonstrators as either ‘duped’ or as conspirators in a plot to destroy the nation.” Syria’s unrest, the opthamologist turned dictator said, was manufactured by saboteurs who want “to fragment Syria, to bring down Syria as a nation, to enforce an Israeli agenda.” Now that’s a conspiracy theory.

15 thoughts on “Commander Edwin J. Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy

  1. Fascinating. I remember the Delta Queen, which stopped in St. Louis regularly when I was a kid. (It’s now docked in Chattanooga & serving as a floating hotel. A group is trying to buy it & restore it to service.)

    I also remember the network of disused trolley tracks that snaked through the city & out into the suburbs, & my mom’s tales of riding the trolleys when she was a kid. So that’s what happened to them.

  2. One of the things that both fascinates and annoys me about conspiracy theories is how incredibly similar they all are. Looked at from the outside, they all seem to share similar characteristics. (Cherry-picking data, moving goalposts, appeals to fringe authority while rejecting mainstream authority, etc.) It would be an interesting exercise to go through Quinby’s pamphlet and point out (from a 1946 perspective) where is follows and where it deviates from the norm.

    1. Wouldn’t it though! I tried to find a copy of the pamphlet on line, but only came up with allusions to it. One author thanked someone in their acknowledgments for providing him with a copy of it.

      I found this excerpt from Railroad Magazine, circa 1946, on line (, which suggests to me that Quinby’s piece was probably pretty convincing, but you never know:

      Mass Transportation, a magazine which at one time represented the electric railway industry, recently devoted, its front cover, plus the first five pages, to an attempt to smear E. J. Quinby — Electric Railroaders’ Association president — the ERA, and electric railway fans in general. Cause of this unparalleled attack upon those interested in the electric field was a 36-page bulletin which Comdr. Quinby published recently on his own volition, indicating the manner in which pressure groups were attempting to gain control of electric railways for the purpose of scrapping them in favor of buses; and showing the benefits of modern streetcars of the PCC type.
      Copies of this pamphlet were distributed to operating railway companies, and also to the city fathers of localities where railways are operating. The response was immediate. Quinby was deluged with requests for extra copies, and in many of the larger U. S. cities, the best-laid schemes suddenly went awry.
      But why this bitter attack by Mass Transportation on Quinby and all railfans? Actually, it can hardly be called criticism. Rather than give any valid arguments against the issues brought out by Quinby, the magazine attempts to belittle him by pointing out the low-cost edition of the bulletin: its cheap grade of paper, and how it was printed in a “furnace basement.” As a matter of cold fact, the furnace basement is the downtown New York headquarters of the NYSME, in a tiled room.
      Looked at from all angles, the main reason for this unwarranted blast seems to stem from the fact that the writer of the article, Ross Schram, was a vice-president of the Twin Coach Corporation for seventeen years; and Twin Coach advertisements of the last decade — when he took over — reflect his general attitude toward anything operated on rails. Yet in spite of this, the use of the entire cover and the opening five pages to lampoon Comdr. Quinby is quite amazing.

  3. I met Commodore Quimby back when I was about 14 or 15, in the mid 1970s. He sometimes came to the Branford Trolley Museum (East Haven, CT), where my dad was a member. I think, among other things, they sold his books in the gift shop. We went to the Commodore’s house in New Haven at least once. Considering he was a celebrated New Jersey-ite, I don’t know why he had a residence in New Haven, but I suppose he could own houses wherever he wanted, or perhaps, being quite aged, was staying with a relative or friend when he came to the Trolley Museum. Possibly a sister who lived in the area. I don’t quite recall the details of it, just my impression from then.

    He was pleasant enough to me, but dismissive in an old-fashioned old-guy way (I was so young, and a girl besides). I just remember he was a subject of fascination to my dad, who had been a NY, NH & Hartford railroad conductor in the 1940s and early 50s, and they talked trains and gosh-knows-what while I hung around in the Victorian living room. He was a stately old man, but widely considered by the Trolley Museum members to be an obsessive on his favorite subjects, and the business of how big corporate interests had ruined electric railways was certainly one of them.

    He had written books on steamboats, another of his obsessions, and I remember trying to get through at least one of these, possibly his last work—“Annie was a Lady” (about a tramp steamer) or some such thing, and he inscribed it to my dad, in the copy he sold/presented him with. I was an avid and very advanced reader for my age, and enjoyed anything that had to do with electromechanical matters, but found his work somewhat hard to get through—he had an eccentric and convoluted writing style that was very self-indulgent; he assumed you were just as fascinated by his most detailed ruminations as he himself was. Not the easiest storyteller for a modern reader to digest, but a dedicated one.

    A very interesting old gentleman, in a way, and a piece of living history is how I recall him, by equal turns ebullient and eager to share stories or opinions, and then crablike, quickly withdrawn and inward-looking as he contemplated some problem, real or imagined. He was a vigorous old man, at least in his energy of opinion, although already well into his 80s at the time. He must’ve been quite a piece of work in his youth.

    1. Gail – It’s wonderful at this late date to see new views of Jay Quinby. He meant the world to me when I was a kid and he was a very old man – we became very close the year before he died (when I was but 15). I’ve written about him a bit here (website is under redevelopment, so here’s a backup): . If interested, I have more writing about him. Just reply or email if interested.

  4. Reblogged this on Arthur Goldwag and commented:

    This has gotten some interesting comments since I posted it, and seems, in a small way, to becoming a bulletin board for things Quinby. I am reposting it in the hope that it makes it easier for people to find.

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