A post I did a while back on Commander Edwin J Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy still gets a fair number of clicks. Quinby is dear to me because he’s one of those rare figures who walks like a conspiracist; publishes weird, almost-unreadable broadsides like a conspiracist; ties everything up into a seamless package like a conspiracist–but, quackery or no, was basically correct.
A couple of days ago I heard from Louis Guilbault, a tram enthusiast and author of the book A Streetcar Named Conspire. He sent me a link to the above You Tube video, which is filled with wonderful archival footage. He didn’t send me the link to his book website, but you can find it here.
This is fantastic: A website called History is a Weapon has made a transcript of Edwin J. Quinby’s infamous pamphlet about the streetcar conspiracy available. If you don’t know who Quinby was, I blogged about him here; if you’re interested in reading the pamphlet (which I highly recommend), click here.
Here’s a taste:
Small wonder we have been losing our valuable electric railway utilities, right and left! The cross-country Interurban electric railways have been falling prey more readily to the depredations of the bus promoters. This is chiefly because increasingly large taxes levied upon the private-rights-of-way which the Interurbans had purchased and on which the electric railway cars could safely speed without interference from vehicular traffic, have been used for the purpose of building expensive concrete public highways parallel to the railways. Upon these highways, competing buses and trucks were given franchises to operate without having to assume the same burden of taxes as the Interurbans or even the expenses of the construction and maintenance of the highways they use. As a result, the buses and trucks can and do offer services at rates ruinous to the Interurban railways. This of course constitutes subsidy on the part of the government to the inferior and dangerous type of service offered by the buses and trucks in direct competition with the Interurban railways. The railways were in effect penalized for their superior services, and the money thus taken from them was used to actually drive them out of business by cheap competition which owns little or no taxable property. Schools and other public institutions which were formerly supported in a large measure by the interurban railways through taxes are not similarly supported by the buses and trucks. These expenses must now be paid by the local taxpayers, many of whom forsook the superior services offered by the Interurban railways to patronize the cheaper facilities of the competing buses and trucks. Thus the buses and trucks have been responsible for our losing literally thousands of miles of fine high-speed Urban electric railways. Only those Interurbans remain which are doing a sufficiently large business to show some small margin of profit in spite of this discrimination and abuse.
HAS ANYTHING BEEN LEARNED FROM THIS LESSON? IF OUR ELECTRIC STREET RAILWAYS ARE ALLOWED TO BE SIMILARLY ABUSED AND DESTROYED, WHO WILL ASSUME THEIR TAX BURDEN?
YOU ARE ENTITLED TO THIS WARNING
This is to warn you as to the exact methods employed by the Oil-Rubber-Bus-combine in depriving you of your electric railway so as to clear the field for them to sell buses—and more buses. Their methods are frequently subtle, insidious, but relentless. They persevere and employ the principle that they can make anyone believe anything if it is repeated often enough, and that if it appears in PRINT, it will carry convincing force. Your newspapers will carry an increasing amount of news items ridiculing your electric railway system, criticizing its operations, claiming that it is worn out, outmoded—and that it should be scrapped to make way for “modern” buses. You will probably notice that no suggestion is made to preserve the electric railway intact so that if the buses are tried over a suitable period of time and found wanting, you may resume electric railway operations. The established method is to immediately rip up the tracks, tear down the power wires and burn up the cars as soon as the buses are placed in operation. Thus you find yourself stuck with the buses, whether you like them or not. There is then no possible chance of correcting your mistake. THIS HAS BEEN DONE REPEATEDLY TO THE DISMAY OF CITIZENS IN MANY CITIES THROUGHOUT OUR NATION.
“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.