December 5, 2021

How electric trolleys transformed Cortland County

Photos of trolley provided by Cortland County Historical Society

The Cortland County Traction Co. trolley ran across Cortland, Homer and even to Preble in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century — the first major effort at public transportation in the greater Cortland area.

On a bright summer morning, Mr. John Q. Public walks out his front door at precisely 7:55 a.m. Brrrring. Brrrring Mr. Public looks up, and there it is, right on time, heading south on Main Street: his ride to work.

He strolls to the curb, and the gleaming steel-and-chrome conveyance, powered entirely by electricity, glides to a stop. Mr. Public climbs aboard, buys a ticket and takes a seat.

It’s clean, it’s efficient, it’s social: It’s a vision of municipal health.

This isn’t a glimpse of the future; it’s a reminder of the past. This is Cortland a century ago, when electric trolleys ranged the streets, shuttling north to Homer and Preble and west to McGraw.

Today, public transportation with a low-carbon footprint is the ideal. Back then, this wasn’t a consideration, and the electricity used came from a coal-fired power plant. But more than a century ago, electricity-powered public transportation was born of necessity, and it worked.

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CORTLAND COUNTY TRACTION CO.

Round Trip Excursion on either Homer or McGraw lines for 10 Cents, during the summer

GET TICKETS OF THE CONDUCTOR DEALERS IN ELECTRIC LIGHT The only MODERN LIGHT — Economical and Safe. CARS MEET ALL TRAINS……… LINE PASSES FAIR GROUND ENTRANCE
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So read an advertisement for the Cortland County Traction Co., the final incarnation of the company that ran the city’s trolley service and helped boost the business of the city’s fledgling electric power company.

That trolley system served the greater Cortland area for 36 years, from its inaugural run Jan. 23, 1895, to its last, Feb. 15, 1931.

Cortland’s trolley moved people from Cortland to Homer to Preble and Little York, with a stop at what is now Dwyer Park.

On its peak day of service, during the county fair of 1909, it collected 19,000 fares. It helped nudge Cortland past the era of horse-drawn transportation and into a new century powered by electricity and the internal combustion engine.

In the 19th century, public transportation came in three modes: trains, horse-drawn omnibuses and stagecoaches. Trains didn’t service every location, so the omnibuses and stagecoaches were useful to cover the areas the trains couldn’t.

Then there was a hybrid: the horsedrawn railway. That provided the basis for what, with the introduction of electricity, would later become Cortland County’s electric trolley system.

Initially, the Cortland and Homer Horse Railroad did exactly what its name advertised. Starting in 1882, it ran daily train cars between Cortland and Homer using horsepower.

But by the early 1890s, electricity was spreading across the world. Horses, a ubiquitous part of every urban landscape, were no longer necessary. In fact, they would quickly become a nuisance and even a danger.

The new horseless carriages didn’t spook or kick or defecate in the street. They were silent and smooth — and maybe even a little too slick for some people to trust them at first.

The first company to capitalize on the new technology, Cortland & Homer Traction Co., was incorporated in 1894. But it needed electricity. It turned to the only game in town — the Cortland & Homer Electric Co., founded just three years before. Because the power company’s existing power plant didn’t produce enough electricity for the trolley system, the two young companies joined forces and built a new and larger power plant in 1894.

The building still exists: it’s among a group of buildings at the Cortland County Highway Department facility on what is today Traction Drive. Completed March 1895, the building had five 264-horsepower boilers and five 350-horsepower steam engines. The plant put out 600- volt DC electricity for the trolleys and 2,200-volt AC for homes and businesses. It would operate for the next 36 years.

The energy wasn’t exactly green. While the trolleys gave off no emissions, the power plant definitely did: The boilers were coal-fired.

But the entire operation was locally sourced. The power plant was built by a local contractor, J.S. Bull, and the trolley cars were local, too, built first by the Cortland Omnibus and Cab Co., and later by the Ellis Omnibus and Cab Co., which absorbed the other company in 1896, and was in turn bought out by the Brockway Motor Truck Co. in 1912.

Kevin Conlon/city editor

The former Cortland & Homer Electric Co. power plant is located in the Cortland County Highway Department complex off Traction Drive in Cortland.

One of the out-of-town purchases, a mail car, didn’t come from very far away: It was bought, lightly used, from the Ithaca Street Railway.

The de-horsification of the trolley system went fast. Less than a year after the trolley company was founded, the first trolley car ran the rails from Cortland to Homer on Jan. 23, 1895.

“Horse cars in Cortland are a thing of the past,” read an article in the Jan. 24 edition of the Cortland Evening Standard. “The streets now resound with the loud clang of the motorman’s gong and the trolley car glides along with its invisible power of locomotion.”

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This was not a local phenomenon. By the early 20th century, electric trolley lines hummed in cities across the world: The August 1918 edition of the “McGraw Electric Railway List” lists 1,336 electric railroad companies in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, Panama and various Caribbean islands.

Within a week of the Cortland car’s first run, the new electric line was running cars every half hour between Cortland and Homer. As the electric trolley caught on, the company laid down tracks and added new routes. The trolley system didn’t carry only people, it also carried mail and freight. Milk, too.

McGraw came next. The franchise was granted May 27, 1895. Three months later, by Aug. 30, trolleys offered regular daily service to and from McGraw.

In that time, five gangs of 178 men built a bridge connecting Elm Street in Cortland to the east bank of the Tioughnioga. The contractor — again, another local operation — was the Groton Bridge Co.

This leg of the trolley also stopped at a 150-acre park at the base of Salisbury Hill on the east side of the river. The park, built in 1895 by the trolley company, had a menagerie of monkeys, deer and rabbits, as well as a black bear.

That park was overshadowed and eventually abandoned after the creation in 1906 of Little York Park, now known as Dwyer Park. The Traction company also built this park, and then extended the Homer line north into Preble. The park officially opened for Memorial Day of 1906; the Preble line was finished Aug. 18, 1906.

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In the 36-year history of the railroad, there appears to have been only one fatal accident. A trolley car collided with a milk train, killing two trolley passengers. The motorman was charged with second-degree manslaughter; it’s unclear if he was convicted.

The accident was a major blow to the trolley company, leading to its dissolution and re-formation as the Cortland County Traction Co. The new company reached a financial peak in 1917, after which annual profits continued to drop.

The company raised fares in 1920 to compensate, but the end was near. Ticket prices were going up, post-war economic conditions were rough and buses and automobiles offered new competition.

Part of that competition came from Cortland County Bus Lines — a subsidiary of the forwardlooking trolley company.

The beginning of the end came in 1928, when the Mohawk-Hudson Power Co., interested mainly in the power station, bought the trolley company. The trolley service’s routes were gradually phased out over a few years.

The Preble line kept running in 1928 and 1929 mainly to transport kids to school in Homer, but that stopped April 1, 1929. By April 22, the rails were being torn up and sold for scrap.

The main lines, between Cortland and Homer, and Cortland and McGraw, kept running until 1931. The final run to McGraw occurred Feb. 13, four days after bus service began. The last trolley car ran Feb. 15, 1931, between Cortland and Homer. The internal combustion engine was triumphant.