Conspiracy Killed the Streetcars

I've always wondered why streetcars went the way of the Do-Do, and now that many cities are considering using streetcars to meet their mass transit needs I think answering the question has become a little more urgent.  After all, if there were good reasons for trolleys to fall into disfavor then we need to know what they were so that we don't make the same mistakes again. I'd always assumed that it was related to the rise of the suburbs and the growing prevalence of cars in most Americans' lives, but to me that still didn't explain why trolleys disappeared in urban areas.  After all, they were already in place and why would you want to go to the expense of tearing them down to replace them with something like buses that may not add any more value to the transportation system.  Maybe buses DO have enough advantages over trolleys to make them a worthwhile replacement, but it just didn't seem logical to me.

In this interesting piece about Commander Edwin J. Quinby it seems that the demise of streetcars was precipitated in part by a conspiracy of companies and executives who would benefit directly from their fall into disfavor:

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, doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.

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