By Peter Rae
Saturday, December 15, 1894, was a memorable day for the citizens of Wappingers Falls. Although the Poughkeepsie & Wappingers Falls Electric Railway, an electrified trolley line connecting those two cities, had opened two weeks earlier, this was the day that many of the locals chose to try it out, maybe for Christmas shopping in Poughkeepsie’s fine stores, or maybe just out of curiosity. According to the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News, cars departing the railway’s terminus at West Main and Market Streets were full, while hundreds waited on line for the next one and extra cars were hustled into service.
Wappingers Falls had grown into a thriving manufacturing town on account of the plentiful electric power available via Wappinger Creek. Despite this, its citizens felt isolated from the rest of the world because railroads just hadn’t made it there. Materials for manufacturing had to be brought in by boat in the warm months and by wagons in the winter. The opening of the Hudson River Railroad in 1851 helped significantly. But travel for people was still limited to horseback, stagecoach, and later on horse-drawn trolleys, even though electric trolleys had been introduced in cities, including Poughkeepsie, in the 1880s. Now, in 1894, a new era was beginning for Wappingers Falls.
Later that same day, a special trolley carried over a dozen dignitaries including James W. Hinkley, the railway’s president, from Poughkeepsie to Wappingers Falls to help the village celebrate the opening with a reception and banquet at the Central Hotel on West Main Street. Following coffee and cigars there were speeches that the Eagle-News described as both “brief and interesting”. As guest of honor, Mr. Hinkley said that while Wappingers Falls had long been a beautiful village, it was almost inaccessible, that its people had long encouraged the development of the railway, and that he was pleased to lead the way to doing so.
How the Trolley Came to Wappingers
James Hinkley was a prominent Poughkeepsie businessman with many irons in the fire. Born in 1851, he was initially in the newspaper publishing business in both his hometown and New York City. Working his way up, he became editor and owner of the Poughkeepsie News-Press and later the New York Graphic, said to be the first daily illustrated newspaper in the world. He also pioneered the employment of women in the editorial departments of both newspapers.
Hinkley was also involved in the operation of The Walker Company, which manufactured electric motors and generators. So perhaps it was a short leap from building electrical equipment to using it for transportation. He purchased the Poughkeepsie City Railway Company, which operated horse-drawn trolleys along tracks laid in the streets of that city and its immediate environs, including Vassar College. Following a nationwide trend, the horses were soon replaced by electrified trolleys, and Poughkeepsie’s urban trolley system was born.
Then, following a second nationwide trend, this one for “interurban” service between two or more urban areas, Hinkley reorganized the company as the Poughkeepsie City & Wappingers Falls Electric Railway Company and, in 1894, opened a new branch line to the Falls city.
At its northern end, the Poughkeepsie City & Wappingers Falls Electric Railway started at the Hudson River Railroad station along the river and wound its way up the hill to Poughkeepsie’s main commercial area along Main Street. There the route turned south along the Albany Post Road (then little more than a wide dirt path), in part following what has now become today’s four- and six-lane Route 9. At the intersection of New Hackensack Road, the Post Road and the railway curved to the right on what is now Route 9D, the Old Post Road, and followed it all the way into Wappingers Falls, ending on West Main Street just to the west of the stone bridge. Some years later the line was extended another 200 feet along Garvan Street to facilitate both trolley and non-trolley traffic.
The Impact of the Interurban
In his best-selling novel Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow wrote of a short-lived but important phenomenon in the United States. Speaking of the early 1900s, he wrote: “There was in these days of our history a highly developed system of interurban street railway lines. Once could travel great distances on hard rush seats or wooden benches by taking each line to its terminus and transferring to the next.”
Doctorow then described the travels of an elderly immigrant man down on his luck in New York City, with his daughter, a little girl of six or seven. Over a period of several days they traveled from New York to Lawrence, Massachusetts, taking a dozen or more trolleys to the end of their respective lines and transferring to the next one for as little as a single penny. The father calculated the overall cost: about $2.40 for himself, a little more than a dollar for his daughter.
The Poughkeepsie & Wappingers Falls trolley was just one small component of this vast network of interurban trolleys, which at its peak consisted of more than 220,000 route miles nationwide. But while it lasted, it was quite popular. In addition to shoppers, it carried commuters to Poughkeepsie offices in the morning and brought them home at night. There was also a reverse commute, as factory workers came from Poughkeepsie to work in Wappingers Falls’ mills. Additional riders were picked up and dropped off at the various stations in between. Business was brisk; the Eagle-News reported that on a single Wednesday in 1906 more than 24,000 riders used the service.
The Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, which is along the current Route 9 south of the city, was opened in 1851 to offer a place for funeral services outside of the city, yet still near enough to it for loved ones to visit easily. The trolley line went right by the cemetery, and Mary Hinkley, wife of the railway president, donated funds enabling the cemetery to build a comfortable waiting shelter just inside the main gate. The line’s marketing department noted that not only could Poughkeepsie-ites visit their dearly departed more easily and comfortably, but that the cemetery was also a fine place for a picnic!
The newspapers of the day reported a number of incidents that most certainly broke the sometimes monotonous routine of commuting by rail. Many happened on the hill from Poughkeepsie’s business center down to the railroad station by the river, particularly on wet and icy days. The Eagle-News once reported passengers tried to jump off a trolley sliding down the hill, but the conductor shut the doors so they couldn’t. He said afterward they’d be safer inside the car instead of jumping out of it, and he was right; the car stayed upright and no one was hurt. Another time, the paper described a carful of Vassar girls sliding down the hill accompanied by considerable screaming. No one was hurt this time, either.
“Miscreants” once smeared oil on a downhill portion of the tracks about 2-1/2 miles from Wappingers Falls. A trolley headed for Poughkeepsie with mostly theatregoers hit the greased rails and skidded to the bottom of the hill, but again, it stayed upright and none of the 50 passengers was hurt.
In 1916, a chauffeur-driven Buick roadster crashed into the side of a trolley and suffered severe damage while the trolley, practically unscathed, was allowed to continue on its way. While the automobile came out second best in this particular encounter, it may have been the last time.
The End of the Line
Eventually, the internal combustion engine replaced the electric trolley both in cities and between them. A trickle of cars and trucks in the 1900s became a flow in the 1910s and a flood after World War I. Tracks were replaced by paved streets as people recognized the flexibility of busses, and even more importantly, of their own automobiles.
Throughout the 1920s traffic on the Poughkeepsie & Wappingers Falls Electric Railway continued to decline. In 1928, the State was planning to repave the Albany Post Road and asked the railway to relocate its tracks so this could be done. As it was now losing money, the railway went one step beyond, shutting down the line altogether and transferring its interest in the right-of-way to Dutchess County. The County, in turn, removed the tracks and set up bus service.
Trolley service continued in the City of Poughkeepsie until 1935, when it, too, was replaced by busses. The final day of trolley service proved to be a most fitting end. A special ceremony was arranged for the last trolley on the Raymond Avenue line, which served Vassar College. As this trolley approached the end of the line where a group of Vassar students was waiting, the Miscellany News reported that an enthusiastic rider had pulled the trolley’s whistle so often that it “drained all the air out of the compression tanks and left the brakes without any holding power whatsoever,” and the trolley derailed by “going past the end of the track and onto the pavement.”
Nevertheless, the Miscellany News further reported that a brief ceremony followed, and the line’s oldest operator, one Ellsworth Rhodes, who had joined the railway nearly 40 years previously “when the cars had wooden wheels and were drawn...by horses,” was presented with a basket of flowers. “It’s kind of a heart-breaker,” said Mr. Rhodes.
Special thanks for their input to this article go to J. E. Hammond of the Grinnell Public Library, Wappingers Falls, and Evan Jennings of the Trolley Museum of New York, Kingston.