by Shannon Butler

The year is 1900, and you are sailing up the Hudson River on a dayliner steamship bound for Poughkeepsie. Perhaps you are on your way to one of the many schools to attend, or you wish to see a traveling play at one of the local theaters. The best way to make your way around the city as you step off the ship’s docks was to hop on the Poughkeepsie-Wappingers Falls Trolley. The trolley system allowed for easy access to Vassar College, Wappingers Falls, and several different corners of Poughkeepsie (See map on the right). In the grand scheme of things, the trolley system didn’t last long (the bus system has been in operation longer at this point) but it still holds a bit of romanticism as a transit method of old.

In 1892, the first mention of a trolley appeared in the Poughkeepsie Eagle News which read, “Keep still. Hold your breath. Poughkeepsie is going to have an electric street railroad – probably a trolley system.” The engineering firm of Lawlor and House built the system of rails and lines through the city in 1894, with crews moving fast enough to complete half a mile a day. Some people were excited by the idea of a faster system to get through town, while others clearly didn’t like the idea of a railroad heading down the middle of their street. One prominent resident of Montgomery Street proclaimed to the Poughkeepsie Eagle News that “trolley cars will never run through that street,” and as you can see from the map, he was wrong (just a few blocks anyway). Another person mentioned that trolley cars were a menace to society and that more people were killed in trolley accidents, however, less than a year after the first trolley car set off from the garage on Main Street, the newspaper was bragging about how the motormen (trolley drivers) of this city were better than any other:

“Our electric cars have been running several months, and so far the first accident involving loss of life has yet to be reported. In Brooklyn they are killing so many that the decrease in the population is said to be noticeable. We think our motormen are entitled to hearty praise for their care. One of them told us the other day that so far he had not even struck a kitten, but took occasion to stop to let dogs and cats get out of the way.” 04-Mar-1895

Ellsworth Rhodes was the longest serving employee of the trolley. He began his career in 1888 when the trolley system was operated on a smaller level and powered by horses. He had remembered that the oldest trolleys had wooden wheels. Rhodes also recalled that he was the first motorman to take out the first of the trolleys, and he was also the last. By the 1920’s, many more trolley accidents began to appear in the news, mostly involving the newest addition to the streets, automobiles. This leads one to believe that it was the surge of new drivers flying around in their brand new Ford Model T’s that caused the majority of these accidents.

By 1927, the talk around town was that with all of the new paving projects going on, “it is probable that by 1929 there will be buses operating over the street instead of trolley cars.” That prediction was pretty close, a petition was filed for an official bus permit by the Poughkeepsie and Wappingers Falls Railway in May of 1929. Also around this time, advertisements began appearing in the newspaper to remind people of how pleasant the trolley is and to keep riding it with slogans like, “You don’t have to park your trolley car” and “Did you ever notice how real estate people refer to trolley service to help sell property?” The 25th of November of 1935 marked the last ride for the trolley cars of the city of Poughkeepsie. The event was a big deal for the guests who rode the cars around the city one last time, including Ellsworth Rhodes, who had been a motorman for over 45 years and was so emotional that he could not finish his speech.

The building that once housed the trolley cars is located on the northside of Main Street and was originally built in 1874. It has seen a lot of history over the years, including having horse stables, moving over to electric trolley cars and then to buses, suffering a fire in 1906, and then serving as an auto supply shop by the 1970s. Today it has been lovingly restored and repurposed with a focus on the arts community. It is a wonderful example of preserving a historic space and finding a way for it to serve the next generation.

Poughkeepsie Eagle News: 13 Sep 1892, 4 Mar 1895, 8 Mar 1927, 15 May 1929, 26 Jul 1935, 15 Nov 1935, 26 Nov 1935

01 – Image of Main Street, circa 1883 – LH Collections
02 – The First Trolley Run in Poughkeepsie, Poughkeepsie News Press, 11 Oct 1894 – LH collections
03 – Story of the Motormen from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News, 4 Mar 1895
04 – Two trolley cars on Raymond Ave. in front of Vassar College – LH Collections
05 – Inside the car house on Main Street, 1935 – LH Collections
06 – The intersection of Main and Market Streets showing a trolley and cars, circa 1918 – LH Collections
07 – Ad from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News in 1929