The Return of the Greenpoint Trolley?

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With Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of an imminent light rail line along the East River, history could be preparing to repeat itself.

For many years, Greenpoint had only two mass transit options: the ferry and the trolley. Both could soon play a huge role in local mass transit, so let’s recall the history of the Greenpoint Trolley.

The first horse-drawn trolley line in Greenpoint dates back to before the Civil War, in the 1850s. Eventually, there were five major trolley lines: The Graham Avenue Line, The Lorimer Street Line, The Nassau Avenue Line, The Franklin Line, and The Crosstown Line.

In the 1890s, the trolleys were electrified, and the terminus of the large Brooklyn Trolley system was located at Box Street in Greenpoint. The large trolley barn that existed there burned down many years ago, but because many of the cars were stored here, it is not surprising that many local residents were Trolley car conductors or Trolley workers.

In 1895, Greenpoint saw its most violent labor agitation ever during the Great Trolley Strike. Workers felt they should be paid for every hour on the job, but the trolley company said they should only be paid for time spent actually driving the trolleys. The workers went on strike, and when the company brought in replacements, violence ensued. Lines were cut, trolley windows smashed, and flaming barricades set up. There was a near riot on Manhattan Avenue as locals tried to beat the replacement conductors. The violence was so bad that the state militia had to be called in. The strikers lost, but memories of the strike lingered here for generations.

Trolley service lasted in Brooklyn until the 1950s. What killed it? Some say an insidious plot by corporate America was behind the push to get people to drive cars and ride buses in lieu of using mass transit. Bob Diamond of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association claims that General Motors and other big companies were behind a nefarious scheme to kill trolleys. According to Diamond, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires—noticing that the privately held electric streetcar franchises around the country were up for renewal— expanded their business in the mid 1920s by forming a devious holding company called National City Lines. Using both legal and illegal tactics, the NCL gained control over 40 American streetcar companies, with the first takeover in Manhattan.

“NCL gained control of the streetcar franchise by bribing elected officials, and immediately ripped out the tracks, wires, and streetcars, replacing them with GM buses (formerly their Yellow Coach Div., now called Nova Bus, located in Canada in the very same GM bus factory), burning Standard Oil gasoline (later diesel), and rolling on Firestone tires,” he told Gothamist. Poor bus service offered by NCL also frustrated people, convincing them to buy cars.

Some of the local bus routes today follow the trolley routes of old. For example, the B48 line follows the old Lorimer Street Trolley Line. You can often see the old tracks partially buried in local streets. The new line, however, would probably run along West Street, which never had a trolley line.

Perhaps soon, the trolley bell will be heard again in Greenpoint.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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