When Trolleys Came to Fulton

I’ve always been interested in how people got from one place to another back in the days before every household had a car. From what I’ve learned, it seems that early methods of transportation weren’t only about getting people where they needed to go; they were also an exciting experience, something to talk about around the dinner table. In the early 1900s, suppertime conversation in Fulton might have been about trolleys.

Recently, Dick Drosse, one of the stewards of our Great Bear Trail System, shared some information about the trolleys that once came through Fulton. “As I understand it,” Dick told me, “there were regular official stops the trolleys made between Syracuse and Oswego, but you could also get off at alternate locations. I’ve heard that people would get off at Great Bear and hike down to the Spring House or Gazebo to enjoy views of the Oswego River.”

Evidence that trolleys once came through the Great Bear Trails include a raised and graded rail bed with concrete footings. Finding them on the property prompted Dick to research the unique transportation system. I visited some of the websites Dick found that covered the history of Central New York trolleys and here’s what I learned:

Trolleys were an electric rail system, developed primarily to transport passengers. In the early 1900s it was common to see these streetcar-like railcars throughout New York (and other states). Electricity to power the trolleys was sent through a single cable called a catenary wire. Atop each trolley’s roof, a whip-like apparatus known as a pantograph collected power by making contact with the overhead wire.  

According to one website, the electricity to drive trolleys was created at a plant in Lyons, New York, and was then distributed to substations by way of catenary wires. Alternating Current (AC) from the plant ran through the substations’ transformers and was sent to the trolleys as Direct Current (DC). Since DC power can only be sustained for about five miles, the substations were built intermittently along routes. A few old timers in Fulton told me that once the trolley system stopped operating, those substations were turned into storage space by farmers and landowners.

Since trolleys were designed to travel ten, twenty, or more miles, catenary wires had to span great distances. To accommodate this, steel-framed catenary “bridges” were constructed, each 30 feet long and extending over the width of trolley beds. The bridges were placed every 200 feet on a trolley’s route and Dick confirmed that the measurements he’s taken of Great Bear’s trolley remnants match those dimensions.

I asked some lifelong Fultonians if they were aware of the trolleys and I heard stories about childhood afternoons spent playing in farm fields or overgrown meadows, where abandoned trolley beds lay waiting to be discovered. They described those areas where tracks once went through as cinder-filled, and the websites about local trolleys confirmed that cinders would have been available in large amounts from the Solvay Process Company.

One of the farms that trolleys went through was the Taylor dairy farm, located on Route 57 between Fulton and Phoenix. Fran Sullivan is a member of the Taylor family and she has some memories associated with the trolleys:

“Our farm was in the area where the new State Troopers barracks are on old Route 57. By the time I came along, the trolley system was long gone, but our family owned the land that trolley tracks were on from Fulton to Phoenix. The tracks ran behind my grandparents Irvin and Rose Taylor’s house and barn.

“Grandma Taylor played in a band and I heard stories that when she was younger she rode the trolley into Syracuse for their performances.  As I was growing up, my brother and I used the abandoned trolley track bed to drive our farm vehicles. For fun, he and I rode our bikes on the bed, sometimes using it for a quick path into town.”

A little more from my research on trolleys: The various rail systems in our area eventually created a company known as the Syracuse, Lake Shore and Northern Railroad, founded in 1905.  Originally the line ran from Syracuse to Baldwinsville, with a single stop at the New York State Fairgrounds. Six years later, the company had 13 trolleys leaving Syracuse daily for various points around Central New York.

The Syracuse trolley company changed its name to the Empire State Railroad and it thrived until 1931, when automobiles gained mass popularity. A map of the areas Empire served shows one set of tracks moving through the towns of Savannah, Sodus and Weedsport, heading for Rochester; another set heading toward Central Square; and then a third line to Oswego, with stops at Phoenix, Fulton and Minetto.

With a trolley’s average speed of nine miles per hour, nobody was getting anywhere fast, but I imagine the slower pace added to the enjoyment of those traveling for pleasure.  Along with destinations like Great Bear, our area’s trolley lines also traveled right through Fulton, making stops at Recreation Park’s Lake Neatahwanta and downtown Fulton’s popular Dizzy Block.

While I thought that the trolleys’ main function was to move people back and forth between Syracuse and smaller Central New York towns, I found out they were also an important way to get around our town. Fultonian Bob Green remembers as a young child waiting for the trolley to take him into downtown Fulton from his home on Route 48 near where Brennan’s Vegetable Stand is today.

One more fact I learned about the trolley’s service to our community: They weren’t always powered by electricity. Newspapers from Fulton’s late 1800s and early 1900s show horse-drawn trolley cars making their way from West Broadway to Hannibal Street by way of the busy downtown area. Maybe that’s a topic for a future column, where we can further explore how people used to get around in the city of Fulton.

Trolley cars from Syracuse were once a primary method of transportation for people in Central New York.

Trolley cars from Syracuse were once a primary method of transportation for people in Central New York.