Commander Edwin Quinby and the Streetcar Conspiracy of 1946

In 1974, Commander Edwin Jenyss Quinby published a book with a title as fantastic and odd as the Commander's own eclectic interests: A Few Glimpses of the Passing Scene: Involving the Strange Combination of Steam Calliopes, Steamboats, Pipe Organs, Telegraphs, Cables, Radio, Electric Railroads and Gyro Monorails. Who was Commander Quinby? Well, he was an inventor of musical instruments, an activist who fought to save a historical riverboat, a transportation buff who was tinkering with his own electric car technology in his basement. According to former BB guestblogger Arthur Goldwag -- author of Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies -- Quinby was also "one of those rare conspiracy theorists who was right."
 2011 03 1960S-Quinby-High-Hat In the 1950s, he was instrumental in efforts to save the paddlewheel riverboat The Delta Queen; he spent the final years of his life developing a prototype for an electric car in his basement. A 1960 article in American Heritage magazine describes the remote-controlled steam-powered calliope he created for the Delta Queen. At the time, he was also developing a calliope that could be installed on a trolley car–he’d helped set up a trolley museum in Branford, Connecticut so he had access to forty of them–”a kind of ‘trolleyope,’ which will use compressed air from the brake pump (the panting organ under the floor that used to go thump-thump thump when the cars paused) to play airs on various trolley bells, horns, and whistles.” Amazon lists a quaintly-titled book he published in 1974 (out of print and unavailable) that reflects the whole range of his interests: A Few Glimpses of the Passing Scene: Involving the Strange Combination of Steam Calliopes, Steamboats, Pipe Organs, Telegraphs, Cables, Radio, Electric Railroads and Gyro Monorails.

Quinby earned his footnote status in history in 1946, when he wrote a 24- (or 26- or 37-page–different accounts provide different numbers) pamphlet, ran off dozens of copies on a mimeograph machine in his basement, and mailed it to Congressmen, mayors, and city managers across the country. “This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you,” it began, “that there is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway system! Who will rebuild them for you?”

"Commander Edwin J. Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy"

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  1. The bus would have taken over eventually anyway, as they’re more flexible and economical. The idea that there was somehow a conspiracy is called the “Roger Rabbit Myth” in traffic engineer circles.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=30

    “In 1910, about 750 American cities were served by streetcars (these numbers are from Wikipedia). Conversions of streetcar lines to buses began in earnest in 1918, and by 1933, when the National City conspiracy began, more than half of these streetcar systems had gone out of business or converted to buses.

    Over the next sixteen years, when the conspiracy was active, more than 300 streetcar systems converted to buses. National City had an interest in fewer than thirty of these systems — along with at least thirty more that did not convert to buses during this time. Twelve of the National City lines that converted during this period completed the conversion in the same year that National City bought the line, suggesting that the decision to convert may have been made before National City took control.

    In 1949, when GM was convicted of conspiring to monopolize the bus market, fifty U.S. cities still had streetcars. By 1966, only six still had streetcars (two more had subways and commuter trains). In short, the GM conspiracy was associated with less than 5 percent of the disappearing streetcar lines in the country.”

    1. “The idea that there was somehow a conspiracy”

      As you admit later in your post, the conspiracy was real enough to result in conviction in court.

      Large, powerful corporations do not generally end up convicted of non-existent crimes.

      1. The point is it isn’t the *same* conspiracy. Conspiring to monopolize the bus market (the truth) is not the same as conspiring to destroy the streetcar network to replace it with buses (the myth).

        1. The point is it isn’t the *same* conspiracy. Conspiring to monopolize the bus market (the truth) is not the same as conspiring to destroy the streetcar network to replace it with buses (the myth).

          It’s even worse than that. What GM et al were actually convicted of was using unfair business practices to monopolize the sale of parts and supplies to National City Lines, the holding company they created to manage streetcar-to-bus conversions.

          Specifically, they signed exclusive-supplier requirements contracts with NCL that offered NCL below-market-rate loans to finance the purchase of parts and supplies from GM et al.

          There’s nothing illegal about exclusive-supplier requirements contracts – businesses use them all the time: you promise to buy all your parts from me, and I’ll offer you some sort of special deal – price discounts, purchase financing, etc.

          And there’s nothing illegal about offering to finance a buyer’s purchases as part of a requirements contract. It’s a commonly-used incentive.

          Where GM et al tripped up is that the Sherman Antitrust Act made it illegal to offer financing at below-market rates – as that would require companies to compete, not on quality or price of goods and services, but on ability to offer cheap financing.

          That’s what GM et al were convicted of.

          And the “slap-on-the-wrist” fines that the court imposed were an acknowledgement that the violations were technical and unintentional, a result of company financiers not being clear on the technicalities of the Antitrust Act; not some dread conspiracy to destroy competitors.

          They were also charged with “attempting to monopolize ground transportation”, but they were acquitted on those charges. with the court commenting that there was no compelling evidence of such.

          As you note, they were never charged with – much less convicted of – ~”attempting to destroy the streetcars and replace them with buses”~.

          The streetcar systems disappeared for a number of reasons, both social and economic. GM et al’s National City Lines was just an attempt to make some money from that already-in-progress transition.

          The conspiracy theory is bunk. Frequently-repeated bunk, to be sure – but bunk nonetheless.

      2. Large, powerful corporations do not generally end up convicted of non-existent crimes.

        True. But a guy can dream.

        Why, I’m thinking up non-existent crimes right now — all that remains is to convict a large, powerful corporation of committing them!

  2. One of my all-time favorite documentaries, Taken For a Ride covers the General Motors conspiracy to do away with the electric street car. I don’t recall if it discusses Quinby, however.

    Fortunately, it is available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure!

    1. One of my all-time favorite documentaries, Taken For a Ride covers the General Motors conspiracy to do away with the electric street car.

      You might be interested in Dr. Martha Bianco’s review of “Taken For a Ride” on the h-urban mailing list. She’s a professor of Urban Studies and Development at Portland State University.

      Or, more generally, her essay “Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of The Decline of Urban Mass Transit” [PDF].

  3. The sad fact is, most people will go out of their way to drive even if you give them excellent public transit — and I say that as a non-driver myself Logically, nobody should have a car in New York, London, or Paris. But the traffic in those cities is still awful.

  4. The Delta King and the Delta Queen were two of the most expensive riverboats ever built. At a time when a riverboat cost $50,000, these two were built for over $200K each. They ran from San Francisco to Sacramento. In 1946 the Delta Queen was boarded up to make her water tight and then towed down to the Panama canal during a tight window of good weather off Baja California and thence to the Mississippi.

  5. When i was home in New Orleans recently someone told me that the Delta Queen no longer has her steam powered calliope. I never knew the whole history of it, but it made me sad that the children of New Orleans today will never hear it while riding between the zoo and the aquarium.

  6. Some memes never die…

    Yes, GM conspired against LA’s Red Cars. No, GM was not the cause of the Red Car’s demise.

    GM’s role, while heinous, was more akin to an undertaker than a murderer — albeit an impatient undertaker.

    If you want to understand the rise & fall of electric commuter rail in LA, I suggest spending a day at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris. Take a delightful ride on the Red Cars (they still run on weekends), and then spend the day immersed in their archive. It’s accessible and fascinating. Basically, LA’s electric railways were a GREAT Idea from 1880 to 1920, but by 1940 it’s considerable disadvantages made it unpopular.

    Initially, Henry Huntington’s (yes, the man who created the Huntington Library with the profits) Red Cars were so successful that they literally created LA’s modern geography. For example, Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach got it’s start as a “destination” because it was the last stop for the Red Cars.

    However Red Cars had built-in drawback that led to it’s demise: it went down the middle of streets. This caused several problems:

    1. Accidents were frequent. To be useful to commuters the Red Cars needed to exceed 20 mph. That led to many pedestrian collisions, which typically resulted in ~1 hr delay. Autombiles had similar issues, of course, but the loss of time was for one driver, not the entire train.

    The result was that is took forever to get anywhere. I checked the 1920’s timetable: getting from Pasadena to Long Beach took 8 hours. It takes 45 minutes on the freeway. Even on “surface” streets it’s less than 3 hours.

    2. An additional problem was that one had to walk across a busy to street to get to the car. The archives are full of complaints from wives who had to dodge traffic, often with groceries in arms and children in tow, to use the system. Special cars were created to address this problem, but it remained unsolved. Automobiles, which could be parked adjacent to the store and in one’s house solved this problem for those who could afford a car — which, by the 1950s, was the majority.

    3. As car’s became more popular, many drivers — who were generally voters — hungrily eyed that extra lane the ever-less popular Red Cars were using. Notice how many Red Car lines got paved over.

    In the 20’s, LA fought hard to save the red car, going so far as to ban automobiles from the heart of downtown at one point . That lasted less than two months, and nearly cost the mayor his job. By the 50s, the Red Car’s had little remaining constituency.

    So yes, GM was evil. But the Red Car’s were dying anyway.

    1. Yes, GM conspired against LA’s Red Cars. No, GM was not the cause of the Red Car’s demise.

      Neither GM nor National City Lines were ever involved with the Pacific Electric Red Cars. The LA Railway’s Yellow cars, yes – but not the Red Cars.

      The LARy Yellow Cars were the local streetcar system in LA, akin to today’s local buses. The PE Red Cars were larger, faster interurbans often traveled on their own private right-of-way, more like today’s light rail and busway systems.

      (Interestingly, the rail-to-bus conversion process was already underway when NCL bought the LARy Yellow Cars, and they actually slowed down the schedule of conversions and restored some of the busier already-converted lines to rail service with modern PCC cars.)

      The Red Cars were owned by the Southern Pacific right up until they sold them to Metropolitan Coach Lines in 1951. The conversion to buses was already well underway at that time.

      Metropolitan converted many lines to buses, but some trains were still operating when the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, created by the state legislature, bought up all of Metropolitan’s assets in 1958.

      It was LAMTA that finally shut down the last of the Red Cars.

  7. Even after watching just a few minutes of _Taken for a Ride_, it’s clear that GM knew it was doing wrong: it went to considerable effort to conceal its interest, working through dummy corporations and preserving the illusion of a fair marketplace.

    And with all the sock puppetry in the news these days, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t keep doing what they’ve been doing all along.

    This comment thread reeks of corporate whitewash. I wonder how much such posts cost?

    1. No conspiracy thread is complete without accusations that debunkers are in the pay of shadowy forces is it? And yet, it is really the *promoters* of conspiracy theories that stand to make money in reality.

      1. You’re right about one thing: framing is important.

        When the rail lines got pulled up, there wasn’t much public process, it was a simple business decision.

        Now that my home town is trying to re-build some kind of real mass transit system, it’s a pie fight of epic proportions- just to rebuild to what was lost.

        When gas is $10 a gallon, all this will be a moot point, no one will be able to afford drive. The question is, how much damage are we going to do in the meanwhile?

        Capitalists don’t need to have conspiracies to get your work done, that’s just a board room meeting.

  8. Edwin Black in Internal Combustion covers the history of the GM conspiracy to eliminate street cars.

  9. As a card-carrying debunker myself, I can attest that we don’t make a whole lot of money from our vocation.

    For the record, I don’t believe that GM, Mack Truck, and Firestone killed the trolleys so much as they got caught trying to smother them in their sickbed. What moved me to write about Quinby was that this “juicefan” (as trolley nuts were called), writing deranged-sounding pamphlets in his basement, turns out to have been such a good detective–that the corporate chicanery that he uncovered was real. Some cranks really are as smart as they claim to be–and Quinby sounds like such a delightful person, too.

    He’s a salutary reminder to us debunkers that if most conspiracy theory is a product of fantasy and fanaticism, conspiracies are all too real.

  10. *** Cue 50s industry documentary music***
    *** Cue stentorian voice of announcer imitating William Jennings Bryant

    Of -course- GM’s intentions in creating those accessory organizations, in strongly encouraging local governments to play along or get pushed-aside by well-funded competitors … were all pure and virginally lily-white examples of a busy and well-intended free market actively competing against the heavy musculature and sweaty inefficiency of the hundreds of unconsolidated electric tram owners and any public power companies that helped them.

    They really meant well, and they got a wrist-slapping because their motives were pure. We can see the same thing today in the persecution of earnest reactor owners struggling to power America towards a brighter tomorrow.We see it also in Wisconsin, where a bright, forward-thinking governor is struggling to cut away the anarchic underbrush of publicly funded sinkholes to replace them with modern, private, and highly efficient solutions.

    The devils who keep trying to despoil the pristine intentions of great captains of industry should be ashamed of their desultory attempts to besmear the pillars of our modern era.

    1. Shorter @jphilby: “Anyone who disagrees with me is a deluded idiot who obviously believes exactly the opposite of what I believe in all things, and deserves nothing but mockery.”

      Got it.

  11. And with all the sock puppetry in the news these days, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t keep doing what they’ve been doing all along.

    This comment thread reeks of corporate whitewash. I wonder how much such posts cost?

    I’ve been making an effort to maintain civility in my comments here on BoingBoing, so I’m not going to go into detail about how I feel about your baseless and insulting insinuations.

    I’m a long-time student of LA history, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the history of LA’s rail transit in particular because I was deeply fascinated by how there seemed to be two very differnet narratives – one, in popular histories and oral folk tales, that told a story of dark, greedy corporate conspiracy; and another completely different story in scholarly histories, primary sources, and period documents.

    Over the years, I’ve discovered that’s a common dichotomy in LA history – it’s not, as is often claimed, that LA has no history – but that so much of it – so much of the history that ‘everybody knows’ – is completely fictional. (See also Chinatown.)

    But if you’re willing to believe that GM and its allies are still, half a century after the fact, so desperate to cover up their role in ‘destroying the streetcar’ as to resort to hiring sock puppets to post on Boing Boing – and that I’m one of those sock puppets…

    Well, another thing I’ve learned over they years is that true believers in conspiracy tales are so anxious to preserve their beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence, that they’ll immediately leap to accuse anyone who contradicts them of being a part of the dread conspiracy themselves.

    And that I shouldn’t take such accusations personally, nor even attempt to refute them, since we’re already beyond any rational argument.

    (But for those who say, “but that’s not a denial”, no, I’m not a paid shill, working for anyone. I’m just a history buff hoping to share some of the things I spent years learning.)

  12. “Edwin J. Quinby took full advantage of the great American privilege of the free press…”

    Privilege? Heh. It’s not called The Bill of Privileges.

  13. tylerh’s reasoning about the Red Car’s demise seems off to me, or American attitudes are very, very different from those in Europe and Asia. The trams in Vienna run down the middle of the busy ring roads, and pedestrians have to cross traffic, and cars have to cross the rails, and the trams are quite fast. And they are also much-loved. This is also true in several other cities I’ve visited around the world (mostly in China), cities with streets at least as busy as LA. So I think there’s probably more to it than the fact that the trains use the same right-of-way as auto traffic.

    1. The Vienna trams basically run in a very limited downtown setting. For more serious mass transit outside this very compact area (so compact that Victor Gruen got the idea of the American shopping mall from downtown Vienna), Vienna has a subway, as do large Asian cities.

      The LA trams were different — they spanned distances unimaginable to a European — many European *countries* are smaller than the LA metro area. Was this growth a good thing? Perhaps not. But Americans have this idea that single family homes with yards are the ideal and this requires urban sprawl. Europeans and Asians are more accepting of living in apartment buildings, which means cities can be more compact.

      1. The LA trams were different — they spanned distances unimaginable to a European — many European *countries* are smaller than the LA metro area.

        Indeed. This is even true compared to eastern cities in the US. You could drop NYC’s entire rail transit system into the San Fernando Valley (rotating it to align the densely-traveled Manhattan axis with Ventura Blvd., the Valley’s twenty-mile-long linear “downtown”), and still have room left over for Burbank. :-)

        And the Valley is only about half of the city of Los Angeles.

        Los Angeles – the actual incorporated city itself – is over 400 square miles. The LA metro area – LA and its immediate neighboring cities, what most locals think of as “LA” – is about 1200 square miles.

        What many outsiders think of as “LA” – everything from Disneyland to Malibu – the urbanized area of the “Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area” (that’s the “Los Angeles-Santa Ana-Riverside Combined Statistical Area” for you Census geeks), which includes not just LA County, but also Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Ventura Counties, is about 4500 square miles.

        But Americans have this idea that single family homes with yards are the ideal and this requires urban sprawl.

        The European and Eastern-seaboard US cities grew up with horse carts, carriages, and walking as the dominant modes of transport. That leads to dense, compact cities.

        LA, OTOH, grew up in the heyday of rail, and the Big Red Cars, which provided fast interurban transportation, led to sprawling residential development, with even the working people having detached homes with yards and fruit trees and sunshine – a privilege once reserved for the wealthy, while the workers crowded into dense, unsanitary city tenements.

        Read Jacob Riis’ 1890 How The Other Half Lives for a portrait of the conditions that the LA developers were trying to build an alternative to.

        It’s easy to criticize ‘sprawl’ and ‘suburbia’ from our modern-day perspective, but it’s important to understand why sprawling single-family homes were seen as a working-man’s utopia back when LA was first growing into cityhood.

        It was the electric railways that created that sprawl in the 1890s – 1920s. It was only later, in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that automobiles and then freeways supplanted and outmoded the electric railways.

        LA grew up in the era of mechanized transportation, and, for better or worse, it wasn’t designed around horse carts and pedestrians.

        As a result, the transit strategies of the 1890s – streetcars and interurban rail, which were a huge improvement over walking and horse power – aren’t nearly as well-suited to LA’s 21st-century transportation needs as they might be elsewhere.

  14. As an LA resident, I’ve heard the streetcar conspiracy theory, but have felt no particular allegiance to one reading or the other. Would it surprise me if GM had acted to curtail a form of transport that didn’t help it sell cars? Sure. Is it also possible that LA’s streetcars died a natural death? Sure. So I’ve found this discussion interesting, thank you.

    It also joggled a thought, which I offer FWIW: Regarding conspiracy theories, the issue that never really comes up is, to me, the most important one of all: if we cannot resolve the issue at hand (in this case perhaps we can, but in most events which spur conspiracy talk, lacunae in information means we cannot) what are the risks inherent in each mindset? I would say that the debunker mindset runs a risk of being vulnerable to manipulation by well-funded spin. And the conspiratorial mindset a roughly proportional risk of isolation and living in one’s own fantasy.

    YMMV, of course, but in our current world, where we have whole industries devoted to spin and information control–PR, advertising, etc–the most self-protective bias would be to distrust the well-funded opinion until it was proved correct by people without skin in the game. The conventional wisdom is created, and it’s not generally NOT created by crazy conspiracy theorists.

    Conspiracy theorists have many flaws, but–the worries of people like Cass Sunnstein aside–the possible negative impact of such thinking is small. Not so excessive faith in the pronouncements of corporations or governments. While GM may not be the bigbad behind the demise of the streetcar, to come down too hard on people who believe such a story smacks of “blaming the victim.” Conspiracy theories derive their power not from the scornful pop psych often trotted out by debunkers, but because people in positions of authority do lie. That is a truth of human behavior that one must work very hard not to see, and yet the burden of proof is usually on those wacky conspiracy theorists. Doesn’t seem fair or, to be honest, very rational.

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