NOTE: In the following pages is a rough draft of a history of Owensboro, Kentucky, public transportation. It is still in the writing/editing stages. The completed document should be finished and uploaded by the end of August 2019. A good deal more information and necessary corrections will be contained in the finished book.
Among the hundreds of transit company histories outlined on this website, why does Owensboro, Kentucky’s, transit history rate its own separate page? It’s really quite simple.
Owensboro is my hometown and I grew up there using city buses. More importantly, it was my experiences on those buses in the 1950s and 1960s that sparked my love affair with public transit—well, that and my Greyhound bus trip to St. Louis in the late 1950s, which I discuss on the homepage. So, Owensboro’s transit history holds a special place in my life, which is why it has it’s own special place on my website!
Regarding the materials used in this history, in the late 1960s I began clipping transit news from my hometown newspaper, the Messenger and Inquirer, and keeping it in a file. As my interest in public transit developed, in 1969 I made a trip to the newly-built Messenger and Inquirer building to research back issues of their newspaper. Down in the recesses of that basement I carefully leafed through 60+ years of yellowed newspapers in search of transit information. Of course, back then I had to hand-copy my findings in a notebook.
Things greatly improved after those papers were copied onto microfilm and deposited in the Kentucky Room of the Owensboro-Daviess County Public Library—when it was still located at 450 Griffith Avenue. This innovation proved to be a small gold mine since I found a lot of material I had overlooked in the Messenger and Inquirer‘s basement.* The one drawback was the lack of an index, meaning it was a tediously slow process rolling through page after page, year after year, looking for transit news; but this method was a lot easier than going through the actual newspapers and hand-turning the fragile pages. And praise be to modern technology when I could finally make photocopies directly off the microfilm!
Add to those clippings and notes my collection of photos, postcards and other memorabilia from Owensboro’s transit past, and you have an overview of the materials I have used to create this page.
I will take this opportunity to thank the Messenger-Inquirer for their help creating this page, and especially for permission to use their old newspaper photographs and articles. (The reader may note that I use two forms of spelling for the Messenger and Inquirer. Prior to October 11, 1974, the paper was produced as the “Messenger and Inquirer,” whereas after that date and currently it is produced as the “Messenger-Inquirer.” I use both spellings in this history depending on the referenced year.)
And one more thing:
Before I pipe down, let me state that I take full responsibility for the accuracy of my research, any grammatical errors, “missspppelleed” words, puns and occasional editorializing. Regarding that last notation, I want to make it clear that my opinions in no way reflect on those who have generously contributed to this work. Also, please feel free to contact me with any corrections, suggestions and additions you’d like to pass on. They will be much appreciated!
Oh, and since I’m not being paid by someone to research and write this stuff, I’m going to indulge my colloquial instinct and write as though you and I were sittin’ barefoot in a porch swing passin’ the time of day!
(*In a December 5, 2018, telephone conversation with Keith Lawrence, a long-time reporter for the Messenger-Inquirer, I was informed that when the newspaper made the move into its new building, the management dumped decades worth of original newspaper photographs in the dumpster behind the old downtown building. As to the hard-bound newspaper volumes I had so carefully researched (and handled), I was informed that some years back the management decided they needed the room and sold them for $1 each. The man who bought them eventually destroyed them in a bonfire.)
If you were going to write a history of Owensboro, Kentucky’s, public transportation, where would you start? Yeah, well that’s what I did. But, I soon discovered there were very few books or articles that even mention the subject, let alone offer a lot of details. Of course, that wasn’t surprising—after all, how many people really want to read a history of public transportation, be it in Owensboro or any other place on the map? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, since we both know the answer is somewhere around zilch!
Now, when I refer to “a history of Owensboro, Kentucky’s, public transportation” I mean the whole ball of wax, i.e., horse-drawn vehicles, vehicles that ran on rails and those that ran on rubber tires—and yes, water too! The few articles I found about Owensboro public transportation give an informative outline of the city’s streetcars with little or no mention of any other forms of public transportation. Fair enough, streetcars are as good as place as any to start, so part one, chapter one will begin there. After that, for those who are still with me, I’ll delve into the other forms of public transportation mentioned above.
ANYONE WANT TO START A STREETCAR COMPANY?
As far as I’ve been able to find, the earliest history of Owensboro’s streetcars was produced on page 9, of the Sunday, June 10, 1934, edition of The Owensboro Messenger: “Owensboro’s Public Transportation System Is Changed From Mule Cars to Trolleys, To Buses In Fifty Years.” In that article the founding of Owensboro’s first streetcar system was dated to 1884.
Forty-one years later reporter Keith Lawrence wrote an article for the Friday, September 26, 1975, edition of the Messenger-Inquirer: “Historic transport Streetcars stirred excitement in Owensboro.” Although very well written, essentially it followed the outline of the earlier article. In 1979 Owensboro-Daviess County Public Librarian Shelia E. Brown (later Shelia Brown Heflin) wrote a brief history of Owensboro’s streetcars for the National Railway Bulletin. Also well written, it too followed the outline of earlier articles. In 2011 Charles H. Bogart produced Yellow Sparks Over the Bluegrass Streetcars and Interurbans of Kentucky. Again, it was well written, but followed the essentials of those works that went before. Well, that formula works for me, except I’m going to add a lot of missing details to the history of Owensboro’s streetcars!
To do that, let’s start with this editorial on page 3 of the Wednesday, December 19, 1877, edition of the Owensboro Messenger in which the anonymous editor is trying to whip up support to build a streetcar system:
“Street Railway. While the project has not reached that point of perfection that we can insure its completion, yet a city railway is being strongly talked of among some of our capitalist, and needs but little encouragement to fix it as a certainty. A prominent railroad man has proposed to lay the track for a mile and a quarter up and down Main street, and equip it with four handsome cars for quite a reasonable sum, and doesn’t want any pay for his work until the track is completed and in running order. There is no doubt that the enterprise would pay. Owensboro is becoming metropolitan in length and breadth as well as in other particulars, and a walk over town is by no means quickly accomplished. A street railway, then, is the thing. Let a meeting of the citizens be called and let’s see what can be done toward this enterprise.”
We’ll follow this up with an excerpt from an editorial on page 1 of the Friday, December 28, 1877, edition of The Owensboro Examiner:
“We have not the least objection to the individual enterprise of building a street railroad in our city, nor to any other enterprise that would conduce to the convenience and comfort of our citizens.”
Talk, talk, talk, but no action; seven months later a brief, but terse observation was published on page 5 of the August 9, 1878, edition of The Owensboro Examiner:
“A town that will support gas-works, water-works, several first-class hotels, and other metropolitan features, would not suffer a street railway to perish for the lack of patronage. Thus do we verily believe.”
Another year passed and still a street railway was in the talking stages, although it seems some positive steps had been taken. Page 3 of the Wednesday, August 20, 1879, edition of the Owenboro Messenger relayed the good news:
“A street railway in Owensboro is almost assured. The company is composed of young men exclusively, and already several thousand dollars of stock has been taken. Application will be made to the city council at once for the right of way, and if the proper franchises are granted work will commence immediately. Among those who have taken stock are Messrs. W. T. Ellis, John G. Weir, W. A. Stuart and Jas. J.Sweeney.”
Despite the editorializing and positive prognostication, two years later a streetcar system was still in the talking stages. However, there seemed to be a glimmer of progress, as this editorial on page 3 of the August 9, 1881, edition of the Owensboro Messenger, cautiously announced:
“The Street Railway Project. Acting upon our suggestion that Owensboro should have a street railway, Mr. W. E. Parrish, an enterprising citizen, has taken the matter in hand and is having proper papers prepared with a view of getting the matter in a business shape before the people. . . . We hope that every citizen will feel that it is incumbent upon him to do all in his power to further the success of the enterprise, and act accordingly. If this is done Owensboro will have a street railway in a very short time.”
The above was followed by more positive predictions:
Wednesday, August 17, 1881: “The street railway is looming. Five thousand dollars of stock have been taken already . . . The line will be built beyond doubt.”
Wednesday, September 7, 1881: “The stockholders in the street railway will meet in a few days for organization.”
Wednesday, October 5, 1881: “Nearly $7,000 of stock has been subscribed to the street railway, and the stockholders will soon meet to organized the company. It is the intention of those who have the matter in hand to organize the company, procure franchises from the city and get the estimates of the cost of building line in time to commence the work of construction early in the spring. Street cars will certainly be running on Main street before this time next year.”
Well, the “this time next year” prediction missed the mark, but let’s overlook that gaffe and skip three years ahead to 1884 when a streetcar system was actually born.
DING-DING—IS THAT A STREETCAR I SEE YONDER?
Since we already know that 1884 was the big year in Owensboro’s public transportation history, what is needed here are the details. To do that we’ll start with page 2 of the Wednesday, March 19, 1884, edition of the Messenger & Examiner, which announced that Kentucky Senator James A. Munday (1843-1918) had secured the passage of an act by the Senate of the Kentucky General Assembly to incorporate the Owensboro City Railroad Company (OCR).
Next is the 1884 city ordinance of the Common Council of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, which was adopted on the 28th day of July, 1884, and reported on page 1 of the Tuesday, August 5, 1884, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“That under and by virtue of an act of the General Assembly of the State of Kentucky, entitled ‘An act to incorporate the Owensboro City Railroad Company,’ approved April 8th, 1884; and under and by virtue of the powers find authority vested in the Mayor and Council of the city of Owensboro, Ky., said Mayor and Council hereby gives, grants to and vests in James M. Alsop, W. A. Hauser, R. A. Miller and E.T. Halsey, and their associates, as a body politic and corporate under the name and style of the ‘Owensboro City Railroad Company,’ and their successors and assigns, consent, permission and full authority to locate, survey and construct a street Railway, with single and double tracks for passenger railway lines, with all the tracks for turnouts, side-tracks and switches, in, upon and along the course of all streets of said city of Owensboro, and to keep, maintain, use and operate thereon railway cars and carriages, in the manner, for the time and upon the conditions hereinafter presented. . . . The cars to be used on such tracks shall be operated with animal power only, and said tracks and railways shall be used to transport passengers and their ordinary baggage.”
Even with the necessary papers signed, sealed and delivered by Mayor James K. Tharp (1845-1912) and the council, it took another eighteen months before a streetcar hit the rails. When that happened, page 4 of the February 17, 1887, edition of The Owensboro Daily Messenger carried the story:
“A GREAT DAY FOR OWENSBORO The Commencement of the Running of Street Cars Provokes Great Enthusiasm. The running of the street-cars was commenced yesterday afternoon with great eclat. The enthusiasm from one end of town to the other was almost as intense as when [President Grover] Cleveland was elected. Al Field’s brass band was on board the first car. The car was decked with flags, bunting and banners, and four mules adorned with flags pulled it. Supt. Lanier held the reins and Hostler Washburne presided over the brake. Nat Alsop, Steve Powers and Ab [Albert D.] Powers were masters of ceremonies and all of their several and numerous sweethearts were invited to take a free ride. Afterward the politicians, newspaper men, dead beats and one or two gentlemen were hauled over the line.
“After the performance at the opera house a pay trip up town was made. The cars will run regularly today and hereafter from Main and Triplett to Frederica and Fifth, the present limits of the line, and everybody is invited to ride—at 5 cents.”
On the following day more than 600 people paid their 5¢ fare to ride over 3.75 miles of track, with the company having seven cars and 19 mules at the ready. Thereafter citizens without access to a horse or carriage, had an alternative to walking, while those with the convenience of a horse and/or carriage didn’t have to saddle the critter or hitch it to a carriage for travel to work, shopping or church. By all accounts Owensboro City Railroad was a success!
(At this point it should be noted that contemporary newspapers, and indeed Owensboro City Railroad itself, sometimes used the business name “Owensboro Street Railway Company” in articles and ads. Examples can be found in a Tuesday, June 7, 1887, news item noting that the “Owensboro Street Railway Co.” had built an addition to its car stables on Main Street between Triplett and Pearl Streets. This was followed two months later by another report that the “Owensboro Street Railway Company” had extended a line from Fourth Street out Breckinridge Street to the fair grounds and Elmwood Cemetery. I make a note about these interchangeable names here to avoid any confusion when citing later references.)
It may have been a grand start, but during its first year of operation the company was about to taste the realities of operating a streetcar system, i.e., it was faced with the first of many lawsuits.
Back in 1887 there were no shortage of wagon/carriage drivers, horseback riders and pedestrians who thought they could beat one of those “newfangled” streetcars to a crossing. If the driver or pedestrian survived the encounter, the result was usually a lawsuit. Louis Sublett was one of those miscalculating unfortunates. In November 1887 he attempted to beat an “Owensboro Street Railway Company” streetcar to a crossing with his hay wagon. Well, Louie didn’t make it and found himself airborne in a shower of hay and wood splinters. The result was a broken shoulder, along with some other other injuries—and his filing a lawsuit against the streetcar company for $20,000! Over the coming years lawsuits would become a fact of life for Owensboro City Railroad, or “Owensboro Street Railway Company,” as it was referred to in the newspaper account.
On February 28, 1889, an ad printed in the newspaper wherein “The Street Railway Co.” advertised their rates for “whole tickets” at 100 for $3, 50 for $1.65, 30 for $1, 13 for 50¢ and 6 for 22¢; “half tickets” were 100 for $2, 47 for $1, 23 for 50¢, 11 for 25¢ and 2 for 5¢.
Cheap enough tickets, from whichever company was selling them, but by 1889 the use of mule power was wearing thin with Owensboroans.
In the days of kerosene lamps (we called ’em “coal-oil” lamps when I was growing up) and burning coal or wood for heat, fires were an ever-present danger in both home and business. Add hay to the equation and you had a recipe for disaster.* Disaster struck at 4:15 a.m. on Wednesday, November 26, 1890, when Owensboro City Railroad’s barn, located at Main and Pearl Streets, erupted in flames. Page 3 of the Thursday, November 27, 1890, edition of the Owensboro Weekly Messenger reported the details:
“YESTERDAY’S FIRE. ENTIRE OUTFIT OF THE STREET CAR COMPANY BURNED. The Damage to be Repaired as soon as Possible The Loss is $13,000; Insurance, $8,850.
“Although necessarily very brief, the announcement of the burning of the street car stables in yesterday’s Messenger gave the substance of the horrible story. Nineteen mules were burned to death. Only one out of the entire, lot escaped, and that was badly burned. All the harness, tools and everything else in the stable, including a large quantity of feed, went the same way.
“The loss is placed by Mr. J. N. Alsop at $13,000. The insurance is $8,850, divided among the various companies and agencies as follows” Aetna, $2,750, Stirman & Pedley; Fireman’s Fund, $1,100, J. C. Rudd, Son & Co.; Home, $3,000, J. C. Rudd, Son & Co.; Liverpool, London and Globe, $2,000, Wandling Bros. & Lyddane.
“The citizens were afoot yesterday, and they are likely to remain so several days yet. Mr. R. H. Neeley, the superintendent, will begin , buying mules at once for the cars, and a new outfit of rolling stock will be purchased as soon as the insurance losses are adjusted, which will be in a very few days, as the insurance people will look on it as a sort of an emergency case and deal with it promptly.
“The street car people believe the fire to have been of incendiary origin, but they have no suspicion of any one, and as the fire started in the rear of the stable, where there had been no fire or light, the suspicion seems to be reasonable.
“Willis Tyler and Tom Callahan, two of the drivers, were sleeping in the office and they barely had time to escape with their lives. Both left their clothing in the burning building, and Tyler had his log badly cut by jumping through a a window.”
(*There were three large stable fires in Owensboro during 1890: Terrill’s stable, the Street Railroad stable and Johnson & Johnson’s stables. The result was forty horse and mules being burned to death, along with a great financial loss.)
While most people struggled to get over the shock of losing their streetcar company, and the pitiful thought of the trapped mules burning to death, one Owensboro merchant decided to use the catastrophe as an advertising gimmick. L. Goldsmith placed this Sunday, November 30, 1890, ad in a local paper.
“WHY WE WALK! EVERYBODY knows that we have to walk because the burning of the street-car stable, together with the rolling stock and live stock, necessarily prevents us from riding on the street cars. Now, while you all are walking why not walk into L. Goldsmith’s One Price Clothing Store and purchase your Winter Clothing and Furnishing Goods. There is nothing to be gained by walking by his store, as he sells his goods as cheap as anybody in town. It is a pleasure to show goods, and you are sure to meet with courteous treatment at: L. GOLDSMITH’S One-Price Clothing House.”
I don’t know how Owensborans took to Goldsmith’s tasteless ad, but it’s worth noting he only placed it once. In the meantime it took over a month to get Owensboro City Railroad back in operation. On January 2, 1891, the two new streetcars arrived in town and were placed in service the next day. Eight more cars were due, but it took weeks to get them all in town and on the tracks. But the company did recover and soon returned to normal—well, normal for Owensboro City Railroad!
HEY, TURN ON THE JUICE ALREADY!
There were a lot of reasons why passengers would tire of mule-powered streetcars. First on the list was the unenviable mules. Riding in a streetcar behind a team of mules provided a steady odor of manure, urine, sweat and harness oil drifting back into the faces of passengers—made all the worse in hot, humid weather when the company ran open cars. It’s a drastic understatement to say this didn’t make a pleasant outing for ladies and gentlemen dressed in their Sunday finest! But this wasn’t the only problem with mules.
Since a mule dropped on average about 10 pounds of manure and discharged a gallon of urine per day onto the tracks, passengers continually rolled over heaps of urine-soaked droppings. This muck was all heavily attended by ceaseless swarms of flies that buzzed unhindered into the open streetcars and into the faces of the hapless passengers. Of course, Owensboro’s unpaved city streets* added to the mess since countless plodding horses, mules and oxen left their own street “souvenirs” for any passersby. Combine this cesspool with an endless sea of mud that made up the city’s unpaved streets in wet weather, or the dust clouds that came with hot, humid weather, and one can easily understand why a mule-drawn streetcar system was wearing thin among the citizenry. (*Owensboro didn’t get its first paved streets until the turn of the century. Until then, a passenger had to walk into the mud and muck of the street to board a streetcar, which ran down the center o the street.)
There was a solution, and a group of men closely involved with the Owensboro City Railroad Company aimed to bring it about, although it was not going to happen without a fight. Before going there, let’s formally introduce four men who were important to the events that were about to unfold. They are William Ellis Whitely, (March 5, 1856-June 29, 1924), William T. Alsop (April 13, 1860-June 25, 1926), attorney Reuben Anderson Miller (November 6, 1857-April 17, 1915) and Robert H. Neely (June 7, 1853-June 12, 1929).
Despite the overall success of the Owensboro City Railroad Company, behind the scenes all was not well. Essentially there were two factions among stockholders with two very different views on how the company should face the future. One faction wanted to eliminate the mules and electrify the line, while the other was obstinately opposed to the plan. Things finally came to a head in August 1892 when one faction sued the other in court. Page 1 of the Sunday, August 7, 1892, edition of the Owensboro Sunday Messenger, article “The Long-Standing Quarrel in the Street Railway Company to Be Ventilated,” reported the details:
“The long-standing trouble between the stockholders of the Owensboro City Railway Company has finally culminated in a suit by those in the minority against those in the majority for a writ of mandamus compelling the issuance and sale of $25,000 additional stock, and if this writ be refused the court is asked to appoint a receiver to take charge of the property of the company. The plaintiffs are J. M. Alsop, J. N. Alsop, A. C Tompkins, W. E. Whitely and J . A. Fuqua, and they sue the Owensboro City Railroad Company, John Gilmour, J. W. Smith, G. W. Crutchtr, Allen [sic] Gilmour and J. D. Powers.” (Joshua D. Powers.)
Fortunately for streetcar patrons the warring factions agreed on a resolution instead of dragging their difference into court. The resolution was reported on page 1 of the Thursday, December 29, 1892, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger: William E. Whiteley and J. N. Alsop bought out J. W. Smith, and father and son stockholders Allan Gilmour* (Nov. 1, 1822-Oct. 23, 1886) and John Gilmour (July 25, 1866-April 22, 1932), all of whom were (or had been) company directors. (*By this date Allan Gilmour was deceased. His stocks were controlled by his widow, Susan Blair Gilmour.) Page 4 of the same newspaper elaborates on the resolution:
“FOR ELECTRICITY. A business deal of great importance to Owensboro was consummated yesterday when Mssrs. Whitely and Alsop succeeded in buying the stock of the Gilmour Smith faction of the City Railway Company. A business dispute that paralyzed the usefulness of an important public enterprise has thus happily ended. An electric street railway is the next thing. The purchasers announce their immediate intention to build it.
“They are men of energy, determination and capital and above all are in perfect harmony, a state of case that has never existed from the first. That they will give Owensboro such a system of railway as she needs is assured from the start by their promise.
“Every citizen will be glad indeed to learn of this termination of a difficulty that promised to seriously cripple an important public enterprise. What they would be still prouder to see would be for the City Railway and the Monarch Company to pool their issues and make what would be the finest possible system. The gentlemen at the head of both are business men and will readily see their interest, whether it lies in the direction of consolidation and co-operation or no. Whether they do or not Owensboro is assured an electric railroad, and that is what she wants most of all.”
We’ll eventually meet the man behind the Monarch Company, but for now it is important to focus on the new management of the Owensboro City Railroad Company: First, Robert H. Neely was replaced as superintendent; William E. Whitely took over as president and James N. Alsop took over as secretary. (James Nathaniel Alsop, Sr., 1866-1936, was the brother of William T. Alsop, who was a director of the company, and both were the sons of James M. Alsop, who was one of the 1884 incorporators of the Owensboro City Railroad Company. Jessie Anderson Fuqua, 1863-1929, who joined in the lawsuit, was one of the original 1884 incorporators of the Owensboro City Railroad Company.)
With the “Gilmour-Smith faction” gone and a new management team in the driver’s seat, the Owensboro City Railroad Company was poised to bring electric streetcars to Owensboro. Page 4 of the February 10, 1893, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported on the situation and in the process revealed that all was not well between the city and the streetcar company:
“AN ORDINANCE To Amend an Ordinance Granting Right of Way to the Owensboro City Railroad Company of July 28th, 1884, and to Dismiss Appeal of City of Owensboro Against Said Company.
“Whereby the ordinance of the Common Council of the City of Owensboro. Kentucky, adopted the 28th day of July, 1884, giving the Owensboro City Railroad Company the consent of said Common Council to construct and operate a street railway in and over the streets of said city, it was provided that the cars of said company should be operated by animal power only, and, whereas it is now desired by said city and its people that said cars be operated by electricity and said railroad company being willing to do so in consideration of being allowed to construct and maintain the necessary poles, wires, trolleys and turnouts for connection of electricity with said cars, and, whereas, said company complains that it is embarrassed in making its arrangements for substitution of electricity for animal power by the pendency of an appeal in the Court of Appeals in the case of the Owensboro City Railroad Company against the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, lately determined in the Daviess Circuit Court; and, whereas, said appeal promises no benefit to said city. [Emphasis added.]
“Therefore, be it ordained by the Mayor and Common Council of the city of Owensboro, Kentucky.”
A few months later, on Saturday, June 3, 1893, the company’s streetcars were officially electrified. Page 1 of the Sunday, June 4, 1893, edition of the Owensboro Sunday Messenger gives considerable details of the event:
“THE START MADE Owensboro’s First Electric Car Makes a Highly Successful Trial Trip. Hundred People Sit to Take the Ride. Up for Hours. First More Trials Will Be Made Today and the Regular Passenger Service Will Be Put on Tomorrow. AN IMPROVED SERVICE COMING
“Electric cars tor Owensboro are now an accomplished fact. The first car to which the lightning was chained was run out of the barn last night at 10:30 o’clock and sent flying out to the fair ground with a load of over one hundred persons, who had remained at the works for hours to see the first car go out.
“It was intended to make the start at 5 o’clock, but owing to the difficulty of adjusting the new machinery it was not made until the hour named. Only one car was taken out. Others will be tried today, and tomorrow the full service will be put on. When the work was commenced in March it was thought the cars would be running by May 1, but owing to one cause and then another the date was postponed for a month.
“The system now embraces exactly eight miles of track and wires, equipped with ten motor cars, which is equivalent to a carrying capacity of thirty cars on every part of the track. Six of the cars have double and four single motors, and all are provided with electric lighting apparatus. The power house is equipped with two 100 horse power ‘Ideal’ engines and boilers and two Thompson-Houston generators of the improved type, capable of operating twenty-five miles of road.
“Everything pertaining to the power supply is made in duplicate, so that the system may be able to meet any demand that can possibly be made upon it, as well as to provide against a possibility of accident. If one engine or generator should break down it would be the work of only a few minutes to start everything up again. The lines now run from Elmwood cemetery on Breckenridge, Fourth, Triplett and Main to the city limits, on Frederica street from Main to the female college, on Fourth street from Triplett to Sycamore, thence across to Fifth and on Fifth to the city limits.
“President Whitely stated to a reporter yesterday that he would add two miles more of track to the system during the present summer, making a belt to connect the different lines about the city. The cars will be run an hour later to all parts of the city than heretofore. They have been going in at 9:30 p. m., but hereafter they will be kept on the streets until 10:30, and on special occasions as late as may be necessary. Mr. Whitely says he is going to leave nothing undone to give a perfect service, as he has found that the way to make a thing profitable is to make it popular. The schedule is to be cut half in two. The mules have been making the switches in six minutes, and the electric cars will make them in three, thus giving a car in any direction every six minutes instead of twelve or longer.”
Electrified at last! Everyone in town was ecstatic, including, I suspect, the company’s 19 some-odd mules, who would at last be set free from their bondage. (Hey, pulling a plow in a field would beat pulling a heavy streetcar load of humans any day of the week!)
Some extra details about the system include a newly-built carbarn and electric power plant located on the corner of Sixth and Hathaway Streets. The cars were J. G. Brill two-man, single-truck and double-ended. There were two types of cars in service: an open air car and an enclosed car. The enclosed cars featured a black-painted roof with orange body and a large white stripe running along the sides under the windows. Each car had two benches facing one another and seated approximately 16 passengers (depending on the size of the individual of course).
ENTER MR. MONARCH
While the management of the Owensboro City Railroad Company was busy pinching pennies and raking in profits, others were taking note. Indeed, back then any businessman worth his salt knew that railroads, in whatever form, could be a very lucrative enterprise. (Think Cornelius Vanderbilt here!) So it was with one Owensboro businessman in particular.
To introduce this businessman, let’s recall the December 29, 1892, article in the Owensboro Daily Messenger reporting the Gilmour-Smith faction selling out to their opposition: “What [Owensboro’s citizens] would be still prouder to see would be for the City Railway and the Monarch Company to pool their issues and make what would be the finest possible system.” Well, the Monarch Company was owned by Richard Monarch (1838-1915), the very rich and famous Owensboro whiskey distiller. (One of Monarch’s whiskey brands, Kentucky Tavern, is still being distilled and sold.) His company was mentioned in that article because eight days before Monarch had revealed plans to build his own electric streetcar line in Owensboro. The details were reported in the Wednesday, December 21, 1892, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“The Monarch Electric Car and Power Company filed articles of incorporation in the county court yesterday. The incorporators are R. Monarch, Wilfred Carico and M. V. [Martin Van Buren] Monarch. The capital stock of the company is authorized to be $600,000, divided into shares of $100 each. The highest indebtedness to which the company shall subject itself is $400,000 or two-thirds of the stock subscribed. The articles specify the acceptance of the grant made by the Owensboro city council, and say the company may, in addition to running its tracks over the streets of Owensboro, acquire by purchase or otherwise the property of other street railway companies, and extend its track for five miles in the country, taking possession of property under a writ of ad quod damnum. [Ad quod damnum is a legal phrase used for assessing damages relating to privately owned land that is taken for public use.]
“Mr. Monarch says that it is his purpose and his plans are laid to go to work on the line in the early spring, so that it can be finished to protect itself under the grant made by the city. He says several parties have made inquiry about the matter recently in regard to furnishing any money that may be needed to go ahead with the work. The terms of the grant are that one mile of the track must be laid and cars running on it by electricity within one year from the date of the grant, which was made in September.”
The following month Monarch bought what was left of John Gilmour’s Owensboro City Railroad Company investment. Page 1 of the Wednesday, January 25, 1893, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger reported that the purchased amount was $20,000 worth of bonds. Although his purchase didn’t give Monarch any say in the running of the company, it did give him a foot in the door of the competition, which likely was his motive. William E. Whitely, the president of OCR, wasn’t threatened by Monarch’s move, as the same article indicates:
“Mr. W. E. Whitely informed the Messenger yesterday that the [Owensboro City Railroad] company was in splendid shape, and is only waiting the consent of the council to close contracts for $40,000 worth of material to be delivered between now and April 1 . . . If the council will take the necessary steps the company will give bond to have all its present lines and two miles additional equipped with electricity before the fair.”
The details of Monarch’s electric streetcar plans (along with a threat and insult) were reported on page 4 of the February 10, 1893, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“MONARCH’S ELECTRIC LINE. Will Be Built In the Spring and it Will Fight for Its Rights. Mr. R. Monarch was seen yesterday evening by a Messenger reporter in regard to the action of the city council in passing the ordinance asked by the Owensboro City Railway company. He said it did not affect his grant in any way and that as soon as spring opened the Monarch Electric Car and Power company would proceed to lay down its tracks and erect its electric plant. He had no fears whatever of the City Railway company interfering with his rights or with the streets granted to him, but if such attempt were made it should certainly get enough litigation to satisfy it for the remainder of its puny life.”
Despite his insulting threat, the owners of Owensboro City Railroad were not going to let Monarch horn in on their profits without a fight. Their opposition made for an angry Richard Monarch, which the headlines on page 1 of the Wednesday, March 1, 1893, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger make clear:
“A FAMILIAR REMEDY. R. Monarch Files an Injunction Suit Against The City Railroad Company. The trouble between the rival streetcar companies reached a head yesterday by the filing of an injunction suit by R. Monarch against the Owensboro City Railroad company.
“The suit was filed at 5:30 o’clock and a summons was issued and immediately served on President Whitely. The substance of the petition is as follows: The plaintiff states that heretofore, to wit: on the 17th day of October 1892, the mayor and common council of the city of Owensboro, Daviess county, in regular session, by an ordinance, granted to the plaintiff and such others as he might associate with him the exclusive right to build and operate a street car line in Owensboro on and over the following streets: Cherry, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Mildred, Harnett, Mason’s avenue, White’s avenue, McFarland, Maryland, Virginia, Plum, Sycamore, Poplar, Maple, Walnut, Mulberry, Locust, St. Elizabeth, St. Ann, Allen, Daviess, Crittenden, Clay, Triplett, Hathaway, Centre, Hall, Bolivar, Moseley, Pearl, Sweeney and Chestnut. . . .
“Plaintiff states that the defendant the Owensboro City Railroad company in violation of the provisions of said ordinance and in violation of the rights of the plaintiff is about to begin the construction of a street car track on Triplett street in the city of Owensboro from Main street on the north and to the outer limit of said street, and the said defendant will so construct a line of street car track on said Triplett street unless it is prevented by the order of this court, having so declared its purpose.
“If the defendant should so build and operate a line of track on Triplett street it would work irreparable injury and damage to the plaintiff. The plaintiff says that all the streets named are too narrow to admit of more than one street car track without unlawfully obstructing travel, and he says if the defendant is permitted to build a line there it will operate to give it the exclusive use of the street.
“The plaintiff says that although he has the exclusive right to the streets named, yet the defendant has declared its purpose to occupy some of them and continually threatens to do so and will, unless prevented, to the great and irreparable injury of plaintiff.”
Skipping over a lot of back-and-forth legal maneuvering and wrangling between the parties involved, the outcome was that Richard Monarch didn’t get his electric streetcar company off the ground. As for the man himself, his whiskey empire collapsed after the crash of the bourbon industry in the mid-1890s. He went bankrupt in December 1897 as did his brothers Martin V. and Sylvester Monarch, along with many other distillers of the time. Richard Monarch lost everything, including his grand home in Owensboro, after which he and his wife moved to a small farm out in the county where they earned a meager income off the land.
The next major streetcar event was reported on page 4 of the Wednesday, January 6, 1897, edition of the Owensboro Weekly Inquirer: The car shed and supply house of the “Owensboro Street Railway Company” burned to the ground, and with it much of Owensboro City Railroad Company’s cars and equipment. The buildings were a total loss, including the destruction of eight open cars, ten motors and nearly all the electrical supplies. The fire was blamed on faulty electrical wiring. Company president William E. Whitely estimated the loss was about $8,000. In the article, Superintendent Robert H. Neely assured the public the car shed would be rebuilt and the cars replaced, which was an interesting notation—not for what Neely said, but because it reveals that he was once again the superintendent of the company.
OWENSBORO CITY RAILROAD HITS THE PAVEMENT!
By the time Owensboro City Railroad Company rolled into a new century, its less than forthright business affairs put it on a collision course with Owensboro’s city government.
In September 1900 Owensboro Mayor Worden Pope Small (1840-1906) and members of the city council awarded a contract to the Barber Asphalt Company to build Owensboro’s long-awaited new city streets. By the spring of 1901 the project was ready to commence. But the fly in the ointment was Owensboro City Railroad, whose streetcar lines ran down the center of the streets due for renovation.
When they passed the ordinance for the new streets, city officials demanded that Owensboro City Railroad pay its fair share of the project, specifically laying new, heavier rails on a six inch concrete bed with concrete around the ties and rails to the level of the asphalt construction. In other words, the city was asking the streetcar company to upgrade so people and vehicles alike could smoothly cross their tracks. Inexplicably the management of OCR flatly refused!
Although there were a lot of tell-tale signs, the public was largely unaware of the dismal state of Owensboro City Railroad. It was a company on the verge of financial collapse with a management in chaos, infighting between the major stockholders, a streetcar infrastructure in dreadful condition and no money to fix anything. Owensboro City Railroad was stoney broke, which explains why ORC’s management was being obstinate.
During the ensuing battle between the city and OCR, relations became so strained that the city threatened to simply tear up streetcar tracks so paving work crews could proceed. This threat was followed by one from Owensboro City Railroad’s management for an injunction to shut down the street improvement project if the city made any move on its property. This impasse reached a critical juncture when the city instructed the Barber Asphalt Company to begin its work.
As the asphalt company’s large wrecking machine started tearing up the streets, it continually threw dirt and gravel onto streetcar tracks, which necessitated OCR work crews working in front of streetcars to keep the tracks clear. In turn, this meant streetcars had to move at a snail’s pace on their runs, which resulted in late schedules, very dissatisfied riders and more money to operate via a continual work-cleanup crew.
In an attempt to break the impasse, both sides began a series of meetings. Of course the meetings proved fruitless largely due to the state of Owensboro City Railroad’s dreadful finances. Page 1 of the Friday, May 3, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger reported on the situation:
“STILL FURTHER APART Council and Street Railway Company At Worse Loggerheads Than Ever. DIGGING DANGEROUSLY NEAR TO THE TRACKS ON MAIN STREET. Ordinance Finally Passed at a Special Meeting Held Thursday Afternoon. STREET CLOSING ORDINANCE
“The street railway situation appears to be further off from settlement than ever, and it is more than likely that a suit for an injunction will be filed by the Owensboro City Railway company today. The street railway people say that things have reached the state where they will have to go into the courts for self protection. Parts of Main street were excavated Thursday right up to the street car track, and this is taken to mean a purpose on the part of the city government to destroy the company’s tracks.
“[Owensboro City Railroad] President Whiteley said Thursday night that the last ordinance, even with the concession on rails, was more burdensome, and expensive than the first and that the company could not undertake to carry out the specifications prescribed in the ordinance. It required an entirely different foundation construction from the one he had proposed to accept. He said the company would certainly resist in the courts the effort to confiscate their property.
“A called meeting of the council was held in the mayor’s office Thursday afternoon at 4:30 o’clock at which all the members were present except Messrs. Cary, [Charles] Broeker and [Robert A.] Miller. The only purpose of the meeting mentioned in the call was the second reading of the ordinance passed at Wednesday night’s called session fixing a new set of requirements of the street car company. The ordinance provides for a seventy-four-pound grooved rail, as proposed in the nature of a compromise by the street car people, but retracts the acceptance of the foundation, composed of two inches of cinders and four inches of concrete, and again demands six inches of concrete as a bed and concrete around the ties and rails to the level of the asphalt construction. . . .
“No action was taken on the ordinance passed on its first reading at the meeting Wednesday night providing that no street cars or vehicles of any kind should be allowed to traverse across Main and Frederica street while in process of improvement. Mayor Small is authority for the statement that this measure will be ignored, for the reason that it is superfluous. If such an ordinance were passed or attempted to be put into force, the city would have a multitude of injunction suits on its hands. It would practically mean the complete suppression of traffic along the two principal streets for a period of two or three months.
“Said one of the leading wholesale merchants of the city last night: ‘Do you think I would permit the city council to paralyze my business for two months? Not as long as there are courts. Street construction can be done practically and with the smallest amount of interruption to business. But to say that the two principal business streets may be closed to traffic for two months is simply preposterous. If the council should attempt it, I will join with anybody else in an injunction suit, and I believe every businessman on the two streets would join in such a suit. Almost as preposterous is the ordinance recently passed, attempting to prohibit heavy wagons, such as delivery and transfer wagons, from being driven along or across the asphalt streets. When the asphalt is put down on Main and Frederica, how am I to do business if my delivery wagon may not be driven to my store? What are the asphalt streets for if not to make traffic easier?’”
(If one wonders why the mayor and city council didn’t simply kick the OCR’s management to the curb, as they would have done with any other obstructionist business causing this kind of trouble, the answer is simple: the men who made up the management of OCR along with the company’s major stockholders included the richest and most powerful businessmen in Owensboro. This fact kept the city’s elected officials from crossing a certain line!)
With the paving company right at the edge of the railway company’s tracks, the entire town became nervous. This mood worsened when a certain comment was reported on page 1 of the Saturday, May 4, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“The superintendent in charge of the Barber Asphalt company’s work here remarked that he could tear the whole track up, on the streets to be improved, in half an hour, having an engine that would drag out two blocks of track at a haul. This would seem to indicate that the city might attempt a coup . . .”
When this remark was published, both sides backed off a bit and reached a hasty compromise. Essentially it entailed a “reorganization” of Owensboro City Railroad, with the company making a lot of lofty promises and detailing a sunny public transit future for the city. A relieved mayor and city council dutifully promised to work hand-in-glove with the company, and started off by making a number of concessions. Although reporters babbled on about this compromise, the move by OCR’s management was really nothing more than a snow job for public consumption and to disguise the fact that the company was hanging by a thread!
The tip off that all was not as it seemed should have been noted by the names of those behind the “new company” and indeed in its “new” name. The “new company” was comprised of the same men and the “new” name was actually one that had been in use for sometime: Owensboro Street Railway Company. Page 1 of the Tuesday, May 21, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Inquirer printed some of the thinly disguised details:
“Unexpected Turn in Owensboro City Railway Matters. Several Local Capitalists Take Hold of It In Earnest. They Will Put In $50,000 and Buy a New Outfit From Top to Bottom. THE STREET WORK CONTINUES.
“The Owensboro City Railway company is to be reorganized. New blood and new money will be put into it, and it will be placed on a better basis than ever before.
“The first intimation of this fact came out at council meeting Monday night, when Mr. Delker asked to be excused from further service on the street railway matter, and also to be excused from voting on all questions affecting the street railway.
“Acting on this hint an Inquirer reporter proceeded and had very little trouble in arriving at the full facts in the matter.
“On account of the specifications, which were deemed too exacting by the capitalists whom the officers of the company sought to interest in the matter, the officers of the company were not able to make the necessary financial arrangements to permit them to go ahead with the construction of the road according to the ordinance that was passed or any other ordinance that has been considered. Then it was that Mr. James H. Parrish, Mr. J. G. Delker and other gentlemen came into the field. A conference was held at which an agreement was proposed.
“This was to the effect that all of the old stock of the company, amounting to $50,000, and which is worth nothing, should be retired, and that new stock to the same amount should be issued. The full sum of $50,000, as called for by the new stock, is to be paid into the treasury, and with this money the tracks of the company are to be relaid throughout, new cars are to be purchased, additions are to be made to the power plant, new wiring is to be done and old wiring overhauled, and everything else put into first-class shape, so that the road will be as good as is to be found anywhere in a city of 100,000 population.
“All of these matters have not been consummated, but they are in such condition that all will be arranged in a day or two, and there is no reasonable doubt that this will be the final settlement of a matter that has caused a great deal of trouble, and some little hard feeling against both the council and the city railway company.
“Meanwhile the work on the streets will go on. Preparations will be made for laying the asphalt as rapidly as possible. The curbing will be completed before any asphalt work is done. This will take two weeks, and in the meantime the street cars will run as they are now. At the end of that time the track will be torn up in such manner as is necessary, and there will not be any trouble about it. All of the work will be arranged so that the construction of the street railway track will go right along with that of the streets, and when it is all finished Owensboro will have streets that she will be proud of and a street railway system that will be a credit to the city for a generation.”
It all sounded great, if a bit ambiguous. But the ambiguities were overlooked and a few days later the company’s sunny prognosis was hyped up in yet another front page newspaper article, although in this instance the names behind the “new” company were fully revealed:
“NEW System. That is what the Owensboro City Railway Will Become. Ten Good Business Men Form an Entirely New Company. Will Have New Lines and New Cars and Will Run Them to Make Money. ALL ABOUT THE PLANS PROPOSED.
“Owensboro is to have a new street railway system. The matter has all been arranged on the lines stated in the Inquirer a few days ago. The stock has all been subscribed, and nothing remains but to elect officers of the corporation and go to work.
“The gentlemen who are interested are W. E. Whiteley, president of the Owensboro City Railway company; J. Q. Haynes, vice president of the same corporation; James H. Parrish, John G. Delker, A. C. Tompkins, Charles Broeker, R. S. Hughes, J. H. Hickman, Ezekiel Rice, of Louisville, and A. M. McGowan, of Indianapolis.
“The capital stock is $50,000, of which each member of the company holds $5,000. The stock is divided into 500 shares of $100 each. All of the stock in the old company has been retired, and the money obtained from the subscription to the new stock is to go into the treasury for the purpose of betterments to the present system, the laying of new track, the purchase of new cars and of new machinery for the power plant.
“A meeting was held the past week, when all of the arrangements were made and the details agreed to. Another meeting will be held this week for the purpose of electing officers. When this is done the work will proceed without a moment’s delay.
“The new company will probably bear the name of the Owensboro Street Railway company.
“It is the purpose of the company to put in a street railway system that shall not be surpassed by that of any city in the United States of any size. There will be a double track on Main street from Triplett to Frederica, and on Frederica from Main to the Texas depot or possibly to the O. and N. depot. The schedule will be reduced to four minutes, and no car will be allowed to wait at a switch except in case of accident. In order to do this the tracks, cars and appliances will have to be the very best, and the system must at all times be maintained in perfect order.
“A new line will probably be built out Walnut street from Main to Griffith avenue, to connect with the Frederica street line. Another line will leave Frederica street at Johnson’s lane and cross to the fair grounds, making connection with the line returning to the city.
“Several new features are to be introduced into the management of the road. The cars will be stalled at 5:30 o’clock every morning, so as to be in operation all over the lines at 6 o’clock. From 6 a. m. to 7 a.m., and from 6 p. m. reduced rates will prevail, so that the laboring people of the city can afford to ride to their work instead of walking a mile or so and starting in half fatigued, as is now the case. The cars will be run as late as the public demands, and they will not stop in any event earlier than 10:30 p.m.
“Metropolitan rules will be enforced in the management of the system. All motormen and conductors will be required to wear uniforms, and there will be no smoking or spitting on floors. [Emphasis added.]
“It can be seen from the names in the organization that there is to be money in it. The road is to be run for the purpose of paying interest on the investment. In order to do this they realize that they must give the public the best service that is possible. They must leave nothing to be desired. Schedules must be short and connections certain. The cars must be good and the appointments such as the public will be pleased with. In order to meet the requirements it will be necessary, as stated, to buy new cars for the whole line. Those of the present cars that are good enough will be put in thorough repair and held in reserve for special occasions, such as the Owensboro fair, or other great crowds. All cars that are not capable of this service will be sent to the scrap heap.
“The wires of the present system will all be overhauled and all the defects remedied, and the necessary new lines of wire put up both where the streets are double-tracked and on the extensions. All of this work will take time, but the company is ready to guarantee that it will be done by August 1, barring the extension over the time or it may not, but it will all be done this year.
“By the time that the Barber Asphalt company is ready to begin putting down asphalt on Main and Frederica streets it is thought that the company will have the material on the ground ready to begin laying track ahead of the street men. If they are not ready the delay will only be for a few days and no longer than absolutely necessary.
“The gentlemen interested in the matter say that they believe that the people of Owensboro are always ready for a good thing, and that they will support a first-class rapid transit railway system, and they will give them the opportunity.” (Page 1 of the Sunday, May 26, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Inquirer.)
It was nothing short of amazing that no one seemed to pick up on the fact that all the financial juggling was glossing over the fact that the company was in a state of financial collapse—and that the men behind the “new” company were the same old crowd! Indeed the new rule banning smoking and spitting chewing tobacco on car floors further adds to this macabre picture.
The pretense of sunshine and roses was abruptly stripped away when the Tuesday, page 1 article in the November 19, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger hit the streets:
“MIDDLE OF A BAD FIX Owensboro City Railway Company Cannot Complete Its Necessary Improvements. NOW $12,000 IN DEBT AND ALL EFFORTS TO BORROW MONEY ARE BLOCKED. Nothing Was Accomplished at a Meeting of the Stockholders Monday Afternoon. HAYNES MAKES A STATEMENT
“The Owensboro City Railway company is just now in the middle of a very bad fix. The worst feature of this muddle is that the people of Owensboro are the sufferers, in that they are compelled to patronize a road which is absolutely without either equipment or accommodations. The people are daily shivering in the old cars and wondering why the company does not make some sort of pretension towards fitting out a decent car line. At the same time eight of the ten stockholders of the new company or reorganized company are also wondering how they can manage to raise funds with which to make the necessary improvements.
“It seems as the case now stands that the finances of the concern are in a most deplorable condition. Of the $82,500 in cash that was realized in the late reorganization, not a cent is left. Not only every cent of this sum has been expended in the purchase of new rails, reconstruction of road and the remodeling of the power house and other incidental expenses, but $12,000 more. Where will they get the money to liquidate this last indebtedness is troubling some of the stockholders not a little. The stockholders of the present company are W. E. Whitely, J. Q. Haynes, James Parrish, Charles Broeker, John Delker, R. S. Hughes, A. C. Tompkins, J. H. Hickman, of Owensboro; E. Rice, of Louisville, and H. McGowan, of Indianapolis. It is claimed that eight of these stockholders are desirous of borrowing money, paying off the $12,000 indebtedness, buying new rolling stock and putting the line in good operating condition. It is also charge that Messrs. Whitely and Haynes blocked this plan by refusing absolutely to attend a meeting of the stockholders or turn a wheel either one way or the other. They refuse to sell or buy the stock of the others or put up their share of the necessary collateral to borrow money that is needed to carry on the business.
“Some Back History.
“A little back history of the street railway business here would not be amiss in this connection. In the old company there was $50,000 worth of stock owned by the Alsop family, J. Q. Haynes, A. C. Thompkins and W. E. Whitely. In the first place $25,000 worth of first mortgage bonds were issued and sold. Soon afterwards bonds to the amount of $100,000 were issued. Of this sum $25,000 worth were placed in the hands of a trustee to secure the first issue of $25,000 sold. The remaining $75,000 worth were sold, E. Rice, then of Greenville, purchasing $60,000 worth and Messrs. Whitely and Haynes securing the remaining $15,000. Mr. Whitely was president. Robert H. Neely was superintendent. Years rolled by and no dividends came to the sight of the stockholders. One of the stockholders stated that he never heard of a meeting of the board of directors.
“When the city began its street improvements it also informed the street car people that they would be expected to do some reconstructing also. This was a killer for the old company for it had nothing but worn-out track and rolling stock. To save the franchise, the only asset worth a dollar, a reorganization was absolutely necessary. By this time Whitely had become owner of some of the bonds first purchased by Rice. The ten men mentioned, agreed to form a new company, each paying in $8,250. It was also agreed that the old stock should be cashed in at 10 cents on the dollar and $75,000 worth of bonds held by Rice, Haynes and Whitely be cashed in at 60 cents on the dollar. The bonds were then parcelled out among the stockholders. The old bondholders pulled down $50,000 in cash, leaving a working capital of only $32,500. The new company then bargained for the $25,000 worth of bonds still outstanding, drawing a note which was signed by each individual stockholder. This note is payable about January 1, 1902.
“Hands Are Tied
“A meeting of the stockholders was held in [OCR attorney] Reuben Miller’s office Monday afternoon. All were present but Messrs. Whitely and Haynes. Messrs McGowan and Rice being represented by proxy. The meeting lasted some time. All were in favor of bundling up their bonds and borrowing money to pay off the $12,000 indebtedness and $25,000 additional to put the road in good shape. Whitely and Haynes refusing to agree to anything, blocked all action. At the close of the meeting one of the stockholders said:
“‘We are at sea. We can’t turn a wheel. We owe $12,000, our line is in bad shape and we have not got a dollar in the treasury. It is only a question of time when we will be sued. We would ask for a receiver, but it would take five months to get one. Where would we be in the meantime? I have put a lot of money in the concern and have never got back a cent. The people are clamoring for better street car service and they have a right to. Eight of the stockholders are in favor of giving them the best service possible, but you see that two men have tied our hands completely.'”
“A Messenger reporter was unable to see Mr. Whitely last night but secured a statement from Mr, J. Q. Haynes in regard to the affair. Said he: ‘I resigned as a member of the board of directors sometime ago because I could not agree with the others. Both Mr. Whitely and myself saw sometime ago that the present management was entirely too extravagant, and would finally result in a great loss. This was evident when they displaced [Superintendent] Robert ]. Neely. We saw that we were powerless and concluded we would just let them do as they pleased with it, and concluded absent ourselves from any further meetings.'”
This lengthy article was reproduced in its entirety so that the true state of affairs could be seen: Owensboro City Railroad / Owensboro Street Railway Company was in a sorry mess and all the previous newspaper hype about a “new company” and its lofty plans was merely smoke and mirrors! However, a temporarily fix came when two of the company’s leading men jumped ship, as reported on page 3 Friday November 22, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“DIFFERENCES OF STREET RAILWAY COMPANY ARE ADJUSTED. Work Will Be Resumed at Once and Pushed Rapidly to Completion.
“All the differences among the stockholders of the Owensboro City Railway company have been adjusted and work on the lines will be resumed at once. This was made possible by J. Q. Haynes and W. E. Whitely disposing of their stock to the remaining eight members of the company. At the meeting of the stockholders Messrs. Haynes and Whitely, it is said, offered to buy all of the stock held by the other eight members, having failed before to buy enough to exercise a controlling influence. The eight members of the company would not sell, and then they [Haynes and Whitely] offered to sell. Mr. Tompkins made them an offer for their stock and they accepted at once, and the incident was closed.”
(Note that the reporter in the above article referred to the “reorganized” Owensboro Street Railway Company by combining the old and “new” names. In fact, as we’ve repeatedly seen, contemporary reporters often used different names, or a combination of names, when writing about the Owensboro City Railroad Company. However, for the sake of clarity, I will continue to use the name Owensboro City Railroad for the remainder of this history.)
And so, William E. Whitely and J. Q. Haynes were out of the streetcar business, which, in the long run, would prove a wise decision on their part. Now let’s see what the new owners accomplished with their turn at the throttle.
WEATHER FORECAST: STAY HOME!
As the calendar turned into a new year, there was one event that made the headlines: On January 29, 1902, a severe sleet and freezing rain storm wreaked havoc on telephones, telegraph and electric wires throughout Owensboro. Everywhere wires froze and snapped with the result being that Owensboro’s streetcars came to a standstill. Page 1 of the Thursday, January 30, 1902, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger carried the headlines:
“AN ICY DISASTER IN OWENSBORO The City in Darkness and Business Practically Suspended. Sleet Breaks Down Wires and Trees On All Hands. Light Plant Suspended and the Gas Supply Running Very Low. Telephone, Telegraph and Street Car Lines Out of Business. Streets Strewn With Wreckage and Five Inches of Slush Cover the Ground. THE WORST SLEET SINCE 1890.
“Owensboro is again almost completely at the mercy of the elements and there is scarcely an industry in the city but what is affected by the disastrous sleet storm of Tuesday night and Wednesday. The electric light plant closed down, scarcely a telephone line standing, the street car system compelled to suspend, not a telegraph wire that can be used, immense poles snapped in twain and limbs torn from the largest trees by the very weight of the icy coat that encircles them, the situation is one the like of which has never witnessed here before. There have been sleet storms, but none which produced anything like the disaster of this case. It is impossible at this time to estimate the damage that has been done. . . .
“As the day wore on a picture was presented that the oldest citizens say they never saw before. Telephone and telegraph wires, poles and trees were the great sufferers in the way of being over burdened with tons of ice. Business finally had to succumb to the inevitable. First the electric light plant was ordered by the mayor to shut down. . . . Later in the afternoon the street cars pulled in and towards night no vehicles and teams could be seen on the thoroughfares. . . .
“In the after noon the telephone wires began to fall so thickly over the trolley wire that the superintendent found it impossible to run his cars further. Manager Burford also wrote President Broeker a note, requesting him not to start his cars until everything was clear. This President Broeker promised to do. No cars were run last night. They will probably be put on this morning after the trolley wires are cleared of all other wires. . . . The ice and slush in the streets were from three to five inches in thickness. . . .
“Towards night the trolley wires were cleared and a car or so put on to see if everything was in shape. The trips were made all right and cars that were left standing on the tracks Wednesday carried into the sheds. Passengers on the cars, though, were conspicuous for their absence. They did not seem to care about trying a ride.”
FIND ME A LAWYER—I’M GONNA SUE YOU!
As was the case with virtually all street railway companies of the time, Owensboro City Railroad Company was in a constant state of litigation as a result of accidents. Below is a typical suit, as reported on page 2 of the Sunday, April 3, 1904, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger.
“SUIT FOR $5,000 FILED BY WILLIAM B. SMITH IN CIRCUIT COURT. Owensboro City Railroad Company Defendant Action Based On Accident in July, 1903.
“It appears that the troubles of the Owensboro City Railroad company will never end. Another suit has been filed against this corporation in the Daviess circuit court. Mr. Wm. B. Smith has instituted suit against the Owensboro Street Railroad company for $5,000 damages, alleged to have been received in July, 1903. The plaintiff states that he was crossing Main street, at the intersection of Frederica street, when he was struck and knocked to the asphalt by one of the defendant company’s cars. He claims that he was severely injured at the time and has since that time been unable to work, as he has been wholly incapacitated. He says the accident was caused by gross carelessness of the defendant company’s employes and he asks judgment for $5,000.”
This suit (and a number of others) tie into the really big event of 1904: the ownership of the Owensboro City Railroad Company changing hands. This was reported in an article on page 2 of the Wednesday, July 20, 1904, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger, wherein the company is named as both the Owensboro Street Railway Company and the Owensboro Street Railroad Company:
“BIG ELECTRIC DEAL New Company Takes Over Owensboro Street Railway. WILL EXTEND LINE TO BON HARBOR COAL FIELDS. MEANS MUCH TO OWENSBORO T. R. Morton Will Remain As General Superintendent.
“The Owensboro Street Railroad company changed hands Tuesday. The new owners are now formulating plans for the extension of the West Main street line to the coal fields at Bon Harbor. . . .
“For many months several stockholders of the company have been anxious to dispose of their stock. It Is a well known fact that the company has not been doing a lucrative business within the past few years. They have made many costly improvements, to say nothing of several damage suits going against the company. A deal was consummated yesterday whereby James H. Parrish, John G. Delker, of Owensboro, E. Rice, of Louisville, and A. S. Williams of Pinkneyville, Ill., become the owners of the railroad property and assume all liabilities. The parties disposing of their stock are the A. C. Tompkins estate, Charles Broeker, B. S. Hughes, J. H. Hickman and Charles Bellair, of Louisville.
“The Owensboro Street Railway Company is a corporation with a capital stock of $50,000. The new company controls $43,300 worth of the stock. . . . ”
“The extension of the tracks to the Bon Harbor region will mean much to the business interests of Owensboro. Coal will not only be considerably lower in price, but the residents of that section of the county can come to the city to purchase goods during any kind of weather. An up-to-date passenger system will be run to Bon Harbor in connection with the freight system. Mr. Delker, the president of the new company, says that every effort will be made to give Owensboro the best street car system in its history. The extension to Bon Harbor will be the first move to this end. As soon as the company gets a good footing other improvements will be made in the city and additional tracks will be laid.” (Editor’s note: Just a reminder that James H. Parrish was the financier of the Seven Hills development and John G. Delker was one of the original incorporators of the Owensboro City Railroad, and was president of Homestead Land Company, which built the new Seven Hills subdivision. He also founded and operated the Seven Hills Bus Company.)
With change of ownership it wasn’t long before noticeable changes were made. The most obvious was the decision to use fareboxes on their streetcars and thereby the elimination of conductors. This cost-cutting move was reported on page 1 of the Thursday, October 13, 1904, edition of The Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“CHANGES TO BE MADE In the Employes of Owensboro Street Railway Co. HENDERSON SUPERINTENDENT COMES TO OWENSBORO. CONDUCTORS DONE AWAY WITH
“James H. Parrish Says That Thomas R. Morton Will Be Retained Temporarily No Definite Statements.
“Important changes are about being made in the management of the Owensboro street railroad. S. C. Ray, until a few days ago superintendent of the Henderson street railway, has been employed by the local road, although in just what capacity, cannot be learned. Another change which will take place is the elimination of most, if not all, the conductors and the substitution of cash boxes.
“At Henderson, Mr. Ray’s home, it is generally understood that he has accepted the position of general superintendent of the Owensboro street railway system and that he will take charge in a few days. Statements to that effect were, apparently, made by Mr. Ray himself. In Owensboro, however, no definite information can be obtained on the subject. No directors’ or stockholders’ meeting has been held and the arrangement with Ray seems to have been made between him and John G. Delker, president of the company, who is now in St. Louis. Whether Ray will succeed Thomas R, Morton, the present superintendent, or whether both of them will be used in some capacity is a matter of conjecture.
“Morton Retained Temporarily.
“James H. Parrish, one of the principal stockholders and an official of the company, stated last night that he had no official knowledge of how Ray would be used. He stated that Morton had not been dismissed and thought that it was the purpose of the management to retain him temporarily. He could make no absolute statement, however, as matters of that character are entirely in the hands of President Delker. Mr. Parrish suggested that it might be the policy of Mr. Delker to use Ray as superintendent of construction on the line to be built through the western part of the city and that Morton might be retained as superintendent of lines now in operation.
“T. R. Morton became superintendent of the concern a year and a half ago. upon the resignation of T. C. Roderick and has made, apparently, a satisfactory manager. He has been in the employ of the company for a number of years.
“Placing of cash boxes in the cars was decided upon some time ago, although it was not announced. This will be done for the purpose of cutting down expenses of operating. Mr. Parrish said last night that, while he was not informed on the subject, it was his opinion that the doing away with conductors is intended only for the winter months, when the traffic is unusually light. He does not know how sweeping the change will be, but is inclined to believe that conductors will be left on some of the cars.
“‘Sort of a Come Down.’
“The change in superintendent was discussed quite freely on the streets Wednesday afternoon and night. ‘It is sort of a come down,’ said one of a group, ‘considering the kind of street car system they have in Henderson, to go there to get a superintendent.’ Mr. Ray is, however, an experienced street railway man and has been employed in several cities. He went to Henderson four years ago as superintendent of the street railway there and has built up the system to some extent. Before going to Henderson he was an assistant superintendent of the Louisville street railway.
“Very Dangerous System.
“The plan of running cars without conductors will probably be dangerous in the beginning. Cars under the present system, run at a considerable rate of speed and all of the time the conductor is required to attend to the motor and keep a lookout along the track. Without a conductor, [the motorman] will be forced to watch the passengers to see that they put their fare in the box and the danger of running over pedestrians will be increased unless the speed of cars is made very much less. If this is done, more cars will be required to handle the traffic. The street car company has several damage suits against it at present. The cars in cities, without conductors, have modern brakes and can be brought to a stop almost immediately. The local cars require considerable exertion on the part of the motormen before they can be stopped.”
Speaking of accidents, on April 18, 1906, the Common Council of the City of Owensboro passed an ordinance requiring Owensboro City Railroad Company streetcars to stop at all steam railroad crossings. Moreover, the motormen had to stop five yards back from the crossing and send an employee upon the tracks to ascertain if a steam locomotive was approaching. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to fifty dollars and thirty days in jail. It was signed by Mayor W. M. O’Bryan. (William Meigs O’Bryan, May 29, 1864-May 23, 1930.)
ANOTHER BUY OUT!
Skipping ahead six years, the good news was that Owensboro City Railroad Company was still turning a profit. The not-so-good news is that the company again changed hands.
On May 28, 1910, Owensboro City Railroad Company was bought out by the Evansville Railways Company of Evansville, Indiana. The sale was reported on page 1 of the Sunday, May 29, 1910, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“The Evansville Courier has the following to say of the taking over of the Owensboro City Railway property by Evansville capitalists: The initial step in the proposed scheme of a local syndicate to connect all the larger towns of Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky by interurban lines was made when the $500,000 stock of the Owensboro Railway company was taken over yesterday by Messrs. W. H. McCurdy, Charles Hartmetz, Albert Funkhouser, Arthur Funkhouser, C. C. Tenis and W. A. Koch, all of whom are directors in the Evansville Railways company, owning the Rockport and Mt. Vernon lines. This deal has been at the point of materialization for several weeks but it was only yesterday that the road was taken over by the syndicate.”
After the takeover there was no noticeable difference in the company, except for William A. Carson becoming the general manager, which is noted here because we’ll be meeting Mr. Carson a bit later under different circumstances. And speaking of “no noticeable difference,” it would be an understatement to say that there were those who weren’t exactly happy with the OCR’s service, no matter who was running the line. This is made clear by a short notice placed in a local newspaper in December 1910: “Those who have resolved to walk in Owensboro generally beat those who ride and save their nickels to boot. Could anything be worse than this pretended street-car service?”
Public criticism aside, Owensboro City Railroad was still the only game in town and hence was turning a profit.
By 1912 the company’s gross earnings were reported at $68,841, with operating expenses at $40,050, leaving a net profit of $22,790. The following year, on Monday, May 13, 1913, the Evansville Railways Company purchased the Evansville & Mt. Vernon Electric Railway Company and the Evansville Terminal Railway Company, and became the lessee of the Evansville, Henderson & Owensboro Railway Company, Inc. That last investment is spelled out in the 1917 edition of John Moody’s Moody’s Manual of Investments: American and Foreign, Volume 8, Part 2:
“EVANSVILLE, HENDERSON & OWENSBORO RAILWAY – (Controlled by Evansville Railways Co.)
“History: Incorporated under laws of Indiana, August 25, 1911, in the interest of the Evansville Railways Co., to construct a line from Evansville to Henderson and ultimately to Owensboro. The company leased from the Illinois Central, 6% miles of track from Evansville to Henderson, which was electrified and placed in operation July 28, 1912. Road is directly operated by Evansville Railways Co.
“Management: OFFICERS: A. F. Karges, Pres.; W. A. Koch, Vice-Pres.; M. S. Sonntag, Sec. and Treas. DIRECTORs: Above officers and W. A. Carson, W. H. McCurdy, Philip Speck, Christ. Kanzler, J. M. Funke, C. H. Battin, C. C. Tennis, D. E. Cadick. OFFICE: Evansville, Ind.
“Capital Stock: Authorized, $250,000 7% cumulative preferred and $50,000 common; outstanding, $203,600 preferred and all the common. Par $100. Preferred stock has no voting rights, is subject to call at 102% to 1917 and at 105 thereafter, and dividends are guaranteed by Evansville Railways Co., which owns all the common stock.”
On May 19, 1913, the Evansville, Indiana-based Evansville, Henderson & Owensboro Railway Company, Inc. bought Owensboro City Railroad Company, which included 13.5 miles of track, 20 streetcars, five trailers, 25 coal cars and an electric power plant. However, by 1917 the marginally-profitable Owensboro City Railroad Company was having financial problems. In a move to help their investment, the company’s stockholders agreed to forego collecting dividends for the next three years to the tune of $36,000. This was accomplished by the board promising the stockholders that their dividends would be used to make improvements, and thus ultimately bring in a profit. But this self sacrificing gesture proved to be in vain. (See Moody, John. Moody’s Rating Book Service Public Utilities 1922. New York: John Moody, 35 Nassau Street, New York, 1922, p. 66.)
Over the coming years the financial downturn continued, which takes us to the next, dismal chapter in the story of Owensboro’s street cars.
With company’s finances in disarray, the Evansville Railway Company entered receivership, with William A. Carson being appointed as the receiver shortly thereafter. On December 18, 1918, the Evansville Railway Company reorganized to become the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company. The new-born company took control of the old company’s various railroad investments, including the Evansville, Henderson & Owensboro Railway Company, which in turn meant it controlled the Owensboro City Railroad Company.
The reorganization seemed to do the trick. By 1919 the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company was showing a profit, which meant that the receivership was ended by order of the Vandenberg County (Indiana) Superior Court. (See Blackburn, Glen A. Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 20, no. 4, 1924, “INTERURBAN RAILROADS OF INDIANA Concluded,” pp. 410-411; and the Electric Railway Journal, Volume 54, July to December 1919, New York: McGraw-Hill Company, Inc.) Court. But for the Owensboro City Railroad Company, this financial respite was nothing more than a band-aid. By the early 1920s OCR was financially bleeding to death.
WORKING FOR THE OWENSBORO CITY RAILROAD IN THE 1920s
Since we’ve moved into the 1920s, let us take a break from all the bad news and peer inside the day-to-day operations of Owensboro City Railroad.
On Wednesday, June 14, 1978, Shelia E. Brown (later Shela Brown Heflin) interviewed Firman Elliott (Oct. 16, 1907-Dec. 6, 1984) about his work as a motorman with the Owensboro City Railway Company. (“Pass The Word. A Project of the Kentucky Oral History Commission Interview with Firman Elliott.” Kentucky Historical Society.) She incorporated the interview in an article, “The Owensboro City Railroad,” that was published on pages 18-24 of the Volume 44, Number 4, 1979 issue of The National Railway Bulletin. Heflin writes:
“During the mule car days the men in charge of the cars were called drivers. Upon electrification the men acquired the title of motormen and felt insulted if anyone referred to them as just drivers. Mr. Firman Elliott, a motorman from 1928 until the Owensboro City Railroad closed, worked ten days without pay to become a motorman. During his training period he not only learned how to properly handle the equipment, but memorized every route and schedule of the street car system.
“Each new man began as an extra, working only when a regular man failed to appear for work. The company required motormen to report ten minutes prior to their first run. If a regular man was one minute late an extra snapped up the regular’s job for that day. Extras became permanent employes when an older man quit or retired.
“A more experienced motorman rolled a novice off the best shifts and runs. The shifts included a day shift, a swing shift and the late shift. Each shift worked twelve hours every day. During Mr. Firman’s tenure the company provided ten minute service uptown and twenty minute service to Seven Hills and the Fairgrounds. The fare was ten cents per ride or one token. Conscientious passengers purchased four tokens for twenty-five cents. Children under six rode free. The company sold school children an unlimited pass for fifty cents each week
“Police and firemen received pink passes which allowed them free passage. The company supplied motormen with books of passes to use during their off duty hours. No one abused the privilege since spotters frequently rode the cars. A motorman allowing unauthorized free rides was dismissed immediately.
“Every motorman furnished his own personal equipment such as his uniform, watch, badge, transfer punch, money changer and even ten dollars worth of his own change. The uniforms were blue, but later changed to khaki when the Evansville and Ohio Valley gained control of the Owensboro street car line. They wore numbered badges on their hats.
“Each motorman turned in a time sheet after his last run. Mr. Elliott emphatically stated the street car company was the only business that paid him for every minute he worked. In 1918 motormen received twenty to twenty five cents per hour. Mr. Elliott earned the top wage of thirty-one cents per hour in 1934. The Evansville and Ohio Valley company issued paychecks every two weeks. Several months before the end the company began paying employes weekly in cash. . . .
“Adolescent pranks angered street car motormen. Boys loved to pull the trolley from the wire as they bicycled past a car. Naturally, it delayed the car, but also frequently broke the guy wire causing quite a bit of damage. Mischievous boys particularly enjoyed pulling the trolley off the motorman’s last run. To prevent the pranks, an old beat cop began to go along on the last run every night. . . .
“According to Hubert McFarland, soaping the track ranked high on the list of favorite pranks. An unsuspecting motorman reached the end of his run, turned the trolley and headed uptown—only he did not go anywhere. The wheels spun on the soaped or greased tracks while the boys relished every minute of the motorman’s exasperation.
“Changing the trolley during a night run provided a tempting situation for thieves. Pulling the trolley turned off the carlights. In 1906 three blacks attacked Motorman Harris near the Fairgrounds as he pulled the trolley. Fortunately, Conductor McAtee foiled their attempt to steal the days proceeds.
“In 1928 Motorman E. E. Crofton, working the Seven Hills run, was not as lucky. At 9:30 P.M. two masked boys stuck a pistol in Mr. Crafton’s face, demanding all his money. The thieves netted $1 from Mr. Crafton, $1.50 and several street car checks (tokens) from the fare box. Attempted robberies became so frequent that motormen contemplated carrying guns. Police officials swore they would not attempt to help the motormen in they carried guns. One motorman assured the police that motormen would not carry guns because the robbers would probably steal the guns, too. . . .
“Owensboro citizens christened Car 15 a ‘Jonah’ car. Within one month the car killed two dogs, one boy and the company dismissed the motorman for leaving his car unattended to purchase drinks at Smeather’s Saloon for two lady passengers. In 1905 Car 27 and Motorman Martin held the record for accidents. Besides killing Miss Nannie Tanner, the jinxed car ran into a Louisville and Nashville train, was nearly run over by the Illinois Central train, jumped the track and collided with an automobile. Hardly a week passed without some misfortune befalling Car 27 and Motorman Martin.” [Ed. Note: Nannie E. Tanner was run over and killed by a OCR streetcar at the corner of Fourth and St. Ann Streets in March 1903.]
LIFE IN RECEIVERSHIP
From a high of over a million and a half riders per year in 1920, Owensboro City Railroad’s ridership began a steady decline. Since the strict guidelines of the company’s franchise didn’t allow for cutting service, nor increasing fares, the dwindling numbers spelled financial ruin by slowly bleeding the company to death.
Company officers, President William H. Koch, Vice President Albert Funkhouser, Seretary C. H. Batin and Treasurer William A. Carson had few options. And so, the inevitable happened. On Saturday, September 29, 1923, Owensboro City Railroad Company found itself in receivership, which was reported on page 1 of the Sunday, Septermber 30, 1923, edition of the Owensboro Inquirer
“OWENSBORO CITY RY. GOES INTO HANDS OF A RECEIVER Bondholders Petition Judge Evans, Default of Interest on Mortgage Is Cause, Financial Difficulties at Root of Matter.
“CARS WILL CONTINUE OPERATION
“A receiver for the Owensboro City Railway has been asked and obtained in Federal court in Louisville by bondholders seeking to foreclose $200,000 of mortgage bonds.
“Judge Walter T. Evans appointed W. A. Carson, of Evansville, Ind., upon the petition filed by E. B. Anderson, of Owensboro, and Albert Funkhouser, of Evansville, attorneys who accompanied Mr. Carson to Louisville yesterday.
“Seventy-one per cent of the bondholders joined in the action to foreclose it was set forth in the petition.
“The company will continue to operate as at present, no changes in the personnel being contemplated, it is understood, until a decree of some kind is entered, which may be in November, when it is anticipated that the property will be ordered sold.
“The action of the officials of the company Saturday was the culmination of the financial difficulties the company has found itself in for years and especially for the last six years. Increased fares failed to lead it out of the troubles it faced from time to time as new demands were made upon it for street paving, track improvement, taxes, etc. Its city, county and state taxes amount to $3,000 per year.
“The company was bought by its present owners from the late John G. Delker and other Owensboro citizens.”
If you recall, we met William A. Carson back when the Evansville Railway Company bought out Owensboro Street Railway Company / Owensboro City Railroad Company and appointed him its general manager. Carson still occupied that position when he was appointed the company’s receiver on September 29, 1923.
From a passenger perspective, life under receivership didn’t bring any noticeable changes—it was pretty much business as usual: rattle-trap cars and poor service with passengers bouncing around like “jumping jacks,” to quote Barney Elliott. The year following receivership, the McGraw Electric Railway Directory 1924 lists William A. Carson as Owensboro City Railroad Company treasurer and receiver, G. R. Millican as general manager and purchasing agent and William A. Tower as local superintendent. The company’s power station and repair shops were located at Hathaway and 6th Streets. The route included Hickman Park, Seven Hills, Chautauqua Park, Fair Grounds, Baseball and Shooting Grounds and Fern Hills Coal Mine. It operated over 12.5 miles of track at 4-8½ gauge, with 25 motor passenger, 7 rail passenger, 5 freight and 2 motor service cars.
However, even in the hands of a receiver Owensboro City Railroad Company was rapidly approaching the end of the line. By 1925 its annual ridership numbers had dropped from 1,600,000 in 1920 to around 900,000. Matters worsened on September 7, 1927, when an Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway interurban was involved in a crash on the Henderson, Kentucky, line that killed seven and injured 56 passengers. The lawsuits that followed caused financial ripples throughout the company and their subsidiaries, especially Owensboro City Railroad struggling in the throes of receivership!
Two years later the American stock market crashed beginning the Great Depression. With millions out of work, or underemployed, street railway systems nationwide felt the financial blow. Owensboro’s all-but-bankrupt streetcar system didn’t escape this national disaster.
By 1933 the overall condition of the Owensboro City Railroad was so bad that Owensboro’s city fathers wanted the company gone and replaced by a motor bus system. With determination they took action to bring it about.
Although Owensboro City Railroad Company’s street car franchise was set to expire on April 1, 1934, Mayor Logan Meredith and Commissioners Henry Cline and Robert E. Miller were not going to wait till then; they requested that Federal Judge Charles I. Dawson end the receivership so they could hand the franchise to a waiting bus company. Page 1 of the Tuesday, November 28, 1933, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported:
“ACT TO BRING END TO RECEIVERSHIP After Federal Judge Charles I. Dawson had deferred action on the request of the mayor and commissioners that the receivership of the Owensboro City Railway company be terminated and the rails and wires removed from the city streets, the board of city commissioners Monday afternoon passed a resolution to increase the rate charged the street car company for electric current from a half cent per kilowatt hour to two cents per k. w. h., beginning mid night Thursday. Since the street cars have been enabled to operate for several years mainly as a result of being given the low current rate, this action was expected by the city officials to bring an early end to the city railway system in Owensboro. . . . A letter was written to W. A. Carson, receiver for the city railway, by City Clerk C. A. Rogers Monday afternoon informing him of the resolution.”
The less than charitable behavior of Owensboro’s mayor and city commissioners was the last nail in the coffin of the late, great Owensboro City Railroad Company. The street car system that had served Owensboro faithfully for nearly 47 years was finished. Waiting in the wings was a shiny new bus system.
From the time before the War Between the States to the beginning of the new century Owensboro had numerous transfer companies. Generally speaking these were businesses that hauled freight and just about anything else, including the occasional passenger, who would climb aboard to ride among the crates and critters. In addition, some of these companies operated proper hacks (cabs) and did a brisk passenger business. But as far as I can discover, there was nothing resembling a passenger bus operating on Owensboro city streets until the turn of the twentieth century.
The history of Owensboro’s first official bus company starts shortly after a driver named Thomas Rhodes left the employ of the City Transfer Company. In October 1899 with two cabs and two wagons at his disposal, he founded Rhodes Transfer Company. When Rhodes gained the financial backing of C. L. Applegate and Col. E. G. Buckner, the three men incorporated with $2,500 in capital stock on August 30, 1900, as the Rhodes Transfer Company, Inc. Their business was described thus: “The nature of the business to be transacted will be the hauling and transferring of passengers, baggage and freight to and from depots and wharfs . . .” (Owensboro Daily Messenger, Friday, August 31, 1900, p. 2.)
To inaugurate their new enterprise the three company officers ordered a shiny-new horse-drawn, eight-seat rubber-tired omnibus. Indeed, it was such a fine vehicle that its arrival in the first week of September 1900 caused a reporter to gush that it was “. . . one of the finest vehicles ever brought to Owensboro and attracted much attention yesterday.” The announced bus schedule was from downtown to the three passenger train depots then serving Owensboro, where it would connect with either incoming or outbound passenger trains.
Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men (to paraphrase Robert Burns)! By that I mean the company never got off the ground. Page 8 of the Wednesday, October 3, 1900, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger gives the details:
“ASKS A RECEIVER. Rhodes Wants His Partnership unencumbered Jaxon Wound Up.
“E. G. Buckner and C. L. Applegate, in their answer to the suit of C. N. Jaxon against them and Thos. Rhodes to prevent Rhodes from turning over $720 worth of property to the Rhodes Transfer company, incorporated, say that while articles of incorporation have been filed, the corporation has never been organized and has no existence. They say Rhodes was to put in the property unincumbered [sic] and when they discovered he could not do so they went no further toward forming the corporation, and declined to receive the property from Rhodes when notified by Jaxon that it was partnership property. Rhodes also filed answer and says that the partnership between Jaxon and himself had been dissolved, and he was to have sixty days in which to pay Jaxon for his interest, and if he did not acquire title to the property by the terms of the dissolution, the partnership still exists, and he asks the court to appoint a receiver to take charge of the partnership property to sell it and divide the proceeds.”
So, technically Rhodes Transfer Company was, but wasn’t, Owensboro’s first bus city bus line. It was, because the company was the first to buy a proper bus to transport passengers, but wan’t because that bus never carried a single person! (We’ll meet Thomas Rhodes again in the history of Owensboro city cabs.)
Okay, so who did start operating Owensboro’s first city bus line? I’ll have to answer that by taking the long way around the barn.
By 1896 James H. Parrish was the president of Owensboro Savings Bank & Trust where he gained a reputation for “having his fingers in a lot of pies,” meaning Parrish had a lot of financial investments. Over the next few years Parrish bought up a large amount of land in the Seven Hills area of Owensboro with plans to develop “a thriving new community,” or suburb. The crowning jewel of that community would be a 31-acre park, which became Chautauqua Park. (Today it is located where East Parrish Avenue and Leitchfield Road intersect.)
To develop his new suburb, in 1901 Parrish formed Homestead Land Company as a subsidiary of his bank. The company was headed by John G. Delker (1842-1917), who was an original incorporator of the Owensboro City Railroad. By May 1901 the company had sold 161 out of 218 lots, and by September was advertising that a “drug store, meat market, barber shop, dry goods, notion store and a boarding house had been built.” These were in addition to “two furniture factories, a chair factory, flour mill, machine manufacturing plant, a brick company, and a buggy factory” that were already in business. The company also bragged that some 30 homes were occupied, housing nearly 300 people. (As an aside, in 1904 James H. Parrish, along with John G. Delker, became two of the owners of the Owensboro Street Railroad Company after they participated in that company’s buyout.)
The only problem with this new community was that the nearest streetcar stop was some five blocks away, which wasn’t too bad in decent weather; but in the slop and muck that made up Owensboro winter streets, it was (shall we say) less than a desirable way to travel to and from the new suburb. Obviously the company needed an alternative public transport to attract home owners and businesses. Thus was born the Seven Hills Bus Line.
With John G. Delker as manager, the Seven Hills Bus Line began operating on August 22, 1901, and thus has the distinction of being Owensboro’s first operational city bus line. For the occasion, the company ordered a new bus, as this July 21, 1901, news item reported: “A bus line has been established between the city’s business center and Seven Hills. Mr. John G. Delker has received a handsome and modern bus which was ordered for the purpose.” The new bus ran regular route between downtown and the new Seven Hills development:
“Seven Hills 6:30 and 7:30 a. m. Leaves Main and Allen streets at 7, 8 and 12 a. m. Leaves Seven Hills at 1:30, 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p. m. Leaves Main and Allen streets, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 p. m. Route; Main and Allen to Third, Third to St. Ann, St. Ann to Fifth. Fifth to Leitchfield road, Leitchfield road to Grove avenue. Grove avenue to Alexander, Alexander to Hubbard’s grocery in Seven Hills. Returning, same route, except coming in Fifth to Allen, Allen to Main. There will be tickets for sale at numerous places on this route. Adults, 6 for 23c; children under 10, half fare. Also tickets for sale at the Homestead Land Co. office, 101 W. Main, and by the driver on bus. These tickets will be good until October 1st, and anyone having tickets at that time can redeem them at the Homestead Land Co.’s office. For further information see J. A. HARRIS, Superintendent.” (Page 5 of the Wednesday, August 28, 1901, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger.)
How long Seven Hills Bus Line operated isn’t known. The company advertised for a few months and then the ads disappeared. Eventually the Owensboro City Railroad Company ran streetcars into the Seven Hills community, which would have meant that the expense of a bus line was no longer justified.
(The story of the Seven Hills development is the subject of a whole different history, but in brief the community was built and the park was built. But those projects proved to be the undoing of James H. Parrish, especially the financing of Chautauqua Park. In 1911 Parrish received a five year sentence in Eddyville State Penitentiary for “wrecking” the Owensboro Savings Bank & Trust—another way of saying he embezzled bank funds for his various business projects.)
Moving right along, the next passenger bus company to appear on Owensboro city streets was the aforementioned City Transfer Company, Inc. It’s pedigree begins in the late 1880s as a freight company.
On March 31, 1888, The City Transfer Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, Inc. filed articles of incorporation. Its incorporators were Patrick M. Civill, R. M. Conway and R. S. Bevier. In addition to hauling freight, goods and mail, the company also transported passengers in and about Owensboro. One of their ads read: “Special reduced rates given to ladies desiring to take afternoon drives, go calling shopping or visiting.”
Although City Transfer Company, Inc. predates Rhodes Transfer Company and Seven Hills Bus Line, during its first years it was only running wagons and hacks. However, by 1902 the company had purchased a large rubber-tired omnibus for regular service between downtown Owensboro and the three Owensboro depots then serving the city, which were the Owensboro & Nashville Railroad depot, the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad depot and the Illinois Central depot. There is no record of how long this bus operated. (For more history on City Transfer Company, see Chapter Seven and the history of OWENSBORO TAXI, CAB, TRANSFER, HACK & JITNEY COMPANIES.)
OWENSBORO MOTOR TRANSIT COMPANY: A FLASH IN THE PAN!
At this point let’s forget about horses and buggies and take a look at Owensboro’s first city “auto-bus” line. Truly, it can be said that it was not much more than a flash in the pan, albeit a “big yellow” flash!
In direct competition with Owensboro City Railroad Company, in September 1923 two brothers, Lawrence Blain Lawlace and Ores Tamrage Lawlace, received a license from the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners to operate a bus line on city streets. They named their new line the Owensboro Motor Transit Company. With Lawrence Lawlace listed as manager, the two brothers took turns driving what they described in their newspaper ads as the “Big Yellow Bus.” Page 6 of the Saturday, September 15, 1923, edition of the The Owensboro Messenger printed the schedule:
“OWENSBORO MOTOR TRANSIT CO. Regular Bus Route STARTING SATURDAY SEPT. 15. Starting on ‘W. 5th and Crabtree Ave., East on 5th to Frederica, North on Frederica to Main, East on Main to Crittenden, South on Crittenden to 4th, 4th to Leitchfield Road, Leitchfield Road to 9th. Returning on the same route to Third and Frederica, thence to West on 3rd to Frazier Ave. back to 5th and Crabtree Ave. Bus service starts at 6 a.m. from 9th and Leitchfield Road and leaves on last trip from 5th and Frazier Ave. at 10:45 a.m. 30 Minute Service.'”
To get some background on this company, let’s turn to page 1 of the Wednesday, July 25, 1923, edition of the Owensboro Inquirer:
“BUS LINE MAY COMPETE WITH CITY ST. CARS Experiment to Be Tried; Superintendent Warns Public CARS’ PROFITS LOW
“Street buses, with a five-cent fare, will be in operation in Owensboro by the middle of August, unless plans revealed this morning go amiss. O. T. Lawlace, who has been conducting such a line in San Bernardino, California, for some years, and his brother, Lawrence Lawlace, of Buena Vista [Street, Owensboro], have placed orders for three Garford chassis with Eck Miller, local sales man [sic], and are having special bodies made for them.
“Buses that will carry 30 passengers will travel over the city streets on schedule time similar to street cars, those launching the new enterprise claim. Their routes will parallel those of the street car company, but on different streets, it is said. They will have belt lines it was stated this morning, and will touch every section of the city.
“First trips are to be made on August 18, it was stated this morning. The bodies are to be delivered in sufficient time to have them attached to the chassis of the special car, which the Garford* people turn out. With no rails to buy, roadway to keep up. expensive copper wiring for trolleys; no power plant to keep up, the operators of bus lines assert they ran give a service for five cents that will equal that of the regular street cars. . . .
“If the traffic justifies it here, the Lawlace brothers say they will add to the number of buses and that an extra number of these carriers will be stocked for big occasions, such as county fairs, Sunday ball games and similar crowd drawing amusements.”
(*The Garford Motor Truck Company was founded in 1909 and based in Elyria, Ohio. It produced truck and bus bodies that could be fitted on a chassis made by other companies. In 1925 the company became Superior Coach Company. It went out of business in 1980.)
Even though the Lawlace brothers had planned a fleet of these auto-buses, subsequent newspaper accounts make it clear that only one was built. But it did get attention about town, since the Lawlace brothers had it painted bright yellow, hence the “Big Yellow Bus” moniker!
Not unexpected, Owensboro Motor Transit’s operation earned the ire of a number of well-placed businessmen about town, perhaps because it rolled onto the scene about the time the financially troubled Owensboro City Railroad was placed in receivership. In the article “Federal Judge Walter Evans Names W. A. Carson, of Evansville, Ind., As Receiver for System”, on page 1 of the the Sunday, September 30, 1923, edition of The Owensboro Messenger, a reporter outlined the failure of street railroads all across the county and laid the blame on buses. Although he doesn’t mention Owensboro Motor Transit by name, he hinted that if Owensboro City Railroad failed, it would be the fault of Owensboro Motor Transit:
“Then, too, busses have made their appearance all across the country, including here in Owensboro. In most of the cities they are regulated, and in some instances not allowed to carry passengers where there is a streetcar line. While there is only one bus being operated in Owensboro there is no restriction placed upon it and it does not pay for the use of the streets, merely buying a Kentucky state license tag. The Owensboro City Railroad Company pays both county and city taxes amounting to $3,000.”
With some powerful forces lined up against them, the Lawlace brothers should have tread softly right out of the gate. However, they made an unwise business decision—one that would have dire consequences.
In August 1923 the Ku Klux Klan, with its virulent message of racial and religious intolerance, came to Owensboro to hold a rally. An open supporter of the Klan and its rally was Owensboro realtor J. W. C. Huff, who employed none other than Lawrence Lawlace as an agent. (On April 25, 1924, Lawrence W. Lawlace announced via a newspaper ad that he had bought an interest in Huff’s realty company, which made him a partner.)
This planned rally set the stage for an explosive situation, made all the worse by the Klan sending the infamous Rev. E. H. Lougher, a Freewill Baptist minister and one of its most rabid anti-Catholic speakers, as the featured speaker. When they were denied use of the city’s Chautauqua Park, Klan organizers announced their rally would be held on the grounds of the Daviess County Courthouse on Wednesday, August 22, 1923 at 7 p.m.
The ensuing uproar was no surprise since in 1923 Roman Catholics made up a large percentage, if not half of Owensboro-Daviess County’s population of some 40,000. Immediately Owensboro’s mayor, Dr. James Hardin Hickman (1852-1931), several city commissioners, Owensboro Chief of Police John Lyons and Daviess County Sheriff John Howard moved to block the rally. Taking their case before Judge Roy L. McFarland of the Daviess County Fiscal Court, they obtained an injunction. The rally appeared to be dead in its tracks, which angered a number of citizens, including Owensboro City Commissioner William N. Horn (1866-1928), who openly took a stand in support of the rally.
While reporting on Horn’s support, page 1 of the Wednesday, August 22, 1923, edition of The Owensboro Messenger also reported on another local Klan supporter: “J. C. W. Huff also made a speech [before Judge McFarland] in which he urged the court to grant the use of the courthouse yard for the meeting.”
After being blocked from using Chautauqua Park and the courthouse yard, it was hastily arranged that the Klan rally would be held that same night outside the city limits in a field owned by one Robert E. Massie. With the help of hundreds of automobile owners sharing rides, a crowd of over 3,000 people turned out for the rally. This number included Sheriff John Howard, four of his deputies, Owensboro Chief of Police John Lyons, Owensboro Night Chief Joe Jackson and six Owensboro police officers, who had been sworn in as deputy sheriffs.
Using the back seat of J. B. McFerran’s touring car as a makeshift stage, Rev. E. H. Lougher stood up and addressed the crowd. Page 3, of the Thursday, August 3, 1923, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported:
“Getting into the subject of Catholicism, the [Rev. Lougher] waxed bitterest. Attacking in turn Catholic missionary work in China, the parochial schools and ‘Catholic policemen,’ who he asserted, extended from Maine to California, he got around to his recent arrest in Lexington. . . I was arrested by six Catholic policemen,’ he said. . . . it was at this stage that Sheriff John Howard, followed by all of his four deputies and by six policemen, advanced towards [Lougher] pushing a path through the crowd. ‘And I guess here comes some more of them,’ [Rev. Lougher] shouted to the audience, turning as Howard reached up and motioned him to stop speaking.”
Sheriff John D. Howard arrested Lougher and charged him with “willfully and feloniously banding together with divers other persons unknown to this affiant for the purpose of intimidating, alarming, disturbing or injuring another or others.” (The charges were dismissed on August 29, 1923, by Judge R. L. McFarland, who made it clear that he was ruling on points of law.)
This all takes us back to Klan supporter J. W. C. Huff, who at the time of the rally, employed “Big Yellow Bus” owner/driver Lawrence Lawlace as a real estate agent in his Huff Realty Company.
Huff’s open support of the Klan would have hardly gone unnoticed in a town the size of Owensboro—population about 17,000 in 1923. And if someone in town had not been aware of his sentiments, the following year Huff and Lawlace (who was now a partner in the company) placed an ad in The Owensboro Messenger reminding people of their radical political views. Here’s that ad from page 11 of the Friday, May 2, 1924, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“K.K.K. Can’t use the city parks, but the Huff Realty Co. will sell, Rent or Lease houses, lots or farms to you even if you are not a taxpayer. See or call us 100% service and values—we know the business. J.W.C. Huff J.W. Smith L.B. Lawlace Both Phones—Planters House Bldg.”
It is obvious from that ad that Lawrence Lawlace and J. W. Smith were also supportive of the Klan, or else they would have never been associated with Huff, let alone sanction the use of their names in a pro-Klan advertisement. Be this as it may, we’ll never know if Lawrence Lawlace’s radical political views had any bearing on the ultimate failure of Owensboro Motor Transit, but my guess is that it did.
If you think about it, how smart was it on the part of the Lawlace brothers to cut into the profits of the city’s failing streetcar company, whose worried investors had a lot of political clout, and then go out of their way to offend a very large segment of Owensboro’s population while trying to start a public transit service to serve those very people?
Perhaps there was no legal way of going after J. W. C. Huff and his real estate business, but there was something Owensboro’s politicians could do about the Lawlace brothers. With Mayor James Hardin Hickman leading the charge, they effectively shut down the Lawlace brothers. Page 12 of the Thursday, November 15, 1923, edition of the Owensboro Inquirer gives the details:
“CITY OFFICIALS LIMIT BUS LINE Would Prevent Travel on Any Street Traversed By Electric Cars
“If the ordinance that was practically agreed on by the mayor and commissioners at the special meeting held at the Mayor’s office this morning becomes a law, the ‘jitney’ bus now operating in Owensboro under the management of Lawlace Bros., must confine its travel to certain streets upon which the street cars do not operate.
“The ordinance also places a license tax of $50 on each bus hauling eight passengers; $75 for those hauling 12 passengers, and on those hauling more than 12 passengers, $100 annually. All children under six years of age, accompanied by some one over 16 years old, will be allowed to ride free.
“The ordinance will be placed on its first passage at the meeting on next Monday afternoon, and it will be given its final passage at a future meeting, if not stopped by an injunction suit, which will probably be filed to test the right of the commissioners to grant the exclusive right of way on certain streets to the street car company.
“At the meeting this morning, E. B. Anderson was representing the street car company, while Mr. Clements was present on behalf of the city. Wilbur K. Miller was on hand for Lawlace Bros., and protested against the conclusions of the commissioners and the passage of the ordinance. Mayor Hickman and Commissioners Stone and Loney are holding that when they granted the permit for the operation of the ‘jitney’ bus, it was with the understanding that the bus was not to travel on any street upon which the street cars operate, and to allow them this privilege now would mean the elimination of the street car company.”
The ordinance was passed with the desired effect, as reported on pages 1 and 8 of the Sunday, December 9, 1923, edition of the Owensboro Inquirer:
“DOWN AND OUT Ordinance Provisions Are Too Drastic, Say Operators
“The ‘jitney’ bus line has thrown up the sponge. ‘We could not run our buses through alleys and that was about all the city officials left for us to do. The ordinance passed regulating us, practically annihilated our business, so we have had to quit,’ said L. B. Lawlace, who with his brother T. T. [sic; should be O.T.] opened an automobile bus line in Owensboro, which one car has been operated since September 15. This was taken off a few days ago and it was announced yesterday, would not be put back in the trade.
“‘We were carrying about 400 passengers a day,’ said L. B. Lawlace, ‘until the recent ordinance regulating us was passed. We tried to go ahead under its provisions, but the effort was futile. We had to run on unimproved streets that were hard on our car and endangered the life and limb of our passengers. Our business was cut 30 per cent besides. Then that $100 license loomed. All together it was too much. The ordinance was a killer. The jitney business is dead here.’
“The Lawlace brothers announced that they would probably take their bus to Evansville and enter the ‘jitney’ trade in that city. They say that the license there is but $35 and that there they will be able to make a go of it.”
Now out of the city bus business, Lawrence and Ores Lawlace stayed around town for a few more years—just long enough to drive their “Big Yellow Bus” out of mothballs and into a court trial—a trial that involved the Ku Klux Klan no less! Page 11 of the Sunday, July 26, 1925, edition of the Owensboro Inquirer tells the story:
“Street Car Company Loses Prosecution Before Jury
“It required a jury in city court Saturday morning but a few minutes to decide that L. B. Lawlace and O. T. Lawlace, did not operate a bus line in Owensboro on streets parallel with the street car line in violation of an ordinance passed November 20, 1923.
“The Lawlace brothers operated a big yellow bus to and from the fair grounds carrying passengers to the klan celebration on last Thursday. The income from the day’s experience was very pleasing to the owners of the bus.
“The officials of the street car company secured a warrant against the owners of the bus or taxi cab, claiming a violation of an ordinance which prohibits bus lines from operating on streets traversed by electric cars.
“The defendants entered a plea of not guilty on warrants for operating a bus without a license. They admitted that they operated a passenger carrying vehicle not as a bus line, but as a taxi cab charging five cents fare. Lawlace brothers had taken out a license’s to operate a taxicab and did not operate their bus on streets parallel with the street car line after they had been told not to do so by Chief of Police [Charles H.] Brady.
“They said they did not operate on a bus line schedule but carried passengers to the fair grounds at frequent intervals. The jury trying the case, was composed of W. T. Phipps, Geo. Welch. B. F. Kirk, J. A. Bennett, J. H. Bates and Geo. N. Gore.”
(The Klan rally mentioned in the court record was sponsored by the Daviess County Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on Thurday, July 23, 1925. This time around city and county officials decided not to openly oppose the Klan and granted use of the fairgrounds. Perhaps the reason for this acquiescence was that Rev. E. H. Lougher brought along Judge Charles J. Orbison of Indianapolis, Indiana as a guest speaker. At that time Orbinson, who had previously held high office in the Klan, was the law partner of Governor Edward L. Jackson of Indiana who himself was an open Klan supporter. It is likely that Owensboro’s politicians didn’t want a legal tangle with such an influential man.)
After this brief stint out of mothballs and into court, nothing more was heard of the Big Yellow Bus or Owensboro Motor Company. Eventually Lawrence B. Lawlace moved his family to Evansville, Indiana, where he sold real estate. He died on September 3, 1972, aged 86; his brother Ores T. Lawlace, moved to Los Angeles, California where he died on December 28, 1959, aged 74.
The year was 1934, the place was Owensboro, Kentucky, the focus was the imminent demise of Owensboro City Railroad Company.
While Owensboro’s mayor and city commissioners were busy giving the boot to the town’s street car system, James Raymond Pyle (Feb. 20, 1896-March 3, 1949) and a “group of spirited citizens” were putting the final touches on a new city bus system. But first came the formality of publicly selling the bus franchise to the highest bidder. For the record, and for those of you with the time and patience to read it, the following is the entire notice of the bus franchise sale as published on page 11 of the Wednesday, March 14, 1934, edition of the The Owensboro Messenger:
“NOTICE OF SALE OF BUS FRANCHISE BY CITY OF OWENSBORO.
“The public will take notice that on Saturday, March 24, 1934, at the hour of 1 p. m. at the City Hall in Owensboro, Daviess county, Kentucky, the undersigned, Chas. T. Smith, as City Clerk of Owensboro, Kentucky, will offer for sale to the highest and best bidder for cash a bus franchise for the City of Owensboro. Kentucky, which bus franchise contained in and the condition, thereof more fully described in the following ordinance provided for the sale of same which is in words and figures as follows, to-wit:
“AN ORDINANCE PROVIDING FOR THE SALE OF A FRANCHISE, RIGHT AND PRIVILEGE TO OPERATE AND MAINTAIN A SYSTEM OF MOTOR BUS TRANSPORTATION OVER THE STREETS, AVENUES, LANES, ALLEYS AND PUBLIC GROUNDS OF THE CITY OF OWENSBORO, DAVIESS COUNTY, KENTUCKY, FOR A PERIOD OF TEN YEARS, SUBJECT TO THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS HEREIN SET FORTH.
“Be it Ordained by the Mayor and Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, in the County of Daviess, State of Kentucky, as follows:
“That the right and privilege to use the public streets, avenues, lanes, alleys and public grounds within the city limits of Owensboro, Kentucky, for the purpose of maintaining and operating a system of bus transportation over said streets, avenues lanes, alleys and public grounds in the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, for a period of ten years be duly advertised for sale publicly to the highest and best bidder, the city reserving the right to reject any and all bids; but the right and privilege granted shall not be exclusive for any part of such period of time. The sale shall be made for cash in hand at date of sale. The amount paid shall be returned to the successful bidder, in case the sale is not confirmed and ratified by the Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, and the sale shall be subject to confirmation and ratification or rejection by said Board of Commissioners of said city. The sale of the franchise herein contemplated shall be made by Charles T. Smith, Clerk of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, who is hereby commissioned to duly advertise said right and privilege and sale in the Owensboro Daily Messenger, a newspaper published in the city of Owensboro. Kentucky, in at least one issue, and by posting printed notices of same in three public places in the city of Owensboro, Kentucky, for at least ten days next before the 24th day of March 1934. on which day, at the hour of 1:00 o’clock P. M., he shall at the door of the City Hall in the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, offer at public outcry to the highest and best bidder for cash in hand, or a certified check, the franchise, right, privilege hereinabove described to be advertised and offered for sale, upon the terms and conditions hereinafter specifically set forth, and shall submit his report thereof in writing to the said Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky.
“The terms and conditions of the franchise, right and privilege so to be advertised and offered for sale, and to be granted in the event the sale thereof is ratified by the Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, shall be as follows:
“Section 1. The purchaser, his or its associates, successors or assigns, shall have the franchise, privilege, right and power to operate and maintain a system of bus transportation over the streets, avenues, lanes, alleys and public grounds within the corporate limits of the City of Owensboro as now existing, or may be hereinafter established, for the purpose of transporting persons for hire, pursuant to the schedules and rates herein after prescribed, for a period of ten years from and after the date of sale, confirmation and ratification hereof, subject to all of the restrictions and provisions hereinafter contained.
“Section 2. The route or routes over which said busses shall be operated by the purchaser of this Franchise shall be substantially as follows: From River Road on Main or Second Street; thence east on Second Street to Daviess Street; thence south on Daviess Street to Third Street; thence. west on Third Street to Frederica Street; thence south on Frederica Street to Twenty-fourth Street, and return; From Bosley Road on West Ninth Street; thence east on West Ninth Street to Walnut Street; thence north on Walnut Street to Fourth Street; thence east on Fourth Street to Frederica Street; thence north on Frederica Street to Third Street; thence east on Third Street to St. Ann Street; thence north on St. Ann Street to Second or Main Street; thence east on Main or Second Street to Daviess Street; thence south on Daviess Street to Fourth Street: thence east on Fourth Street to Crittenden Street; thence south on Crittenden Street to Ninth Street; thence east on Ninth Street to Breckenridge Street; thence south on Breckenridge Street to Twelfth Street; thence east on Twelfth Street to Jackson Street: thence south on Jackson Street to North Avenue; thence east on North Avenue to Bluff Avenue; thence south on Bluff Avenue to Eighteenth Street; thence east on Eighteenth Street to Alexander Avenue; thence north on Alexander Avenue to Valley Avenue; thence west on Valley Avenue to Bluff Avenue; and thence return; From Fourth and Frederica Streets; thence east on Fourth Street to Wing Avenue; thence southeast on Wing Avenue to the city limits; and return; And the routes provided herein may be changed, discontinued or substituted from time to time by and with the consent of the Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, and the purchaser.
“Section 3. The busses to be operated by the purchaser hereunder shall be operated by gasoline motor, electricity or what may become an improved method of power. All busses shall be of all metal construction and of standard, modern type, and latest approved design, and of a minimum capacity of eighteen passenger seating capacity, and shall at all times be kept in a clean, sanitary condition, well painted, in good repair, and shall be heated in winter and kept properly lighted, both interior and exterior, from dusk to dawn, and said busses shall be upon the ‘pay as you enter’ order, and shall be equipped with pneumatic tires only. The purchaser of said franchise shall be required to operate a minimum of five busses, and shall have at all times an additional bus to be kept in reserve to take the place of any bus or busses being repaired, or while out of service.
“Section 4. The purchaser of this franchise shall within approximately thirty days from the date of the purchase of said franchise, and its acceptance by the Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro, begin the operation of said motor bus transportation system, and continue the operation of such service without cessation. Such bus service shall substantially cover the routes hereinbefore designated approximately each hour of each day between the hours of 5:30 o’clock A. M. and 9:00 o’clock P. M., or more often, or later at night, at the option of the purchaser.
“Section 5. The purchaser of said franchise, his or its successors or assigns, shall furnish bus service at reasonable rates, and without discrimination. Under existing conditions such reasonable rates shall not be in excess of the following maximum schedule or rates: Single fare for all persons over er 12 years of age (except school children during school term) .10c tokens, or checks, four fares for 25c. Single fare for persons under 12 years of age .05c. All school children of whatever age during school term to or from school .05c. To children under six years of are no charge when accompanied by a fare-paying passenger. All fares shall be payable as the passenger enters the bus.
“Section 6. Before beginning operation under this franchise the purchaser or grantee shall secure and carry at all times liability insurance in some good solvent insurance company or association authorized to do business in Kentucky, to protect the public, and which liability insurance shall bind the obligators thereunder to make compensation for injuries to persons or damage to property resulting from the negligent operation of such bus system, provided that said insurance company or insurance carrier may limit its liability for damage to property of others to the sum of $1,000.00 and may limit its liability for injuries or death to any one person to the sum of $5,000.00, or may limit Its liability for injuries or death of more than one person in any one accident to the sum of $25,000.00.
“Section 7. The busses of said purchaser of said franchise, his or its successors or assigns, shall come to a full stop at railroad crossings before proceeding across same, and shall comply with all traffic rules and regulations of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky.
“Section 8. In the business section of such City the grantee or purchaser of this franchise shall have reserved for his or its use bus-stop spaces along its route next to the curb line. Each bus stop space shall be near an intersection of streets. Each reserved bus-stop space shall not exceed thirty feet in length, unless additional space be granted by the City. The grantee or purchaser of this franchise shall furnish at his or its own expense markers to designate the location of each reserved bus-stop space in the business section of the City. The Board of Commissioners of the City of Owensboro reserves the right and privilege to designate the location of all reserved bus-stop spaces granted under this ordinance, if it so desires.
“Section 9. As compensation for this franchise, in addition to the amount bid for same, and in lieu of all city occupation or license taxes, the grantee or purchaser of this franchise shall pay annually to the City of Owensboro the sum of $10.00 per bus for each and every bus in regular use.
Section 10. In case of failure on the part of the grantee or purchaser of this franchise, his or its successors or assigns, to comply with any of the provisions of this ordinance, or if said grantee or purchaser, his or its successors or assigns, shall do or cause to be done any act or thing prohibited by or in violation of the terms of this ordinance, said grantee or purchaser, his or its successors or assigns, shall forfeit all rights and privileges granted by this ordinance, and all right thereto shall cease, terminate and become null and void, but no proceeding to declare a forfeiture shall be commenced by the city unless such violation, failure or negligence has continued for a period of fifteen days after notice has been riven grantee, purchaser, successors or assigns.
“Section 11. All ordinances or parts of ordinances in conflict with this ordinance are hereby repealed and this ordinance shall be in full force and effect from and after its final passage. CHAS. T. SMITH, Clerk, City of Owensboro.
With no one else bidding on the bus franchise, James Pyle and associates won the franchise with a $25 bid.
The new bus company’s name was spelled out in the articles of incorporation where the identities of some of those “spirited citizens” who helped found the company were also revealed. The information was reported on page 10 in the Wednesday, March 28, 1934, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“Articles of incorporation for the Owensboro Rapid Transit were filed in the county clerk’s office Tuesday afternoon. The incorporators were James R. Pyle, A. Whittaker and D. Heady. The purpose of the corporation is to operate a bus line in Owensboro. Capital stock of the corporation is placed at 300 shares, of no par value. Pyle, Whittacker and Heady are listed as owning five shares each. The board of directors will be composed of five stockholders. Indebtedness of the firm is limited to $100,000.”
Incorporator James R. Pyle, who had moved to Owensboro from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1920 as a representative for Pennsylvania-Indiana Oil Company, accepted the position of general manager of the new Owensboro Rapid Transit (ORT). One of his first acts as general manager was to established a terminal (or bus barn) at the garage of the Owensboro Motor Company, located at 1709 South Triplett Street. Although there are no surviving details, likely the choice for this location had something to do with the motor company’s owner, Roma Baize—who would become the general manager of Owensboro Rapid Transit in a few years. (At the time, Baize’s company manager was Dugan Best, the future mayor of Owensboro who would play an important role in the city’s public transit some 35 years down the road.)
Another, more important move was James Pyle ordering six new 1934 18-passenger buses from the Yellow Truck & Coach Manufacturing Company in Pontiac, Michigan, at a cost of $22,000, or about $3,600 each. (General Motors Company purchased a controlling interest in Yellow Coach in 1925, changed the name to Yellow Truck & Coach Manufacturing Company, and relocated production to Pontiac West Assembly in Pontiac, Michigan.)
Originally, the new buses were supposed to have been delivered and operational by Sunday, April 8 which was the planned inaugural day for the new bus service. However, on Friday, April 6 General Manager Pyle was notified by the Yellow Coach Company that the expected six buses would not be arriving on time. On Tuesday, April 10 there was an update from the factory, which was reported on page 10 in the Wednesday, April 11, 1934, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“James R. Pyle, manager of Owensboro Rapid Transit, which will operate a new bus service in Owensboro, was informed Tuesday two of the buses to be used are enroute here from Pontiac, Mich. The other four buses will leave Pontiac Thursday for Owensboro. It is expected the bus service will be inaugurated the last of this week.”
Faced with this minor setback, William A. Tower, the superintendent of the Owensboro City Railroad Company, graciously informed General Manager James Pyle that his street cars would continue service until the buses arrived. In the mean time, on Wednesday, April 11 the first two buses arrived in Owensboro after having been driven from the factory in Pontiac. Page 9 of the April 12, 1934, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported:
“The two buses that arrived last night attracted much attention in the business district. They seat eighteen passengers and are brilliantly illuminated.”
Owensboro’s tired old streetcars continued running until the evening of Friday, April 13, 1934. The following day the new bus line was set to take over. In anticipation of the big day, page 3 of the morning edition of the Saturday, April 14, 1934, The Owensboro Messenger carried the following story:
“BUS SERVICE TO BE STARTED TODAY 20 and 30-Minute Schedules to Be Maintained; Routes Are Extended.
“Six new buses of the Owensboro Rapid Transit Service will be placed in operation in Owensboro early this morning. The buses, ordered from the General Motors Bus corporation in Pontiac, Mich., have arrived in Owensboro and were yesterday made ready for starting the schedules. James Pyle, manager of Rapid Transit Service, had city officials and a few others as his guest Friday on a run over the proposed bus routes which include all of the street car routes with a number of additions.
“Mr. Pyle stated twenty and thirty minute schedules would be maintained. During the rush hours of early morning and late afternoon the buses will operate on a ten-minute schedule to the factories. Every important industrial plant in Owensboro, and also the Glenmore distillery, outside the city limits, will be on the bus routes. The buses will be operated until 11 o clock at night.
“Transfer Point: A transfer point in the business district will be at the corner of Second and Daviess streets. Seven Hills, the West and Southern sections of Owensboro will be covered by the buses. The buses, of the latest manufacture, are very attractive of design and are handsomely fitted on the interior. Their operation is with unusual smoothness. Directors of Rapid Transit Service at a meeting Friday elected C. E Field, president [Ed. note: This is Charles Eldred Field, who founded Field Packing Company]; Mr. Pyle, vice president and H. E. Baumgarten, secretary-treasurer. Gene White will be in charge of the bus terminal. Employment will be given to fifteen men.
“Street Cars Linger On: W. A. Tower,* superintendent of the Owensboro City Railroad company, said the street cars would continue in operation until Judge Charles L Dawson, orders the service stopped. The company has been in the hands of a federal receiver for several years. The company was ready to quit business April 8, but it was ascertained the franchise did not expire until late in July. The city is anxious for the street car service to end so that work may begin on street construction in West Second.”
(*William A. Tower, born 1884, died Sept. 17, 1956, had been the superintendent of OCR for 32 years when the company closed down.)
With all six buses in town, on Saturday April 14, 1934, at 5:40 a.m., the new-born Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. sent forth their shiny new Yellow Coach buses into Owensboro city streets. (NOTE: in numerous early newspaper articles the company was named as Owensboro Rapid Transit Service. However, the legal name was Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc.)
Page 1, of the Sunday, April 15, 1934, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported on the company’s first day:
“STREET CARS BUS TRIPS Better Business Than Expected Is Reported For First Day; Tentative Schedule Is Announced By Management.
“Owensboro’s street cars suspended operations Saturday morning and five new eighteen passenger buses, owned by the Owensboro Rapid Transit Service, began operating over the streets of the city. At the close of the day, it was stated by Manager James Pyle that the buses did better business than had been expected for the first day and carried more passengers than the street cars usually did on Saturdays.
“Suspension of the street car service was agreed to late Friday by Federal Judge Charles I. Dawson. In a telephone conversation with an Owensboro attorney for the car line, Judge Dawson instructed him to prepare the necessary order and send it to Louisville for approval. Until the call was made, it had been stated the cars would operate in competition with the buses for several days while the order was awaited. Federal court approval was necessary because the Owensboro City Railroad Co., was operating under a federal receiver.
“The first bus trips were made at 5:40 o’clock Saturday morning. The buses started at the end of West Ninth street; West Second and the River road; Twenty-fourth and Frederica, and Eighteenth and Alexander avenue. They continued operating until 10:30 o’clock last night. Special buses will be provided for taking employes of Owensboro’s industrial plants to and from work each day. For the early morning shift at the Ken-Rad, buses will be provided at the end of the West Ninth and West Second street lines. The West Ninth street Ken-Rad buses will leave at 5:36 and 5:40 o’clock. The West Second street Ken-Rad buses will start at 6:38 and 6:40. For the Glenmore and Murphy plants, connection will be made by all buses at Second and Daviess street at 7:11, 7:40 and 8:15 o’clock.
“Buses will be at these plants to receive the employes when they quit work, but for the present will not make regular trips to them except at these hours. The two routes over which the buses operated Saturday, but which were said by Mr. Pyle to be subject to change, follow: West Ninth-Seven Hills line starting at the end of West Ninth and going east to Walnut; north in Walnut to Fourth; Fourth to Frederica; Frederica to Third; Third to Allen; Allen to Second; Second to Daviess; Daviess to Fourth; Fourth to Crittenden; Crittenden to Ken-Rad; Ken-Rad to Triplett on Ninth; Triplett to Eighteenth; Eighteenth to Alexander and circle around to Valley, Bluff and North avenues; thence to Fifteenth; Fifteenth to Breckenridge; Breckenridge to Ninth; Ninth to Triplett and return to end of West Ninth by route taken to this point on first half of trip. Buses will pass a given point every twenty minutes on this route from 5:40 a. m. to 8 a. m. and after that every thirty minutes until 10:30 p. m. West Second-South Frederica line start West Second and River road and continue east to Daviess; south in Daviess to Third; west to Frederica and south in Frederica to Twenty-fourth. A twenty minute schedule will be maintained throughout the day on this line.
“Fares during the week day for adults will be ten cents for single trips, or four tokens for twenty-five cents. On Sundays, within the city limits, the fare will be five cents. To the ball park the Sunday fare will be ten cents. Bus stop signs will be placed in the business district Monday. In the residential districts, passengers may stop the buses at any street corner.”
As Owensboro’s streetcars passed into history, the writer reporting the above story, commented that:
“Thirteen played a conspicuous part in the life of Owensboro’s electric street cars, which suspended operations Saturday morning. The first franchise to operate electric cars was granted by the city on February 13, 1893, and the final trips were made by the cars Friday night, April 13.”
On Wednesday, May 9, 1934, a nine-man work crew from Owensboro City Railway Company began removing street car rails from South Frederica Street. A few months later, on July 15, 1934, the company’s receiver placed the following ad in area newspapers:
“NOTICE Until July 20th, 1934, the undersigned will sell at private sale for cash subject to the approval of the Judge of the United States District Court in small lots or by piece and parcel any of the following described personal property of the Owensboro City Railway Company, to-wit: 15 street car bodies, good for outbuildings, camp houses, play and chicken houses. 401 gross tons 70, 60, 56 and 52 pound steel rails, good for use in coal mines. 10,000 lbs. copper trolley wire good for use in coal mines. Miscellaneous shop tools and office equipment. 400 chestnut trolley poles good for props in coal mines. W. A. CARSON, Special Master United States District Court.”
Its once proud cars turned into storage sheds and chicken coops, thus did Owensboro City Railroad come to an ignominious end.
A FAMILIAR PROBLEM REARS ITS HEAD
Wishing to avoid the problem that caused the failure of the streetcar company, i.e., a lack of ridership, ORT’s board of directors decided to keep fares low in an effort to attract more passengers. When, on Monday, July 16, 1934, the city authorized the company to sell 3 fare tokens for 25¢ instead of four for 25¢, ORT’s management decided not to avail themselves of the new rate. Indeed, the company announced that during the months of July and August it would cut fares to 5¢ for the Wednesday schedule in addition to Sunday’s 5¢ fares.
That summer Owensboro Rapid Transit buses were traveling approximately 700 miles per day. The company employed 12 drivers and other positions, for a total of 17 employees.
It was all a good start, but ORT soon learned what the street car company before it had learned the hard way: Owensboro public transit was not a profitable enterprise! In fact fare revenues were so glum that by the following year the company aggressively guarded its city franchise from what it saw as encroachment into its territory. An example was Owensboro Rapid Transit taking a local taxi driver to court, which was reported on page 3 of the June 12, 1935, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“DISMISS CHARGE ON TAXI DRIVER Validity of City Ordinance To Be Argued Today In Police Court.
“Judge F. A. Roby in police court Tuesday morning dismissed Casey Jones, Owensboro taxi cab driver, charged with interfering with the Owensboro Rapid Transit’s business by picking up a passenger waiting for a city bus, but at the request of City Attorney Earl S. Winter and James Pyle, manager of the bus line, will hear arguments this morning on the validity of the city franchise ordinance which granted the bus line the right to operate.
“Mrs. Winfrey Holbrook, who lives at Ninth and Triplett streets, was the unwitting cause of the action when she was brought down town by Mrs. Leta Clark, owner of the Checker cab line. Mrs. Holbrook had called a cab and after waiting a few minutes sent her little girl to the Clark home nearby. Mrs. Clark answered by taking Mrs. Holbrook in a private car not a taxi without charging her fare.
“It was the contention of the bus company that under the ordinance granting it a franchise to operate along certain streets in Owensboro the taxi lines are barred from picking up passengers in that zone, and as Mrs. Holbrook lived on the bus route she could not have become a taxi passenger.
“One of the questions to be argued today by attorneys is whether the city bus company must obtain a certificate of right to operate from the state commissioner of motor vehicles as do the bus companies which operate between distant points in Kentucky.”
Owensboro Rapid Transit’s worrisome financial situation was so acute that a little over eighteen months after it began operating, on Tuesday, October 15, 1935, Owensboro Retail Merchants Association met to discuss ways to breathe some financial health into the company. Their solution was to purchase Owensboro Rapid Transit’s $2,950 worth of unissued stock. Although the move did help shore us the company’s finances for a while, it proved to be nothing more than a Band-Aid.
(The Owensboro Retail Merchants Association included the most influential men in town, including Roy Burlew, who was the founder of Kentucky Radio Corporation, later known as Ken-Rad, Owensboro’s new mayor, Fred Weir, James Leach, Sam Levy, Charles E. Field, owner of Field Packing Company, chairman of the board of directors of First Owensboro Bank & Trust Company and an ORT board member, and A. J. Reynolds. The stock subscriptions were made at the meeting and buyers included S. W. Anderson Co., McAtee, Lyddane & Ray, Weir & Morgan, Short Bros. Motor Co., A. J. Reynolds Furniture Store, Purdy Furniture Co., Wright Machine Co., Field Packing Co., Citizens State Bank, First National Bank and Sears, Roebuck & Co.)
A SMASHING WAY TO START THE NEW YEAR!
Owensboro Rapid Transit suffered its first major accident at 6:40 p.m., Thursday, January 23, 1936, at a railroad crossing on Fifteenth Street, when its Seven Hills bus, on its way to the downtown terminus, was hit by an Illinois Central passenger train. The train was backing into Union Station when John W. Hagan, the driver of the bus, crossed onto the tracks. Hagan claimed to have stopped at the crossing before proceeding, but a passenger disputed that claim and said Hagan drove onto the tracks without stopping. Although the bus was nearly full of passengers, no one was seriously injured. However, the front of the bus was hit by three cars of the train before Hagan was able to back off the tracks. The result was a bus with a badly smashed front end and broken windows—and a very expensive repair bill. It was not a good way to start the new year!
Nineteen thirty-six did herald one bit of good news: For the first time in its short life ORT earned some money! Page 1 of the Wednesday, March 4, 1936, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported the news and offered a glimpse into the company’s finances, along with a list of new company directors.
“CITY BUSES GAIN IN PUBLIC FAVOR Stockholders Hear Annual Report of Officers and Elect Directors.
“Sixty stockholders of the Owensboro Rapid Transit company, operating the city local bus system, were dinner guests of Roy Burlew, at Hotel Owensboro last night. It was the annual meeting of stock holders called to elect directors for the ensuing year and to hear the reports of officers on the condition of the company.
“C. E. Field, president of Owensboro Rapid Transit, presided at that meeting and introduced H. E. [Harry E.] Baumgarten, who gave the financial report. Mr. Baumgarten reported that Owensboro is supporting the bus line with increasing patronage and that since last August it has been showing a monthly profit, whereas prior thereto losses had been the general experience.
“Suggestions were invited, and a number of those present offered advice to the management on means of increasing the number of daily fares. One of these was James L. Miller, who recalled that when he came to Owensboro, the public transportation system consisted of mule drawn cars. Sheep bells were worn on the collars of the mules, he reminded those who could remember ‘the good old days.’ He later laid the rails for the electric street car system, and did not have to prod the memories of his hearers for them to recall the clanging gong operated by foot almost constantly by the motorman. Then came the noiseless, swift-moving, neat appearing city buses. They are too efficient, the speaker said. They slip along so speedily and silently that they pass prospective fares before they are aware that the buses are upon them. He recommended installation in the buses street-car gongs to let people along the routes traveled know when the buses are coming.
“Many suggestions were recorded and others are invited from the general public, which, it is believed is showing a steadily mounting pride in Owensboro’s bus line. The directors elected were: J. R. Pyle, H. E. Baumgarten, C. E. Field, Harry Ray, J. S. Leach, W. B. Haber, Earl Dawson, Frank Dell and Frank Mills. They will meet Thursday to elect officers.”
This bit of financial sunshine didn’t last long and eventually Owensboro Rapid Transit slipped back into the red. On top of that, the company suffered its first fatal accident.
On Friday, August 27, 1937, an ORT bus, driven by 38-year-old Oden Arthur Lashbrook, was hit by a city-owned truck driven by 19-year-old Thomas Meredith, the son of Owensboro City Commissioner Logan E. Meredith. Both the bus and truck were traveling west on West Second Street when Lashbrook attempted a turn south into Fraysery Avenue. Meredith struck the left rear portion of the bus causing it to overturn. Charles E. Gipe, a passenger on the bus, was seated by the driver in a seat that faces the rear of the bus. He was killed when he was caught under the door of the bus as it was turned over by the impact of the crashing truck. Coroner Delbert J. Glenn did not assign blame for the accident at the inquest. As a result, both Meredith and Lashbrook were charged with manslaughter and bound over for trial.
Owensboro Rapid Transit President Charles E. Field paid Lashbrook’s bond, while Commissioner Meredith paid his son’s bond. (On September 24, 1937 Thomas Meredith had his manslaughter charge reduced by a grand jury to reckless driving. He was fined $100 and costs on September 29, 1937, when he entered a plea of guilty for the reduced charge. That same grand jury did not reduce the manslaughter charge against Oden Lashbrook. However, since Oden Lashbrook went on to join the Owensboro Police Department, attaining the rank of sergeant, we can assume that the charges were dropped. He died in 1972, aged 73.)
A little over two weeks later another crash at Third Street and Frayser Avenue between an ORT bus and a car driven by W. C. Wright resulted in an $11,000 lawsuit being filed against the company. Such negative publicity didn’t help Owensboro Rapid Transit’s quest to attract more riders and hence, desperately-needed profits.
IT’S 1938 AND NEW OWNERS TAKE THE WHEEL!
In June 1938 Jay Hardy O’Flynn, Sr. (Oct. 9, 1890—Aug. 17, 1968), the major stockholder in Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc., and B. H. Mattingly, who had been ORT’s’ general manager for the last two years, took over the company. Page 3 of the Friday, June 24, 1938, edition of The Owensboro Messenger carried the story.
“NEW OWNERS FOR BUS SYSTEM HERE Jay O’FIynn and B. H. Mattingly Take Charge of Rapid Transit on July 1.
“Jay O’FIynn and B. H. Mattingly have acquired the ownership and operation of the Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc., which has operated a bus system in Owensboro for the last four years.
“The system was started in Owensboro when the Owensboro City Railroad company ended its street car service. Public spirited Owensboro business men formed a company capitalized at $20,000, purchased buses and maintained the system since 1934. All of the outstanding stock will be retired at par. C. E. Field is president of the Rapid Transit and H. E. Baumgarten is secretary-treasurer.
“Mr. O’FIynn said he and his associates would take charge of the company July 1. Improvements, where needed, will be made in the service, he said. Mr. Mattingly has been manager of the bus company for the last two years.” [Note: Harry E. Baumgarten had been with ORT since its founding and was by this time a major investor in the company.]
There’s an ancient Greek saying about desperate times calling for desperate measures, which might account for a rather absurd experiment over at ORT.
Obviously searching for ways to increase ridership, one of the new owners proposed a dilly of an idea. On July 31, 1938 the company introducedintroduced “The Kiddie Special,” which, if you study the below advertisement, seems to be a scheme that turned their drivers into daytime babysitters. I’m guessing the venture didn’t work out since there were no further ads for for “The Kiddie Special!”
By 1940 Owensboro Rapid Transit was serving a population of 22,785 with six buses operating over 13.7 route miles. In a list of the company officers, both O’Flynn and Mattingly are noticeably missing. Instead, Charles E. Field was listed as company president, Roma Earl Baize (1890-1972) as general manager and Harry Edward Baumgarten as secretary-treasurer. So, what happened to Messrs. O’Flynn and Mattngly?
Harry Baumgarten, who, as noted, was a major investor in ORT, worked as the comptroller for Kentucky Radio Corporation, or Ken-Rad, and maintained a separate office at 1529 Miller Court for his work with the bus company. In my Saturday, March 16, 2019, interview with Harry E. “Bud” Baumgarten, Jr. he revealed that his father and Jay O’Flynn “butted heads” over the running of the company—perhaps over things like “The Kiddie Special.” Although Harry Jr. didn’t go into details, he noted that O’Flynn finally sold his shares in Owensboro Rapid Transit to his father.
The sale was reported in the April 16, 1942, edition of The Owensboro Messenger article “O’Flynn Stock In Bus Line Is Sold:”
“Wayne P. Gordon Head Of Rapid Transit Co.
“The interest of Jay O’Flynn in the Owensboro Rapid Transit, has been sold to Wayne P. Gordon and Mrs. H. E. Baumgarten, it was announced Wednesday night by H. E. Baumgarten, associate in the concern which operates a bus line in Owensboro. Gordon has been elected president of the company, Mrs. Baumgarten was named vice-president, and Mr. Baumgarten is secretary.
“The company recently purchased from the city a ten year franchise to extend from March, 1944, when the old franchise expires, and next Monday will begin operation of a bus line between Owensboro and Morganfield for transportation of workers at the army camp* being built there who could live in Owensboro and make the round trip each day.
“A temporary permit has been granted the bus concern for use of Highways 60, 56 and 41 in making the trip to Morganfield . . . The route will cross Green river at Eastwood ferry between Beech Grove and Sebree, going through Daviess, McLean, Webster and Union counties. Six new buses were recently purchased by the Rapid Transit.”
(*The army camp was Camp Breckinridge, which was named for Kentucky-born John C. Breckinridge, U.S. Vice President, 1856-60 and Confederate States of America Secretary of War. It was located near Morganfield, Kentucky, and during World War Two was an infantry training center, a German POW camp, and, from 1954 till 1963, was used as a training camp for National Guard troops. The distance between Owensboro and Morganfield is about 53 miles. This author’s paternal grandfather and great uncle, Herbert and Hubert Conder, were two of the men who helped build the camp.)
What the above article didn’t mention was that Wayne Powell Gordon (August 3, 1912 – July 28, 2004) was Harry Baumgarten’s son-in-law. Indeed, with Gordon now holding the titles of president, general manager and general superintendent, Lena J. Fritz Baumgarten (1895-Sept. 4, 1982) holding the office of vice president and Harry E. Baumgarten secretary and treasurer, Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. was now a family affair. However, later news releases combined with my Saturday, March 16, 2019, interview of Harry E. Baumgarten, Jr. leave no doubt that Harry Baumgarten was not only the major stockholder in Owensboro Rapid Transit, he made all major decisions. (ORT was only one of Baumgarten’s investments in local business, thus he had a limited amount of time to expend on the company.)
After Owensboro Rapid Transit’s ownership changed hands, its headquarters was relocated to Harry E. Baumgarten’s office at 1529 Miller Court. By this time the company was operating 80 route miles with 22 buses. The downtown transfer point for the company’s three bus routes was located at East 2nd Street and Daviess Street, next to McAtee, Lyddane and Ray Department Store. Roma Baize was out as general manager, and (as noted above) was replaced by Wayne P. Gordon. The new assistant general manager and superintendent was minor ORT investor named B. C. “Bunny” Brackin.
One of the first acts of the new management was to make some changes to the route schedules. This is reflected in a July 1942 Owensboro Rapid Transit schedule, which reveals that the company’s offices had been relocated to 25th and Frederica Streets:
NOTICE! NEW BUS ROUTES
Due to inability to keep bussess [sic] running on schedule and because we have received quite a number of suggestions from our passengers it is necessary that we change the routes put into operation Jan. 1, 1942. Accordingly Effective SUNDAY, JAN. 18, the following new routes will be put into operation. All Bussess [sic] Will Leave Transfer Point, 2nd & Daviess, at 15 Min. and 45 Min. Past the Hour
ROUTE No. 1 West Main West Fifth West Ninth Parrish Avenue Ken-Rad
Leave Transfer point 2nd & Daviess, go West on 2nd to Ewing road, turn at the loop, East on 2nd to Lucas, South on Lucas to 5th, East on 5th to Plum, South on Plum to 9th, West on 9th to Independence, South on Independence to Parrish, East on Parrish to Frederica, North on Frederica to 9th, East on 9th to Crittenden to Ken-Rad, North on Crittenden to 5th, West on 5th to Daviess, North on Daviess to McAttee’s. Transfer 2nd & Daviess to Routes No. 2 or 3.
ROUTE No. 2 South Frederica Walnut 24th 20th 18th Triplett
Leave Purdy’s 2nd & Daviess; go West o 2nd to Frederica, Frederica to 5th, West on 5th to Walnut, South on Walnut to 9th, East on 9th to Frederica, South on Frederica to 24th, East on 24th to Triplett, North on Triplett to Gordon’s Drug Store at 20th and Triplett, 20th to Allen, North on Allen to 18th, East on 18th to Triplett, North on Triplett to 9th, West on 9th to Crittenden to Ken-Rad, North on Crittenden to 3rd, West on 3rd to Daviess, North on Daviess to Purdy’s, transfer 2nd and Daviess to either Routes No. 1 or No. 3.
ROUTE No. 3 Crittenden Triplett 4th Wing Alexander 18th Breckenridge 9th Ken-Rad
Leave Anderson’s 2nd and Daviess, go South on Daviess to 4th, East on 4th to Crittenden, South on Crittenden to 5th Ken-Rad, East on 5th to Triplett, North on Triplett to 4th, East on 4th to Wing, South on Wing Avenue to 11th, West on 11th to Bluff, South on Bluff to Valley Ave., East on Valley Ave. to Alexander, South on Alexander to 18th, West on 18th to Breckenridge, North on Breckinridge to 9th, West on 9th to Crittenden to Ken-Rad, North on Crittenden to 4th, West on 4th to Allen, North on Allen to 2nd, East on 2nd to Anderson’s. Transfer 2nd and Daviess to either Routes No. 1 or No. 2.
(Editor’s note: Ken-Rad was a division of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and made radio vacuum tubes; it was a vital production plant during World War Two and this author’s paternal grandmother worked there at that time. S. W. Anderson Company was a major downtown Owensboro department store, as was McAtee, Lyddane and Ray Department Store. Purdy’s refers to Purdy Furniture Company.)
Over the next few years there wasn’t much to report in the life of Owensboro Rapid Transit. There was an accident on night of Friday, October 6, 1944, which, fortunately, turned out to be a near miss. Page 4 of The Owensboro Messenger carried the story:
“Only slight injuries, consisting of minor cuts and bruises were received Friday night by eight of the thirty-three young women from Owensboro, who were riding in a bus that was forced into a ditch near Morganfleld after being side-swiped by an Army truck from Camp Breckinridge. The Owensboro bus, of the Owensboro Rapid Transit company, was returning the young women to Owensboro from Morganfield where they had attended a dance. Mrs. Velva Biggers, Owensboro, was chaperone of the young women in the bus. The injured were taken to the Henderson hospital for treatment before returning to their homes in Owensboro.”
The minor injuries sustained in the above accident were overshadowed by another, more serious crash, which involved Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. in its second fatal accident.
Around 9:30 on the night of Monday, January 7, 1946, Jessie Grigsby, age 15, was a passenger in a Chevrolet sedan driven by her brother, Glenn Grigsby, when it collided with an Owensboro Rapid Transit bus at the corner of Crabtree Avenue and West Second Street. The bus, which was traveling west on Second Street and driven by Tad Anderson, was attempting to make a turn south into Crabtree Avenue when Grigsby, who was headed west on Second Street, caught the bus’s front bumper. The impact threw the car into a spin and crashing into a light pole, resulting in injuries to its four passengers and driver. Glenn Grigsby was thrown from the car into the street when his drivers seat was ejected from the car. Jessie Grigsby died at the Owensboro-Daviess County Hosptial at 11:15 p.m. that evening from a skull fracture and internal injuries. Glenn Grigsby was listed in critical condition. The accident resulted in a lawsuit for $35,000 in damages filed by the young girl’s father, who claimed the bus driver was at fault. (One of the passengers on board the ORT bus was William Conder, who was a cousin to this author. None of the bus’s four passengers were injured.)
After that depressing story, let’s end 1946 on a brighter note. Page 8 of the Monday, December 23, 1946, edition of The Owensboro Inquirer in the feature “News And Views,” by W. E. Daniel, offers a glimpse into the life of an ORT driver:
“If all bus drivers were as thoughtful and courteous as one I rode with across town a few afternoons ago the public would never have cause to complain. The bus was No. 124 and in charge was Burlin E. Brackin. Mr. Brackin, a native of Alabama, came here about a year ago after a strenuous service with the Army in the Pacific. He didn’t have a job when discharged, and came to Owensboro to look around. Offered a place as driver with the Owensboro Rapid Transit company, Mr. Brackin took the job and is still at work. I have ridden with him several times, and never saw any conduct but that of a southern gentleman. But it was on that recent trip that I was most impressed when he went out of his way or some drivers might so express it to do a potential passenger a favor.
“Bowling along 12th street at a pretty good clip and with the way open ahead of us toward Moreland Park I felt the bus slacken speed along about the American Tobacco company factory. I was sitting up front on the right hand side where I like to ride to look out. The way was clear, and I wondered what the driver was stopping for. I soon found out. At Elm street a lady was standing near the corner grocery. The bus driver divined her purpose was to catch a bus heading toward uptown. We had met that bus back beyond the railroad. She would have to wait a half hour for another. Some drivers would have paid no attention to her. Brackin did. He stopped across 12th street from her and called to tell her she could get on his bus and ride around and save time.
“With a smile of gratitude she stepped across the street to the bus and got aboard. Brackin drove ahead, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. The lady went on toward her destination. She could have waited the half hour with no discomfort, for it was a warm afternoon and the sun was shining. She expected to wait, for she planned to get the bus east-bound. But Brackin knew what she wanted, and to him it would be wasting time for the passenger to stand on the street corner. His bus had plenty of room. Now some drivers might reason it is none of their business if a woman misses a bus. There they are wrong. For every time a bus driver does such courteous things as that he creates more good feeling between the public and the bus company. And it costs the company nothing and him less.
“I ride the buses about town more than some people. Occasionally I see drivers forget to do the courteous thing. I wouldn’t say they do it intentionally. They just don’t think, and a few are so indifferent they wouldn’t go out of their way to be extra nice to people. Courtesy costs nothing and returns big dividends. The war is over and employers will begin to screen their employes, sifting out those who do just what they are hired to do, if that. And as openings develop the man who does the little pleasing things will get the best jobs. Brackin didn’t have to stop and call across the street to tell that woman her bus had passed and that she could ride around with him. But he did. It was one of those extra courtesies, outside the line of duty as he had heard while in the Army.”
By its first anniversary Owensboro Rapid Transit, Incorporated had gained a reputation as a company that cared about its employees. If you performed your duties well, you became “one of the family” and the company stood by you. No small part of that atmosphere was due to Harry Baumgarten, the company’s treasurer and a major stockholder, who had been with ORT since its founding. The bond between employees and management grew stronger when Harry Baumgarten, his wife and son-in-law took over ownership of ORT. Unfortunately, over the coming years ORT’s finances did not improve and more often than not, the company found itself living from hand-to-mouth. Indeed, as the tumultuous decade of the 1940s grew to a close, Owensboro Rapid Transit’s finances were being strained to the breaking point.
About this time some new drivers came on board and soon began agitating for unionization. By late summer 1950 these men led others in a demand for a substantial pay increase. The management responded that the company was barely keeping its head above water and simply couldn’t afford the extra expense. The employees wouldn’t buy it and decided their only option was to unionize. To this end, they invited Vice President John M. Elliott of the International Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway and Motor Coach Employes to travel down from Detroit, Michigan to help organize a union. The kink in that plan was that Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. General Manager Wayne Gordon and owner Harry Baumgarten would not recognize the union—end of story! And so, ORT employees were backed into a corner: either put up or shut up. They put up!
At a special closed door meeting on the night of Thursday, September 21, 1950, 25 of the 26 bus operators and maintenance employees of Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. voted to strike. The announcement was made by John M. Elliott and announced on pages 1-2 of the Sunday, September 24, 1950, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“According to Elliott, 23 Rapid Transit employes joined the union in a meeting held Thursday night. Two more joined at Friday night’s meeting, he said.
“Union representatives here alleged that the company failed to recognize the 25 employes as union men, and that a deadline for company recognition of the unionization was set for around 10:30 p. m Friday. That is when the last bus ordinarily completes its regular run and returns to the Transit company garage.
“Elliott said the group agreed at Thursday’s meeting to contact Owensboro Transit company officials and ask recognition of their unionization and rights as bargaining agents. . . . The company made no offer to recognize the employes as union men, Elliott said, and he alleged that the company ‘attempted to brush off the union by offering operators and maintenance workers a six cent an hour wage in crease if they would de-unionize. Elliott said this offer was increased to eight cents an hour with an additional five cents hike after two years of service with the company. The bus line employes at Friday’s meeting discussed the company’s offer and voted by secret ballot, Elliott said, in favor of rejecting the company’s offer because of the company’s failure to recognize their unionization.
“After rejecting the company’s wage hike offer, Elliott said, the 25 unionized employes agreed to go on strike until a satisfactory settlement is reached.”
“Earlier Friday, Elliott said, ‘It is the policy of the union to avoid strikes whenever possible, and we regret that we are compelled to set a deadline tonight.’ The deadline for company recognition of the employes unionization was set for the last bus run Friday night which ordinarily begins around 10 p.m.”
The management didn’t recognize the union by the deadline. And so, ORT drivers struck at the close of Friday, September 22. The next day General Manager Wayne Gordon told a reporter that he had not been formally notified of a strike and had expected his drivers and other employees to be at work at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. He told a reporter that “It is hearsay with us that 23 of our 29 drivers and maintenance men attended a meeting which produced the strike.” (Note that Gordon’s number of employees differed from the figure given by John M. Elliott.)
As always, it was Owensboro’s poor, seniors and students who would be caught in the middle of this push and shove match. Fortunately, for Owensboro’s bus patrons, ORT’s drivers recognized that if they were to have any chance of success, they couldn’t leave riders stranded. Thus when they agreed to strike they also agreed to operate what they deemed as “courtesy cars” to transport stranded bus patrons. The service proved to be great PR for the union’s cause!
The service began on Saturday morning, September 23 and advertised by The Owensboro Messenger publishing a photo of a courtesy car showing smiling ORT bus driver Harold Jewell cleaning his windshield while passengers climb into his waiting car.
Meanwhile, back at the barn, Harry Baumgarten and Wayne Gordon tried to explain the company’s dismal finances to union organizers. When Baumgarten explained that he had, on numerous occasions, borrowed money from himself and ORT stockholders to meet the company payroll, union organizers seemed oblivious to what that portended for their and the company’s future. Even when Baumgarten offered to let them see the company’s books, organizers obstinately stuck to their demands.
After the strike entered its third week, some high-profile negotiators entered the picture, including Owensboro City Commissioner LeRoy Woodward. After 52 days of drivers walking a picket line, and a lot of pressure from the mayor and city commissioners via LeRoy Woodward, management finally caved. And so, on Monday, November 13, 1950, General Manager Wayne Gordon put his “John Hancock” on the dotted line, after which ORT employees voted to return to work. Both management and employees claimed they harbored no ill feelings for one another and put on smiling faces for the cameras. The truth was something wholly different.
Behind the scenes at ORT, a major rift had been created between the company owners and employees that never healed. Nevertheless, Owensboro Rapid Transit buses began rolling again on Tuesday, November 14 at 5:30 a.m. In the short haul, unionization may have helped the drivers of Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc., but in the long run it proved to be their undoing.
COMING TO THE END OF THE LINE
As an increasing number of Americans began using automobiles for transportation, public transportation companies across the country either folded or drastically reduced service. However, reduced service meant reduced ridership, which meant even less revenues. It was a downward spiral that always ended in ruination. The short term fix was a fare increase, which Owensboro Rapid Transit management proposed on March 15, 1952, via a public notice:
The increase was granted, but the extra coins in the farebox only postponed the inevitable. Less than two years later Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. came to the end of the line.
On February 23, 1954, Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc.’s principle owner Harry Baumgarten told a reporter that he “was tired of losing money” and would be closing up shop by the end of the week. (See the Tuesday, February 23, 1954, edition of the Paducah Sun from Paducah, Kentucky.) Baumgarten offered more details on page 1 of the Tuesday, February 23, 1954, edition of The Owensboro Messenger, article “Rapid Transit To End Operations After Saturday:”
“Unless steps are made immediately to take over the city bus franchise, Owensboro will lose its buses Saturday, ending a period of 20 years service. H. E. Baumgarten, principal owner of the Owensboro Rapid Transit, announced Monday that the company will suspend city bus transportation here after Feb. 27 because it can no longer continue losing money. . . . The city commission informally discussed the bus company’s announcement at its weekly meeting Monday afternoon. City Manager Dean Dauley said no official notice has been given to the city that it was the bus firm’s intention to drop the franchise. Mayor Pro Tem Tom Laswell suggested that city officials make an effort to sit down with the company and work out an agreement with it. Any needed action can be taken at a special meeting, he stated.
“The city manager meanwhile was asked to get in touch with former Mayor LeRoy Woodward to ascertain whether a prospective franchise holder had inquired into the possibility of operating city buses in Owensboro. . . . ‘We feel that the bus company has a moral obligation to continue service until Mar. 24 when its franchise expires,’ Dauley, acting as spokesman for the group stated earlier in the day when he was informed of the plan by a newspaper reporter. ‘That would give other individuals sufficient opportunity to look into buying the franchise.’ Replying to Dauley’s statement, Baumgarten said ‘Actually, the company has no such moral or legal obligation to continue. It does not have the necessary finances to continue such operation and subsidize operating losses. In the past 12 months the stockholders have contributed liberally from their personal funds to keep the company in operation. The proper city officials were notified well in advance and have had ample opportunity to study the situation and suggest a remedy,’ he concluded.
“The only possibility to continue operation, according to Baumgarten, is to have a modification in operations, in expenses, in rate adjustments and city and state regulation of taxi operations. ‘Over 50 per cent of the company’s gross revenue is being paid in operating wages . . . and this factor is in an ever increasing demand and trend without regard for the payment of other necessary and essential operating requirements, which are also ever increasing.’
“In making the announcement, Baumgarten said: ‘It (the company) cannot compete with approximately 15,000 automobiles licensed in this city, nearly one automobile to every two and half persons. The automotive industry has created a malignant commercial cancer that is destroying and disintegrating high value retail property and concentrated shopping centers. Downtown streets here and all over the nation are glutted. Traffic is bottled, parking facilities are at a premium—only the merchant with a parking lot can survive. Further taxicabs are constantly taking the cream of bus transportation revenues, without being regulated as to routes, services or fare restrictions. Taxis ride ’em for a dollar or 10 cents, but they won’t ride a school child for a nickel. Taxis cruise bus routes, pick up bus passengers, park in bus loading zones.’”
When Owensboro’s city commissioners offered no solution, Baumgarten pulled the plug: ORT buses stopped running at the end of the business day on Saturday, February 27, 1954. The pubic was informed a few days before the shut down with a short announcement in local newspapers:
Page 1 of the Sunday, February 28, 1954, edition of The Owensboro Messenger offered additional insight into the problems that had been facing the company during its last years, as well as a parting statement from Harry E. Baumgarten:
“City Buses Not Expected To Be In Operation Today
“Harry E. Baumgarten, one of the principal owners of the Owensboro Rapid Transit, which operates the bus service in Owensboro, issued a written statement to the press last night, that indicated the discontinuance of bus service in the city.
“Mr. Baumgarten in his written statement to the press said ‘since there was a great desire upon the part of acting mayor, the commissioners and the Chamber of Commerce and others for Owensboro Rapid Transit to continue operations but no offer of assistance or promise of a solution of the problems confronting them, the management of the company decided to call it a day and go home.’
“He added that now he had only three more humps to get over. ‘I. To personally pay the bus company February bills. ‘2. Get himself another job that actually pays a salary. ‘3. Sell the buses and equipment, then he can look forward to the ‘future with open anticipation of the enjoyment of life since now the terrific load of running a bus company without profit is off his back.’
“It was previously announced that the city officials had one or two persons or firms interested in operating buses in Owensboro, and if the buses cease to run today the matter will be taken up by the mayor, commissioners and city manager Monday.”
Less than four years had passed since Harry Baumgarten and Wayne Gordon tried to explain to hard-headed striking employees that the company was existing on borrowed money and time. They wouldn’t listen. They won their battle, but now it was time to pay the piper. OTS drivers had transitioned from the picket line to the unemployment line.
With the demise of the Owensboro Rapid Transit Company, Inc., city officials scrambled to find someone to take over the franchise and rescue stranded passengers. Page 1 of the Thursday, February 25, 1954, edition of The Owensboro Messenger, article “City Starts Looking For Someone To Take Over Bus Operations,” explains the city’s dilemma:
“The city has the pledge of support of the present franchise holder for city bus service, Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc., to begin informal discussions with anyone who might be interested in operating bus service here, officials said yesterday. Mayor Pro Tem Tom Laswell said the three city officials who met Tuesday, he and Commissioners Fisher Tichenor and Forrest Mercer, had discussed the situation and they have also consulted with City Manager Dean Dauley and City Attorney Joe McKinley.”
The good news was that a buyer was found rather quickly.
Glenn E. Watson of Columbia, Missiouri had submitted a $10 bid for the Owensboro franchise, which, as it turned out, was the only bid. On Monday March 22, 1954, it was announced that city commissioners had voted to accept Watson’s bid. For his part, Watson told Owensboro city officials that he planned to start his bus service on or about April 1, which would be nearly one month after the demise of Owensboro Rapid Transit.
The relieved city commissioners were more than accommodating to Watson and hastily worked out an arrangement with the sewer commission for the new bus service to use the sewer commission’s recently built 6,000 square feet warehouse building on Sweeney Street. The specifics of this generous agreement allowed Watson to lease the building for $300 per month for a two-year period after which he would have the option to buy it for $40,000. So, who was Owensboro’s new hero of the hour?
Glenn Estelle Watson (Feb. 17, 1909-Feb. 15, 1974) brought with him an impressive resume. He owned Transit Investment Company of Columbia, Missouri, and operated (or had previously operated) five city bus lines: Sedalia City Bus Lines, Inc. in Sedalia, Missouri; Jefferson City Lines, Inc. in Jefferson City, Missouri; Columbia City Bus Lines, Inc. in Columbia, Missouri; Inter City Bus Lines, Inc. in Mission, Kansas; and Elm City Bus Lines, Inc. in Jacksonville, Illinois. On the surface, Owensboro’s transit future was looking rosy!
On Friday, March 26, 1954, the first reading of a city ordinance setting the terms of Watson’s franchise was presented in Owensboro City Hall. One point was Watson agreeing to give Owensboro residents first consideration in hiring, including preference to drivers of the defunct Owensboro Rapid Transit, Inc. Once all the particulars were ironed out, Watson, with his 10-year franchise in hand, went about forming his new bus company, Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc.
To start his new company, Watson imported a fleet of 12 buses to Owensboro and had brass bus fare tokens from his Columbia City Bus Lines shipped to town for use by bus patrons.* Watson also imported Columbia City Bus Lines 2″ brass and enamel cap badges for his Owensboro drivers that read “City Bus Lines.” And while he was at it, he imported men from his Jefferson City Lines, Inc. to run his new operation. They were Karl Kespohl as vice president, Harley M. Strange as superintendent of transportation, E. H. Maupin as superintendent of maintenance and J. T. Whitesides as secretary-treasurer. Although Watson was listed as Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc.’s president and general manager in the Mass Transportation’s Directory, he would remain 325 miles away in Columbia, Missouri, to run his various companies. He set the first day of operation for April 1, 1954.
(*The tokens were not marked “Columbia City Bus Lines,” but simply marked “City Bus Lines,” which worked for both Watson’s Columbia and Owensboro companies, with his patrons being none the wiser! See The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of United States and Canadian Transportation Tokens, Vol. 2, p. 216. It’s worth noting that Watson’s Elm City Bus Lines used aluminum tokens identical in design to the brass tokens of Columbia and Owensboro’s bus lines. Even though the editors of Atwood-Coffee Catalogue only mention Owensboro and Columbia using the same brass tokens, it’s quite likely that Watson’s other companies, using “City Bus Lines” in their title, used those tokens. Indeed, Watson’s Owensboro City Bus Lines likely used both brass and aluminum tokens in their operation. I make this observation because I owned an antique/collectible/coin business in Owensboro back in the late 1980s and occasionally would have customers bring in both examples for sale.)
The first day of April arrived, but Owensboro City Bus Lines’ buses sat idle in the company yard. In fact, while an anxious riding public waited, each day new technicalities arose delaying the grand opening. It was not until Friday, April 16, 1954, that Glenn E. Watson was able to put his fleet of twelve new buses in operation. The fares were 15¢, or three tokens for 40¢, 10¢ for children 5-12 and no charge for children under 5 when accompanied by an adult.
Once the buses were on the streets, riders were relieved to discover that virtually all of Owensboro Rapid Transit’s old routes were restored. This included the run from Owensboro to Camp Breckinridge, near Morganfiled, Kentucky,—a distance of some 52 miles.
In 1954 Owensboro City Bus Lines was operating over 104 route miles with 21 buses. The transfer point was in downtown Owensboro at the same location used by the defunct Owensboro Rapid Transit—beside McAtee, Lyddane & Ray Department Store on East 2nd (Main Street) and Daviess Street. Glenn E. Watson was listed as the general manager, but was still headquartered in Columbia, Missouri.
In October 1954, just out of the gate, so-to-speak, Glenn Watson’s new company faced a distinct threat to its existence.
You may recall Harry E. Baumgarten’s complaint about unregulated taxis causing a financial drain on Owensboro Rapid Transit by stealing fares; well things hadn’t changed with a new company on the scene. However, when several different businessmen decided to set up two new taxi companies in Owensboro, the management of Owensboro City Bus Lines fought back—with help from some unlikely allies. Page 4 of the Thursday, October 14, 1954, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported:
“Bus Company Protests Plans For Cab Firms Hearing Scheduled In Frankfort Oct. 28.
“The Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc., has registered a protest against the proposed establishment of two new cab firms and licensing of additional taxicabs here. A statement presenting the views of the city is being sent to the State Motor Transportation Division, which must decide on the matter, acting City Manager Joe McKinly said yesterday. A hearing is set for Oct. 28 at Frankfort. McKinly disclosed that the city had received a letter from Glenn E. Watson, Columbia, Mo., operator of the City Bus Lines, in which Watson said he has received notice that an application has been made to establish two new taxi concerns and license cabs to operate in Owensboro. Watson termed this ‘an unreasonable number’ of cabs and said the usual pattern when such a large number of taxis is operated is that very soon there is ‘rate cutting and illegal acts on the part of some of the drivers.’
“H. M. Strange, manager of the bus company, identified the applicants for cab licenses as Hugh Bosley and Irvin Dantic, applying under the name of City Cab Co., 428 Triplett St., and William E. Sinclair, applying under the name of Owensboro Liberty Cab Co., 2331 W. 5th St. The bus company official said City Cab is applying for approval for eight taxis and the Liberty firm is seeking a permit for 15 cabs.
“Watson said he felt sure the approval of additional cabs would be ‘a quick way of eliminating a none-too-profitable bus company that is trying to get established and to furnish the public with safe and dependable service.’ The Missourian continued, ‘The Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc., has filed its formal protest alleging there is now adequate public transportation.’ He expressed hope that the city commission would join by resolution in protesting the application.
“McKinly said the board of commissioners has already instructed him to prepare a statement advising the Motor Transportation Division of the city’s position. He explained the city’s attitude is that the question of public convenience and necessity should be left to the MTD after it has heard the evidence at the Oct. 28 hearing. The official said further the city feels applications should not be granted to a greater number of cabs than can be profitably operated in the city. McKinly mentioned previous difficulties which resulted in suspension of bus service here for several weeks earlier this year, and he said the city now has a bus company that is giving satisfactory and adequate service without showing a large profit. He also stated that the city feels granting of additional cab licenses might upset existing conditions so as to cause the bus company to cease operations.”
Forming an unlikely alliance, the owners of Veteran Cab Company and Yellow Cab Company joined Glenn Watson’s objection and sent letters of support to the State Motor Transportation Division in Frankfort. In the end, the proposed new cab companies didn’t get their franchise, and day-to-day life for the Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. continued. That day-to-day life included a March 14, 1955, accident in which an Owensboro City Bus Lines bus ran over the foot of John J. Slocum of Lehighton, Pennsylvania as he crossed Frederica and 5th Streets. Mr. Slocum’s flattened foot resulted in a law suit, which the bus lines had to settle with an undisclosed amount of money. And speaking of money, it didn’t take long for an old public transit foe to rear its ugly, threatening head.
By 1956 Owensboro City Bus Lines was feeling a pronounced financial pinch. The company no longer served Camp Breckinridge and had reduced to operating 12 buses over 33 route miles. In a not-so-subtle signal that the company was financially hurting, Owensboro City Bus Lines raised fares, notifying riders on page 14 of the Thursday, September 6, 1956, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“Notice is hereby given that the undersigned will apply to the Department of Motor Transportation for the following revision of fare to be effective October 1, 1956. To discontinue the use of tokens* and charge a straight 15c for adults and 10c for children, age 5 to 12. Children under 5 years of age free if accompanied by an adult fare. Free transfers will still be issued. Anyone desiring to protest may do so by filing a protest with the Department of Motor Transportation, Frankfort, Kentucky; such protests to be in accordance with Rules and Regulations of the Department. OWENSBORO CITY BUS LINES, Inc. By Harley M. Strange, Manager.”
(*Watson also discontinued using tokens for his Columbia City Bus Lines, which, as noted, were the same tokens as his Owensboro City Bus Lines.)
The elimination of the discounted tokens (a passenger saved a nickel when they bought three) and the fare increase helped the company purchase a much-needed new 32-passenger bus at a cost of “more than $10,000” in June 1957. But the extra money was just a drop in the bucket. It was deja vu, ala Owensboro Rapid Transit!
On Wednesday, March 12, 1958, Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. announced it was going to again raise bus fares. The notice was published on page 11 of the Wednesday, March 12, 1958, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“NOTICE This is to give notice that the Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. will petition the Dept. of Motor Transportation, Frankfort, Ky. for an increase in fares effective April 1, 1958. The adult fare will be increased from 15c to 20c. Children under age 12 to remain 10c. Transfers free. Any person desiring to protest may do so by filing a protest with the. Dept. of Motor Transportation, such protest to be in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Dept. OWENSBORO CITY BUS LINES, INC. Harley M. Strange, Mgr.”
Even with this latest fare increase, the company was slowly sinking with all hands!
In a bold move to bolster revenues, in 1961 Glenn Watson, using his Transit Investment Company, Inc to make the deal, purchased Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, Inc. and its five taxi cabs from Woodrow Mattingly. He also decided to exercise his option to purchase the building he had been leasing from the city, which was located at the south-west corner of Virginia and Sweeney Streets. (The terms of the option allowed Owensboro City Bus Lines’ rent from previous years to go toward the purchase of the building—if the company decided to exercise the option.) On August 7, 1961, Glenn Watson paid $36,000 dollars to the City of Owensboro and the Sewer Commission of the City of Owensboro, with the deed being signed by Owensboro Mayor Benjamin W. Hawes.
In hopes to increase ridership, and thereby bring in more revenue, the Owensboro City Bus Lines introduced a new route in 1962. But, as the old saying goes, it died on the vine. The story is spelled out on page 2 of the Sunday, September 30, 1962, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“City Bus Lines Cut Off Service To South Side. The City Bus Line manager, Floyd Nichols, announced Saturday that the new route scheduled for the southwest section of Owensboro, called the Indian Reservation Route, and service to the Texas Gas building has been discontinued as of Saturday, Sept. 29.
“Nichols said there weren’t enough people in that area riding the city buses, and therefore, ‘We could not make expenses meet. It takes approximately $30 a day to operate the route, and the bus line was only taking in $8 to $10 a day.”
“The schedule which was approved and put into operation about 40 days ago, ran on Main to Walnut, south on Walnut to Griffith Avenue, west on Griffith to Lewis Lane and south on Lewis Lane to Sunset Drive. It proceeded west on Sunset to Christie Place and south to Wyandotte, then east to Delaware, going north on Delaware to Osage Drive, east on Osage to Lewis Lane, and north on Lewis Lane to Sioux Place. Then east on Sioux to Windsor, north on Windsor to Booth Ave., east on Booth to Frederica, north to Fourth Street, and terminated at Main and Allen Streets.
“The same bus took care of the new route to the newly constructed Gas building, going south Frederica past Tamarack Road to Fairfax Drive where it turned left, going to Jefferson Street, north down Jefferson to Byers Avenue, along Byers to St. Ann, north on St. Ann, then east on Legion Boulevard, on to Tampa Drive where it looped back to Lisbon Drive, going west to Daviess Street, north to Daviess and 25th, where it turned west and returned to Frederica for the journey back to the starting point.
“Nichols stated, ‘We are sorry it had to be stopped, but when you can’t bring in enough money to meet the expenses, then it just can’t be continued.’ The termination of these combined routes will not interfere with any of the other schedules in the city.”
IT 1962 ALREADY!
On Thursday, January 18, 1962, retired Owensboro City Bus Lines driver Cary P. (Cap) Jackson died, at age 68 years. It was not a good way to begin a new year!
Still desperate for some extra cash flow, on May 1963 Glenn Watson used his Transit Investment Company, Inc. to purchase the AAA Ambulance and Livery Service from Owensboro’s four funeral homes—Delbert J. Glenn Mortuary, James H. Davis Funeral Home, Owensboro Funeral Home and Haley-McGinnis Funeral Home. (The mortuaries had been furnishing free ambulance service at an annual cost of $40,000 per year, until discontinuing the service and founding AAA Ambulance in 1960. When that service began operating at a loss, the City of Owensboro and Daviess County kicked in a subsidy of $700 per month. Watson bought the service with the subsidy included.)
However, Glenn Watson couldn’t seem to win no matter what he did. On Tuesday, June 18, 1963, at the intersection of 12th and Hathaway Streets, one of his Veteran Cab drivers, Thomas D. Crowe, ran a stop sign and collided with one of his city buses driven by William Lee Eddington. The crash caused the bus to plow into the side of a house at 1200 Hathaway Street. Six persons were injured, including three bus passengers, the cab driver and two occupants of the house. This accident piled more money problems upon Watson’s mounting financial woes.
For a time the cabs and ambulances service brought in some much-needed cash to help keep Owensboro City Bus Lines floating. But when the city and county cut off financial aid to the ambulance service in May 1964 Glenn Watson couldn’t afford another albatross around his neck. At midnight Monday, May 4, 1964, he shut down Owensboro’s only ambulance service, which left the whole county without emergency medical transport. Page 2 of the Wednesday, September 16, 1964, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer noted the dilemma:
“From May through July Owensboro and Daviess County were without the service of private ambulances. Paddy wagons of the Owensboro Police Department and an emergency vehicle purchased with money in the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department uniform fund were pressed into service to handle emergency cases.”
The day after Glenn Watson closed down AAA Ambulance, he announced he would have to sell his ambulances to pay bills owed on his Owensboro City Bus Lines and Veteran Cab Company. The four funeral homes, to whom Watson still owed $1,235.93 on a debt of $1,625, quickly went to court to obtain a judgement.
The mortuaries got their court order and on Wednesday, May 6, 1964, Daviess County Sheriff James Tinius impounded five taxi cabs and one pickup truck, “the property of Glenn E. Watson doing business as Transit Investment Company, Inc.” On May 9, 1964, Watson announced he had sold Veteran Cab Company, although he declined to name the new owner. It turned out that the new owner was Irvin Dantic and associates. (Dantic was the same man who tried to start City Cab Company back in 1954, which was prevented by Watson and the owners of both Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, Inc. and Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, Inc.)
And so, Glenn Watson was out of the ambulance and taxi business, leaving his dying Owensboro City Bus Lines hanging in the wind.
As revenues continued to ebb, the financial collapse of Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. was just a matter of time. In March 1964 Ashland Oil & Refining Company, Inc. filed suit against the company seeking $3,665 due for petroleum products furnished to the bus line. In May 1964 Gipe Motor Supply Company sued Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. for a bill of $2,468 owed for parts used on the company’s taxicabs. That same month H. T. Gardner and Son filed a suit against Owensboro City Bus Lines seeking $808 owed in insurance premiums, asking for a lien against the company’s property.
The truth is that his dying Owensboro City Bus Lines was essentially the end of the road for Glenn E. Watson. Already the same financial drama had been played out in most of his other business ventures: Sedalia City Bus Lines, Inc., in Sedalia, Missouri, folded on June 25, 1953, when Watson closed down in the middle of the night and left town. It was the same with his Elm City Bus Lines, after which an editorial in the February 17, 1955, edition of the Jacksonville Daily Journal, from Jacksonville, Illinois, notes:
“THE SUDDEN DEMISE OF THE LOCAL BUS SYSTEM The Elm City Bus Lines, after a gradual withering on the vine through steady curtailment of its services, gave up the ghost in Jacksonville with astonishing suddenness.”
On February 13, 1958, Watson suddenly closed his Inter City Bus Lines in Mission, Kansas leaving both passengers and employees stranded—again leaving town in the middle of the night. An example of Watson’s checkered business dealings is laid bare in the case of his Inter City Bus Lines in Mission, Kansas, which was reported in the February 13, 1958 edition of The Sedalia Democrat from Sedalia, Missouri:
“Bus Line Owner Departs Glenn Watson Fails To Appear; Buses, Other Equipment Are Found Missing.
“KANSAS CITY (AP)—Patrons of the Inter City Bus Lines had a long wait for service in 13-degree weather today. And, if they are late for work, it was because the company’s buses weren’t operating on their usual runs between Kansas City and suburban points in Johnson County, Kan.
“Drivers reported they showed up for work this morning to find the buses gone and office equipment missing. ‘There were no desks and no filing cabinets,’ said Jim Plimmer of Kansas City, one of the drivers. ‘Even the safe was missing. We had no warning, no notice.’
“Glenn Watson, who has operated the line several years, could not be reached for comment. Watson also operated bus lines at Jefferson City and Columbia, Mo. He formerly operated the Sedalia, Mo., city line.
“Sedalians experienced the same treatment by Glenn Watson on June 25, 1953, when he moved out during the wee hours of the morning, between 12:30 and 5:30 a.m. . . . Harry Goldberg was manager of the bus company in Sedalia at that time, and the move was made by Watson and a crew from Columbia without the knowledge of Goldberg or the drivers who were working. . . . Plimmer said Inter City has six drivers and two mechanics. It operated six busses on its route from Kansas City to Mission, Overland Park and Shawnee, Kan. ‘Most of us have three week’s pay coming,’ Plimmer added. . . The line began hourly service in 1950, being granted permanent authority to operate by the Kansas Corporation commission.”
By the beginning of 1965 only the city transit lines in Owensboro, Kentucky, Jefferson City and Columbia, Missouri, were left in Glenn Watson’s transit empire. But all three were swiftly headed down the same road. In fact, Watson’s losses from his Columbia City Bus Lines were so crippling that in January 1965, he went to the Columbia, Missouri city council and requested a subsidy. The city fathers refused, prompting Watson to propose the city simply take over the service. After the usual bureaucratic foot dragging, on February 7, 1965, Glenn Watson closed down his Columbia operations.
Watson’s Owensboro and Jefferson City, Missouri lines were now hanging by a thread. In April 1965, a desperate Glenn Watson went to the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners with hat in hand and a proposal designed to save his company and Owensboro’s public transit system. It was reported on pages 1, 4 of the Friday, April 9, 1965, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“City Studying Bus Subsidy Proposal The Owensboro board of city commissioners has under consideration a proposal from the Owensboro City Bus Lines which would underwrite the operation, guaranteeing it a revenue return of 40 cents per mile. The object is to provide new or reconditioned buses.
“The proposal was presented to the mayor and city commissioners at a meeting at city hall Thursday. Glenn E. Watson, owner of the private transportation service, put his operating statement on the table and said promised backing must be forthcoming before a loan for new or reconditioned transportation could be made.
“Watson said that if he could get a 10-year contract with the city at the 40-cent guarantee he could get a loan to purchase eight new buses at a cost of about $120,000. He said if the city would sign a three-year contract he could get a loan to purchase eight reconditioned buses.
“Watson stated that last year the city bus facility here took in revenue which averaged 40.4 cents per mile. He pointed out that last year and the year before that the bus line lost money. But, he explained, if new buses were purchased he felt that increased patronage of the buses would put the company in the black.
“Under Watson’s proposal the city would pay the bus company any difference between the per mile revenue and 40 cents per mile guarantee should the revenue fall below the prescribed figure. If the city accepts the proposal and a loss should be incurred the federal government would pay 66 2-3 per cent of the loss if the city could qualify under a new federal law.
“The contract would put the city in charge of the routes and fares for the duration of the contract. Under the present system the bus company established the routes and fares with state approval. The company is operating under a franchise issued by the Kentucky Department of Motor Transportation.
“Watson said that without the underwriting the company does not have a good enough earning history to get a loan to improve its equipment.
“The ownership of the bus line would remain in Watson’s name under the proposed contract but all records would be available at all times to the city and federal government.
“The federal participation is possibly available under Public Law 88-365, passed in 1964. It provides assistance to state and local governments and their in instrumentalities in financing mass transportation facilities, privately or publicly owned. It is referred to as a demonstration program.
“Under the federal law, if the proposed contract would qualify, City Attorney William Carroll said the city and federal government would share in the profits of the bus line should any be realized
“Watson, whose home is in Columbia, Mo., operates another city bus service in Jefferson City, Mo. He has operated this service in the Missouri capital city for 15 years. He was the operator of the now-defunct Columbia system, which he operated for 26 years. It discontinued service last February. The city governments in both Jefferson City and Columbia are presently considering similar proposals being contemplated by the Owensboro board of city commissioners. The mayor and city commissioners told Watson they would give Watson an answer to his request in June. The bus operator stated this is all right but ‘I hope we will know some thing definite by early June.'”
Like their counterparts in Columbia, Missouri, Owensboro’s city fathers informed Watson that his proposal was a no-go. When this was made public, an angry letter from a bus patron was published on page 31 of the Sunday, July 11, 1965, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“Is Owensboro city bus service about to be discontinued?
“Owensboro needs a city bus line, and the bus ling needs the support of Owensboro. We might suggest that the city dads, along with the city manager and city attorney, make some effort to keep the city buses in operation.
“As a bus patron who rides them at least two or three times a week, we recall when the city bus service was discontinued here on Feb. 28, 1954, and Owensboro was without service from that date until April 14, 1954.
“It was then that Glenn E. Watson, of Columbia, Mo., operator of the Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc., who maintained bus operations in several other mid-western cities, came to our rescue. We might add that he has done a wonderful job in keeping the buses here rolling, despite losses on several of the company’s routes.
“The six weeks that Owensboro were [sic] without buses were tough sledding for regular patrons of the bus lines. Of course, taxis came in for some business, but the fares apparently were too high for most folks who had jobs about town, and they either had to depend on a lift from a neighbor, hitchhike or walk.
“Watson has shown good intentions all along since taking over the bus franchise here, and when he stresses the point of financial losses he may have suffered, the city dads apparently sympathize with him, but that is as far as it goes.
“The city dads are not regular bus patrons, and we doubt that any one of them ever put his foot on an Owensboro city bus as a fare-paying passenger. The city dads, therefore, don’t know the facts of life as to the necessity of city buses.
“Watson had indicated, before he learned the city would not subsidize his operation to the break-even point, that he would halt his bus lines in Owensboro by July 15, but he refused to reestablish the deadline, according to City Manager Max Rhoads, after receiving this information.
“The buses are running now, and will continue to run, according to a statement made by Watson Saturday.”
Ho-hum. The mayor and commissioner sat on their hands and watched Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc. struggling like a fish out of water trying not to suffocate. Given Glenn E. Watson’s previous history, what is truly surprising is that he didn’t just blow town at this point and leave everyone holding an empty sack! But he held on until April 1966, which is when his Owensboro bus franchise was set to expire. It was then that Glenn Watson called it quits. (Watson left Owensboro for Jefferson City, Missouri, where he tried to salvage his last remaining company. But ten weeks later, on June 27, 1966, Watson closed down Jefferson City Lines after he could no longer pay his employees.)
On Saturday, April 16, 1966, Glenn Watson’s Owensboro City Bus Lines made its last run.
HEAR YE — BUS FRANCHISE FOR SALE CHEAP!
Faced with no city bus service, immediately Mayor Dugan Best (Nov. 7, 1897-April 11, 1967) and the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners put the vacant bus franchise up for bids. However, there wasn’t a stampede of potential buyers rushing to their door, as this Wednesday, April 6, 1966, Messenger and Inquirer article, “Bus Franchise Fails To Lure Formal Bids,” makes clear:
“Nobody made a formal bid today to purchase the city’s bus franchise but three nibbles were felt. The bid opening time was 10 a.m. but the lone written message on hand was from the Evansville City Transit Co. Roland E. St. John, president of the Evansville operation, said he is willing to talk to the city commissioners about a guarantee of gross receipts but made no bid on the franchise. L. W. Fuqua [Luther William], an intercity bus line operator and former city commissioner, also made a bid to talk [to the commissioners] . . . Glenn Watson, head of City Bus Lines, Inc. which plans to go out of business April 15 . . . announced at city hall March 11 he was pulling out of Owensboro after 12 years because his buses weren’t earning enough money to warrant continuation of the operation.”
This article was followed by the April 9, 1966, Messenger and Inquirer article, “Bus Franchise Is Up For Sale Again:”
“City commissioners opened bids for the city bus franchise at 10 a.m. April 15, 1966, which was when the present franchise expired. [Glenn] Watson planned to go out of business on Fri. Watson said he is unaware of any privately-owned intracity bus line that is a profitable business. Asked to explain why his line has failed to provide new buses, Watson said the financial condition of City Bus Lines shows it to be impractical to purchase new equipment. He reiterated that there are not enough fares being put into the boxes to enable him to buy new vehicles and to give his employees a needed raise in wages. Watson urged the city to think about getting federal money to help in the purchase of new buses. . . . One of his proposals is that the city purchase eight new buses and lease them to him for $1 a year each. ‘We will give the city any amount earned above a seven per cent yearly return,’ he said.”
Finally, on April 15, 1966, the Messenger and Inquirer was reporting “City Gets 2 Bids On Bus Business:”
“Two bidders competed today for Owensboro’s bus business. The Evansville-Ohio Valley Railroad Co. posted a $25 cash bid and the Transit Investment Co, Owensboro, came in with a $10 check. . . . Transit Investment is a new company formed by Glenn Watson, operator of the present bus service which is scheduled to come off the streets tonight.”
It is something of a puzzle to read about Glenn Watson’s bid*; unless he had found a genie in a bottle, how could he afford to start another bus company? Whatever the answer, it was a futile gesture. The talk around city hall was that Mayor Dugan Best and several city commissioners didn’t like Watson, which, if true, would mean their decisions about Owensboro’s transit future were personal. It would also explain why the “city fathers” turned down Watson’s plea for financial aid back in April 1965 while offering such a package to the new owner of the bus franchise!
(*The article is wrong about Transit Investment Company being a new company. The company was formed as a holding company in 1939 by Watson’s parents, Floyd Estelle Watson and Cecil Fern Page Watson, who had founded the Columbia City Bus Lines in 1939. In 1949 Transit Investment Company holdings included Inter City Lines, Columbus City Bus Lines, Inc. and Elm City Bus Lines, Inc. See the Kansas City Times from Kansas City Missouri, December 7, 1949, pp. 1-2. In the early -mid 1960s Watson used the company to purchase both Owensboro Veteran Cab Company and AAA Ambulance and Livery Service. The Transit Investment Company remained active until 1966.)
Owensboro Mayor Dugan Best and the Board of City Commissioners* awarded the franchise to the Evansville & Ohio Valley Transit Company of Evansville, Indiana, which was owned by Roland E. St. John’s Dayton and Western Motors, Inc. (St. John also owned St. John Transit Company, an intercity bus service in Dayton, Ohio.) The April 24, 1966, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer carried the news:
“The board of city commissioners awarded a franchise to provide bus service in Owensboro to Evansville-Ohio Valley Transit Co., which also operates lines at Evansville and Little Rock, Ark. Under the terms of the franchise Owensboro will pay the bus line an amount equal to five per cent of its gross revenue if it loses money.”
(*The city commissioners were Irvin B. Terrill, Tom Sweat, George Greer and Doug Williams. It should be noted that Irvin Terrill was strongly opposed to the contract—a subject that will be revisited.)
A future case in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, gives more details of Evansville & Ohio Valley Transit Company’s agreement with Owensboro’s “city fathers:”
“Early in March 1966 the then holder of the city bus franchise in Owensboro [Glenn E. Watson] ceased operations, leaving the city temporarily without any bus service. In the latter part of March the city officials prevailed upon the appellee herein, Evansville & Ohio Valley Transit Company, to provide interim bus service pending the granting of a new franchise. On March 25 advertisement was made for a new franchise. Bids were received from the appellee and from another company. The city found the appellee’s bid to be the better and on April 15 awarded the franchise to the appellee.
“The franchise was for a term of 10 years. It required the transit company to furnish ‘reasonable, adequate and efficient motor bus service,’ charging ‘only reasonable rates,’ and to provide ‘attractive, safe and comfortable vehicles.’ The franchise document recited the payment of a consideration of $25 by the transit company to the city. Following the granting of the franchise the transit company continued the operation which it previously had commenced on an interim basis. On April 27, 12 days after the franchise was granted, the mayor and the city clerk of Owensboro entered into a contract in the name of the city, with the transit company, which recited that the transit company was entitled to a net annual profit equal to five percent of its gross revenues, after payment of operating expenses including all taxes, and which obligated the city to pay out of its funds such amount as necessary to achieve such a profit. The only specific obligation imposed on the transit company, under its contract, was ‘to immediately establish and maintain a motor bus transportation system in the City of Owensboro and to provide safe, adequate and comfortable buses for use by the public.’
“The contract recited that the franchise theretofore granted to the transit company was made a part of the contract; however, whereas the franchise specified a fixed term of 10 years, the contract provided for an initial term of only three years, with the option in the transit company to renew for two additional three year periods and one one-year period.” (CITY OF OWENSBORO, Kentucky, Appellant, v. EVANSVILLE & OHIO VALLEY TRANSIT COMPANY, etc. d/b/a Owensboro City Transit, Appellee. Court of Appeals of Kentucky. December 12, 1969.)
It is important to note that Mayor Dugan Best and the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners guaranteed the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company a five percent profit—something that would have dire consequences in three short years. The tell-tale fact in the city’s financial guarantee is that no such offer (or anything close) was ever made to Glenn Watson’s Owensboro City Bus Lines, which very well could have saved that company from failing. Nay, the city commissioners sat idly by and watched Watson’s bus company founder and fail without once offering financial aid—even though Watson pleaded for such an arrangement!
OWENSBORO CITY TRANSIT
When they took over, the new owners brought a name change for their bus service: Owensboro City Transit Company. On Tuesday, April 19, 1966, four 32-passenger and four 37-passenger buses were put into operation on city streets with the company advertising “CHARTER BUSES for All Occasions, Schools, Churches, Etc. Air Conditioned. Available by Owensboro City Transit.”
As already noted, these were hard times for transit companies all over the U. S. For the past decade, as more Americans began driving personal automobiles, countless bus companies failed while others were operating at a yearly loss. Not surprising, this was the situation with Owensboro City Transit from the get-go—not surprising, since the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway took over a failing company from Glenn Watson, who, in turn, had taken over a failing bus franchise from Owensboro Rapid Transit, which in turn had taken over a failing streetcar system from Owensboro City Railroad.
With hard financial reality staring him in the face, two years after he began operating his city bus line, Roland E. St. John sold his Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company to Will Coach Lines. Some background information about this sale is found in the article “Buses Near End of Line” on page 1 of the November 21, 1969, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“Martin J. Will, Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc.’s secretary, announced that his drivers would be working without pay on Friday and perhaps on Saturday—‘if there is enough gasoline left to propel the buses.’ [Will] left city hall after declaring his company had lost $30,000 since he began operating the line last May 12. ‘I’m stone broke,’ he said. Will reported the U.S. [government] now has tax liens and claim on all revenue and accounts receivable connected with his bus operations in Owensboro and Evansville.
“City Attorney Hugh Moore told the busman he knew exactly what he was getting into when he took the service over in May. Moore said the city had challenged the validity of a 1966 contract under which the city guaranteed the company a five per cent profit on its Owensboro operation. Moore said the city has not complied with the contract since Jan. 1, 1967 and went to court in April, 1968 to overturn the agreement. The circuit court held the contract to be good and the city is now awaiting a final ruling from the Court of Appeals. . . .
“Will said he would not lock out the drivers. ‘They can drive if they wish,’ he said. Kenneth Sublett, one of the drivers, said Thursday his coworkers will circulate a petition today and Saturday asking signers to support the drivers’ plea to the Kentucky Court of Appeals for a quick decision in favor of the company. . . . ‘The drivers seem 100 per cent more interested in providing bus service for Owensboro than the board of city commissioners does.’ Sublett said. . . . [The original] holder of the 1966 franchise was the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. It sold out to Will Coach Lines, Evansville on April 10, 1968 but the Owensboro city board did not become aware of this until Martin Will and Jerome Will took over the local service last May.”
So, who were the people behind the Will Coach Lines of Evansville, Indiana? A 1969 court document explains this:
“The Evansville and Ohio Valley Railway Company, Inc. (herein E & OV), was formerly owned by Dayton and Western Motors, Inc., which is principally owned by Mr. and Mrs. St John, who also own other transportation companies, one of which is Evansville City Transit, Inc. (herein ECT). E & OV operated two divisions, namely, the Owensboro City Transit division, which provided bus service for the general public in Owensboro, Kentucky, and the Evansville and Ohio Valley Bus division, which operated certain intrastate and interstate bus routes and charter bus services.
“E & OV was sold in April 1968 by Dayton & Western Motors to Jerome and Martin Will, who with their brother Francis and father Andrew P. Will, have been engaged in the transportation business for some time. Dayton and Western Motors did not include the Owensboro City Transit division in the sale to the Will interests but retained possession and control of it by the terms of the agreement. The Evansville and Ohio Valley Bus division, its assets, some of its equipment and all of its routes were transferred, however, to Will Coach Lines, Inc., which is wholly owned by Andrew P. Will and managed by him and his sons . . .” (Case Law Evansville and Ohio Valley Railway Co., 518, year 1969, Docket Number: 25-CA-03110.)
Let’s turn our attention to the above notation that Dayton and Western Motors did not include their Owensboro bus operations in the April 1968 sale to the Will family, which contradicts the November 21, 1969, newspaper accounts stating that the family had bought the Owensboro operations in April 1968. This seeming contradiction is explained in some detail by Martin Will on page 1 of the May 9, 1969, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer: “Commissioners Agree To New Bus Service Starting Monday.” Indeed this article proves that the Will brothers bought the Owensboro operation in April 1968:
“The board of city commissioners agreed hopefully Thursday to allow a new city bus service to start operating here Monday morning. . . . Buses on the streets now have been operated by Owensboro City Transit, a division of Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co., headed by Roland St. John of Dayton, Ohio. E&OV and Owensboro Transit were owned by a parent firm, Dayton Western Motors, Inc., an Ohio corporation.
“The commissioners learned officially and in writing Thursday that Martin and Jerome Will of Evansville bought the capital stock of E&OV on April 10, 1968, but are just getting around to assuming management of the Owensboro operation.
“The board had been disconcerted by the report that the present buses, 1967 models of a school-bus type, are to be driven to Dayton Saturday night and be replaced by reconditioned 1947 [GM] models. The Will brothers displayed an example of the type bus they will have running here Monday. It was a transit type, newly painted with a clean interior and a confident-sounding motor. It has a front door entrance and a side door exit. . . . [Martin Will] said he may be requesting the city to permit him to raise the fare from the present 25 cents to 30 cents.
“The commissioners again wondered why the Will brothers had not come forth earlier with a definite announcement of what they planned to do in Owensboro. They learned that the present buses must leave town because they are leased by St. John from an equipment company in Terre Haute, Ind. The Will brothers said they own their buses.
“The change-up in management does not disturb the city’s attempt to invalidate its subsidy contract with the firm headed by St. John.
“After getting the city bus franchise on April 15, 1966, E&OV signed a contract with the city on May 27, 1966, under which the city was to pay the line enough money to make its income equal its expenses plus a five per cent profit guarantee.
“The city gave the line a subsidy of $17,100 for its operations in 1966 but has paid nothing on claims for 1967 and 1968. They now amount to more than $57,000. A suit was filed by the city in April, 1968 to break the contract. The Circuit Court ruled that the contract is good. The city has now taken the case to the Court of Appeals for a final decision.
“In an effort to clear up the corporate changes, the following statement was given to the mayor and commissioners by Martin Will, secretary of the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company, Inc. Owensboro Transit Division, and William L. Wilson, attorney: ‘The record should be clear on the matter of the contract and franchise between the city of Owensboro and the Owensboro City Transit Division . . . Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co., Inc. was a wholly owned subsidiary of Dayton Western Motors, Inc., a corporation of the state of Ohio. All of the capital stock of Evansville & Ohio Valley Railways Co., Inc. was sold to Jerome Will and Martin Will on April 10, 1968.
“At the time of the sale it was the desire of the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. owners to have the Dayton Western Motors continue in management of the Owensboro Transit Division with the understanding that at that time Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. could request to take over the city contract. The corporate status of the contract was never changed and is not changed at the present time.
“The city has consistently and steadfastly maintained that the contract is illegal and consequently has refused to pay the loss subsidy and the 5 per cent profit guaranteed by the contract. The city elected to go to court and test the validity of the contract. The case was won by Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co., Inc. and the city has elected to appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals where the case is now pending.”
(The 1969 Owensboro City Directory lists Owensboro’s bus lines as Owensboro City Transit. It was located at 933 Sweeney Street—the home of the former Owensboro City Bus Lines. Paul Maybrey was listed as the company manager, with no mention of any Will family member—indeed, Martin, Jerome, Andrew and Francis Will were not living in Owensboro when the 1969 directory was prepared, which would have been in 1968.)
To say that by 1969 Owensboro public transit was in total disarray due in large part to the underhanded actions of the mayor and city commissioners is an understatement! When the situation became desperate, the Will brothers came to Owensboro and took over in an effort to salvage their investment. However, the long and short of it all is that the owners of Dayton and Western Motors, Inc. sold the Will family a company that was in a state of financial collapsed, compounded by a city government with no compassion for either the company or Owensboro’s bus patrons!
Just days before the demise of Owensboro City Transit, I was one of many bus patrons who traveled downtown—in my case by bus—to attend transit meetings with the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners at the Owensboro City Hall.* As a high school student I was there to voice my plea to keep the buses rolling—thus beginning my life-long career as a public transit advocate. (It was, in fact, the first time I spoke in public!) Of course, it was to no avail.
(*This was the old city hall building located at 4th and St. Ann Streets. After standing for 113 years, and even though it was listed in 1970 as a historic building by the Kentucky Heritage Commission, the building was torn down in late 1975 to make way for an Owensboro Muunicipal Utilities parking lot. The old city hall was built in 1862 as a school by Benjamin Bransford, who later became an Owensboro mayor. In 1873 he sold the building to the city. Over the years the building served as a combined police department, fire department, city jail and meeting facility.)
Alas, Owensboro politicians turned out to be the same as politicians the world over, which was my first lesson in the realities of politics—promise the moon when its politically expedient, but conveniently forget your promises when the rubber hits the road—regardless of who it harms! The proof that I’m not overstating my perspective can be found in a number of contemporary newspaper newspaper articles wherein it was made clear that Owensboro’s politicians gave little thought for the city’s vulnerable passengers.
As we’ve seen, while bus operations teetered on the brink, and with OCT’s owners pleading for the back payments they were owed under their contract with the city, Owensboro Mayor Irvin Terrill (January 19, 1909-February 12, 1974) and the board of city commissioners steadfastly refused to part with so much as a penny. And, to add insult to their broken promise, they continued to refuse payment even after Special Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Coleman upheld the contract as valid in September 1968.
The mayor and commissioners’ reaction to Judge Coleman’s ruling was to order City Attorney Hugh More to file an appeal in the Kentucky Court of Appeals. After that, Mayor Terrill and the city commissioners conveniently refused any financial help while the case was pending. They took this hard-line stance even in the face of Martin J. Will’s pointing out that the bus line carried 50,000 passengers a month, “many of them students,” and that all would be left stranded on Owensboro’s city streets in the coming winter months if the commissioners failed to honor their word!
The attitude of Owensboro’s “city fathers” was not really a mystery to those in the know. Mayor Dugan Best had been a friend of public transit, and proved it throughout his life. As general manager of Owensboro Motor Company, Best had been on the scene when Owensboro Rapid Transit was founded in 1934 and used his company’s garage as its bus barn. Best was was a personal friend of Owensboro Motor Company owner, Roma Baize, who went on to become the general manager of Owensboro Rapid Transit.
True, as mayor, Dugan Best wasn’t particularly accommodating to Glenn E. Watson; but after Watson’s company folded Mayor Best worked hard to make a smooth transition for the new Owensboro City Transit, which included negotiating its generous contract. But keep in mind that the man who opposed Mayor Best every step of the way was then City Commissioner Irvin Terrill. (A November 19, 1969, newspaper articled reported that the “passage of the [April 1966] franchise ordinance drew bitter criticism from [Mayor] Irvin Terrill, then a city commissioner.”)
Unfortunately, after suffering a stroke on April 2 Mayor Best died on Tuesday, April 11, 1967, leaving Irvin Terrill as mayor pro tem. Terrill was elected mayor of Owensboro on November 7, 1967, to a four-year term beginning January 2, 1968. Thereafter the handwriting was on the wall for the future of Owensboro City Transit, and indeed public transit in general.
In the face of Mayor Irvin Terrill’s obvious hostility towards public transit, it is easy to understand why Owensboro City Transit driver Kenneth Sublett told a reporter that “the drivers seem 100 per cent more interested in providing bus service for Owensboro than the board of city commissioners does.” Mr. Sublett’s statement reflects the feelings of most bus patrons at this critical time. (In 1968 the commissioners were James Bugg, Alton Puckett, Doug Williams and Bill Carneal. Doug Williams died October 19, 1969, and the remainder of his term was filled by his widow, Evelyn Waltrip Williams.)
However, my observation about Mayor Terrill and the city commissioners doesn’t come simply from newspaper accounts and my attendance at city hall, meetings.
Back in 1967 my father’s cousin, Hubert Donald Conder, i.e., Don Conder, ran for a seat on the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners. One of his platforms was supporting a city manager form of government, and another was a strong public transit system. Back then I had a number of conversations with Don (or “Donnie,” as he was known in the family) about public transit and the mess made of it by the crowd at city hall. His insight and my personal observations formed my opinion about Mayor Terrill and the board of city commissioners.
Another nail in the coffin of Owensboro’s public transit was reported page 13 of the Friday, November 14, 1969, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“Commissioners Decline Funds For Bus Line
“The board of city commissioners decided Thursday it cannot furnish $10,000 to $15,000 to keep the local bus line operating.
“Martin J. Will, secretary of the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co., is to be notified officially today of the decision.
“City Manager Max Rhoads said Will has informed him enough money will be on hand at the company to pay drivers through next Friday, Nov. 21.
“Mayor Irvin Terrill said the city ‘would have no assurance of what the bus line would do’ even if it received some financial aid from the city. ‘It just isn’t possible for anyone without capital to operate a bus line,’ he added.
“Evansville & Ohio Valley owns Owensboro City Transit. City Transit has the franchise to operate safe, comfortable and efficient buses. It was suggested that the firm could forfeit its franchise or that the city revoke the franchise.
“Commissioner Alton Puckett wondered if the bus line has contemplated raising its fares or deleting one or two of the uneconomical routes.
“The commissioners agreed it would be improper to make an emergency appropriation to the bus line because of a law suit pending before the Court of Appeals at Frankfort.
“This suit was filed by the city to invalidate a 1966 contract under which the city was to guarantee the bus line a five per cent profit on its operations. The bus firm was paid $17,000 in subsidies for its 1966 operations but has received nothing for 1967, 1968, and the first nine months of 1969. The line now has unpaid contract claims against the city for $75,330 through Sept. 30.
“Will has stated the local buses carry about 50,000 passengers a month. The financial statement from the company reports it carried just over 25,000 passengers in September.”
Owensboro City Transit Company simply didn’t have the money to hold on until a ruling from the Court of Appeals. On Sunday November 16, 1969, it was announced by General Manager Paul Mabrey that Owensboro City Transit Company would be ending two of its routes on Monday morning: “Operations of the 21st and Bluff and West 9th Street routes will be discontinued . . . .” The loss of those two routes was a major blow to the community, and in fact, ended the bus route I needed for transportation to school. Even worse, it signaled that the end was in sight for Owensboro public transit. Indeed, it was less than two weeks away!
Owensboro City Transit Company closed down operations on Friday, November 22, 1969. A few days later, on a cold November day, I was visiting family in the west end of Owensboro. I walked next door to Ray’s IGA, which was located on West Fourth Street at the intersection of S. Ewing Road, and was just in time to see a long line of forest green and beige colored 1947 GM coaches heading west on Second Street out of town. What was left of Owensboro City Transit was traveling the 40-some-odd-miles back to Evansville, Indiana, to their owners.
For Martin and Jerome Will that terrible day was soon followed by others. Nine months later they were forced to close down their Evansville operations, which was reported on page 10 of the Thursday, August 6, 1970, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“‘Bus Firm Quits Runs In Evansville’ Evansville, Ind. (AP) — Evansville’s privately-owned bus company, shut down twice last month by drivers’ strikes, ceased operations Wednesday. Martin Will, who purchased the Evansville City Transit Co. last May, announced Wednesday that his firm was going out of business. . . . The company owned 38 buses.”
In the aftermath I, and countless other students, were left to walk to and from Owensboro High School five days a week—in my case about 2 miles each way in rain, snow, sleet, freezing cold and/or heat and humidity! But my plight was not nearly as serious as that of others. Mayor Terrill and the Owensboro Board of City Commissioners left hundreds of citizens stranded, and put an entire work force in the unemployment line a month before Christmas.
The Owensboro City Transit drivers and employees who lost their jobs included drivers Odell Romans, Kenneth Sublett, James Sloan, James Pearl, Darrell L. Dowell, Ray G. Douglas, Frank H. Cobb, William Lee Eddington, James Blacklock, mechanic Rannie C. Basham, maintenance man Lewis J. Ambs and General Manager Paul Maybrey. The hardship that befell these employees is evident in an article published on page 1 of the December 6, 1969, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“Commissioners Void City Bus Franchise
“The 10-year franchise awarded the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. on April 15, 1966 to operate buses in Owensboro was formally terminated Friday by the board of city commissioners. On a vote of 4 to 0, the board acknowledged that the affiliate of Evansville & Ohio Valley, Owensboro City Transit, ceased operations here last month because of financial difficulties. . . . City Transit operated seven buses here until recently but all have departed except for one still standing on the company’s lot on Sweeny Street. An ex-driver reported it is marooned with a jammed transmission. . . .
“Odell Romans, a former driver for City Transit, said Friday some 15 employees of the local operation are owned wages for their last 28 days of work. He said the last pay they received was $20 when the 15 employees divided $300 left by the company when operations ceased on Nov. 21. Romans estimated the company owes him $300.12 for his last 28 days and owes the same to other drivers. He said there appears to be little hope that the drivers can recover back wages unless the Court of Appeals rules that the city should have been paying the bus line enough subsidy since Jan. 1, 1967 to guarantee it a five per cent net profit on its operations.”
(As an aside, I’m guessing that the fate of that one remaining bus was reported in a July 20, 1969, newspaper item about the Owensboro City Police Department purchasing an old bus from the defunct Owensboro Transit Company “for around $300.” According to the article, the police planned to use it as a mobile unit.)
A kick-in-the-pants summery of Owensboro’s public transit demise was penned by Professor Elmer G. Sulzer in his yet-to-be-published book, Electric Lines of Kentucky and Tennessee:
“ . . . on September 24, 1971, the veteran manager of Radio Station WOMI, Hugh O. Potter, in an editorial over that station made some comments that seem appropriate for many cities throughout the country:
“‘Public transportation has confronted Owensborans with various kinds of problems for a long time. Back in the summer of 1932, when Owensboro apparently had two bus lines and a street car system, the since defunct Shopping News was unhappy with one of the bus lines and the street cars.
“‘The publication complained that ‘the methods used by the Evansville owned bus line to harass a competing line should be condemned by the public. Cutting their rates instead of improving their service is poor competition . . .
“‘It is also time to remove their ancient dilapidated street cars from our streets. They obstruct traffic and are a menace to all who board them. It is impossible to secure damages in case of an accident. And their fares are too high.
“‘If the bus lines can operate a regular schedule at a five-cent fare to any part of the city, we say give them a bus franchise for our streets and eliminate the nerve-wracking rattle-traps. . . . [The Shopping News editor is referring to the Lawlace brothers’ Owensboro Motor Transit Company and their “Big Yellow Bus.”] They are a liability and not an asset and have been tolerated too long already.’
“One year and nine months later Owensboro’s street railway system gave up the ghost and stopped operating its ‘nerve-wracking rattletraps.’ Since then buses have come and gone and many Owensboro residents who now must walk or hire cabs for public transportation would be willing to give the ‘ancient dilapidated street cars’ their patronage with few complaints if they could just be brought back.” (Quoted from Hugh O. Potter’s A History of Owensboro and Daviess County Kentucky. Montgomery, Alabama: Herff Jones-Paragon Publishing, 1974, p. 175. Professor Sulzer’s book was later published under the title Ghost Railroads of Kentucky.)
In unfinished business, on December 12, 1969, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled against Owensboro City Transit and Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company. This ruling added insult to injury to the bus patrons of Owensboro, not to mention the company’s employees and, especially its owners, who lost everything in their dealings with Owensboro’s mayor and city commissioners. Indeed, in the opinion of many citizens the hand-wringing, posturing and sputtering from the mayor and city commissioners about the need for public transit while they nailed the coffin lid shut on the city bus line was just political window dressing. (My personal opinion then, as now, was the demise of the city’s bus service had been the aim of city hall from the get-go. In other words, from the beginning it was a fait accompli!)
As for Mayor Irvin B. Terrill, in the midst of the city transit crisis and in the middle of his term as Owensboro’s mayor, he decided to run for city commissioner in the November 1969 elections because the salary of a commissioner was double that of a mayor. (He lost the election and continued in his post as Owensboro’s mayor.)
In September 1972 after he had left office, Terrill opened Irvin Terrill Jewelers on W. Second Street in downtown Owensboro. Asked why he didn’t locate his store in one of the newer shopping malls, he replied that he had “great faith that the downtown area of Owensboro is on the upsurge and will be bigger than ever.” Two months later a thief broke his display window with a beer bottle and stole $2,500 worth of watches, rings and earrings. His jewelry business was not a success.
On February 12, 1974, former Mayor Irvin Terrill died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the heart in his home at 2701 Dartmouth Drive, Owensboro.
It’s 1973 and finally there were some new faces at City Hall! Led by a new mayor, Cloran Waitman Taylor (1929-1984), those new faces decided Owenboro’s poor, students and elderly had suffered through enough rain, snow and heat without any affordable means of public transportation. And so, on Friday, April 27, 1973, some four years after the demise of the Owensboro City Transit, and with a lot of help from federal revenue sharing funds, the Owensboro City Commission voted to purchase five new buses and begin a city-operated mass transit system. Named City of Owensboro Transit System (OTS), plans called for it to be operational by November 1.
Once the decision was made, there were endless meetings to get things right, which included long discussions on the color of the new buses with the Mayor’s Committee on the Arts. Their recommendation was to paint the buses a pale gray with a blue stripe, but Police Chief Vernie Bidwell (1902-1974) cited national studies that showed gray vehicles, more than any other color, were involved in accidents at dusk. He pointed out that was the reason behind Kentucky State Police changing the color of their cars from gray to white.
Chief Bidwell’s recommendation was accepted and on Friday, May 4, 1973 Mayor Waitman Taylor announced the decision to order white, rather than gray, buses. At that time the city commissioners approved the purchase of five new unairconditioned school bus-type buses from Wayne Corporation of Richmond, Indiana, at a cost of $7,551 each.
With buses ordered, other, more important details were ironed out in preparation for the big day, i.e. the first day of service, which was supposed to be in the first week of November. On October 30, 1973, it was announced that a staff of 18 local college students had been hired as OTS bus drivers.
Of course, there were a few last minute snags. But finally, and without further ado, on Monday, November 12, 1973, OTS’s five new buses rolled onto Owensboro city streets. Owensboro Transit System ran four regular routes, and a shoppers express, for 35¢ per ride for 13 years and older, 25¢ for ages 6-12 years, and 5 and under free with an adult. The buses operated from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The transfer point was downtown at the City Hall on Fourth and St. Ann Streets, with buses leaving on the hour and half hour. Four buses operated throughout the city, while a fifth bus, designated as the “shopper’s express,” made stops all all the towns shopping centers.
In an interview with City Purchasing Agent Walter Fantini, some of the highlights of the new system were reported on page 11 of the Saturday, October 13, 1972, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer:
“When boarding the bus, passengers will drop their fares into a locked box. Drivers will carry no change and have no access to the money in the fare boxes, to prevent robberies . . . aluminum tokens will be sold at city hall and at several other presently undetermined locations, Fantini said. Tokens will be sold in lots of 10 for $3, a savings of 50 cents or five cents per ride. The new bus system will use what Fantini considers to be a revolutionary and liberal system of transfers. Most bus systems today have transfers which are good only for continuous rides. When a passenger gets off the bus, he must get on another within a short period of time before the transfer expires. Fantini said that transfers, which will be obtained from the driver for five cents, will be good for an entire afternoon or morning.”
At the end of its first year of operation, Owensboro Transit System transported an average of 470 passengers per day. When the system reported that it operated at a loss during its first year, it wasn’t a surprise. (Through September 1974 the system had collected $30,025 while incurring $95,603 in debts, resulting in a 68.9 per cent subsidy by city taxpayers.)
By the mid 1970s the office of Owensboro Transit System was located on Allen Street between First and Second Streets in downtown Owensboro. In fact, it was in the same building as, and next door to, the Kum-BakKum-Bak Restaurant. All OTS buses used this location for a transfer point, which, if you recall, was the same location used by the Owensboro City Bus Lines back in the 1960s.
In September 1988 OTS announced it was trying to bring a “trolley” to Owensboro. Although the newspaper reported the news as though it was an actual trolley, the fact is that it was a bus designed to look like an old trolley car. The city commission approved the purchase of the bus and accepted the lone bid of Chase Coach Company of Wichita, Kansas for a total cost of $146,921. Eighty percent of the cost was paid by the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, with the state Transportation Cabinet paying an additional 10 percent and the City of Owensboro paying the remaining $14,692.
The new 21-seat “trolley,” dubbed the “River City Trolley,” was delivered in May, 1989. Its inaugural run was on Thursday, June 1. Page 5 of the Friday, June 2, 1989, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer offered details of the “trolley’s” inaugural run:
“From Tuesday through Sunday, River City Trolley will wind its way from the Executive Inn Rivermont to Towne Square Mall, with side trips through Wesleyan Park Plaza and Towne Square North. On its return trip it circles through downtown Owensboro. Hotel guests and others will be offered easier access to shopping, thus forging a stronger link between tourism and retail trade.”
Beginning on Saturday, June 3 the River City Trolley was put into regular service offering free rides for the first eleven days. The one hour round trip was from downtown at the Executive Inn, along Frederica Street to the south end of town and several shopping centers, and back. To the relief of OTS management, Mayor David Adkisson and the city commissioners, the “trolley” proved to be an immediate hit—and a real money maker! (Personal note: during a summer 1989 visit to Owensboro I rode this “trolley” with my children. We enjoyed the open-air rides so much, that we used the “trolley” a number of times during our stay. On one of the trips my former Southern Junior High School English teacher—and vice principal—was a fellow passenger: the late Glendol M. Newman, 1932-2003.)
As of 2019 Owensboro Transit System is still in operation.
OWENSBORO TRANSIT BADGES
As to knowledge of transit badges being issued for the different companies outlined in this history, if one looks closely at the driver standing on the front of the old Owensboro streetcar, a hat badge is clearly visible. What was engraved on it is anyone’s guess. But, I do remember the drivers of Owensboro City Bus Lines wearing the classic bus driver hats with badges that were identical to Glenn Watson’s fare tokens. (Watson used the same tokens and badges in several of his bus operations in other states. You can see a photo of this badge from my own collection, which is reproduced in this history.) The drivers of Owensboro City Transit wore classic hats with badges, and although I daily used their buses back in the 1960s, I no longer remember any details of the badges. Hopefully, a badge or two will turn up to help complete this work.
FACES OF OWENSBORO CITY TRANSIT
This part of Owensboro’s transit history is special to me because it details the bus system I used as a boy and into my high school years, which was in the 1950s and 1960s. Although I was a passenger with my mother on Owensboro Rapid Transit buses, I was too young to have any memories of that experience. However, I do fondly recall many excursions on the Owensboro City Bus Lines, especially the downtown weekly shopping trips with my mother in the 1950s and early 1960s. (These outings often included either a lunch or a treat at the S. S. Kresge or J. J. Newberry lunch counters.) In point of fact, the Owensboro City Bus Lines was our family’s second car!
In the mid to late 1960s I daily used the buses going to and from school—Southern Jr. High on Booth Avenue and Owensboro High School on Frederica Street. Back then the transfer point for all routes was located on Allen Street between First and Second Streets in downtown Owensboro. During those years Paul Hick’s Kum-Bak Restaurant was located on the west side of Allen Street at number 124, which is where the Owensboro City Bus Lines’ buses parked and passengers transferred between runs. This neat little café, which was in business at the same location from the early 1930s and which Hick’s owned from November 1, 1941, until January 1974 served as a waiting/warming/cooling station for drivers and passengers alike. Like so many people, I have many happy memories of sitting at a booth inside the Kum-Bak out of the cold, rain or snow waiting on a bus while eating a bowl of chili or, on a hot summer afternoon, enjoying the rarity of air conditioning and drinking a Dr. Pepper!
Although at the time I knew all the drivers at the Owensboro City Bus Lines/Owensboro City Transit, there are only two I personally recall today, albeit by their nicknames. One was called “Speedy” by a number of bus patrons. Apparently he earned this moniker because he had gotten a speeding ticket while driving his route. (This may have been William Lee Eddington, Sr. who was ticketed on June 30, 1968, by Owensboro police officer Winthrop Kretman for going 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. He was fined $18.50 by Judge Joseph Banken, who suspended the fine.) The other driver was known as “Dagwood,” which I suspect was also a nickname from the funny page character. (As I recall, Dagwood was a left over driver from the previous bus line, Owensboro Rapid Transit Company.)
Of course, there were the patrons who used the bus system. One was a lady I saw quite often on the bus, and who worked at Owensboro High School. I never knew her name until January 1969 when I saw her in Cloverport, Kentucky, at the funeral of my great uncle, Chester Rogers. It was then that I learned that she was my mother’s first cousin!
Another regular patron was an interesting character who was blind with two missing arms. The story I remember of his disability was that he was once a worker at a nitroglycerin production facility. I can no longer remember the details, but he lost his eyes and both arms in an explosion that purportedly killed several other workers. So, six mornings a week a route #1 bus would stop in front of his house in the west side of the city, and bring him to the transfer point in downtown Owensboro. From there the driver would walk him across the street and fold out his canvas stool in front of the S. S. Kresge dime store. This blind man carried a transistor radio set into an aluminum frame with a coin box built on the side for tips, all of which hung around his neck by a leather strap. After getting the man seated, the driver would turn on the radio and tune it to a local station, leaving him to collect tips from passersby—including a few from yours truly. On occasion, one of the lunch counter workers from Kresge’s would come outside and bring him water, or lemonade, or coffee, if it were cold weather. In the afternoon, someone would help this man back across the street where he’d catch the bus back home. (He was one of those passengers left stranded by Owensboro’s city fathers when they refused to honor their promise to Owensboro City Transit!)
PERSONAL NOTE ABOUT OWENSBORO CITY TRANSIT
Although Owensboro is by no means a large metropolis, as Kentucky’s fourth largest city neither does it qualify as a small town. What I’m getting at is this: while researching the town’s transit history I was surprised how often I knew, met or in some way had been connected with some of the key players in the city’s various transit systems.
Col. Joshua D. Powers was a law partner with Reuben A. Miller, Owensboro City Railroad’s lawyer, and he was a financial backer of the Owensboro City Railroad, the Louisville, St. Louis & Texas Railway and the Owensboro, Falls of Rough & Green River Railroad, Inc. When Powers was still a practicing attorney in Hawesville, Hancock County, Kentucky, my maternal great-great-grandfather, James M. Rogers, hired him for his legal work. On February 11, 1876, Tobias Rusher (age 27), and John Rusher (age 18) came onto the farm of James Rogers and cut down a bee tree to rob it of honey. When confronted by James Rogers, they drew guns and fired on him, wounding him in the side. Rogers returned fire and killed both boys. For this he was charged with two counts of murder, which were later reduced to two counts of manslaughter. James Rogers hired Joshua Powers, then practicing law in Owensboro, to defend him. (After Rogers posted a bond, pledging his farm as security, he left the county and was never again heard of. He told his wife, Dicie Ann Weatherford Rogers, that if he went to trial, he was sure of an acquittal but was afraid that one of the Rushers would shoot him in the back.)
Wayne P. Gordon was part owner, president, general manager and general superintendent of Owensboro Rapid Transit during its final years. I met Mr. Gordon in the early 1970s when I worked as a station attendant for Bruce’s Gulf at 2400 Frederica Street. Although he was one of our regular customers, at the time I had no idea of his connection to Owensboro’s transit history. (I wish I had!)
Next is Charlotte Baumgarten, who was the guidance counselor at Southern Jr. High School when I attended there in the mid 1960s. I was well acquainted with Miss Baumgarten and again, I had no idea of her connection to Owensboro’s transit history. (She was the daughter of Harry Baumgarten, who was co-owner of Owensboro Rapid Transit. Her mother, Lena, was the company’s vice president. From the Internet I discovered that Miss Baumgartendied died at age 92 on December 28, 2018.)
During his career in Owensboro politics, LeRoy Woodward was a former city commissioner and former mayor. He too played some key roles in the city’s public transit—most notably in his efforts to end a strike by Owensboro Rapid Transit drivers back in 1950. He also played in a role in finding a replacement bus company when Owensboro Rapid Transit shut down in 1954. Woodward was the owner of the Wax Works record store in Owensboro, which he started in 1949. It is there that I became acquainted with Mr. Woodward in the mid-late 1960s when the store was located at 320 Washington Ave. just off South Frederica Street. I frequently visited the store to buy the latest 45 single records and, of course, had numerous occasions to talk to Mr. Woodward.
Back then, every Sunday afternoon Woodward hosted a radio program on WVJS radio station. Keep in mind this was before the Internet, You Tube, MP3, iPods, cassette players, etc. That meant listening to the radio to hear the latest top 20 records. There were only two radio stations in Owensboro back then: WVJS and WOMI. Since no one under 40 listened to WOMI, those of us in our teens had to tune in LeRoy Woodward on Sunday afternoons. I remember Mr. Woodward as a polite man who had an amazing memory of recorded songs. Woodward’s son, the late Dr. Roy Brown Woodward, was a Kentucky history teacher at Southern Jr. High in the mid-1960s and was one of my teachers there. I remember him with fondness.
Mayor Dugan Best is another person who played a key role in Owensboro’s transit history. His connection started in the 1930s with the founding of Owensboro Rapid Transit, which used his car sales business as a bus barn. His dealings were more involved when he was Owensboro’s mayor and Glenn Watson’s Owensboro City Bus Lines was providing the city with bus service. It was in the capacity as mayor that he negotiated the contract for Owensboro City Transit. I met Mayor Best the year before his death when he awarded me a certificate of appreciation from the City of Owensboro, which I still have.
Police Chief Vernie Bidwell was another man who had numerous connections with Owensboro’s transit history. In fact, Chief Bidwell had a lot of connections to a lot of things in Owensboro. I first met Chief Bidwell when he awarded me a certificate of appreciation from the Owensboro Police Department back in the early 1960s. Later, in the early 1970s, I became well acquainted with the chief when he traded with Bruce’s Gulf.
I met and talked to Mayor Irvin Terrill in the late 1960s, although I don’t have pleasant memories of the man or the circumstances of our meetings. I was also acquainted with Mayor Waitman Taylor, who lived near my family when I was growing up. Mayor Taylor played a key role in forming Owensboro’s replacement bus system after his predecessors shut down Owensboro City Transit in 1969.
When hearing the words “public transit” most people think of buses or, nowadays, light rail. But a taxi is also a legitimate public transit service and Owensboro has had its fare share of taxis over the past century-plus. The problem with writing any kind of detailed history of Owensboro’s taxis is many were just a flash in the pan—here today, gone tomorrow. Moreover, when mentioned in early newspapers stories they were usually referred to as a “cab” or “hack” without any specifics, all of which makes research difficult. Nevertheless, if you’ll bear with me, in this chapter I’ll attempt to present some kind of history of Owensboro, Kentucky’s, taxicabs—for what it’s worth.
Since my family rarely used taxis, my personal recollections of Owensboro’s taxi cabs are somewhat limited. When I was growing up there were only two cab companies in Owensboro: Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, Inc. and Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, Inc. The other thing I remember is that some of the supermarkets had a call box that linked directly to a cab company. Yellow Cab installed one of these boxes at the A&P Super Market on 9th and Allen Streets, and one of the few times I recall using a cab was when my father used this box in the early 1960s.
The other personal recollection is that my father’s youngest brother, Larry Neil Conder (1942-2017), drove for Owensboro Yellow Cab back in the 1960s. I recall him telling me once how a passenger complained to the company owner about his behavior. The passenger climbed into his cab and said “haul me to Hathaway Street,” to which Larry replied, “ma’am, I haul groceries I transport passengers!” At any rate, I dedicate this portion of Owensboro’s public transit history to the memory of my Uncle Larry.
OWENSBORO’S FIRST CABS
From the time before the War Between the States to the beginning of the new century Owensboro had numerous transfer companies. Generally speaking these were businesses that hauled freight and just about anything else, including the occasional passenger, who would climb aboard to ride among the crates and critters. However, some of these companies operated proper hacks (or cabs) and did a brisk business carrying passengers in and about Owensboro. The following is a brief outline of those businesses.
The People’s Wharf-Boat and Transfer Company, Inc. was incorporated on June 15, 1878, by John S. Woolfolk, R. S. Huges and Hamilton Alexander. In addition to freight, the company ran hacks to transport passengers about Owensboro. In time the business was known simply as People’s Transfer Company.
On March 31, 1888, The City Transfer Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, Inc. filed articles of incorporation. Its incorporators were Patrick M. Civill, R. M. Conway and R. S. Bevier. In addition to hauling freight, goods and mail, the company also transported passengers. One of their ads read: “Special reduced rates given to ladies desiring to take afternoon drives, go calling shopping or visiting.” (A customer could telephone City Transfer at number 61.) In September 1888 the company bought out the transfer business of one of its incorporators, P. M. Civill. In May 1889, the company bought two new “hansome cabs” for service. In February 1890 Ben Tanner succeeded A. V. Rudd as superintendent of the company. In June 1890 Ben Tanner resigned and Finley Harrison took over. In September 1890 the company’s drivers went on strike, but were fired and new driver hired in their place. (It was another fifteen years before the founding of The Industrial Workers of the World, or the “Wobblies!”)
Admittedly the above stats are quite dry, but City Transfer’s history livened up a bit on Wednesday, September 30, 1891, after one of its drivers went on a drunk:
“Charley Collins got on a high yesterday morning and took possession of a hack belonging to the City Transfer Company. Hugh Tanner made him get off, and he became so abusive that Tanner had to knock him out of the office. He was going back after Tanner when [police] Officer Brachey appeared on the scene and took Collins to the lockup. He was fined $2 and costs for drunkenness and $5 and costs for disorderly conduct. Collins is the best hack driver in the city, but he invariably gets drunk and loses every job he gets.”
Okay, with some dry stats and the story of a drunken driver behind us, let’s focus on a story printed on page 5 of the Sunday, May 6, 1945, edition of The Owensboro Messenger detailing the founding of City Transfer Company:
“An old blind horse named Jim, and a sorrel mare named Bell, plus a wagon and an energetic young man, were the beginning of Owensboro’s oldest transfer company, the City Transfer, which on May 1 was sold by its owner and founder, Wm. L. Monarch, to A. D. Cowgell, Jr., and Kenneth Gough. Mr. Monarch, who started in business as a hauler for his uncle, M. V . Monarch, 64 years ago, was owner of the business throughout the long period, gradually expanding it until it was one of the city’s important enterprises.
“It was in 1882 that Mr. Monarch, then a young men, bought Jim and Bell, and started hauling for M. V. Monarch [Martin V. Monarch], when the latter was building his large distillery, just east of the city. . . . Then as his business grew he expanded further, until he had ten teams and wagons, when he moved to Seventh and Lewis streets. . . .
“Mr. Monarch’s business continued to expand and with the growth of the town, a hack and bus service was badly needed. Consequently, 36 years ago, on January 1, 1909, to be exact, Mr. Monarch purchased two hacks and a bus and began hauling the public in addition to operating his transfer business. One hack would meet each train while the bus was used to haul the patrons to and from the hotels, to the station which then was considered quite far from the business section. This business, like the transfer-business, grew rapidly until Mr. Monarch owned 14 hacks. They were elaborate four seat carriages with oil lamps, and were familiar sights on the city streets.
“Another familiar sight, remembered by the older residents, were the eight teams of iron grey horses, which Mr. Monarch used, and which were kept highly groomed, and were always brought out for funerals. Many a prominent resident was carried to his last resting place by the prancing iron greys. . . .
“Among the early hack drivers whom the older residents will remember were Charley Davis, Lee Wright and Curley Meadows, all negroes and all long since dead. ‘They were all good drivers,’ Mr. Monarch recalls. . . .
“It was with great regret that Mr. Monarch witnessed the advent of the automobile. ‘I never did anything that was as hard to do as give up my two horses,’ he stated. He explained that he kept them as long as possible, but when everything else motorized, he had to follow and so 20 years ago purchased his first taxi, a Yellow Cab. ‘I fought against it as hard as I could, and when I rode in the first taxi, it was with one leg hanging out the door, so I could get out in a hurry if anything happened. I didn’t trust the thing.’
“When asked where he got his first cab. Mr. Monarch explained he took [a driver] to Chicago to get the first two cabs. ‘We left the hotel and went to the Yellow cab factory. When I entered the grounds, a Negro greeted me with ‘Cap, what are you doing here?’ He, at one time, had been one of my drivers.’
“The first trip home with the cabs was not without its incident. Mr. Monarch explained that north of Rockport, in attempting to pass a vehicle, one of the cabs rolled over into the ditch, coming to rest on its top. Mr. Monarch and his men got the cabs to Rockport, left them there that night and came to Owensboro on a steamboat, then returned to the Indiana town the next morning for the cabs.
“Mr. Monarch has had many employes, ‘good men,’ he was quick to emphasize. One man, John Wiggington, was with him 35 years. ‘A good man he was.’ Monarch explained, his voice shaking. His eyes became misty as he went on, ‘I was at his bedside when he died, too.’ He spoke with deep affection and respect of older residents of the city who have been gone many years. About ten years ago Mr. Monarch quit the taxi business and since that time has devoted his entire time to transfer and trucking.”
The claim that William L. Monarch (1862-1947) was the founder of City Transfer does not jibe with the facts. Monarch was not mentioned in the 1888 incorporation of City Transfer Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, Inc. In fact, from the 1880s to the early 1900s Monarch is not mentioned in any newspaper items concerning the City Transfer Company. Moreover, he is not mentioned in the July 23, 1899, consolidation and incorporation of the People’s Transfer Company and Miller Transfer Company, Inc. as the City Transfer Company, Inc. The incorporators were Elmer Miller, B. F. Miller, T. A. Pedley, Mrs. Margaret Pedley, J. G. Burch and Mrs. Mary A. Burch:
“The business of the new concern will be a general transfer business, hauling and transporting passengers, baggage and freight to and from depots and wharf. . . The capital stock is $10,000. It has a half-dozen fine closed hacks, and quite a number of other vehicles and thirty horses..”
Aside from William Monarch not being mentioned in connection with the 1899 company, the question is if this newly-incorporated company had any connection to the City Transfer Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, Inc. from 1888? It does if we accept the article about William Monarch; but the fact is there is no record that the two companies were related, despite the similarities of business names. Indeed, in 1895 there was only one mention of the 1888 company in local papers—and that didn’t present a pretty picture:
“Fell on the Ice.
“John Hill, an employe at the wheel works, was the victim of a painful accident Monday at Seventh and Lewis streets. He slipped and fell on the icy pavement, striking his head heavily and was rendered unconscious for two hours. He was not seriously hurt, but this should prompt the council to compel the City Transfer company, whose stables are situated there, to take better care of things. Water and filth from the stable makes the place obnoxious in summer and dangerous in winter. Several complaints have been made to the council, but as fast as the gutters were cleared they were allowed to fill again.” (The Owensboro Daily Messenger, Wednesday, January 30, 1895, page 4.)
After January 1895 there is no further mention of The City Transfer Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, Inc. from the 1880s. As for the 1899 City Transfer Company, Inc. it was located on St. Ann Street at the river, and started with a considerable investment. The company boasted fifty head of horses, five rubber-tired hacks (the only ones in town!) and service was available 24 hours a day. At that time J. W. Turner was in charge and had “been actively engaged in the transfer business for the past fifteen years.” In addition, the company erected a “mammoth two story barn, 75×168 feet, for its own especial use, which when completed will be the largest barn in the state used exclusively for transfer business.”
Whether or not the new company had any connection with the previous City Transfer Company, one thing is for sure: William L. Monarch is not mentioned in any contemporary newspaper accounts for either! However, in 1894 William Monarch was advertising a hauling service—with no mention of any company affiliation. In fact an April 1, 1900, newspaper ad presents Monarch as the general manager of Railroad Transfer Company, Inc., with his cousin, Daniel D. Monarch, as president.* The ad read: “Yards, Fourth Street and Leitchfield Road. Steam Coal a Specialty, River Sand guaranteed to grade to the top of market. Hauling of any description done promptly, and done right.”
(*The Railroad Transfer Company was incorporated in Owensboro in May 1899: “The nature of the business is to do a general hauling, transfer and coal business of all kinds and description. . . . The incorporators are H. Lamar Monarch, Cincinnati, Ohio, 17 shares; D. D. Monarch, 8 shares; Jas. M. Payne, Jr., 4 shares; T. Marshall Barrow, 1 share.”)
The first time there is a connection between William L. Monarch with City Transfer Company seems to be in a January 8, 1909, newspaper notice that he had been elected as the company’s manager by its stockholders: “The appointment of Mr. Monarch will meet with the approval of all the friends of the transfer company. He is one of the best qualified men in the city . . . Mr. Monarch has been engaged in the transfer business for many years in Owensboro and is very popular. He was also elected vice president of the company.”
It is important to point out that at the time of Monarch’s election, Elmer Miller (an original incorporator) was the president of City Transfer Company. You may also note that the news release specifically states that Monarch had been “engaged in the transfer business for many years in Owensboro” which indicates that prior to that time he had not been connected to City Transfer Company.
It would seem that the May 6, 1945, newspaper article detailing the founding of City Transfer was completely misleading. Whether or not this was the fault of sloppy reporting, or due to Monarch’s relating misleading details, is anyone’s guess.
In October 1899 hack driver Thomas Rhodes left the employ of the City Transfer Company and, with two cabs and two wagons at his disposal, founded Rhodes Transfer Company. When Rhodes gained the financial backing of C. L. Applegate and Col. E. G. Buckner, the three men incorporated with $2,500 in capital stock on August 30, 1900, as the Rhodes Transfer Company, Inc. Their business was described thus: “The nature of the business to be transacted will be the hauling and transferring of passengers, baggage and freight to and from depots and wharfs . . .” (Owensboro Daily Messenger, Friday, August 31, 1900, p. 2.)
To inaugurate their new enterprise the three company officers ordered a shiny-new horse-drawn, eight-seat rubber-tired omnibus. However, things didn’t work out as planned with the three partners winding up in a legal dispute and the company falling apart before it opened for business. (After his failed business venture, Thomas Rhodes went back to driving for the City Transfer Company. On March 31, 1901, the Owensboro Daily Messenger printed a notice that “Tom Rhodes, the well known hack driver, has resigned his position with the City Transfer Company and will likely accept a position with the Bartlett Transfer Company.” This was followed by another notice on April 2, 1901: “Tom Rhodes has gone into the transfer business with Frank Bartlett and the firm will be known as the Bartlett & Rhodes Transfer Company. . . The company secured the contract to carry the United States mail to and from the ‘Texas’ trains.”)
Moving into the age of the automobile, on Friday, August 13, 1915, Frank Staub & Company started a taxi service in Owensboro with four drivers and two Ford cars and promised to answer all calls at all hours. By January 1916 there were four taxi cab companies operating in Owensboro: The Independent Taxi Company, operating out of the Roby House, phone number 59; City Transfer Company, which, apparently, was still running horse-drawn cabs; Hayden Taxi Cab Company, headquartered at the Planters Hotel; and Thomas Taxi Company. Two years later R. V. Berry Taxi Company was in business, and the following year Loney’s Taxi Company. Also in 1919 Charles Aud started running a taxi service out of his home on Frederica Street with a new “Dodge Limousine.”
The year 1919 also saw Yellow Cab Line in business; the company was owned and operated by E. F. Wagner and C. V. Wagner who advertised “Day and Night Service. Side entrance Planters Hotel on Third Street. Phone 1028.” In February 1923 the O. K. Taxi Company was advertising day or night service by calling 642. Also in 1923 Buck Sublett was operating Planters Taxi Company. He advertised “We haul ’em anywhere in old city limits for 50 cents.”
Automobile taxicabs must have proven lucrative because it wasn’t long before City Transfer Company, which was still running horse-drawn cabs, took notice and got into the act. The big jump came on Thursday, April 17, 1924, when City Transfer placed a large ad in local papers:
“Yellow Cab Promises Cab Evolution in Owensboro.
“Tomorrow the YELLOW CAB CO. will make its bow to Owensboro, and place in commission new YELLOW CAB equipment, with a definite promise that we will give to the people of this city service, system and satisfaction. . . . YELLOW CABS are the finest cabs in the world and are the product of the YELLOW CAB MANUFACTURING COMPANY, of Chicago, which builds cabs for the Yellow Cab operating company of Chicago . . . Watch for the YELLOW and BROWN CABS tomorrow. HAIL THEM ANYWHERE Phones 170. City Transfer & Yellow Taxi Co., Incorporated.”
In 1932 Eureka Cab Company was advertising their service, and in June of that same year U-Need-A-Cab Company was up and running. In December 1935 Ever-Ready Taxi Cab Line was operating out of the Grand Central Hotel. Tom Sublett was the owner. Red Top Cab Company was operating by 1935. Its owner and manager was Harry Wilhite. In January 1938 Red Top Cab Company purchased The Reddy Cab Company from owner Clyde Gough. In January 1936 O. C. Hiter was operating his White Line Taxi Company out of Red Aero Gas Station on Main and St. Elizabeth Streets. In 1936 E. Gregson bought out White Line Taxi Company and changed the name to V-8 Cab Line: “New V-8 Cars 10c in Zone“.
March 1937 saw the end of City Transfer Company’s Yellow Cab / Yellow Taxi Company, Inc. The following notice appeared on page 10 of the Tuesday, March 9, 1937, edition of The Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“NOTICE OF DISSOLUTION Notice is hereby given that City Transfer and Yellow Taxi Company, a corporation, is now dissolving its corporate organization and on March 15, 1937, will complete the winding up of its corporate affairs and the closing of its corporate business. This February 13, 1937. CITY TRANSFER AND YELLOW TAXI COMPANY. By W. L. Monarch, President”.
Exactly one year after the demise of Monarch’s Yellow Taxi Company, Sewell S. Grigsby began operating Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, Inc. with a fleet of fifteen 1937 and 1938 automobiles.
In December 1938 Theodore McIntyre began his White Way Cab Company. He advertised a fleet of “four to eight cabs” all “new” 1939 Ford Deluxe cars from Harry Holder Motor Company.
In August 1939 Allen Vanover placed the following announcement in local newspapers:
“Announcement I have purchased the White Way Cab Co. from T. R. McIntyre and will continue to operate as Red Cabs, Allen Vanover, Owner of The Red Cab Company, Inc. 1 passenger 15c in Zone 2, 3 or 4 passengers 25c anywhere in the city.” In September 1940 came the formal announcement of the opening of The Red Cab Company, Inc.: “Today, we present to Owensboroans, a fleet of fine cabs, radio equipped, clean, comfortable with safe courteous drivers. 23 Sub Stations—Latest Type Switchboard—Pick-Up and Delivery Service Phone 24-24.“
On April 24, 1945, J. Millard Haynes James Millard Haynes (1905-1985; he owned Yellow Front Food Stores and was one of the original owners and the vice president of radio station WVJS), W. F. Birk and F. J. Birk purchased Red Cab Company from Allen Vanover, which ended a weeks-old strike by the company’s drivers.
ACCIDENTS & CRIMES
Over the coming years there were a number of accidents and crimes involving Owensboro cabs. The following are just a sampling.
In November 1939 a Yellow Cab driver, Willard Head, sexually assaulted a woman passenger, Pauline Long, for which he was sentenced to prison the following year. Sewell Grigsby, the company’s owner, was sued by the victim for $10,000.
On Saturday, November 13, 1943, a Red Cab picked up two women, who had just completed their shift at Ken-Rad. Driver Linus Schartung, age 20, tried to beat an L. & N. freight train to the crossing on West Ninth Street (between Poplar and Maple Streets) and his cab was struck by the train. Mrs. Novella Smith White, age 40, and Miss Lillian Margaret Howard, age 20, were killed instantly, as was Schartung. (The wreck generated a $20,000 lawsuit against Red Cab Company.)
On Tuesday, April 23, 1946, Mrs. Helen Vanover, age 24, picked up two men in her Red Cab Company vehicle. The two men, who it turned out were escapees from the Western State Hospital at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, kidnapped Mrs. Vanover. They took the cab to Madisonville, Kentucky, and then across the Ohio River by ferry into Shawneetown, Illinois. Four miles outside of town the cab became stuck in mud. When two men tried to help, the kidnappers tied them up, set fire to the cab, and left with Mrs. Vanover in a stolen car. After raping Mrs. Vanover, they eventually released her in Paducah, Kentucky.
THE LIFE OF AN OWENSBORO TAXI CAB DRIVER
On page 2 of the Monday, August 26, 1946, edition of The Owensboro Inquirer the employees of the Red Cab Company published an open letter to the people of Owensboro. That letter offers a glimpse into the day-to-day affairs of Owensboro’s taxi cabs:
“J. Millard Haynes, the president and owner of our taxi-cab company, called all of us together for expressions regarding competitive cab lines that may be allowed to operate on the city streets of Owensboro. At the time of this interview, he reviewed the hard work he had extended in giving Owensboro a first class taxi-cab line. Mr. Haynes emphasized the building of a new taxi-cab station, second to none in the United States, how he had closed contracts for short wave radio equipment to be installed in new cabs, how he had employed nine mechanics to keep old equipment going, how he had met dealer after dealer in promises of new cars and how the present City Commissioners refused to listen to him.
“Thirty-one of us are veterans, who fought together on Okinawa and Salerno and the battle of the Bulge what are we coming home to? To fight one another? Well, it might be said here and now, we left Red Cab drivers buried over there, who can not join us in voicing the appreciation that we had our old jobs waiting for us when we returned. That’s something to be grateful for, that’s something to fight for and we are fighting for it now. This is our pursuit of happiness, it’s bread and butter for the wife and kids, and if it is necessary to show you the ordeal of broken down equipment, look in the rear of our garage then take a look at the parking lot on Allen Street for the graveyard of worn out cars. Sure, we are going to have new equipment, we’ll have 15 new cabs by August 31st and 15 new ones every month until we have forty glistening transports on the streets. What’s more they will have short wave communication in them. When our fleet is complete we can render three minute service to the public.
“April 24th, 1945, when Mr. Haynes purchased this cab company there were 44 cabs in the lot, only 5 were in running condition. Through hard work and effort most of these cabs were placed on the street. Gradually the parts were affected and no parts to be had. At this present writing we have 24 cabs moving and at this moment we are dividing up time on these cabs where all of us can make a living. We receive good pay and swell treatment when the time does come, which will not be far off (a matter of ten days) we will be in a position to give you very good service and this service will improve as our equipment arrives.
“J. Millard Haynes, our president, and Reat Day, our vice-president, both are World War veterans and we all stand shoulder to shoulder as one.
“What effect will competition have on the citizens of Owensboro? Answer: Back in the old days when competition was in vogue there was tire slashing, sand in the gas tanks, fights galore and a final running off of railroad premises of all taxi-cabs, accidents and high rates of insurance due to the accidents, people at the railroad stations had suit cases and grips literally torn from their hands, police records glutted with cab-driver arrests.
“The business we now have is the cleanest in history. We were refunded over $2,000.00 by the insurance company as having one of the best records of any cab line in the United States. We have not had one hospitalization since starting operation as a cab line. All of our boys, including the older veterans, are gentlemen. Among our group of drivers we have licensed aeroplane pilots, graduates in first aid, life guards, etc., all working for one cause and one purpose to make a living by serving the public.
“The Chief of Police of our local department has on many occasions written us letters of commendation for heroic work performed by us drivers and many grateful families have expressed their appreciation for our cooperation in securing medical assistance in their hour of need in the wee morning hours. It was you we had in mind at Okinawa, Salerno and the break thru at Luxembourg.
“It is you we have in mind when you rider in our cabs. We will gladly give you our best when we have the best to work with (new cabs), which won’t be long. What more can be promised, what more can be done?
“Respectfully, Employees of the Red Cab Co.” [Below is a list of drivers who signed the letter:]
DAY-TO-DAY CAB OPERATIONS ON THE STREETS OF OWENSBORO
In September 1946 Joseph and Woodrow Mattingly began operating the Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, Inc. with ten cabs.
Page 1 of the Thursday, April 17, 1947, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer reported a wildcat strike by 45 Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, Inc. drivers over what they viewed as the unfair suspension of a fellow driver. Their picket line was set up at the company’s headquarters at 320 St. Ann Street. In response owner J. Millard Haynes, who, keep in mind, also owned the Red Cab Company, filled the vacant positions with non-union drivers. Naturally this caused some unpleasant side effects.
On Saturday night, May 3, 1947, Elbert McManaway, one of the replacement drivers, was arrested when he and his cousin, Raymond D. McManaway, a striking driver, got into a fist fight in front of Yellow Cab Company’s office. As the strike drew more contentious, ridership suffered.
One month into the strike Millard Haynes announced that cab fares were being reduced to 15¢ per ride. By June the union was publishing regular appeals to the public not to patronize Yellow Cab Company. In response, Haynes published a very long letter, “A Statement of Yellow Cab Company Regarding the Strike of Its Employees,” in local papers explaining the company’s side in the strike.
Although not noted by local papers, the Yellow Cab drivers’ strike had spilled over into Haynes’ Red Cab Company, and continued until November. Seven months later a settlement was reached with Red Cab drivers and was announced in the November 13, 1947, edition of The Owensboro Inquirer. In noting that the Red Cab drivers’ strike had been settled, the article doesn’t mention Yellow Cab Company’s strike. Nevertheless, that strike must have been settle with Haynes at the time of the Red Cab settlement, since Yellow Cab was back in operation by the end of the year.
In September 1948 Reat Day and Bethel Reynolds bought out the interests of Millard Haynes in Yellow Cab Company. (Day owned the Day Motor Sales and Day Real Estate, and Reynolds owned the Planters Hotel and Equity Tobacco warehouse.) As to Haynes’ other business, Red Cab Company, there is no mention of it in local papers in 1948s. I’m assuming by then Haynes had combined his two cab companies under the name Yellow Cab.
On April 30, 1950, three Owensboro Yellow Cab Company drivers appeared in local papers in an ad by the Center Theatre for the Red Skelton film “The Yellow Cab Man”:
By 1950 only two cab companies were still operating in Owensboro: Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, owned by Joseph A. and Woodrow Mattingly with 15 cabs, and Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, owned by Reat Day with 20 cabs. With competition severely reduced, these two companies grew accustomed to having things their way; so when someone encroached into their territory, the owners fought back.
For years the managements of Owensboro Rapid Transit and its successor, Owensboro City Transit, had complained about Owensboro’s unregulated taxis causing a financial drain by stealing fares. However, in 1954 the shoe was on the other foot and Owensboro’s two operational taxi cab companies faced a threat: some businessmen decided to set up two different taxi companies in Owensboro with a total of 23 cabs. The cab companies’ owners joined forces with the management of Owensboro City Bus Lines for a counter offensive. Page 4 of the Thursday, October 14, 1954, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported the story of these unlikely allies:
“Bus Company Protests Plans For Cab Firms Hearing Scheduled In Frankfort Oct. 28.
“The Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc., has registered a protest against the proposed establishment of two new cab firms and licensing of additional taxicabs here. A statement presenting the views of the city is being sent to the State Motor Transportation Division, which must decide on the matter, acting City Manager Joe McKinly said yesterday. A hearing is set for Oct. 28 at Frankfort. McKinly disclosed that the city had received a letter from Glenn E. Watson, Columbia, Mo., operator of the City Bus Lines, in which Watson said he has received notice that an application has been made to establish two new taxi concerns and license cabs to operate in Owensboro. Watson termed this ‘an unreasonable number’ of cabs and said the usual pattern when such a large number of taxis is operated is that very soon there is ‘rate cutting and illegal acts on the part of some of the drivers.’
“H. M. Strange, manager of the bus company, identified the applicants for cab licenses as Hugh Bosley and Irvin Dantic, applying under the name of City Cab Co., 428 Triplett St., and William E. Sinclair, applying under the name of Owensboro Liberty Cab Co., 2331 W. 5th St. The bus company official said City Cab is applying for approval for eight taxis and the Liberty firm is seeking a permit for 15 cabs.
“Watson said he felt sure the approval of additional cabs would be ‘a quick way of eliminating a none-too-profitable bus company that is trying to get established and to furnish the public with safe and dependable service.’ The Missourian continued, ‘The Owensboro City Bus Lines, Inc., has filed its formal protest alleging there is now adequate public transportation.’ He expressed hope that the city commission would join by resolution in protesting the application.
“McKinly said the board of commissioners has already instructed him to prepare a statement advising the Motor Transportation Division of the city’s position. He explained the city’s attitude is that the question of public convenience and necessity should be left to the MTD after it has heard the evidence at the Oct. 28 hearing. The official said further the city feels applications should not be granted to a greater number of cabs than can be profitably be operated in the city. McKinly mentioned previous difficulties which resulted in suspension of bus service here for several weeks earlier this year, and he said the city now has a bus company that is giving satisfactory and adequate service without showing a large profit. He also stated that the city feels granting of additional cab licenses might upset existing conditions so as to cause the bus company to cease operations.”
The owners of Veteran Cab Company and Yellow Cab Company joined Glenn Watson’s objection and sent letters of support to the State Motor Transportation Division in Frankfort. In the end, the proposed new cab companies didn’t get their franchise.
In 1961 Veteran Cab Company was advertising 50 cent rates for one or two persons. Their phone number was MU-3-7373. That year also saw a change of ownership.
In a bold move to bolster the revenues of his financially troubled Owensboro City Bus Lines, owner Glenn E. Watson purchased Veteran Cab Company and its five taxi cabs from Woodrow Mattingly. However, Watson couldn’t seem to win no matter what he did. On Tuesday, June 18, 1963, one of his Veteran cab drivers, Thomas D. Crowe, ran a stop sign and collided with one of his city buses at the intersection of 12th and Hathaway Streets, causing the bus to crash into the side of a house at 1200 Hathaway Street. Six persons were injured, including three bus passengers, the cab driver and two occupants of the house. Of course, the accident resulted in several lawsuits.
On May 9, 1964, Glenn Watson announced he had sold Veteran Cab Company, Inc., although he declined to name the new owner. It turned out that the new owner was Irvin Dantic and associates. (Dantic was the same man who tried to start City Cab Company back in 1954, which was fought by Watson and the owners of both Owensboro Veteran Cab Company, Inc. and Owensboro Yellow Cab Company, Inc.)
By 1977 Veteran Cab Company’s owners, Charles and Shirley Armstrong, were trying to sell the company. Through a series of “for sale” ads in the Messenger-Inquirer, they kept lowering the asking price until the ads disappeared. There is no followup explaining if the company was sold, but in January 1978 the Armstrongs placed a notice in the paper that they were no longer “affiliated in any way with Veteran Cab Co., of Owensboro, Inc., 406 E. 12th St., Owensboro, Ky.” After that date Veteran Cab Company disappeared from Owensboro’s business life. From that time forward Yellow Cab Company was the only cab company serving Owensboro. However, in 2006 Rick Gipson started Komfort Kabs, which operated a fleet of mini-vans. In September 2014 Executive Taxi Service took over Komfort Kabs. As of 2019 only two cab companies were listed as operating in Owensboro: Yellow Cab of Western Kentucky and Executive Taxi Service.
When I started this history, my intention was to confine my research to the city of Owensboro. However, the public transit “bug” in me wouldn’t allow my ignoring all those wonderful old intercity transit companies from Owensboro’s past. On the other hand, researching and writing those individual histories with the scrutiny they deserve would mean producing additional books, which I don’t have the time or energy to undertake. What to do, what to do? The answer was finding a middle ground.
Reluctantly I’m going to give a very brief outline of Owensboro’s intercity passenger boats, passenger trains, ferries and buses—with the hope that one day I’ll be able to return and give them the consideration they deserve.
In the days of yore, back when Owensboro was still called Yellow Banks, there were two ways to reach the settlement: by river, via a flatboat that drifted with the current, or by using the numerous Indian trails that crisscrossed the region. For obvious reasons a flatboat floating down the Ohio River was the preferable way to travel, although still fraught with peril.
Those boats were simple flat-bottomed wooden barges of home-sawn lumber with straight sides and used by merchants/traders to make their way to the markets of Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans. The average “commercial” craft was about 55 feet long by 16 feet wide and were called Broadhorns, Kentucky Boats or Natchez Boats. These usually had a crude cabin or lean-to shelter for the crew and a pen for livestock. The largest flatboats were called Mississippi Broadhorns, New Orleans Boats, Barges, Scows, or Arks. (That last name was a biblical reference to the large number of farm animals transported for settlers.) The dimensions of these “Arks” could average about 100 feet long by 20 feet wide and often were completely covered. These larger crafts required a crew and pilot of at least five men.
Since flatboats were often attacked by Indians, many were constructed like floating forts with walls that featured small holes from which guns could be fired. As for navigating these vessels, the website Steamboat Times: A Pictorial History of the Mississippi Steamboat Era gives the details:
“For navigation, flatboats were rigged with 30-55 ft sweeps on the sides, a rudder or steering-oar, and a short front sweep called a ‘gouger’. The great side sweeps, resembling horns from a distance, gave rise to the name Broadhorn. The side sweeps were used for directing the flatboat into the current, or for pulling into slack water when landing, rather than for propulsion. Some flatboats also had hawsers mounted to reels; the hawser (rope) would be attached to a tree or stump and wound in to ‘warp’ the boat off a sandbar, or to assist landing.”
Between 1810 and 1820 it has been estimated that some 3,000 flatboats yearly floated down the Ohio River, and many, if not most of these, stopped in Yellow Banks / Owensboro. Since settlers often booked passage on these boats, they qualify as Owensboro’s first form of intercity public transportation. The main problem with flatboats was that they were a one-way trip; that is to say, since they floated with the river current, there was no way to go back up river. (Once a flatboat reached its destination it was dismantled and the lumber was sold. Crew members, or others wishing to return, had to walk back along the 440-mile Natchez Trace, which was a trail that stretched from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee.) But the days of a one-way Ohio River journey was about to change.
I suppose my fascination with steamboats has something to do with being born and growing up in an Ohio River port town. I can add to that the many summers I spent with my maternal grandmother, Frances Rogers (1898-1981), whose house in Cloverport, Kentucky sat high on a bank overlooking a bend in the Ohio River. Back then I would hear tales of her paternal grandfather, Whitsell Kindle Cubbage (1831-1916), and his time as a deck hand on a steamboat in the 1850s. (The great adventure of his life was a steamboat trip from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.)
During those years I would always pause to watch the endless stream of barges gliding smoothly past Cloverport and Owensboro—especially since my great-uncles, Chester and Hubert Rogers, worked on these river barges. (Back then, when I still had good eyesight, I would try to spot them on the deck of passing boats.) But my real excitement came when I first saw the bright red paddle wheels of the Avalon (later re-christened the Belle of Louisville) and the Delta Queen as they churned the waters of the Ohio River while passing Owensboro—or, on occasion, when they docked at the river’s edge in downtown.
There was also the Gordon C. Greene. This old paddle wheeler was renamed the River Queen and was permanently docked in downtown Owensboro as a floating restaurant in the early-mid 1950s. It was famous for having appeared in three Hollywood films: Steamboat Round the Bend, in 1935, Gone with the Wind in 1939 and The Kentuckian, in 1955. (The last film was partially shot in Owensboro.) In fact, I still have a photograph taken by my mother in which my eldest sister and I were standing by the river with this old boat docked in the background.
Owensboro and the age of Ohio River steamboats all began with the New Orleans, the first steamboat to sail on the western waters of the United States. Owned by Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston, and built by Nicholas Roosevelt, a distant cousin to the two future U.S. presidents, it was the first steamship to visit Owensboro. The exact date of this event is somewhat muddled, but according to some histories, the ship set sail for New Orleans on October 20, 1811, with Roosevelt as the captain. However, conflicting 1904 and 1932 Owensboro newspaper articles claim the New Orleans left Pittsburgh in the latter part of September 1811. The 1904 article claims the boat landed in Louisville on October 11, 1811, while the 1932 newspaper article claims it reached Louisville in late October. That article continues by noting that the boat couldn’t get over the Falls of the Ohio River* at Louisville and had to wait for the river to rise, finally leaving on December 15. (*The Falls of the Ohio were a series of rapids where the river dropped 26 feet in a stretch of about 2 miles.)
I suppose what really matters is that in the latter part of 1811 the New Orleans did stop in Yellow Banks / Owensboro to take on wood for its boilers.
In 1814 the 80-foot-long steamer Enterprise, commanded by Captain Henry M. Shreve, made a trip from Louisville to New Orleans. However, unlike the New Orleans, the Enterprise returned upriver from New Orleans to Louisville and thus began a new era on travel on the Ohio River. By 1817 the steamboat Washington would pass Owensboro / Yellow Banks (if indeed it didn’t dock) on regular runs between Louisville and New Orleans.
There was only one obstacle to making the Ohio River an American super highway: the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, which was mentioned above. On page 49 of the Sunday, May 11, 1997, edition of the Messenger-Inquirer Owensboro historian Lee A. Dew, in his newspaper article “River Got Owensboro Rolling,” writes:
“But the steamboat business was hampered by the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville which required that goods and people be off-loaded and carried by land to other vessels below the falls an expensive and time-consuming operation.
“The opening of the Louisville and Portland Canal,* which bypassed the falls, enabled steamboats and flat-boats to sail directly downstream without facing the obstacle of the falls.
“The number of vessels passing through the canal soared, and by 1833, 875 steamboats and 710 other craft passed through, carrying 169,885 tons of merchandise.
“Owensboro boomed in the decade after the opening of the canal. In 1830 its population was only 229 persons, but by the end of the decade more than 1,250 people called Owensboro home, an increase of of more than 500 percent. While flatboats continued to carry Owensboro goods downstream the steamboats brought the products of the nation and the world to Owensboro’s wharf.”
(*The Louisville and Portland Canal was a 2-mile canal bypassing the Falls of the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky. The Falls form the only barrier to navigation between the origin of the Ohio River at Pittsburgh and the port of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. The canal opened in 1830 as the private Louisville and Portland Canal Company but was gradually bought out during the 19th century by the federal government, which had invested heavily in its construction, maintenance, and improvement. Information from Wikipedia.)
After the construction of the Louisville and Portland Canal steamer landings in New Orleans went from 21 in 1814 to 191 in 1819, and over 1,200 in 1833. By the 1830 steamboats were regularly serving Owensboro.
Passenger steamboats that would have passed and/or made stops at Owensboro / Yellow Banks on their way downriver would include the Paragon (355 tons), which was built in Cincinnati in 1819. This boat made regular runs between Louisville and New Orleans and could make the trip in a little over 7 days; the George Washington built in 1825 at 360-375 tons; the Tecumseh, built in 1826 at 210 tons; the Alex Scott built in 1842 in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and ran between Louisville and New Orleans in 1847; the Grand Turk, built in 1848 and operated between Louisville and St. Louis and Louisville to New Orleans; and the Eclipse, built in 1852 and ran between New Orleans and Louisville.
In the early 1860s, and throughout the time of the War Between the States, a passenger steamer named the Tarascon made regular trips to Owensboro from its home base in Louisville. The Wednesday, February 17, 1864, edition of The Owensboro Monitor reported:
“Our packets are now making their trips with regularity. The Tarascon let herself loose last Thursday and is some of the tallest running that has ever been known on the Ohio river. She made the run from West Point to Leavenworth in a little over two hours, and from this place to Evansville in one hour and fifty-five minutes. The Big Eagle cannot make quite such time, but she is making a heap of money and her officers a host of friends.”
A June 1, 1864, notice in the The Owensboro Monitor described the boat thus:
“The swift and elegant steamer Tarascon is due here this morning. It is only necessary to mention the fact tht Capt. J. A. Lusk commands, with Messrs Banksmith, Cox and Carr in the office, to insure her passengers and freight. This boat is unrivaled for speed, accommodations and fine living.”
In addition to the above-mentioned Tarascon and Big Eagle, there were other steam boats serving Owensboro in the 1860s. In 1863 the Jacob Strader was advertised as “the largest, fastest and finest passenger packet afloat is running in this trade. She is in the command of Capt. Jo. Bunce, the Rear Admiral of our packet fleet.” There were the Morning Star and the Star Grey Eagle. When the latter arrived in town in May 1865 a notice in a local paper noted “On that occasion, the ‘Star,’ appropriately styled the ‘little eagle,’ received, on her arrival at Owensboro, a large influx of passengers to her already well filled cabin, crowding it beyond the capacity of state rooms to furnish resting places.”
In 1864 the Liberty No. 2 was carrying passengers between Louisville and Memphis. In 1867 the Ollie Sullivan ran between Rockport, Owensboro and Evansville. The Leonara No. 2 ran between Cincinnati and Evansville.
In 1874 the Sandy ran between Evansville, Newburgh, Owensboro, Rockport and Cannelton. The H. S. Turner ran between Cincinnati and Shawneetown in 1875. Other packet steamers serving Owensboro in the 1870s included the Indiana, Robert Mitchell, Cousin Miller, Andy Baum, Fawn, Dick Johnson, which ran between Cannelton, Owensboro and Evansville, the Thomas Sherlock, Bermuda, Belle Lee, Charles Bodman, Thompson Dean and Ben Franklin. (Note: there were countless other boats serving Owensboro over the decades of the 1850, 1860s, 1870s and 1880s. Those mentioned above are just a sampling.)
It was not until the coming of the first railroad passenger trains that the Ohio River paddlewheelers lost their place as Owensboro’s premier public intercity transit option.
Over the decades before and after the War Between the States, Owensboro had a number of ferry companies providing valuable public transit service across the Ohio River. The problem with researching these companies is that contemporary newspapers usually refer to “the ferry,” or “the ferry crossing” in their articles without mentioning a company name. Nevertheless, in the following I’ll offer what little I found digging about in early newspapers.
The Owensboro Ferry Company began operating a ferry service back in 1877. There’s not much to report on the company other than it was a lucrative concern, which prompted it to be aggressive with competitors. On one occasion this pitbull tactic blew up in the company’s face, the details of which I find were poetic justice.
On November 17, 1891, The Owensboro Ferry Company took W. L. Collins & Sons to court on a warrant charging that they carried passengers across the river for hire within one mile of an authorized ferry. This backfired when William L. Collins called the Daviess County clerk as a defense witness. The clerk testified that that Owensboro Ferry Company didn’t itself have a license to operate a ferry crossing and indeed had not had one since it began operations in 1877! The case was dismissed, and to return the favor, William Collins had the opportunity to report the Owensboro Ferry Company to the grand jury for running a ferry without a license!
There was another documented ferry business way back when, and that was in July 1879 when John Tixton, Frank J. Clarke, Robert S. Triplett, E. B. Trabue and John H. Triplett incorporated the Owensboro Transfer Company. Their principle business was running a steamboat and other boats on the Ohio River to convey passengers, baggage and freight to various landings up and down the river. Their boats didn’t stray too far from their home dock in Owensboro. Now let’s jump across the decades well into the next century.
Owensboro didn’t get a bridge across the Ohio River until September 1940 when a toll bridge was opened to traffic. Prior to this convenience, the ever-reliable ferry boat was the only link Owensborans had with the other side of the river, and vice versa.
After the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railroad Company took over Owensboro City Railroad in 1918, the company operated a ferry service in downtown Owensboro at the foot of St. Ann Street. Known as the Crescent Boat & Rockport Traction ferry, this service connected Owensboro City Railroad to Rockport and hence to Evansville, Indiana, via the E. & O. V. Railroad.
Among the ferries running then was the Wilson Ferry, which was owned and operated by Judge George S. Wilson. He had started his ferry service in circa 1930 and advertised the crossing as “the shortest route to Evansville.” It was estimated that at certain times of the year there could be as many as 100 crossings per day. (The ferry was located approximately 3 miles northeast of Stanley at the end of Booneville Road, now the present-day Wimsatt Road. The cost for passage was $1 for trucks and 25¢ for cars.)
Wilson Ferry operated until the new bridge was completed in Owensboro, after which it was purchased by the Owensboro Bridge Commission on June 25, 1941. At that time the commission also purchased the Cypress Beach Ferry Company, which was owned by C. H. Dempewolf and operated about 20 miles west of Owensboro inside Henderson County. The other ferries bought out by the commission were the Ellis & Smeathers Ferry Company, Inc., which had began operations in 1922 about four miles east of Owensboro and was owned by James C. Ellis, Roy Yewell and Drury Smeathers; and the Miller Navigation Company, which began operating in 1904 from Rockport to Owensboro. (In 1941 it was owned by Robert V. Miller, Tina M. Miller, John Robert Miller and Thomas M. Miller.)
The Owensboro Ferry Company, Inc., which may or may not have been connected to the previously-mentioned company of that name, and which operated from a landing at the foot of St. Ann Street in downtown Owensboro, was also purchased by the Owensboro Bridge Commission. The Sunday, July 28, 1940, edition of The Owensboro Messenger reported the sale of the Owensboro Ferry Company, via an ad placed by the company:
“OWENSBORO FERRY SOLD FOR $15,000 Boats, Land, Equipment and Signs Purchased By Bridge Commission
“The Owensboro Ferry, which for years was the only means of transportation across the Ohio river here, passed out of existence late Wednesday afternoon, with the signing of a deed transferring ownership of the ferry to the Owensboro Bridge Commission, which recently completed construction of a bridge across the river.
“In 1900 Harry B., James B., and Frank T. Rounds bought the ferry property on both sides of the river at Owensboro, and in connection with the ferry soon established a line of gasoline passenger boats, making four round trips daily between Owensboro and Rockport, lnd.
“These gasoline boats, The Inquirer and Messenger, designed and built, both engine and hull, by Erdix N. Rounds, a brother, as was also the Margaret and Eck, and all four of these boats are in service yet. Some years ago the Inquirer and Messenger were sold to the Evansville, Indiana Traction Line and operated by that line for years.
“We herein express our thanks to all our friends and patrons, whom we have served for 40 years. Signed, ROUNDS BROS.”
(The above article is a bit confusing because in January 1936 the company ran several notices in local papers that read: “NOTICE OF DISSOLUTION OF OWENSBORO FERRY COMPANY Notice is hereby given that Owensboro Ferry Company, a corporation, is closing up its business and is in the act of dissolution and will be promptly dissolved by appropriate order of its Board of Directors and the written consent of its stockholders. This December 31, 1935. OWENSBORO FERRY COMPANY. By BYRNE McDANIEL Secretary.” These notices were followed by a series of notices that appeared at the end of January 1936 into the summer months that read: “Owensboro Ferry has resumed operation.”)
Owensboro’s ferries were a bit before my time, but I still remember crossing the Green River by ferry, and a few other such adventures both in Kentucky and Indiana. And for the record, and on a somewhat related subject, I, along with a friend, Joe Pennebaker, walked across the Owensboro bridge and back one summer’s day in 1968 just to say we did it!
Up river from Owensboro, in Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad was chartered in 1850. Down river in Evansville, Indiana, the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad Company was chartered in 1853. However, for some reason the contagious rail fever of the day seems to have bypassed Owensboro!
OWENSBORO & NASHVILLE RAILWAY
It wasn’t until 1867 that the Kentucky General Assembly granted a charter to the Owensboro & Russellville Railroad, although it didn’t become operational until 1872. One year later the company was rechartered as the Evansville, Owensboro & Nashville Railroad, went bankrupt in 1875, and was bought by a group of Owensboro investors in 1877 who renamed the company the Owensboro & Nashville Railroad. By 1879 the company was under the control of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad. In 1880 the Louisville & Nashville Railroad acquired a controlling interest in Owensboro & Nashville Railroad’s stock. The company was merged into the Owensboro & Nashville Railway in 1881, which had been formed that same year by the Lousiville & Nashville Railroad as a branch line. The Owensboro & Nashville Railway operated until 1921 when it was absorbed into the its parent company, Louisville & Nashville Railroad. (Note that the Owensboro & Nashville Railroad and Owensboro & Nashville Railway were two different companies.)
LOUISVILLE, ST. LOUIS & TEXAS RAILWAY / LOUISVILLE, HENDERSON & ST. LOUIS RAILWAY
Another major railroad serving Owensboro in the days of yore was the Louisville, St. Louis & Texas Railway. Its history was reported on page 29 of the Sunday November 16, 1958, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer as a backdrop to the story about Owensboro’s last passenger train:
“Not Going to Texas
“The birth of the trackage between Henderson and Louisville Owensboro has been thumbed back to Jan. 13, 1882, when the Louisville, St. Louis and Texas [Railway] was incorporated. The name of the line was romantic but hardly accurate. As one of its builders said: ‘The Louisville, St. Louis and Texas didn’t start from Louisville, never reached St. Louis and had no intention of going to Texas.’
“Prominent among the road’s backers were R. R. Pierce, Cloverport, the line’s first president; J. D. Powers, Owensboro, and Col. J. C. Fawcett, Louisville. The project was largely financed and built by the W. V. McCracken & Company of New York City.
“Actual construction of the tracks between Henderson and West Point, west of Louisville, started banging on Nov. 10, 1886. As an accommodating gesture to the Owensboro Fair, the rails between here and Stephensport in Breckinridge County were laid down in time for the opening of the fair in October 1888. Old records indicate passenger trains carried patrons to and from the fair.
“By April 1, 1889, the Henderson-West Point line was in operation and six years later an 18-mile extension from West Point to Strawberry was established, making a connection with the L. & N. system into Louisville.
“When the bankruptcies, receiverships and reorganizations of the panic of 1893 settled down, the Louisville, St. Louis and Texas Railway emerged from its financial miseries as the Louisville, Henderson and St. Louis Railway [Company], a corporate identity retained until June 1, 1929, when the L. & N. took charge of the line and its schedules, even though it had owned most of the stock since 1905.”
(Note: added info from The Commercial & Financial Chronicle and Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine A Weekly Newspaper Volume XLIX July to December 1889, New York: William B. Dana & Co., 1889: “The Louisville St. Louis & Texas Railway was created by an Act of the Kentucky Legislature, approved January 13, 1882, consolidating the Kentucky Southern Railroad Company and the Louisville Cloverport & Western Railway Company. . . . The company’s road extends from Louisville, Ky., to Henderson, Ky., a distance of 142 miles . . . Of this main line only 121 miles belong to this company. The terminals at Louisville and 20 miles of track from that point belong to the Chesapeake Ohio & Southwestern Railroad Company . . . The road was open for business on March 11, 1889 . . . ” On August 7, 1893, the Louisville, St. Louis & Texas Railway went into receivership. This was followed by a foreclosure sale and on 1 June 1896 the former company began operating as the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railway. In 1904-1905 L. & N. bought $776,081 out of $2,000,000 preferred stock and $1,631,285 out of 2,000,000 common stock. In all, L. & N. acquired $1,544,847 preferred and $1,741,871 common. On 1 April 1905 the L&N owned a majority of the stock of the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railway and thus controlled the company.)
OWENSBORO, FALLS OF ROUGH & GREEN RIVER RAILROAD, INC. / ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD
And last, but not least, the Illinois Central Railroad (I.C.) also ran into Owensboro. Its founding goes back to 1851 in Illinois, but how it came to serve Owensboro is traced to the Owensboro, Falls of Rough & Green River Railroad, Inc. That company was incorporated in Owensboro in September 1887 by Lafe Green, Capt. R. S. Triplett, J. D. Powers, D. M. Griffith, S. M. Dean, M. V. Monarch, W. J. Dean, R. G. Robertson, Sam E. Hill, J. F. Bennett and a Mr. Woosley. The company entered receivership in 1884 and in May 1897 was acquired by the Illinois Central Railroad. Page 5 of the May 4, 1897, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger reported:
“The Owensboro, Falls of Rough and Green River railroad property was formally transferred to the Illinois Central on May 1 and Mr. M. V. Monarch, president and receiver of the old company, retired, together with Mr. A. Langley, the superintendent. . . . Gen. Supt. Sullivan, of the Illinois Central, sent out the following circular May 1:
“‘The Owensboro, Falls of Rough and Green River railroad, of which this company will take possession as agent on this date, will, hereafter, for the purpose of operation, be known as the Owensboro district of the Louisville division [of the Illinois Central].
“‘The jurisdiction of W. J. Harahan, superintendent of the Louisville division, is hereby extended over the Owensboro district.'” (Note: Owensboro, Falls of Rough & Green River Railroad’s president and, ultimately, its receiver, Martin V. Monarch, was an Owensboro whiskey distiller. His brother was Richard Monarch, who was discussed in the history of Owensboro’s streetcars.)
TO BUILD, OR NOT TO BUILD?
By the turn of the twentieth century there were three passenger train depots in Owensboro, each belonging to one of the three railroads companies then serving the city:
1) The Owensboro & Nashville Railroad (O. N. R.) depot was located on Frederica Street, which, in 1900, was outside the city limits. (One researcher has the depot located on Lewis and Main Streets. However, the Frederica Street location at the turn of the century is attested to in a number of early newspaper accounts. The Lewis and Main Streets location was likely for an earlier station.)
2) The Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad Company depot (L.H. & St. L., usually referred to as the “Texas Depot” because of the name of its founding company), was located nearer the center of town at what is now 1039 Frederica Street.
3) The Illinois Central Railroad (I.C.) depot was located on East Fourth Street near Leitchfield Road.
Three passenger stations at three different locations meant that arriving passengers needing to change trains to a competing line had to take a long hike with their baggage or hire a cab. It also meant that carriers and freight express companies had to meet three different trains at three different depots to conduct their business. Even worse, these depots were small, poorly built structures which afforded almost no comfort for waiting passengers. Indeed, inconveniences were so bad that they were featured in an editorial on page 9 of the Sunday, November 15, 1903, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger:
“A union depot in Owensboro is a prime, necessity. At present a passenger transferring from one train to another, may have to go from the extreme southern limits of the city almost to the northeast corner. The L. and N. depot is on Frederica street, near the city limits, while the Henderson route [Louisville, Henderson and St. Louis Railroad] station is a few blocks nearer the center of town on the same street. The Illinois Central station is at the end of East Fourth street.
“Besides being far apart and, on the whole, inconvenient, neither of the three provides separate accommodations for the public. At the Henderson route station there are no sheds, and baggage is dumped onto a platform, often in a pouring rain. Baggage is stored in a room detached from the station and people are obliged, in bad weather, to expose themselves to the elements in order to get their baggage checked. . . . The handsomest and most substantial station building in the city is that of the L. and N., but even here the facilities for handling passengers are not adequate.”
If arriving in Owensboro by train wouldn’t be the dread of any weary traveler, then consider this newspaper item about two “hack” drivers fighting over a fare at the Owensboro & Nashville depot (i.e., the L. & N. Depot):
“EARLY MORNING FIGHT. Chester Moorman and Will Osborne Come to Blows at O. and N. Depot. Chester Moorman, a hackman for the City Transfer company, and Will Osborne, who works for the Rhodes Transfer Company, had a complete knock-down and drag-out affair at 6 :30 o’clock this morning, at the O. and N. depot. The trouble originated at the Texas depot last night and was renewed when the two met this morning at the O. and N. depot about [hauling] a passenger at reduced rates. Moorman pummeled Osborne and gave him several right hard blows defending himself from an unusual lot of vulgarity coming from the mouth of Osborne, who finally hallowed [sic; probably means hollered] that he would give up. Moorman released him and started for his hack, when Osburne picked up a large brickbat, and with all his force threw and struck Moorman on the head, cutting a gash several inches long. Warrants will be issued against both men for breach of the peace, Osbnrne is said to have had a pistol concealed, for which the police will likely take out a warrant for carrying concealed weapons.” (Owensboro Weekly Inquirer, Friday, September 7, 1900, page 4.)
Hack drivers and their fisticuffs not withstanding, back then everyone who was anyone in Owensboro clamored for a “union” station! Newspapers editorialized about it and politicians demanded it until finally someone with clout stepped up to the plate.
In 1903 Col. Alexander McBride McCracken, general superintendent of the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad Company, and brother of its president, William V. McCracken, determined to built a union station in Owensboro. But first he had to persuade the managements of the Louisville & Nashville and Illinois Central to join in the venture. What McCracken got for his trouble was a lot of hemming and hawing. Not one to give up, the persistent Colonel McCracken finally got a “maybe” from the L. & N. but a flat refusal from the I. C.—from no less a personage than President Edward Henry Harriman himself.
Undaunted, new depot was on the road to becoming a reality in June 1905 when the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad management decided to go ahead and build the station on its own. This decision meant that the Louisville & Nashville Railroad was on board since by that date it had bought the majority of the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad’s stock. But to everyone’s amazement, the management of the Illinois Central Railroad still refused to participate. This abruptly changed when Kentucky Railroad Commissioner Charles C. McChord became involved and personally visited Illinois Central President E. H. Harriman to lobby for the I. C.’s participation. The trip paid off and by the last of June it was announced that the I. C. was on board. However, as in every thing, there was a snag.
A number of Owensboro businessmen, calling themselves the East End Improvement Association, didn’t want the new station built on Frederica Street. They wanted it built in the east side of town. Their protest wouldn’t have been given much weight if it weren’t for the fact that Kentucky Railroad Commissioner McChord took their side. With McChord in their camp, for the first few weeks of July 1905 these men applied considerable effort to have their way—including a visit to Chicago to see James T. Harahan, vice president of Illinois Central Railroad. In the end, their efforts fizzled, leaving a clear path for the Frederica Street location.
The new depot was designed by Henry F. Hawes and John B. Hutchings with the construction contract going to Walter Brashear of Henderson, Kentucky. To accommodate passengers during construction, on July 31, 1905, the old wood frame “Texas” depot was raised from its foundation, placed on “rollers” and relocated almost to the edge of Frederica Street. Once it was out of the way, builders began constructing the new depot on the vacated lot.
In August 1905 the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad bought a track of land between Lewis and Allen Streets, behind the site of their new depot. The purpose for the acquisition was to build a “Y” track so both L. & N. and I. C. trains would be able to enter the new station. (In the final arrangement, the Illinois Central did not invest in the new station, but agreed to pay a “trackage fee” for using the facility.)
When the outside of the new depot was finished in February 1906 a controversy arose when the public saw the name of the new station mounted over the door: “HENDERSON ROUTE.” Page 5 of the Sunday, February 18, 1906, edition of the Owensboro Daily Messenger gives the details:
“NAME OF NEW DEPOT TO BE ‘UNION STATION’ L., H., & ST. L.’ ‘Henderson route,’ the name given to the new union station which has caused such dissatisfaction among the Owensboro people, will be removed from the large stone arch over the door in the front of the building. In its place will be carved ‘Union Station, L., H. and St. L.’”
Shortly before noon on Tuesday, June 27, 1906, the old “Texas Depot” was abandoned and the staff walked across the yard and entered the new building: at 12 noon the new Union Station was opened for business. A few days later the old depot was torn down and in its place a park-like yard was landscaped to give the new station a grand appearance!
On Sunday, September 16, 1906, the first Illinois Central and Louisville & Nashville passenger trains pulled into the new Union Station. At long last all Owensboro passenger trains arrived and left from the new station at 1039 Frederica Street!
At its height in the 1920s, Union Station daily served eighteen passenger trains. However, as more people began traveling by automobile, and intercity buses became increasingly popular all across the nation, passenger train service began a steady decline from which it would never recover. (This Sunday, August 16, 1931, headline in the Owensboro Daily Messenger says it all: “Passenger Bus Business In Owensboro Has Increased 250 Per Cent In 2 Years.”) By the 1950s passenger train service throughout the nation was just about finished. Owensboro didn’t escape.
On Sunday, November 16, 1958, Owensboro’s Union Station saw its last passenger train roll in. A somewhat unsympathetic article was printed on page 29 of the Sunday November 16, 1958, edition of the Messenger and Inquirer marking the end of Owensboro’s passenger train service:
“Passenger Trains Blow Last Whistles at Owensboro ‘Pitiful Patronage’ Terminates 70 Years Of Everyday Service By George H. Kerler
“Passenger tram service, which had a contract right to continue until the year 2396, disappeared from Owensboro today before the first blinks of dawn’s early light could be seen.
“Local historians merely will note that L. & N. passenger trains officially evacuated the tracks on Nov. 16, 1958. But they will do this with more certainty than today’s researchers who have concluded that the first passenger service here operated between Owensboro and Stephensport starting in October 1888.
“Thus when No. 156 cheerfully chugged out of the Union Station at 4:25 this morning, no tears fell. It is cruel but true to say she will not be missed nor will her sister, No. 155, which went through town at 1 a.m., bound for the iron horse mortuary [i.e., locomotive scrap yard] in Evansville.
“Owensboro has now become the exteenth [sic] city in the U. S. to say good-by to railroad passenger trains. They are the victims of good roads, fast automobiles, airliners and buses. They have been put on the casualty list of progress which has all but erased another steady mode of travel, walking.
“The discontinuance of service was allowed by the Kentucky Railroad Commission and Interstate Commerce Commission. Both believed the L. & N. was losing $128,000 a year on the operation of 155 and 156. No corporation, the commissions held, ought to be compelled to drop that much money a year. . . .
“Three Each Way
“Newspaper ads, circa 1900, indicate the Evansville-Henderson-Owensboro-Louisville route was the important and popular transportation vehicle of the day.
“Three passenger trains daily originated at each terminal—one in the morning, one late in the afternoon and the inevitable night train. Numerous specials were run and this the round trip fare was $1.50.
“Passenger traffic assisted handsomely in making the railroad business a profitable one until the late 1920s when the automobile, bouncing along on tax-built highways, began to take voracious bites out of the Pullman and coach car population. Fewer and fewer people boarded the L. & N. trains here and elsewhere during the 1930s, although three from the east and three from the west puffed through Owensboro every day.
“Passenger income for the line came back to life sharply during World War II with a heavy increase of gasoline-rationed civilians taking to the trains, along with large numbers of military personnel.
“Many secret military specials traveled these tracks but perhaps the most interesting one was a nine-car special carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Evansville to Louisville on the night of April 27-28, 1943.
“Hundreds of soldiers were posted all long the route. The special made only two stops, both for water, one at Doyle, near Owensboro, and the other at Irvington. . . .
“But Nos. 155 and 156, the trains that rolled that last mile early this morning, were continued. L. & N. offered to make up a special train for most any occasion but the response was one of almost complete silence. . . . But the public steadily bought more gasoline, or more bus tickets and more airline tickets.
“The railroad finally gave up this summer and called upon the Kentucky Railroad Commission for mercy. L. & N. said it was forced to go before the commission because the ‘pitiful patronage’ and ‘heavy financial losses’ made discontinuance of 155 and 156 ‘imperative.’
“Owensboro need not feel distressed over the vanishing of rail passenger service. It’s been happening all over. In the opinion of many, it’s a wonder that it lasted as long as it did. Trains have arrived and departed here with more crewmen aboard than passengers. It could be embarrassing to realize that three conductors were interested in the punching of your ticket. . . The last passenger ticket has been sold at the old railroad station at Frederica and 11th Streets.”
I will end this brief history of Owensboro’s passenger trains by adding a few concluding thoughts.
Like most little boys growing up in the 1950s I had, and still have, a fascination with trains. Back then F-7 and F-9 diesels locomotives were the norm, although there were a few steam locomotives still running in the country. (The only steam locomotive I recall seeing in service back then was on a car trip through Indiana / Illinois with my parents. Sometime in the late 1950s we were sitting at a railroad crossing when a steam locomotive, pulling a freight train, thundered past. I remember how it shook the very ground and how excited I was seeing all that smoke and steam and the big driver wheels in action!)
In the article about the last passenger train in Owensboro, it was hinted that L. & N. was still operating two steam locomotives until 1958, i.e., with its reference to an “iron horse mortuary.” I don’t recall those engines, although back than I took several train trips with my mother between Owensboro and Cloverport. However, I do remember one steam locomotive chugging into Owensboro in the early 1960s.
A big boost in my love of trains occurred on June 22, 1962, when the (then) 107-year-old historic and very famous Confederate 4-4-0 locomotive, the General, rolled into Owensboro as part of a “whistle-stop” tour of cities in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. The really inspiring thing about the experience was that the old locomotive ran under its own steam, having been reconditioned by the L. & N. earlier that year. Along with hundreds of other Owensboroans, I was there when the beautiful old relic chugged into town, bellowing smoke and hissing steam. For three days it was put on display at Union Station. Since Union Station was located at 1039 Frederica Street, and my family lived up the street at 1620 Frederica Street, over the next three days I walked down there a half dozen times to marvel at this wonderful old relic!
In the late 1960s and early 1970s I lived East 12th Street, which was almost directly behind the long-abandoned Union Station. (The Railway Express Agency was still operating in the rear of the depot.) Back then I often took a shortcut through there to Frederica Street. My usual destination was Shown’s Sundries, which had been in business since 1945 and was located directly across the street from the station at 1016 Frederica Street. The owners were Coy and Lou Shown. “Shown,” as most people called him, was a retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel and highly-decorated World War Two vet, who died in 2017 two months short of his 100th birthday. He was what you might term “a character,” and I’m honored to say he was a friend of mine. At times Shown could be quite the prankster. One such prank involved Coy’s twin brother, Roy Shown. When behind the counter of his store, Coy always dressed in his distinctive long sleeve white shirt and black western bow tie. One day he let his twin brother Roy dress in his clothes, pretend to be him and wait on customers. Roy was able to fool a number of customers, who knew something wasn’t quite right with “Coy,” although they couldn’t quite put their finger on it! (Coy Shown, who was hiding in the back, would eventually come out and he, his brother and the customer would have a good laugh!) What a delight it was sitting in his air conditioned store at the soda fountain and listening to Coy Shown’s colorful stories, which included plenty of tales about Union Station train passengers coming into his store!
When taking a shortcut through the station, I often stopped to peer through the dusty windows at the interior, or occasionally to climb onto the one remaining old steel-wheeled baggage cart still sitting on the platform. There I would sit for a while reflecting about bygone days and the countless thousands who came and went from that platform. If I were lucky, while sitting there, an L. & N. freight train, pulled by an F-7 or F-9 diesel engine, would glide past on the tracks.
My great fear back then was that this landmark would be torn down to make way for something like a fast food pizza place, which indeed was eventually built across the street from the station. Fortunately, Union Station survived, was restored and still sits where it has for the past 113 years!
A HISTORY OF OWENSBORO INTERCITY BUSES
ALL ROADS LEAD TO OWENSBORO
Imagine yourself a hundred and fifty years ago standing at the foot of Frederica Street: 100 miles up the river will put you in Louisville, Kentucky, while 40 miles down river will bring you to Evansville, Indiana. Go 70 miles south and you’ll find yourself in Bowling Green, Kentucky; travel 65 miles further and you are in Nashville, Tennessee. A few yards north and you’ll get your feet wet, since you’ll be wading into the Ohio River. My point is that once an intercity passenger arrived in Owensboro, Kentucky the door to the world waited. Of course, the snag in that travel plan was actually getting to Owensboro!
According to Owensboro historian Lee A. Dew, by 1809 a “mail stage” arrived in Owensboro every two weeks; two years later this schedule had improved to once a week. By 1820 a direct “mail stage” came from Louisville through Hardinsburg to Owensboro. Like virtually all mail stages of the time, the drivers, who were independent contractors, would have most likely carried freight and the occasional passenger—anything to make a dollar. Further history is provided by Owensboro historian Hugh O. Potter:
“In the early nineteenth century Owensboro was on a stage route which offered two trips a week between West Point, Kentucky, and Shawneetown, Illinois, a distance of 156 miles. At West Point, Louisville-bound passengers could transfer to the Bowling Green-Elizabethtown-Louisville stage. The routes of these stage lines are shown on the 1839 Tourist’s Map of Kentucky, published in Philadelphia by J. H. Young.” (Potter, Hugh O. A History of Owensboro and Daviess County Kentucky. Louisville, Ky., 1974. Herff Jones-Paragon Publishing, p. 172.)
In the above history, one should understand the use of the word “stage,” which, for the modern reader, conjures stage coach images in a John Wayne western. In truth a stage line on the early American frontier was far removed from those depicted in movies! Essentially a frontier stage line was a glorified ox cart, meaning a freight wagon pulled by a team of horses or mules, and yes, the occasional team of oxen. These wagons were Owensboro’s first intercity “buses,” wherein a passenger would pay to either sit up with the driver, or in the back on a make-shift bench among crates and critters.
Okay, so back in the Stone Age you could take a “stage” to and from Owensboro. But let’s have one thing clear: either going to or coming from places like Whitesville, Hawesville, Fordsville, Hartford, Beaver Dam, Masonville, West Louisville, Madisonville, Calhoun and Central City or beyond, a journey in an nineteenth century intercity frontier stage line was a ride from hell! In rainy weather the roads were a nightmare of mud and quickly became impassable. In the summer months, during their long, hard and bone jarring ride, a passenger would broil in the heat and humidity and have their teeth shaken lose from potholes and ruts. Nevertheless, for the majority of intercity passengers, back in the Stone Age these glorified ox carts were the only ticket.
When I write about the roads being a “nightmare,” let me give an example from page 6 of the Friday, January 20, 1899, edition of The Inquirer—and keep in mind that the roads of 1899 had been greatly improved from those of 50 years before!
“Stage Line Abandoned. The roads are so bad between Owensboro and Hartford that the stage line has been abandoned, and the mail is now carried on horseback. It is said to be impossible for two horses to pull an empty wagon on some parts of the road.”
Speaking of Hartford, the earliest recorded Owensboro intercity passenger services was started by Frank Rice back in 1873. His Owensboro & Hartford Stage Line ran until January 1885 when he sold it to C. C. Bennett of Beda, Ohio County: “Mr. Rice was engaged for twelve years in making these tri-weekly round trips, amounting to 180 miles per week, or 9, 360 per year, or 112,320 for the twelve years. During this time he used only two mule teams and had three wagons.”
Other intercity lines serving Owensboro included The Regular Stage Line, which ran three times a week from downtown to White Sulphur Springs in the 1870s and 1880s. Owner P. W. Eidson, who had a U. S. mail contract, charged passengers $2.25 one way, or $4 for a round trip. Another was the Whitesville & Owensboro Stage Line, which ran three times a week in 1879. Edward Brooks was the manager and advertised for both freight and passengers.
Moving into the twentieth century, in 1901 F. M. Rummage ran a stage line from Owensboro to West Louisville, Kentucky. (He continued operating until he died in January 1907.) Sam Sharpe had been operating the Owensboro & Hartford Stage Line for a number of years when he discontinued service in October 1907. There was the Habit & Taffy Stage Line, operated by J. F. Ralph in December 1905. (Habit is in Daviess County, while Taffy is in Ohio County.) In April 1910 Frank Bartlett Stage Line ran between Owensboro and Calhoun.
THE KEYS TO THE BUS
Although motor buses had been around almost from the beginning of the twentieth century, I’ve not found any serving Owensboro prior to 1914. In that year Harry C. Holder, who would one day own and operate the Ford car dealership in Owensboro, ran the Calhoun-Owensboro Auto Bus Line. Holder, who owned a motor car company in Calhoun at the time, ran two daily round trips between Calhoun and Owensboro.
In April 1916, the Owensboro Motor Car Company made its first “auto bus” trip between Owensboro and Hartford-Beaver Dam, thereafter making two round trips daily. (Keep in mind that back then a “motor bus,” or “auto-bus,” was often a large touring car.) O. C. Williams was the owner/manager of the company. An interesting glimpse of intercity bus travel was printed on page 3 of the Thursday evening Owensboro Inquirer for April 27, 1916:
“On its first trip out of Owensboro the Owensboro Motor Car company, which is operating the line, sent a crew of men out to work the roads at such places as were made difficult of passage by the rains and heavy hauling of the winter months. O. C. Williams, manager of the concern, headed the crew, of workers and when he was hauled back into Owensboro in the evening, on the return trip of the bus, the coating of mud that covered him from head to foot was real evidence that some road work had been done on the Hartford road. Holes were filled, brush cleared away and bumps cut out. Mr. Williams . . . says he can guarantee the road now to be in first class shape and that his company is going to make itself an auxiliary of the road working department of Daviess and Ohio counties and help keep all the roads it uses in good shape. He would like to have the cooperation too of the people who live along the road, and not the kind that he says was given in one instance yesterday, when a road had been cleared to the right of a large stump that stands in the middle of the road between Owensboro and Hartford. On the left of this stump was a large mud hole, so forbidding looking that the workers thought it would be easier to clear a new road to the right of the stump than to fill up the hole. This was done. On the return trip it was discovered that someone had felled a large tree across the new bit of road. Axes were again called into use and the obstruction removed.”
May 1917 saw Owensboro Interurban Lines, Inc. running two round trips daily between Owensboro and Hartford. J. N. Cecil Bus Line was based in St. Joseph, Daviess County, Kentucky, in 1917 and served West Louisville and Owensboro. Three buses per day left St. Joseph with its terminus at the courthouse in Owensboro, from whence it made a return trip.
In 1924 Tony Hansford operated his Grey Goose Bus Line between Owensboro and Hartford. It also served Pleasant Ridge and Masonville and Buford. Also in 1924 Central City Bus Line, owned by G. F. Bennett, operated between Calhoun and Owensboro with three daily trips. It was driven by Karl Kerrick.
Starting in 1924-25, the Red Goose Bus ran from Greenville in Muhlenberg County to Owensboro. It was headquartered at the Old Inn Hotel in Greenville. The bus made two round trips daily from Greenville to Owensboro via Bremen, and Sacremento and Calhoun, in McLean County. Roy Smith owned the bus and, it was noted, Aaron Dukes drove the bus for many years without ever having an accident. A one way trip from Greenville to Owensboro took two hours.
Also in 1925, the Calhoun-Livermore-Rockport-Maceo-Owensboro Daily Bus Line, operated by Bennett & Company. Another line operating that year was the Owensboro-Henderson Bus Line, owned by the Henderson-Evansville Bus Line, Inc., and operating Studebaker autobuses. It would pick up passengers at downtown Owensboro hotels and run over to Henderson, Kentucky.
Owensboro-Whiteville Bus Line, operated by E. J. Burns, making three round trips daily, except Sunday when it made two trips, was running in August 1926. Also running in 1926 was the Knottsville-St. Lawrence Bus Line, owned by W. G. Ward; the West Louisille-St. Joe Bus Line, Kernie Hagan owner; and the Owensboro-Calhoun-Central City Safety Transit Company, which picked up passengers at the Rudd, Planter and Whitely Hotels in downtown Owensboro.
1928 the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Company, Inc. was running six buses daily out of Gordon’s Drug Store into Evansville, Indiana, via Henderson, Kentucky. Also in 1928 the Owensboro-Louisville Bus Line was bought out by Consolidated Coach Corporation. That company, whose buses were known as the “Blue Goose,” was one of the largest intercity bus companies then operating in the U.S. Other bus companies operating out of Owensboro in 1928 were Thoroughbred Bus Line (This company advertised “Brand New Graham Parlor Coaches—Comfortable and Dependable”); Whiteville & Owensboro Bus Line; Owensboro & Beaver Dam Bus Line, owned by F. T. Wright; Ride-A- Bus, owned by G. G. Ward and serving Knotsville and Owensboro; Sure Shot Bus Line, serving West Louisville, Beech Grove, St. Joseph, Sorgho and Owensboro and owned by Gilbert Ward; and last but not least, the Owensboro-Central City-Greenville Bus Line.
In 1928-1929, four bus lines were headquartered at King Drug Store: Hartford-Beaver Dam Bus Line, Whitesville Bus Line, Knottsville Bus Line and Beech Grove Bus Line.
Now that we’ve got a handle on the competition, let’s examine the above mentioned Consolidated Coach Corporation, since it was the major intercity bus line serving Owensboro in the 1920s.
Consolidated Coach Corporation (CCC Line) was granted a charter in October 1926 in Lexington, Kentucky. With a capital of $1,500,000 the incorporators were Guy Alexander Huguelet, J. E. Kittrell, R. S. Webb and Floyd G. Clay. The origin of the name, Consolidated Coach Lines, isn’t hard to figure since it was formed by consolidating five bus companies running in and around Lexington, where the new company made its headquarters. Regarding the company’s founding, in a 1927 speech J. E. Kittrell, president of Consolidated Coach Corp., stated:
“Six years ago this concern was started with a- single bus and a single driver. Today it is capitalized at $1,500,000, has 1,320 miles of lines within the State, carries 3,000 passengers each day and has a payroll of $500,000 a year. We believe our concern, though still an infant, is destined to play a significant part in the commercial development of the State.” (Page 3 of the Friday, June 10, 1927, The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky.)
By 1928 CCC was the fourth largest interurban motor coach line in the United States, operating over 1,500 route miles with a fleet of 150 coaches. In 1928 the company served Ashland, Cincinnati, Lexington, Corbin, Louisville, Somerset, Bowling Green, Owensboro and Nashville.
In the coming years, using the same buy-out and consolidating formula that saw its founding, CCC spread further south and southeast. Among those absorbed companies was The Greyhound Lines of Georgia. That company had started in 1928 as a subsidiary of the Motor Transit Corporation and ran between Chattanooga and Jacksonville. (In 1929 the Motor Transit Corporation was renamed The Greyhound Corporation.) The Greyhound Lines of Georgia was renamed Southeastern Greyhound Lines and in 1931 was sold to the Consolidated Coach Corporation, which continued to operate the company under the name “Southeastern Greyhound Lines.” Page 7 of the Friday, September 11, 1931, edition of The Atlanta Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia reported:
“Coach Company to Unify System. The Consolidated Coach Corporation, which recently acquired the Southeastern Greyhound Lines, operating between Atlanta, Jacksonville and Chattanooga, will unify its system, and identify all of its branches under the name of the Southeastern Greyhound Lines, according to J. P. Pope, vice president. The new chain will cover 5,222 miles, the 250 busses serving Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.”
Within a week the merged company began placing this ad throughout the south:
“SEPTEMBER FIFTEENTH will be a red letter day in the history of Southern- transportation. The South’s largest bus lines, The Consolidated Coach Corporation, Inc., Southeastern Greyhound Lines, Inc., Union Transfer Company, Inc, and Alabama Bus Company, Inc., will operate under ONE great name. Southeastern Greyhound Lines, offering through service from the Ohio to Florida and the Gulf, will give you all the advantages of being able to go almost anywhere in the Southeast over one great transportation system . . . better service, greater dependability and the height of travel comfort. Southeastern Greyhound Lines will offer frequent service to point in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, bringing the favorite vacation spots to your very door . . . the Blue Grass country . . . the mountains . . . the lake resorts . . . and the Gulf of Mexico. The combined Greyhound Lines serve 47 of the 48 states of the Union, part of Canada and Old Mexico. From COAST TO COAST BORDER TO BORDER, you need not change lines. A single high standard of service gives you everything you could wish in modern motor bus travel. Ask your nearest agent for the fare and schedule to your favorite resort, learn how surprisingly low the cost is by motor coach.”
Beginning in 1931 Consolidated Coach Corporation used the Southeastern Greyhound name for all their buses, including the use of the Greyhound running dog logo, paint scheme and in advertising. However, in all advertisements and on all buses, under the name “Southeastern Greyhound Lines” was included “Consolidated Coach Corp.” in small letters. (In 1950 The Greyhound Corporation purchased 100% of Southeastern Greyhound Lines, and thus the Consolidated Coach Company ceased to be a corporate entity.)
As more intercity bus companies began serving Owensboro, passengers and city officials alike recognized the advantage of having a single, central bus terminal along the lines of Owensboro’s Union Station. That goal became a reality on Friday, August 3, 1928, after Gene Gilbert moved his radio business from 220 West Third Street (directly across the street from the Daviess County Courthouse) and Union Bus Station opened for business at that address. We get more information from a page 9, Sunday, August 5, 1928, story published in The Owensboro Inquirer:
“BUSES RUN 1700 MILES DAILY TO AND FROM CITY Terminal Opened at 220 West Third.
“Between 300 and 500 people ride the bus lines to and from Owensboro daily, according to the estimate of John W. Harding, local manager of the Consolidated Coach corporation and one of the backers of the Union Bus terminal, which opened here Friday, at 220 West Third street. The daily trips of the eight bus lines total approximately 1,700 miles.
“The Union bus terminal, upon which finishing touches were being made Saturday, is the depot for the two Louisville lines, Thoroughbred and Consolidated Coach, the Henderson and Central City-Greenville buses. Eventually, according to Mrs. Forest L. Taylor, ticket agent for the terminal, all of the buses coming into and leaving Owensboro will probably use the terminal.
“In addition to the large waiting room, a women’s rest room and a men’s room have been built at the rear, of the bus depot.
“While at the present only three lines are using large coaches, others plan to press larger cars into, service as the traffic increases. Recently the Central City-Greenville bus company purchased a new international bus, it taking the place of large touring car previously used. The Henderson line plans to buy a larger bus within a few months.
“The majority of the passengers on the buses take short trips, but some have purchased tickets for destinations hundreds of miles away. During the past week 10 tickets to Detroit, Mich., were. sold. In the past few weeks passengers have been sent to Dallas, Tex., New York, Roanoke, Va., and Indianapolis. With the bus terminal here, Owensboro should become a bus center for this section of the state, in the opinion of Mr. Harding. Buses now operate on schedule between Owensboro and Louisville, Central City, Greenville, Henderson, Whitesville, Knottsville, Hartford, Beaver Dam, West Louisville, Beech Grove and points in between. With the completion of the hard surfaced, road, to Paducah, a line will probably be run In that direction.
“The Louisville buses run approximately 1,000 miles a day, four round trips being made, the Muhlenberg county line runs about 205 miles, the Henderson and Hartford lines cover approximately 130 miles each, the Rockport buses nearly 100 miles and the others between 65 and 90 miles a day.”
The new terminal was a instant hit with all the amenities one would expect—including the Toasty Shop café, which was operated by Mr. & Mrs. Forest Taylor. However, the excitement over the new terminal was short lived. A little over a year later, a new “union station” was opened in Owensboro. The news was reported on page 1 of the November 29, 1929, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:
“OWENSBORO GETS BUS TERMINAL – IN VERY SHORT TIME E. O. V. And Consolidated Coach Co. Join Forces Lease Medley-Slack Plant For Depot.
“The Consolidated Coach corporation and the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co., have joined forces and formed the Owensboro Bus Station Co., which has leased the Medley & Slack plant in Allen street for its headquarters. This plant will be converted into a bus terminal station beginning December 1. Gleeson Murphy, chairman of the bus terminal committee of the Chamber of Commerce, which has been interested in this improvement for Owensboro, made the announcement yesterday of the plans of the two companies, having received confirmation of the consummation of the deal from G. R. Millican, general manager of the E. & O. V. Co.
“At the present time the Consolidated Coach corporation has its headquarters in West Third street in a building adjacent and owned by the First National bank, which is to become part of the First National under its new building plans. The E. & O. V. busses, have made their headquarters at Fourth and Frederica streets.
“Sentiment For Terminal
“There has been an agitation in Owensboro for the last year for a central bus terminal. In practically every city the size of Owensboro there is a central point for all of the busses to take on and discharge passengers. The practice of allowing the busses to use the streets as ‘stations’ has resulted in congestion of the traffic and in some instances serious accidents have narrowly been averted.
“According to General Manager Millican, it is the intention of the new company to revamp the Medley & Slack building, which has been used for their tire business, and make it desirable and presentable as a bus terminal. There will be two waiting rooms provided, one for white passengers and one for colored passengers. The station will be heated with gas and will be painted inside and outside and a new electric sign hung at the entrance. The space on the north of the station will be used as a parking place for the busses.
“May Pass Ordinance
“It is believed that practically every bus entering Owensboro will use the new terminal. The city officials have indicated they will pass an ordinance requiring the buses to use a central terminal rather than the streets of Owensboro. The building in which the Consolidated station is now located is owned by the First National Bank & Trust company and will be made a part of the bank building. The firm of Medley & Slack has sold its lease to the building; and space to the new bus company. The firm is composed of Parker Medley and George Slack. They will discontinue their tire business, which they have successfully conducted in Owensboro for a number of years.”
The new Owensboro Bus Station Company, which was soon known as Union Bus Station, was located at 316 Allen Street, which was about two blocks east of the former Consolidated station. Among intercity companies using the new location was the Bowling Green-Hopkinsville Bus Line, which started operations in November 1932 and was managed by James Taylor Fuqua (1899-1971). Another bus line using Union Bus Station was the Owensboro-Bowling Green Bus Line, which was founded in 1932 by Joseph T. Fuqua (1913-2006). The line served Hartford, Beaver Dam, Morgantown and Bowling Green.
By 1931 Southeastern Greyhound Lines was the major intercity bus company serving Owensboro. Operating out of the Union Bus Station, it ran two buses daily between Louisville, Owensboro and Henderson. By the end of the 1930s that schedule had increased to three daily runs to Louisville and five runs to Evansville via Henderson. Greyhound’s domination of the intercity bus trade was why Owensboroans referred to the Union Bus Station as the “Greyhound Bus Station.”
By 1932 F. T. Wright had changed the name of his Owensboro & Beaver Dam Bus Line to Gray Goose Bus Line, which operated between Owensboro and Bowling Green, Morgantown, Beaver Dam and Hartford.
In 1939 Webster Carrier Company, Inc. from Clay, Kentucky, was running into Owensboro’s Union Bus Station. It served Princeton, Providence and Owensboro.
In May 1942 Union Bus Station / Greyhound Bus Station again moved to a new location. Roberts Motor Company leased a portion of their building at the corner of Third and Daviess Streets, for the operation. This arrangement lasted for five and half years.
In 1944 intercity bus companies serving Owensboro were Fuqua Bus Lines, Jones Bus Lines, Webster Carriers Bus Company, E. & O. V. Railway Company, Owensboro-Central City-Greenville Bus Line and Southeastern Greyhound Lines.
Beginning in the summer of 1947 construction began on a new 2,000 square feet red brick and concrete Union Station at the corner of Third and Cedar Street. At a cost of $19,500, the new station opened on October 30, 1947, with E. K. Epperson as the manager. Bus lines serving the new location were Webster Carriers Bus Company, Jones Bus Line (running between Fordsville and Owensboro), L. W. Fuqua Bus Lines (owned by Luther William “Bill” Fuqua), Fuqua Bus Lines (owned by Joseph T. Fuqua), Greyhound Lines, Owensboro-Central City-Greenville Bus Line and E. & O. V. Railway Company. Although it was officially the Union Bus Station, locals called the new station “the Greyhound Bus Station.”
(Personal note: this was the station I remember as a boy and into my teens. I used this station many times during those years. As to the building itself, it was a very utilitarian structure without any frills—unlike its counterpart in Evansville, Indiana, which has one of the few remaining classic Greyhound Art-Deco stations in the U.S., although it is now an upscale restaurant.)
ON INTO A NEW CENTURY
It’s now twenty years later and the powers-that-be decided Owensboro needed yet another new bus station. And so, out with the old and in with the new!
On November 1967 a new bus station, which was virtually the same size as the old station, was built in the east end of Owensboro at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Greyhound Drive. The page 1 of the Thursday, October 26, 1967, Messenger and Inquirer reported that:
“Greyhound To Open New Bus Station. A new Greyhound Bus Station will open in Owensboro next Wednesday at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Greyhound Drive. The site is between 4th and 2nd streets . . . The new brick-veneered concrete-block building is situated on almost two acres of ground and provides parking for Greyhound package express customers and buses.
“The one-story building contains 1,800 square feet. It replaces a facility of equal size now in use at the corner of 3rd and Cedar Streets. . . . The Owensboro agent is Mrs. George Crawford, who has operated bus services here for the past five years. She will continue as the Greyhound agent at the new facility.”
The new station’s official name was the Union Bus Greyhound Station, although locals called it “the Greyhound Bus Station.” The only thing good about this station was the location was convenient for Greyhound drivers, who didn’t have to navigate downtown Owensboro side streets with their large buses. The new station was at the eastern edge of town right off U.S. Highway 60. As for the old Greyhound Bus Station, in time it was torn down and today only the outline of its foundation remains.
In October 1986 Greyhound cut in half its Owensboro bus service due to low ridership. “Low ridership” was an understatement! Back in 1986 Greyhound buses had 43 seats, but averaged eight passengers on the Evansville to Louisville run, and 12 on the return trip. By September the numbers had dropped as low as six per run. The numbers didn’t justify the cost and, four years later, during a nation-wide March 1990 strike by its drivers, The Greyhound Corporation took the opportunity to cease operating its Evansville to Louisville route. When the strike was settled, Greyhound didn’t come back to Owensboro.
The void was filled in December that same year when Kentucky Transit, Inc., an independent bus carrier based in Paducah, Kentucky, began operating buses from Owensboro to Henderson and Evansville. However, the service was short lived and Owensboroans were again without intercity bus service.
It wasn’t until Wednesday, May 20, 1992, that American Buslines, Inc. began an Evansville-Henderson-Owensboro service. (In Owensboro their terminal was located at 1216 E. Second Street.) However, within a year the company ceased operations in Owensboro.
It took years, but Greyhound finally returned service to Owensboro. Keith Lawrence reported the story on pages 1-2 of the Thursday, June 28, 2001, edition of the Messenger-Inquirer:
“Expansion gives Owensboro 4 buses a day
“Owensboro is now a four-dog town. At 6:20 a.m. Wednesday, a 55-passenger Greyhound bus on a 51-hour, 2,248-mile run from Miami to Denver pulled up to the B&J Transportation bus station at 222 Allen St.
“Two people got off. And three people, bound for Nebraska, got on.
“At 10:10 a.m., a 47-passenger Greyhound pulled out of the station, bound from Owensboro to Charleston, W. Va.
“At 6:15 p.m., the return bus from Denver to Miami pulled into the Owensboro station. And at 7:50 p.m., the return bus from Charleston arrived.
“Owensboro hasn’t seen that much bus traffic in nearly 15 years. In October 1986, Greyhound cut local service from two buses, each stopping twice a day, to one citing low ridership.
“And during a bankruptcy reorganization in March 1990, the company ended its Owensboro service. That apparently marked the first time since stagecoaches arrived in the 1830s that the city found itself without public overland transportation.
A couple of companies tried to bring back bus service in the 1990s. They eventually gave up. But Bob Wilson of Henderson — he’s the B in B&J, his wife, Joyce, is the J — came to stay in April 1998, when he persuaded Greyhound to let him risk his own money in starting a station here.
“The company had so little faith in Owensboro that Wilson, who has worked with Greyhound since 1986, had to invest $14,000 in a van to haul Owensboro passengers to and from the Henderson station.
“There was still no direct bus service to Owensboro.
“But three months later, on July 6, Greyhound decided to allow its Charleston, W.Va.-to-Evansville bus to begin and end its daily run in Owensboro.
“By September that year, Wilson was selling 186 tickets a month.
“This week, he finally talked Greyhound into sending a second route through Owensboro each day with a stop each way.
“‘We probably had between 2,400 and 3,000 people take the bus out of Owensboro last year,’ Wilson said. ‘And about half that many came in on the buses.’
“Having two routes instead of one should drive the numbers up even more, he said.
“‘It’s going to be a better deal for Owensboro,’ Wilson said. ‘You can go all the way to Miami with only one change in Jacksonville, Fla.’
“That’s $138 for a round trip if you buy the ticket two weeks in advance.
“But more people are likely to use the new service because it connects to Bowling Green and Nashville, Wilson said.
“The bus stops in Bowling Green at 4:50 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. It stops in Nashville at 3:40 a.m. and 9 p.m.
“Wilson is hoping that the Bowling Green-Nashville connection will increase his package delivery business. . . . Wilson used to be the agent in Henderson and Evansville. Now, he has franchises in Owensboro, Hopkinsville and Fort Campbell. . . .
“Bus service here began in 1916* with a 10-passenger vehicle that put the stages out of business in a few years.
“Messenger-Inquirer records don’t indicate when Greyhound began serving the community. But the company had a bus station at Third and Cedar streets from the 1940s until 1967 when a new station was built at newly named Greyhound Drive and Hamilton Avenue off East Second Street. That station closed in 1990.” [*Keith Lawrence is mistaken here. The first auto-bus service in Owensboro was started by Harry C. Holder in 1914 with his Calhoun-Owensboro Auto Bus Line.]
Unfortunately there was no money to be made in the Evansville-Owensboro intercity bus business, which Greyhound learned anew. Six years after it began, Greyhound’s service to Owensboro was again kaput! On page 17 of the Tuesday, October 26, 2004, edition of the Messenger-Inquirer reporter Keith Lawrence tells the story:
“For the second time in 14 years, Greyhound Lines, Inc. is ending its service to Owensboro. Telephone calls to the Owensboro bus station are already being switched to Evansville. And a spokesman there said Saturday will be the last day Greyhound will stop in Owensboro. . . . The decision to pull out of Owensboro comes six years after the company restored bus service to the city.”
Five years later, in January 2009 Miller Transportation, Inc. / Miller Trailways of Louisville, applied to operate a bus line between Evansville, Indiana, and Ashland, Kentucky,—a route that included Owensboro. However, due to protests filed by the Kentucky Public Transit Association, it wasn’t until January 2011 that the company began serving Owensboro. (The association argued their members would receive less federal tax dollars if the money had to be split with Miller Transportation. One of the members of that association was Owensboro Transit System.)
When they started running into Owensboro, Miller Trailways buses stopped at Huck’s Convenience Store on Parrish Avenue and J. R. Miller Boulevard. On December 5, 2011, the company began operating out of Owensboro Transit System’s offices at 430 Allen Street. However, after 2013 Miller Trailways dropped out of sight, which seems to show they abandoned the Owensboro route.
Speaking of abandoning, at this point I will end the history of Owensboro’s intercity transportation. Hopefully the brief outline I’ve present will motivate someone with more energy and resources to carry it further.
I will close with an invitation to send any corrections, additions, photos or suggestions—and a reminder to one and all to please be kind to Mother Earth and use public transit!
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