When it came to rail transportation and the comfort and convenience of those who might choose to use it, “Commodore” Cornelius Vandebilt, builder of the New York Central Railroad, is credited with the classic retort: “The public be damned!”
Whether or not officials of the Topeka Railway Company at the turn of the century, ever heard the comment, there is evidence that they approved the sentiment and sought to follow it.
That the horseless carriage, then in it’s infancy, might hold the answer for Topekans, frustrated by indifferent street car service, was hinted in a story in the DAILY CAPITAL as early as April 26, 1902.
“A possibility of a rival to the Topeka Street Railway Company has been mentioned. The inefficiency and inconvenience of the present car service has brought forth the suggestion that a line of auto-cabs be established.
“A scheme is that a number of the new motor cars capable of seating 15 or 20 persons, which are in very successful use in other cities, should be secured, and run on a regular schedule between the depots and hotels.
“Then, if results were satisfactory, their use might be extended to other parts of town. Such vehicles can be operated very economically, and the dissatisfaction with present conditions would certainly cause them to have good patronage.”
The hint was never acted upon. The cost of the several early-day buses which would be needed to battle successfully an already-established street car system, undoubtedly caused even the most irate street car rider to cool off considerably.
The answer was to come some 13 years later when a competitive system, involving no unusual outlay of cash, came onto the American scene--the jitney auto. It was so-called because a passenger could ride in such a vehicle for the very nominal fare of one jitney (then current slang for a 5-cent piece). The jitney idea apparently originated in San Francisco in 1914. The story goes that a taxi owner there was practically bankrupt--he had 20 handsome taxicabs but no business. In desperation, one day in October, he announced that he’d charge each passenger only a nickel for a ride in one of his cabs.
It was such a success from the very start that early the following year he is said to have planned to have 2,000 jitney cars in operation when the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition opened.
Word of the success of the unorthodox transportation system, which combined the speed and convenience of the taxicab with the low fare of a street car, spread rapidly across the country. It was inevitable that Topekans, unhappy about the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the Topeka Railway Company, hoped that someone would give the jitney system a whirl.
On January 21, 1915, K. H. Hammett and F. E. Griffee of 506 West Eight avenue, started Topeka’s first jitney car service. Their equipment was one (1) 20-horsepower, 5-passenger Maxwell. The previous afternoon, after buying a $10-a-year taxi license, they had employed a sign-painter to put on the Maxwell’s windshield the magic message: “Jitney Car Line--Fare 5 cents.”
Route of the jitney car was to be from the street railway’s transfer station at Eight and Kansas avenues, south to Tenth, west to Morris (Mulvane) street, and return. No detours were permitted and several potential passengers reportedly were lost that first day when the driver refused to alter the route.
The DAILY CAPITAL of January 22 explained the route had been selected “because of the heavily crowed street cars on that line.” Further: “The only stops made were when passengers decided to get in or out of the car and consequently the distance was covered in less time than taken by the street cars.”
On that first day, 25 trips were made and 85 passengers carried. There were no breakdowns or unnecessary stops.
Passengers on the first day of Jitney services must have been brave souls, for January 22 in Topeka is seldom balmy. The Maxwell, 20 horsepower and all, still was an open air touring car and its doubtful if on that first day, anyone had thought to put on the side curtains (usually reserved for rainy weather and a nuisance to install). Without a hint of interior car heating, each passenger must soon have realized he was well exposed to the cold, winter air. The fellow in the middle of the back seat definitely had the best chance to keep slightly warm.
Despite what all had hailed as an outstanding success for the first day’s operation, for some reason lost to history, Hammett and Griffee kept their jitney off the streets for several days following. Operation was not resumed until about January 29 when the two pioneers were joined by J. L. Palmer, who established a new jitney route between Potwin station and the Eight and Kansas transfer station.
Palmer’s jitney was a most impressive vehicle--a 50-horse-power Rambler seating seven, thus making possible increased revenue for the longer haul. The three announced that they had employed a super intendent, Albert Brown of 1303 North Polk street. The exact nature of superintendent Brown’s duties was not specified.
How long the pioneers continued in business as a unit or if they broke up is unclear. Topeka newspapers of May, 1915 carried an advertisement of the K. H. Hammett Jitney Service with no mention of either Griffee or Palmer.
Raymond Wells, actor, was the next jitney operator on the Topeka scene. He had headed the Wells Stock company when it played the Majectic theater around 1909, so was familiar with Topeka and it’s problems. He must have heard of the introduction of jitney service in the Kansas capital and it’s success for early in February of
1915, he arrived from Illinois, where his stock company then was playing, and announced plans to establish the Wells Jitney Service.
At 7 a.m. on Monday, February 15, 1915, the Wells service started with seven cars and three “distinct” routes. Two hours later there were 12 cars of various makes and sizes in operation.
The Wells service was not the least bit exclusive. Almost anyone could get into the actor’s act -- provided he owned and drove an automobile that could qualify as a jitney. In the STATE JOURNAL of February 27 (12 days after his operation was begun) Raymond Wells inserted a classified ad:
“WANTED: Fifty automobile owner-drivers. Co-operative basis. Wells Jitney Service.”
Only two days after Wells started his jitney operation, L. M. Crawford, Topeka’s theatrical impresario, decided that he too would like a bit of the action. In the JOURNAL of February 17, 1915, announcement was made:
“L.M. Crawford today purchased 15 Model “T” Ford touring cars, and papers for incorporation for the Topeka Jitney Company will be filed this week. Other automobiles, owned by individuals, will be used in this up-to-date traction company.
“Mr. Crawford will not be alone in the forming of the company, but the names of the incorporators will not be announced until later. Several changes will be made from the present system of running the jitney cars.”
(In reporting the formation of the first trade association of jitney men at Kansas City, Mo., May 4, 1915, the Automobile Trade Journal for June, 1915, stated that E. F. Maxwell, manager, Topeka Jitney Co., was elected vice-president of the group, the name of which was not given.--Ed.)
But actor Wells and magnate Crawford were not to join forces. Elsewhere in the story, it was stated in on uncertain terms that “Raymond Wells, who started jitneys on their debut in Topeka Monday, will not be connected with the (Crawford) jitneys.”
Back of the public irritation with Topeka’s street car services was the unpleasant fact that, particularly during rush hours, not every passenger was provided a seat. On January 22, 1915, the STATE JOURNAL explained the jitney’s popularity:
“The jitney service is encouraged and really brought about by the failure of the street car company to meet the demands of the public by giving inadequate service, especially during the rush hours of the day.
“It is a daily occurrence in Topeka for patrons of the street car line, leaving the downtown districts for their homes between 5 and 6 o’clock in the evening, to be compelled to stand up in the aisles or upon the platform of the crowded cars. It is not unusual for passengers to be literally 'packed in ‘like sardines.'
“It is difficult for the average citizen to comprehend such a policy on the part of the street railway company and to understand why extra cars, or trailers, are not run during the rush hours and each passenger provided with a seat. Tired people become more tired and critical by being compelled to ride under uncomfortable and distressing conditions.”
The STATE JOURNAL story was not entirely critical of the street railway company, for it admitted:
“Topeka is fortunate as a whole in having a good street car service, with comfortable seats, well-heated and well-routed, but a reform during the hours of heaviest traffic is sadly needed.”
Although public relations experts and the necessity for a good “public image” were still in the distant future, someone at the Topeka Railway Company decided it might be advisable to reassure customers that it really liked them and worried some about their comfort and convenience. So, on January 28, 1915, the Topeka Railway Company inserted a 3-column ad in both Topeka newspapers to announce:
Topeka has been without early Sunday street car service for a number of years, and persons who attended early services at the churches have had to walk. The new schedule will not only get worshipers to church on time, but will be convenient for those who want to meet the early Sunday trails.
The street car competitors on February 15 had a new idea:
SHOP BY JITNEY IS TOPEKA PLAN
As originally conceived, a woman could telephone for a jitney car. The person calling would have to have two other persons with her, thus making a total of 15 cents and have the entire car (Motel T or otherwise) to herself. Except for the words “jitney Car” painted on the windshield, it might be mistaken for her own chauffeur-driven automobile. After shopping was completed, the women telephoned for a jitney car and the return trip was made at the same rate.
A few days later, the plan had to be revised--jitney operators found they were losing money at those rates. The new schedule was: For calls within a radius of 10 blocks of Kansas Avenue, there would have to be 4 passengers, each paying a nickel and one nickel extra, making 25 cents for the trip.
For calls within a radius of 20 blocks, there must be four
passengers, each still paying a nickel, but with a dime extra, passengers, making a total of 30 cents for the ride. The JOURNAL story explained:
“These special calls were too expensive in the consumption of oil and gasoline to pay expenses, but with the new rule the jitneys can realize a profit out of the special calls.”
So far as the jitney operators were concerned, all was going along swimmingly. But the street car company on February 27 took out a new three-column ad to warn that anyone traveling in anything but a street car was living dangerously. It pointed out that accident insurance companies paid double indemnity on all accidents which occur while traveling on street car. “Why is this?” asked the ad.
“Here’s the answer: Because less accidents happen on street railways than in any other way and risk is not one-tenth per cent so great as it is when walking or riding in automobile.”
Two months later, on May 1, 1915, in another 3-column ad, the Topeka Railway Company had a brand-new alarm to sound: “Protect Your Wife and Little Ones!” The message, possibly to be read over violin accompaniment of “Hearts and Flowers,” explained: (see ad to the right)
September 3, 1915, marked the beginning of the end for jitney service in Topeka--license rates were due to go up drastically. Previously jitneys had been operating under the same $10-a-year fee charged taxicabs, special service cars and auto hacks. But now the city commission decided there should be a new rate for jitneys: $25 a year for 5-passenger cars, $35 for 7-passenger autos and $50 for large buses. And there were other provisions in the proposed new ordinance.
Topekans, in their haste to get to and from work, sometimes overloaded the jitneys. They weren't above crowding four or even five in the rear seat, sometimes two in the front beside the driver, and occasionally even settling for a ride on the running board. The new law would put a stop to all this: No more than one up front with the driver and absolutely no one could ride on the "footboard" outside the car.
On May 22, 1916, the revamped ordinance was to be brought before the city commission for final consideration. A recent ruling of the Kansas supreme court had held that a similar ordinance in Wichita was completely constitutional and valid.
The proposed new law carried the same hike in license fee as scheduled in the ordinance of the previous September--up from $10 a year to $25, $35, or $50--but there were to be restrictions on where the jitneys could operate. They might use Kansas avenue, proceed on all streets east of the avenue, but on the west side they must keep off any street used by the street railway company. Of course, if they insisted on the right to travel any street in Topeka they would have to pay an almost prohibitive license fee--from $300 for a 5-passenger car to $400 for one carrying 8 or more.
The jitney operators under standably didn’t care for the idea of being taxed out of business. All along they had asked simply that the whole matter of Jitney operation be submitted in a referendum to the voters. They had ready for the commission meeting a bundle of referendum petitions signed by more than 5,000 citizens.
Preceding the commission sessions there was what was described as a “monstrous” mass meeting in the city auditorium. It was attended by 3,000 “cheering citizens.”
The jitney men were well represented and had an armload of petitions signed by more than 5,000 citizens who liked the nickel motor car rides and didn’t want them driven off the streets then occupied by; street cars. A number of street railway officials also were present to watch the proceedings.
So far as the jitney operators were concerned, it was all in vain. The new law passed, 3 to 2, and the nickel ride was sent to oblivion. Within weeks after passage of the ordinance, jitneys in Topeka withered on the vine and died. That they flourished and prospered elsewhere as late as 1920 indicates that someone in Topeka must have cut them down in their prime.
In it’s official history the Kansas Power & Light Company, which eventually absorbed the Topeka Street Railway Company, capsules the story of the city’s jitney cars:
“In March, 1915, the city (Topeka) had 50 licensed jitney buses competing with the street railway. By July, the number had increased to 116.
“In September, the cost of a license was increased from $10 annually to $50 depending on the size of the bus. The number immediately dropped to 32. By April, 1916, no more than 15 buses were operating regularly of which 5 were large vehicles paying the $50 license fee.
Associated with this change was an increase in the price of gasoline from 9.2 cents per gallon, as a result of a prolonged cut price war between independents and major service stations, to 20 cents a gallon in 1916.”* (*Edward G. Nelson, KPL IN KANSAS (Lawrence, University of Kansas Center for Research in Business, 1964).
Perhaps such a capsule is all the jitney really rates in the history of a city. But, for more than 16 months, those jitneys of Topeka made life gay and interesting and scared the proverbial pants off the street car company.