Monday, February 8, 2016

The Last Trolley

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In the spring of 1932, Chemung County’s trolleys were doomed.  On April 27, the Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company which ran the system became the Elmira Light, Heat and Power Corporation, a subsidiary of Associated Gas & Electric Company (later NYSEG).  Primarily a utility, the company had little use for trolleys.  Over the next few years, the company let the county’s once robust trolley system fall into disrepair.  Cars were run until their motors burned out and replaced with buses.  In 1938, the company requested permission from the Elmira City Council to abandon the trolleys and transition entirely to buses.  On December 30, 1938, they received their permission and got to work dismantling Chemung County’s trolley system. 

At the time, there were 30 miles of trolley tracks which ran throughout Elmira, the Heights, Horseheads, Big Flats, and Millport.  Despite their request, NYSEG did not actually have enough buses to cover all the routes.   Luckily, the Council had given them 90 days to finish making the substitutions.  On January 30, 1939, the area was hit by a heavy storm and NYSEG used to opportunity to switch out trolleys for buses on most city routes as well as the Horseheads run.  The last day of trolley service in Elmira Heights was on February 11.  The Southside service along Maple Avenue was the last to be switched over to buses on March 10, 1939.  Workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) started pulling up the tracks as soon as the transition was complete.
WPA Workers taking up tracks on Water Street, 1939
 On March 11, 1939, the city threw a parade to celebration the decommissioning of Elmira’s last trolley.  Hundreds of people lined the street as the trolley, ‘pulled’ by a team of horses, made one last circuit from City Hall through downtown to the car barn on Fifth Street.   As the trolley approached the car barn, the various dignitaries who had been aboard for the parade began to strip it for souvenirs.  One enterprising soul managed to remove the fuse to the air brakes.  After reaching the car bar and switching off the power, the motorman and passengers were alarmed when trolley began to roll backwards as they scrambled to get off. 
Last Trolley parade, March 11, 1939
Ralph Denmark, motorman on the final run, March 11, 1939
 At precisely 4:16 pm, A.C. Jordan, electrical superintendent of NYSEG Elmira Division, ordered the power shut off along the entire system.  The switch was flipped by Fred B. Reynolds, the man who had turned on Elmira’s first electric trolley 46 years earlier. 


  1. I believe there may remain some trolley tracks buried under the asphalt of current streets. Thanks for this interesting and well-researched piece.

  2. Very interesting how the community got involved with the decommissioning of the trolley...making it into a celebration....people being exciting about a new era of buses...and there you have a new debate should they have kept the trolleys?

  3. I wonder how our county and surrounding areas would do if we had a modern day trolley system like San Fransisco in California does today ... and if it would be feasible to do both trolley and bus ?