Commentary on transportation in Connecticut and the Northeast by JIM CAMERON, for 19 years a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council.
Jim is also the founder of a new advocacy effort: www.CommuterActionGroup.org
Disclaimer: his comments are only his own. All contents of this blog are (c) Cameron Communications Inc
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August 03, 2015
PT Barnum Takes on The Railroads
What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum
and I have in common? No, not just a
love of circuses. We are both “rail advocates”
fighting for the interests of commuters.
This amazing piece of news about
Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while
watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite
channel). The speaker was Executive
Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.
She explained that Barnum was more
than a showman. He was also a railroad
advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service
that’s still running today.)
In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built
in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street,
enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and “the
carpet men, W & J Sloan”.
Earlier, in 1865, Barnum went to
Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became
mayor of Bridgeport.) As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find
that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House
who had protected their monopoly interests in the state.
Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad
Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to
regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New
Haven RR! Barnum pushed through a bill
prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.
Then he turned his sights on helping
commuters. Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail
lines (now the Hudson and Harlem
divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters. Once Vanderbilt had them hooked as passengers
for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 –
Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do
the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The
Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to
make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State
Senator Ballard of Darien.
So spirited were they in their
lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to
his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there
‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)
Fast forward to the present and we
could again use Barnum’s help.