Focus on History: The progression of public transit

An old trolley car before restoration.

An old trolley car before restoration.

AMSTERDAM Electric-powered trolley cars that ran on metal tracks in city streets helped set the stage for the industrial boom in Amsterdam in the early 1900s.

The trolleys were operated by the Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Railroad (F.J.&G.)  The company also provided interurban trolley service to and from Johnstown, Gloversville, Fonda, Amsterdam and Schenectady.

Businessman Charles H. Vollmer, a veteran of World War I, saw an opening in 1927 for a different kind of public transportation: an Amsterdam bus line.

The city granted a franchise to Vollmer in 1927 for bus service in the Park Hill neighborhood near the Bigelow-Sanford carpet mills, an area which was not served by the F.J.&G.’s trolleys.

Historian Hugh Donlon said people found buses more convenient than trolleys. Bus passengers were picked up at the curb, not in the middle of the street.  And buses were more maneuverable in motor vehicle traffic.

By 1938, F.J.&G. abandoned its trolley lines in favor of buses. Donlon wrote, “After trolleys disappeared, bus operation warfare between the F.J.&G. and the Vollmer Lines in Amsterdam continued in futility and with steadily shrinking patronage.”

World War II temporarily brought more business than the buses could handle. In a 1943 newspaper ad, Vollmer pleaded for patience from his customers. Ridership had skyrocketed but labor was not plentiful during the war. New buses could not be purchased and parts to repair old buses were hard to find.

Vollmer, who also owned trucks and oil tankers which hauled goods from Boston to Philadelphia, was suddenly stricken at his Van Dyke Avenue home. He died at City Hospital on July 24, 1944 and his widow, Katherine Mason Vollmer, took over the business.

Vollmer had the Amsterdam city contract to collect garbage and ashes but had trouble finding enough workers to do the job during the war. After Charles Vollmer’s death the garbage piled up, contributing to Mayor Wilbur Lynch’s loss to Joseph Hand in the next mayoral election, according to one of current Mayor Michael Cinquanti’s birthday books.

Vollmer’s widow remarried in 1950 and became Katherine Vollmer Sann. She sought state permission to increase Amsterdam bus fares from 10 to 15 cents. The F.J.&G. also sought a fare increase. 

The late WCSS radio personality Lloyd Smith remembered the buses struggling to reach the top of Amsterdam’s hills “loaded with shoppers, General Electric workers and (my) grandpa who worked at Alco.”

Vollmer told state regulators the company lost $47,000 on city bus service from 1951 to 1956. 

Mohawk Valley Transit from Utica, headed by Wallace Sweet, absorbed both Vollmer’a and F.J.&G.’s Amsterdam bus lines in 1956.  The Recorder noted it was the first time in 30 years that local public transportation would be provided by one company.

The F.J.& G. waiting room on Amsterdam’s East Main Street became the Mohawk Valley Transit’s waiting room. Both the former F.J.& G. bus garage on Division Street and the former Vollmer garage on Gardiner Street continued in use. 

Fire leveled the Division Street bus garage in 1959. The block long building and six buses owned by Mohawk Valley Transit were destroyed, even though firefighters doused the flames within 15 minutes.

Donlon wrote, “In April of 1971 when it appeared that Amsterdam would be left without area transportation, the state came to the rescue with funds for a fleet of buses and began contributions toward maintenance of scheduled runs.” 

The city of Amsterdam discontinued bus service in 2018 when the public transportation deficit ballooned to $1 million. 

Thanks to funds in the new state budget, Capital District Transportation Authority is planning to extend bus service to Amsterdam and Montgomery County starting this fall.

More: Life & Arts

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply