"The City’s Last Struggle With Its Ex-Rulers"

January 18, 1862

artist unknown (perhaps John McLenan)

"The City’s Last Struggle With Its Ex-Rulers"

Business, Railroads; Irish Americans; New York City, Government/Politics; New York City, Transportation; Symbols, New York City; Transportation, Railroads; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

"The Belt Railroad Ordinance, having Passed both Branches of the Outgoing Common Council, has been Signed by Mayor Wood, and the Corporators are now prepared to divide the Plunder." - New York Daily Paper.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon marks one juncture in the often-corrupt, decades-long battle of politicians and businessmen to construct a rapid transit system in New York City.

The fate of commuter railroads in New York City was a perennially divisive issue in the 1850s and 1860s; it was, as Harper’s Weekly described it in 1866, an “annual and embarrassing contest for a railroad.” The issue involved competing partisan, factional, regional, and economic interests within the broader context of a bitter power struggle between the state legislature and the city government. Various plans were proposed, debated, accepted, rejected, and reconsidered over the years, many centering on establishing a commuter rail along Broadway.

A major source of dispute was whether the city would construct its own rail system to keep fares low and profits in the city treasury, or award the franchises to private companies. Corruption in the city and state government had always existed, but the development of street railroads in the early 1850s exacerbated the problem. In 1860, Harper’s Weekly criticized the “shameful” passage of the city railroad bills over the governor’s veto, and called the legislature the “most corrupt, unprincipled, and venal crew ever gathered together for legislative purposes in the State of New York.” The political tug of war did not end there.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon, unsigned but probably drawn by John McLenan, ridicules one episode in the continuing saga. In one of their last acts in office, the lame-duck city council granted commuter rail franchises to several favored businessmen. Democratic mayor Fernando Wood, recently defeated for reelection, approved the ordinance.

Here, an Irishman, representing the influence of Irish Catholics on the outgoing council, wrenches a belt tightly around the feminine symbol of the city. The railroad owners who will benefit from the ordinance watch approvingly, and one thumbs his nose at their rival, George Law (far left), who has lost this round.

George Law (1806-1881), nicknamed “Live-Oak George” by his workers, was one of the most prominent of the railroad magnates. The son of a farmer, he was a self-taught engineer who became a construction contractor for railroads and canals. In the 1840s, he bought railroads, and built and purchased steamships, operating one of only four steamship lines to the Pacific. In the 1850s, he constructed the Ninth Avenue Railroad and bought the Staten Island Ferry and the Grand and Roosevelt Street Ferry. The St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island is named after him. In addition to public transportation, he added to his millions through banking ventures and stock speculation.

The rapid transit system in New York City would finally come to fruition in the 1870s and 1880s.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The City’s Last Struggle With Its Ex-Rulers"
December 3, 2023

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