“Grand Completion of the … Elevated Railroad”

May 28, 1887

William A. Rogers

“Grand Completion of the … Elevated Railroad”

Business, Railroads; New York City, Statue of Liberty; New York City, Transportation; Transportation, Railroads;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

Cartoonist W. A. Rogers envisions an elevated railroad traveling from Manhattan into the mouth of the recently opened Statue of Liberty.  The meaning of the cartoon is not readily identifiable.  The artist may be fearful (notice the statue's skull-like face) that the expansion of the elevated railroad system threatens to mar the beauty of the city.  The flag (foreground) announcing rail transit to Coney Island may indicate concern that the emerging transportation infrastructure will eventually transform the city's historic and cultural sights, such as the Statue of Liberty, into cheap carnivals (the train's path up the statue resembles a roller coaster).  

The cartoonist may also have been concerned about the political power and corruption of the railroad companies.  In the mid-1880s, competition from the elevated railroads led the owners of horse-car companies to desperate measures, including bribing state legislators and city aldermen.  In particular, a conflict developed between Jacob Sharp's Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad and the New York Cable Railway Company (neither company's trains were elevated).  Allegations of massive bribery and a subsequent trial were major news stories during 1885 and 1886.  

The struggle between horse-car and cable-car companies left the elevated railroad companies in an even stronger economic position.  In the cartoon's background, the flags on the building are flown as they would be on a (pirate) ship, and the middle flag (click to enlarge the picture) appears to be an octopus--a symbol commonly used to denote the grasping, omnipresent power of business monopolies.  The train's route around the Statue of Liberty may not suggest (only) a roller coaster, but the liberty of the people being encircled and constrained by the might of the elevated railroad companies.

Another possible source of artistic inspiration for this cartoon was an inquiry by a committee of the New York State Legislature into corruption charges against John Y. McKane, the police chief and political boss of Coney Island.  In 1869, McKane was elected city commissioner of Gravesend, and he developed properties in Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach (all of which are part of the Coney Island community).  In 1881, his associates in the state legislature pushed through a law establishing a police force for Coney Island separate from Brooklyn's, and McKane was elected to the unsalaried position.  McKane collected a percentage of the fees for licenses that he issued to the gambling houses, saloons, concession stands, and other businesses on Coney Island.  He became a major political player in Brooklyn and state politics, and helped carry the state (and thus the election) in 1884 for Grover Cleveland, the Democratic presidential nominee.

McKane was careful not to leave a trail of evidence and to deny all knowledge of wrongdoing.  In the spring of 1887, however, a railroad executive testified before a committee of the New York State Legislature that McKane had paid him a $4000 bribe to facilitate the political boss's purchase of some real estate from the railroad company.  George Tilyou, the son of a prominent Coney Island real estate broker, took the stand against McKane.  Tilyou reported the political boss's involvement in schemes of kickbacks, bribery, and fraud, identifying specific individuals and places.  

On May 11, 1887, a week before this (post-dated) cartoon appeared, the legislative committee recommended McKane's prosecution and, upon conviction, removal from office.  Although the New York dailies carried the story, Harper's Weekly did not.  McKane's political connections, though, halted the investigation once it reached the full legislature, and the Tilyou family soon found themselves financially ruined in retribution for George Tilyou's testimony against the Coney Island boss.  Finally, in 1894, McKane was convicted of vote fraud and sentenced to six years in the state penitentiary.  He was released after serving four years, and died in 1899.  With McKane's fall from power, George Tilyou prospered and opened Steeplechase Park on Coney Island.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Grand Completion of the … Elevated Railroad”
February 22, 2024

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