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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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The Lake Success Horror IX: ‘There Goes Willie K.!’

While the public saw the Automobile Club (openly aided by a dozen or so very prominent millionaires) and the people of Long Island (openly aided by the street trolley companies) as the primary players in the automobile speed law fight, even more influential forces were moving behind the scenes.

Very quietly, never in open public, the railroads decided that the speed limit law had to be rendered ineffective. You might think that limiting the speed of automobiles would be the highest possible priority for the railroads, but you’d have the benefit of a century’s worth of hindsight. In 1902, the railroads saw the electric street railway as the biggest threat. The most powerful industrialists didn’t foresee the Model T or middle income families owning cars or farmers owning trucks. Fast automobiles would help hold off the trolleys, but could never hold enough passengers or cargo to be a threat to the railroads. It must have seemed so obvious.

The power of the railroads loomed over the legislature. Politically, there were upstate “railroad counties,” where the largest employers were railroads, at a time when workingmen were expected to follow management recommendations on political matters.

The two arch rival giants, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad, joined against a common threat. The “Pennsy” had purchased the Long Island Railroad in 1900, and on May 13, 1902, the Mineola, Hempstead & Freeport Traction Company ran its first streetcar down Main Street, Hempstead. U.S. Senator Thomas Platt, trying to hold on as boss of the State Republican organization, was heavily invested in a very large freight delivery company. The “Central Road” had an exclusive contract with Platt’s rival, and the Senator was trying to unify the streetcar systems of the Hudson Valley to create a direct route to the capital city.

The President of the New York Central Railroad, William Kissam Vanderbilt, had another interest in the automobile controversy.

Throughout all those public meetings and hearings about the automobile problem, several well-known families were mentioned in a general sort of way, as “men of education, who should know better,” as Lynn Bruce had put it to state legislators in Albany. But over and over, men lined up to tell on William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.

William, Jr. didn’t live in Nassau County, but it sometimes seemed like he was everywhere. He was driving near Main and South Streets in Oyster Bay when an unhitched horse bolted in fright, damaging a buggy. He turned so fast out of the Mineola Fairgrounds that his passenger was thrown from the automobile and injured. At a jammed Board of Supervisors hearing to determine if the county should become involved in pushing for a statewide speed law, there was a tremendous roar and clouds of dust in front of the courthouse. Someone from the back yelled, “There goes Willie K.!” He had buzzed the meeting, and at the exact moment Sydney Dillon Ripley, whose grandfather had built the Union Pacific Railroad, was explaining how careful he and other drivers were not to drive fast.    

Even when he wasn’t directly involved, Willie was continually connected with automobile mayhem. In October 1901, Henri Fournier, France’s leading racer, did not hear the Westbury railroad crossing warning bell over his engine and his car was glanced by a train, injuring five passengers, including two city reporters. They were coming from a luncheon at the Garden City Hotel thrown by Willie K. Worse, in the middle of the ongoing saga in the state legislature, a Wall Street broker from a prominent family ran over and killed a seven-year-old child on Convent Avenue in Manhattan. The automobile was none other than Willie’s infamous “White Ghost,” which had “gained much notoriety on the Long Island roads” (NY Times) and which Willie had only recently sold to the broker. It took the driver three blocks to bring the hulking machine to a standstill.

A crowd had quickly gathered at the scene, and police arrested the driver partly just to get him out of there. Automobilers were now very aware that the plebeians were becoming hostile when livestock and children were run down, and some were now keeping pistols handy when driving, just in case.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net