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article number 565
article date 06-16-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Growing City Problems are Met by Inventions, 1870-1890
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1933 book, The Rise of the City.

* * *

CERTAIN problems growing out of crowded living conditions vexed all municipalities, differing among them in degree rather than in kind. None was more important in 1878 than that of adequate traffic facilities. Even in the major cities streets were ill paved, if paved at all, and in the business sections were apt to be choked with rushing, jostling humanity.

“The visitor is kept dodging, halting and shuffling to avoid the passing throng . . ." asserted one timid contemporary. “The confusing rattle of ‘busses and wagons over the granite pavement in Broadway almost drowns his own thoughts, and if he should desire to cross the street a thousand misgivings will assail him . . . although he sees scores of men and women constantly passing through the moving line of vehicles . . . .“

Cobblestones and granite blocks were the favorite paving materials in the East because of their local availability, just as wood blocks were in the Middle West. But streets so constructed soon wore rough and uneven, and the eighties marked an era of experimentation with more satisfactory types of surfacing.

The discovery of natural beds of pitch on the Island of Trinidad directed attention to asphalt, already widely used in Paris and London. When Washington laid four hundred thousand square yards of it between 1878 and 1882, that city set a pace soon followed by Buffalo, Philadelphia and other places. By 1898 the United States possessed nearly thirty million square yards of asphalt paving.

The imported material, however, was rivaled by a native product, brick. Charleston, West Virginia, and Bloomington, Illinois, had tried it in the previous decade, but it was not until the mid-eighties that it came into general use, notably in the Middle West.

By 1898 Des Moines, Columbus and Cleveland stood first in the proportion of brick paving to population, though Philadelphia with its two million square yards had more than any other one city.

In most cities macadam, a much cheaper material, was deemed sufficiently durable for residential and suburban roadways. Smaller towns contented themselves with dirt or gravel.

In the twenty years the streets of America were greatly improved, though the civic conscience did not regard it essential that good streets should be kept clean.

By the end of the century Washington and Buffalo had become the best-paved cities in the world while Boston and the borough of Manhattan in New York were not far behind. Chicago remained the Cinderella of great American municipalities, closely rivaled by Baltimore.

In 1890 only 629 of Chicago’s 2048 miles of streets were paved at all, about half with wood block, the rest with macadam, gravel, stone block, asphalt, cinders or cobblestones. Despite the civic lift given by the World’s Fair of 1893 the situation was but little better at the close of the decade.


Since most large cities were intersected by waterways, the needs of rapidly growing municipalities required an adequate system of bridges. The problem appeared in its most acute form in New York where hordes of people must cross over each day to their places of work on Manhattan Island.

After thirteen years in course of construction, a great bridge connecting New York with Brooklyn was completed in 1883. Its designer, John A. Roebling, had died from an injury before the work had more than started, leaving the actual construction to be directed by his son, Colonel Washington A. Roebling, who worked out the details as the enterprise proceeded.

All the riveting of steel in the Brooklyn Bridge was done by hand, pneumatic tools and compressed air being as yet unknown. Falling ill from overwork in December, 1872, Colonel Roebling supervised the operations from a wheel chair on the roof of his home, directing the progress with field glasses as a general might a battle.

When finished, Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The formal opening on May 24 was attended by President Arthur and his cabinet, the governors of near-by states and many other distinguished persons. The only discordant note in the chorus of rejoicing came from Hibernian New Yorkers who denounced the choice of Queen Victoria’s birthday for the grand occasion.

Majestic in the sweep of its great cables from tower to tower, the completed structure was over a mile long, with a central river span of nearly sixteen hundred feet and a passageway wide enough for two rail lines, two double carriage lanes and a footpath.

Though the traffic relief was considerable it was not sufficient. Between 1886 and 1889 Washington Bridge was built over the Harlem River, its two great steel arches each over five hundred feet in span. and in 1896 a second bridge, the Williamsburg, was begun to link Brooklyn and New York.

Other cities wrestled with the same problem. Thus Pittsburgh built the Seventh Street suspension bridge over the Allegheny River in 1884, Philadelphia completed a cantilever bridge carrying Market Street over the Schuylkill two years later, and Richmond, Indiana, spanned the Whitewater River with a suspension bridge in 1889.

Horse cars, omnibuses, cabs and other similar vehicles had suited the needs of simpler days, but the age of the great city called for swifter conveyance. The old “bobtail” cars, modeled on the stagecoach and pulled by horses or mules, did not suffice for moving an enormous mass of people to and from their places of work at about the same hours of the day.

Already New York had shown the utility of an overhead railway, four-car trains being drawn by diminutive steam locomotives which scattered oil and live ashes on the heads of unwary pedestrians. In 1878 a second unit, the Sixth Avenue Elevated, extending nearly the length of the island, was added to the original line. The “L” three years later was transporting one hundred and seventy-five thousand passengers daily or, if you prefer, “12,000 tons of human flesh, averaging each person at 140 lbs.”


Under the spur of faster transit population spread rapidly northward. New lines were projected and built, reaching beyond the Harlem River into the northern suburban districts, Kansas City also elevated some of her tracks in the mid-eighties and Brooklyn built an extensive system the same decade. But Chicago did not open her first line until 1892, and Boston, which meantime had begun to burrow underground, not until 1901.

The slow adoption of the overhead system was due partly to its ugliness and noise, but even more to the initial cost of construction.

Of greater popularity in the eighties was the cable car, first contrived by a Scotch immigrant, Andrew S. Hallidie, in 1873 to solve the problem of transit over the hilly streets of San Francisco. The car moved by means of a grappling device which descended from the floor to an endless steel cable moving in a slotted trench between the tracks.

After a few years the cable system was taken over by cities which lacked San Francisco’s peculiar need. In 1882 Charles T. Yerkes laid a cable road in Chicago, achieving not only a success for the city but a fortune for himself. Philadelphia followed the next year and New York in 1886.

By the mid-nineties Eastern cities had one hundred and fifty-seven miles in operation, the Middle West two hundred and fifty-two, the Far West two hundred and seventeen and the South six.

While the cable system was yet in its heyday, this generation made its most substantial contribution toward solving the problem of urban transit. For many years—at least since 1835—inventors in America and abroad had been working on the idea of an electrical railway. Until the development of a practicable dynamo in the 1870’s, however, they had been baffled by the lack of an adequate supply of cheap current.

The 1880’s saw the launching of trial lines at points as far removed as Boston and Denver, but the credit for the first American electric railway successfully operated for profit over city streets belongs to Lieutenant Frank J. Sprague. In 1887-1888 he installed two and a half miles of track in Richmond, Virginia, the cars securing their current from an overhead trolley wire fed from a central power house.

Its instant success started a veritable revolution in urban transit. Not only were electric-propelled cars fast and comfortable but they were relatively cheap to construct and maintain. Fifty-one cities installed the new system by 1890 and five years later eight hundred and fifty lines were in operation, mostly in the East and Middle West, with a total mileage of ten thousand.

Though horse and cable cars lingered on many streets, their doom was sealed. European cities lagged far behind those of America in adopting electric transit. At the close of the century Germany, with a trackage as great as all other European countries combined, possessed only one ninth the mileage of the United States.

Traffic congestion, however, kept even pace with the new facilities for dealing with it. The tangled situation in down-town Boston, whose narrow crooked streets exemplified the old adage that one good turn deserves another, led to the final effort of this generation.


Taking a leaf from the experience of London and Budapest, Boston between 1895 and 1897 constructed a subway line a mile and a half long under Tremont Street. It was a notable engineering feat costing the city four and a quarter million dollars.

Plans were at once made for extensions, and New York, as was fitting, projected a much more ambitious tunnel system which, however, did not open to the public until 1904.

Except for these last two instances, the varied and heroic endeavors made during these twenty years to clear the city streets were all carried out under private auspices.

Hardly less urgent than the need for better transit was the need for readier communication. In 1878 the recently invented telephone was hardly more than a scientific toy.

To use the telephone a person, after briskly turning a crank, screamed into a crude mouthpiece and then, if the satanic screechings and groanings of static permitted, faintly heard the return message. There was no central exchange station, telephone users being directly connected with one another by separate wires.

Besides these disadvantages the sheer novelty of Bell’s miracle made it unpopular. People felt “a sense of oddity, almost of foolishness,” in using the instrument. “The dignity of talking consists in having a listener and there seems a kind of absurdity in addressing a piece of iron . . ."

For a number of years Bell traveled about the country exhibiting his invention, On one such trip he offered Mark Twain stock in the enterprise at twenty-five, but that usually gullible humorist “didn’t want it at any price,” though before the year was out he put up the first telephone wire in Hartford, Connecticut, connecting his home with the ’Courant’ office.

As population centers grew, social and business needs caused the telephone to be perfected rapidly and made the public forget its earlier prejudices. An important obstacle to success was removed in 1879 when the Western Union Telegraph Company, which had bitterly fought the Bell group by fair means and foul, came to terms and sold out its own telephone interests to the Bell Company.

Had the Western Union been able to invalidate Bell’s claims as prior inventor before the courts, it is almost certain that the development of the telephone would have been sacrificed to that of the telegraph and hence its extension greatly retarded.

Under the circumstances, however, mechanical improvements quickly ensued. Francis Blake’s invention of a carbon transmitter in 1878, an advance over Emile Berliner’s and Edison’s devices of the year before, greatly improved the carrying qualities of the voice. Five years later another young man, J. J. Carty, exorcised the mysterious noises of the wires by a simple mechanical arrangement known as the metallic-circuit system.

Hardly less important was the contriving of a central switchboard, the work principally of George W. Coy who installed the first commercial board at New Haven, Connecticut, in January, 1878, for the use of twenty-one subscribers. When L. B. Firman followed in 1879 with the invention of a multiple switchboard, the nerve center of the telephone was complete.

At first boys were employed at “central,” but being addicted to fighting one another and swearing at their unseen customers, they were soon superseded by girls who thus found a new vocation.


The rapid expansion of the Bell system owed much to the business genius of Theodore N. Vail, general manager of the company from 1878 to 1885. Grandnephew of Stephen Vail, who had built the engines for the first transatlantic steamship, and a cousin of Alfred Vail, who had worked with Morse on the telegraph, young Vail came naturally by his interest in the latest mechanical marvel.

Vail threw himself into the work with boundless enthusiasm, overcoming innumerable obstacles and in the end making the telephone an indispensable adjunct to every business house.

By insisting that equipment should be uniform and leased, not sold, to the subscriber, he saved the United States from the chaos which exists in certain other countries, notably France, where each customer buys his own instrument from a selection of about forty different varieties.

In 1880 eighty-five towns had telephone exchanges with nearly fifty thousand subscribers and about thirty-five thousand miles of wire. Ten years later the number of subscribers had grown fivefold and the wire mileage sevenfold.

From the first intercity line joining Boston and Lowell in 1879, the reach of the telephone grew constantly greater until by 1892 Boston and New York were talking with Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Milwaukee and a few years later with Omaha.

As presidential candidate McKinley sat in his home at Canton, Ohio, and talked with his campaign managers in thirty-eight states.

When in 1893 the patents owned by the Bell Company expired, many independent companies sprang up, especially in the smaller towns of the Middle West where the Bell system had not found it worth while to extend its service.

Nearly eight hundred thousand phones were in use by 1900, one for every ninety-five persons as compared with one for every nine hundred and twenty-three twenty years before; the United States had twice as many telephones as all Europe.

In two decades Bell’s invention had, from a mechanical curiosity, become a necessity of American life. That it added to the speed of living and the breaking down of personal privacy cannot be doubted. That it helped make the American people the most talkative nation in the world is likewise clear.

On the credit side of the ledger, however, must be put the enormous gains resulting from the facilitation of social and business intercourse and from the extension of urban influences into areas of rural isolation.

Largely because of the greater utility of the telephone, the telegraph expanded slowly during these years. In 1874 Edison had doubled the carrying capacity of the wires by his invention of quadruplex telegraphy, which allowed two messages to be sent simultaneously from opposite ends of the same line. Actual wire mileage, however, grew but fourfold between 1878 and 1898.

By the mid-nineties only one telegram per person per year was being sent in the United States while the people were using the telephone ten times as much. The telephone far outstripped its elder sister even for long-distance use; only in submarine communication did the telegraph continue to reign unchallenged.


In the closing years of the decade, however, new vistas opened for it in a field in which it was thought the telephone could never compete. This was wireless telegraphy, the invention in 1896 of Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian engineer. Still in the experimental stage, the chief use of “wireless” before the coming of the new century was for ocean vessels.

Meantime the slower communication afforded by the postal service had shown steady improvement as city populations thickened. In 1883 the rate for single letters was cut from three to two cents a half-ounce and, two years later, to two cents an ounce, with a provision for special-delivery service to secure swifter transmission.

In 1887 free delivery was extended to towns with as few as ten thousand people, increasing the number of places so served by one hundred and sixty-nine. The sale of ordinary postage stamps leaped from seven hundred and forty-two million in 1878 to nearly two billion in 1888 and to three billion ten years later.

Despite the quickened pace of American life, the post office with its cheaper rates remained the basic means of intercommunication, being supplemented by the faster services of the telephone and telegraph.

Improved lighting was almost as great a necessity as improved communication, for the new conditions of city life required something better than the dim rays shed from gas lamp-posts on the streets and the yellow glow of kerosene lamps or open-flame gas jets indoors.

For years inventors in many countries had been seeking to harness electricity to the service of illumination, but success, as in the case of the trolley car, had to await the development of the modern dynamo.

Though the Russian engineer, Paul Jablochkoff, in 1876 devised an arc lamp which was used with some success to light the boulevards of Paris, his achievement was quickly eclipsed by the ingenuity of Charles F. Brush, a young Ohio engineer, who in 1879 illuminated the public squares of Cleveland, Ohio, by means of a system which could maintain sixteen arc lamps on a single wire. The superiority of the new device won immediate public favor.

Soon the hissing, sputtering noise of the carbons and the brilliant glare of the lamp were familiar sights on American city streets, San Francisco leading the way by setting up a central power plant the same year as the Cleveland trial. The Brush system quickly spread across the Atlantic and presently, too, to the cities of Japan and China.

Satisfactory as was the arc lamp for outdoors, it proved of little use for interior illumination. For this purpose some method had to be found of minutely subdividing the electric current so as to produce lights corresponding to gas jets in size and cheapness. Inventors on both sides of the Atlantic labored at the problem.

But success came first to Thomas A. Edison, whose wizardry in the domain of electricity was already presaged by his improvements on the telegraph and the telephone. Edison was at this time thirty-two years old, "a pleasant looking man, of average size . . . with dark hair slightly silvered, and wonderfully piercing gray eyes,” who was apt to be found “with acid-stained garments, dusty eyebrows, discolored hands and dishevelled hair.”

Since 1876 Edison had been conducting his experiments in a great laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey; but this establishment had been acquired only after years as a tramp telegrapher and mechanical tinker had led him by devious paths from his native town of Milan, Ohio, to Boston and New York, where his inventions won generous financial backing.


The problem of incandescent lighting quickly reduced itself, in Edison’s mind, to finding a suitable filament which, when sealed in a vacuum bulb, would burn more than a few hours. After patiently trying many substances he succeeded in October, 1879, in getting a carbonized cotton thread to last forty-five hours. Soon after, he attained even better results from a bamboo strip torn from a palm-leaf fan.

Now began a search of the world for the most suitable fiber. One of his agents made his way to the Malay Peninsula, Burma and south China; others tried Ceylon, India, the West Indies and South America.

Out of six thousand specimens Edison found three varieties of bamboo and one of cane exactly suited to his purpose. His incandescent lamp was patented on January 27, 1880. It not only gave a steadier, cooler and brighter light than gas, but he had also solved the problem of switching lamps off without affecting others on the same circuit.*

* By 1894 manufacturers were substituting cellulose for bamboo or vegetable-fiber filaments. The price of globes fell from one dollar or more apiece in the early eighties to eighteen cents in 1900.

The public gazed with wonder at the new illuminant in Edison’s showroom at 65 Fifth Avenue. In 1882 central lighting stations were erected in London and New York. Perhaps no mechanical invention ever spread so swiftly over the world.

The new light first entered American homes at the residence of J. Hood Wright in New York; it began to burn in American hotels at the Blue Mountain House in the Adirondacks; it first appeared in a theater when six hundred and fifty bulbs lighted up a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “Iolanthe” at the Bijou in Boston on December 12, 1882.

The number of central electric stations for all purposes—incandescent and arc lighting, traction power, etc.—rose from thirty-eight in 1882 to nearly six hundred in 1888 and to approximately three thousand in 1898.

The greater convenience and safety of incandescent lighting put gas-light producers at a serious disadvantage, but they did what they could to meet the competition by lowering the cost of their product, at the same time improving its quality. Gas made from coal was supplemented in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country by natural gas drawn from underground reservoirs.

An even greater advance came in 1875 when T. S. C. Lowe discovered that a successful illuminant could be made at extremely low cost by decomposing steam and mixing it with carbonic acid and other gases. In less than a dozen years one hundred and fifty cities were using water gas, as it was called, and soon it prevailed over the other varieties.

The need of achieving a steady white flame comparable to the Edison lamp was also met when Carl Auer von Welsbach of Vienna in 1885 invented a netlike conical mantle which gave forth an intense incandescent light. After the United States patent was granted in 1890, Americans developed a new skill in adjusting the fragile ‘Welsbach mantles without breaking them.

The gas-light industry, though steadily losing ground, achieved a new lease of life. Only in the field of heating, however, was it as yet able to breast electricity without fear of failure.

Improved lighting not only dispelled much of the darkness of urban night life but also many of its dangers. By helping erase the difference between day and night it lengthened the working hours for intellectual toilers, made possible continuous operation of factories and, at the same time, gave an enormous stimulus to after-dark amusements and the theater.


Better illumination also meant less eye strain, though this advantage may have been offset by the constant temptation to overwork on the part of the studious. The vastly increased productivity of mind and mill in this period owes more than has ever been recognized to the services of Brush, Edison and Weisbach.

Municipalities were less successful in coping with the problem of waste elimination. Since the middle of the century and earlier, places like New York, Boston and Chicago had had public underground conduits for discharging sewage into near-by bodies of water.

But their sewage facilities lagged behind the growth of population and most other cities employed village methods of surface-draining their streets and of using private vaults and cesspools for family wastes. In 1877 Philadelphia had eighty-two thousand such vaults and cesspools, Washington fifty-six thousand and Chicago, despite its sewerage system, thirty thousand.

Two years later a noted sanitary engineer called proper sewage disposal “the great unanswered question of the day.” Its solution involved grave problems of community health, for dense populations made private uncleanliness increasingly a public concern.

In the two decades following, however, sewerage facilities were greatly extended, while important improvements were effected in sewer construction and in methods of ultimate disposal. This last problem was an especially difficult one. Cities with water fronts usually discharged their sewage into sea or river with always a danger of water pollution, especially where there was a tidal backwash: elsewhere filter beds and farm irrigation systems were commonly used.

Progress was very uneven. While Boston and Washington spent millions in improving their sewerage works during these years, Philadelphia and St. Louis had at the close of the period little more than half as great a mileage of sewers as of streets, and Baltimore, New Orleans and Mobile continued to rely for drainage mainly on open gutters.

The allied problem of garbage disposal was taken care of hardly better. In New York, Boston and other ports such matter was carried in scows and barges several miles out to sea and discharged upon an outgoing tide.

A common practice in inland towns was to contract for its collection by farmers who fed it to swine. Since animals so fed were subject to trichinae, with a consequent danger to meat eaters, after 1885 furnaces began to be introduced, especially in Middle ‘Western cities, for the reduction of garbage by fire.

The growing volume of urban wastes complicated the problem of a potable water system. This generation, however, gave less heed to the quality of the water than to its quantity.

Only about six hundred cities had public waterworks in 1878, but in the next two decades their number grew nearly sixfold. At the same time some of the greater cities enlarged their existing facilities. Thus between 1885 and 1892 New York, at a cost of twenty- four million dollars, constructed the New Croton Aqueduct with a carrying capacity of nearly three hundred million gallons a day.

Croton Aqueduct crossing the Harlem River.

Gradually, however, as a result of European example and the advance of the germ theory of disease, attention was also given to the purity of the water. The Massachusetts board of health in 1886 was granted by law general oversight of all inland waters of the state with power to advise municipal authorities in regard to water supply, sewage disposal and methods of preventing pollution. Within the next few years careful investigations were also made by the state health boards of Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Cities differed greatly as to the purity of their water supplies, and public-health guardians were not slow in pointing out corresponding differences as to mortality from typhoid fever. Between 1880 and 1890 about half as many people proportionately died of typhoid fever in New York and Boston, where the water was comparatively pure, as in Philadelphia and Chicago, where the supply was contaminated. Pollution by sewage and manufacturers’ wastes was especially serious in the case of cities drawing their water from rivers or other natural sources.

The activity in developing municipal water plants was in part caused by the greatly increased fire risks which resulted from the crowding together of buildings and the extensive use of electric wiring. This generation was resolved to have no such conflagrations as those of Chicago and Boston in the early seventies.

Though they succeeded in this aim, scarcely a year passed without one or more million-dollar fires and the waste of thousands of lives. The estimated total fire losses in 1878 were over sixty-four million dollars. In 1883 they passed permanently beyond the hundred-million-dollar mark and in 1892 and 1893 rose above one hundred and fifty million.

That the situation was no worse was due to the new methods devised for combating the danger. While small towns and the more backward cities still clung to the volunteer system of fire fighting, with sometimes a nucleus of professional firemen, the large places possessed full-time paid departments, though Philadelphia’s dated only from 1871 and St. Paul did not have one until ten years later.

With more efficient organization appeared improved apparatus and equipment. Swinging harness for hitching the horses to the fire wagons came into use in the seventies, as did also the fire boat, the fire-alarm signal box and the water tower.

In the next decade chemical engines were introduced in Chicago, Milwaukee, Springfield, Ohio, and elsewhere. The invention of the Grinnell automatic fire sprinkler in 1877, added to the widening use of fire-resistant building materials—concrete, terra cotta, brick, steel, asbestos—helped further to reduce fire hazards, particularly in factories and office buildings.

Though wide differences continued to exist among cities, the fire departments in general compared favorably with those of any other country. Chicago, for example, had twice as many men and horses and half again as many steam fire engines as London, a city three times as populous.

Chicago after the 1871 fire.
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