James Wilson’s Nursery

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Even before he developed the Wilson’s Albany strawberry that transformed the entire strawberry industry, James Wilson, nurseryman of Albany, was a very successful horticulturalist. His work figures prominently in the report of the Committee on Flowers at the Fair of the New York State Agricultural Society, which was held at Auburn in September 1846. According to the Committee, Wilson showed 132 varieties of flowers at the fair, including 26 varieties of new and rare dahlias, 20 quilled German asters. 14 verbenas, seven phloxes, fuschias and others, including “an exquisitely arranged bouquet composed of thirty-six different varieties of choice and rare flowers, and also a beautifully arranged floral design composed of more than one hundred rare Dahlias, choice roses, Gladioluses, German Asters, Amaranths, Geraniums, Heliotropes, &c. &c.”

For his efforts, he won awards for best floral ornament, best 25 varieties of dahlias, most beautiful bouquet, and best 12 varieties of roses.

Location of James Wilson's NurseryAccording to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” Wilson was gardener for the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. He established his greenhouses with small fruits and trees in 1835, “on what was then a waste place in this city, at the corner of South Knox and Morris streets. His grounds were about three acres, on a sloping hill-side; this was carefully cultivated and planted with nursery stock and flowering shrubs.” That land was essentially cater-corner from the Albany Penitentiary. He had previously been in business with Judge Buel, with whom he established the Albany Nursery under the firm of Buel and Wilson, according to an 1844 description that said there were three large green-houses containing thousands of exotic species.

After his death in 1855, his widow and son continued the business until 1866, when it was passed on to John Sprague, then Frederick J. Welch, and, around 1870, Thomas Davidson, whose name appears on the map pictured.

James Wilson was born in Scotland and died in Albany on June 27, 1855, from pleurisy at the age of 60 years, 4 months and 17 days, according to his burial card from Albany Rural Cemetery. Or, he was born in Scotland (Quigley) on Aug. 15, 1771 and died Nov. 9 1855. It would appear that two James Wilsons from Scotland died and were buried in Albany Rural that year.

By the way, Louis Menand (for whom Menands is named) was at the fair that year too, showing two “very beautiful bouquets arranged with exquisite taste and skill, and composed of 31 varieties of choice flowers.”

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry

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Wilson's Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Once upon a time, nearly every strawberry in the United States was an Albany strawberry. First cultivated by James Wilson at his nursery, “situated at the head of Lydius-street, within three-quarters of a mile of the City Hall,” his strawberry became the dominant breed for decades.

For details, we turn to Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s “The Strawberry in North America: History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding.” Fletcher tells us that before Wilson came along, commercial strawberries were an insignificant industry, occupying less than 1500 acres; Wilson popularized the strawberry for the home garden and for an agricultural industry that grew to 150,000 acres, beginning with his sowing seed of three popular garden varieties in 1851. “The seeds were the result of natural pollination; no hand crossing was done.” At a meeting of the Albany and Rensselaer Horticultural Society in Albany on June 22, 1853, Wilson exhibited a new seedling strawberry, but it did not receive much attention until the next year.

“The following summer James Wilson showed a number of potted plants of his seedling, each laden with fruit. There was no lack of appreciation then. In the words of a current publication, ‘Such was the size and number of the berries upon each plant that people were astonished, curiosity was excited, and public attention was aroused to an examination of the claims of this new strawberry.’ It was then named Wilson’s Albany.” Wilson died in 1855, leaving the nursery to his son John, who saw the rise of the Wilson’s Albany. “By 1861 it had largely superseded all other sorts for market purposes, although the Hovey and Large Early Scarlet persisted for some years, the former near Boston, the latter in western New York, where it vied with Wilson as late as 1864. The Wilson completely dominated the markets of the United States and Canada from 1860 to 1880.” It was estimated that in 1872, the Wilson comprised more than 90 percent of the strawberries in cultivation. Strawberry Fever swept the country between 1858 and 1870, Fletcher says.

“Strawberries commonly sold for thirty to forty cents a quart, and profits of $1000 an acre were not unusual. In 1861 Joseph Harris, editor, editor of the Genesee Farmer, visited Bloomington, Illinois, and found Wilson strawberries selling at fifteen cents a quart, and corn at eight cents a bushel. People who had never before grown strawberries, or any other kind of fruit – merchants, grain and stock farmers, professional men – rushed into the strawberry business.”

Charles Hovey, the Boston area grower, did not take this affront to his former dominance lying down. In 1860, he declared that Wilson’s Albany was “one of the sourest, most dirty colored, and most disagreeable flavored of all recently introduced sorts – an excellent sort to make vinegar of. Besides, it is sot, watery, unfit for carriage, has a very large calyx, and is hollow at the core.” If that weren’t enough, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society called it unfit for general cultivation.

“Boston never ceased to look upon the Wilson with a jaundiced eye. When her sons journeyed southward in 1861, and were forced by dire hunger to partake of the despised fruit, one of the survivors declared, ‘The Wilson strawberry killed more Boston men during the war than Confederate bullets.’”

The complaints weren’t without merit. It was so popular partly for its dependability – it produced large crops without much care. It was firm, and could be shipped easily under the “trying conditions of transportation and marketing that prevailed then.” It did not require professional gardening to grow, and was easy for anyone to cultivate. But it was not sweet. In fact, it was sour. Henry Ward Beecher said “It has every quality of excellent except in the matter of eating.” Nevertheless, the Wilson dominated as a commercial variety for 20 years. Other varieties, including the Crescent and the Sharpless, joined it in commercial dominance, and those three varieties were nearly every strawberry commercially grown for some period of time. Eventually, they were overshadowed by other breeds, and Wilson’s Albany became a memory.

Governor Calls for Health Insurance for Workers

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1920 NY Governor Urges Health Insurance for Workers' Protection

While scouting around for useless information in the journal of the Elevator Constructors union, we ran across this story on Governor Alfred E. Smith’s call for compulsory health insurance for workers, a call that was well ahead of its time and one based on sound reasoning that we seem to have forgotten nearly a century later.

A health insurance law to protect workers and their families against the hazards of sickness is urged as a foremost measure of reconstruction in the message of Gov. Alfred E. Smith at the opening of the 1920 legislative session in which he declares there is pressing need for “a sound program of social, industrial and governmental betterment which will remove those causes of discontent which true Americanism requires should be eradicated.”

Gov. Smith points out that two-thirds of the causes of poverty depend directly or indirectly on sickness and that illness falls with crushing weight on those least able to bear the burden.

“Health insurance,” he says, “assures some measure of that peace of mind which comes from the certainty of proper medical care, the absence of which in cases of illness is always the dread of the worker. It is clearly indicated by recent experience that health protection is essential if we are to have sound able citizens.

“If the individual is to have adequate protection, he must be prepared at all times to defray the expenses of a maximum period of illness. This maximum provision by each individual is financially impossible.

“I reiterate my belief in the principle that health insurance for industrial workers should be compulsory,” Gov. Smith continues. “Expenditures for voluntary health protection is apt to be considered a non-essential and often would prove too heavy a burden on the budgets of the workers. It does not mean that a worker will not be free under health insurance to select a physician of his own choice. It does mean that the worker is assured of the means to provide for proper medical care.”

At the last session of the New York legislature a compulsory health insurance bill passed the Republican senate with the aid of Democratic votes reinforced by Gov. Smith’s strong endorsement, but in the assembly the Speaker’s antagonism prevented it from even coming to a vote. The measure will be introduced again at the present session with the active support of the State Federation of Labor, the combined women’s organizations of the state, prominent civic and social service bodies, progressive employers and physicians, and the great metropolitan press. It is also endorsed by the Reconstruction Commission of the State of New York, a large and representative body including prominent employers, labor officials and physicians, after full investigation and public hearings.

It is reported that the first employer-sponsored hospitalization plan was created by teachers in Dallas, Texas, in 1929, nine years after Smith was speaking. The Roosevelt administration considered a national health insurance program, but it (and all insurance) was opposed by the American Medical Assocation. Employer-sponsored health plans wouldn’t rise until World War II.

Albany, the booming bustling bee-hive!

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The November 1916 issue of “The Elevator Constructor,” the official organ of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (part of the American Federation of Labor), featured correspondence from Charles Nicholson of Albany’s Local No. 35. Brother Nicholson could barely contain his excitement at all the goings on in Albany and beyond – lots of elevator-driven goings on.

“Our old city is a booming, bustling bee-hive Tearing down and building up, tearing up and relaying is the slogan now in the building line and street repairing, and men, from a street laborer to a mechanic, are at a premium. Why, brother, if you haven’t been in the old town within the last five years you won’t know her. She is getting dressed up as a young bride …

Now for a little chat about the brothers here, and the proper thing to do is to start with our honorable president. Brother J. Scott. You have seen him in the picture of our delegates. It is that long, lanky, good-looking fellow towering over the others. He just loves to sink a plunger and pull it out again. He is installing a plunger dumb waiter in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady, for the Otis Company …

Brother Geo. Reynolds is installing two traction machines in the Gas Company’s new building for the Otis Company …

Brother [A.H.] Anderson has just started a job for the Otis Company in the Ten Eyck Hotel Annex, which will be a fifteen-story building. The installation consists of four electric passenger, two electric dumb waiter and two sidewalk lifts …

Brother Nolf has just installed a push-button machine in the post office in Troy for the Otis Company, and is now installing another in the State National Bank in Albany. He just loves push-button machines …

Brother Muller is finishing the installation of an electric freight elevator in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady. This job was started by Brother Boehme, who has since gone back to the big city. We send our good wishes to Brother Boehme …

Now, listen, all you brothers who know Brother Pete McCool. Pete has taken unto himself a better half. He fell in love with an Albany girl, and that settled Pete. We wish the brother and his wife all happiness and good luck in the years to come.”

In an earlier edition that year, the April issue, Brother Nicholson had told of installations of a traction machine in the General Electric Works in Schenectady, a passenger and a freight elevator for the A.B. See Company in a new eight-story apartment building (location not given), four elevators in the county court building.

By the way, Local No. 35 met at German Hall, 46 Beaver Street, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.

 

Plane Boys

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Speaking of Schenectady staples, that faded WGY Coin and Stamp sign was on the side of an old building, now gone, that we best remember as housing Plane Boys. A source of auto parts ad accessories, they also provided automotive service. Anti-freeze, dri-gas, snow tires, and Delco batteries. And sporting goods. Oh, yeah, and bicycles. It was the dream location for certain bicycle-obsessed teenage boys in the 1970s. We never actually bought a bicycle there, and it’s certain that the occasional set of tires, toe clips and handlebar tape we picked up from there wasn’t what kept them in business, but going in there and dreaming of those 10-speeds was always magical. They had a Campagnolo set, for crying out loud . . . they had to be serious.

Plane Boys Grand Opening 2 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

Plane Boys Grand Opening 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

 

The company started in 1945. For many years they were at 111 State Street, at the corner of State and Church in a building that still stands but has never returned to continuous prosperity. They expanded to other locations on upper State Street and 900 Central Avenue in Albany. In 1963, they opened a modern location at 123 State Street, where owners Hy, Lou and Joe Plaine “decided the store’s customer needs could better be served with larger facilities . . . The new store is completely air-conditioned and its variety of wares consists of auto accessories, tires, auto seat covers, storage batteries and auto parts including mufflers, spark plugs, floor mats and other parts.”

But most important: “Also sold by the Plane Boys, operating under the corporate title of Plane Realty Co., Inc., are sporting goods and toys, new discount record department, new muffler shop, television and small appliances, houseware and hardware, and toiletries. New feature at the store is a snack bar for the convenience of customers.” They opened the new store Nov. 21, 1963. (A day later, the nation would be shocked by assassination and probably thinking very little of sporting goods.)

We’re not sure when they left this modern location. Eventually the family business would morph into skis and bicycles, and in recent years has been growing again with multiple locations under various names in the Capital District, including Albany’s Broadway Bicycle Co.

Plane Boys 1967

1967 Ad for Plane Boys

Plane Boys 1973

1973 Ad for Plane Boys

Ran-Zee Sign

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Ran-Zee Sign LogoAnother old picture from a stray wander around Schenectady, already 10 years ago. On an old concrete wall underneath the railroad tracks, along the parking lot at Broadway and Liberty, the remnants of some old painted signs were tucked under a tangle of vines, and the only bit that could be made out was the sign-painter’s mark, the logo of Ran-Zee Signs. Unfortunately, we’ve never found much about this company.

An obituary from 2004 says that Michael DeMartino was the owner and operator of Ran-Zee Signs on Albany Street from 1959-1997. A graduate of Nott Terrace High School, he attended Republic School of Sign Painting in New York City, and was employed for several years at ALCO where he used his skill applying gold leaf lettering to the locomotive engines. He was also a free lance artist.

We don’t know where else his mark may be found around Schenectady or the surrounding cities . . . I’m hoping there are still plenty of his little marks to be found. If you want to see this one, though, we’d recommend searching for it in the winter, because this was the state of the vines in 2011:

Street View Broadway and Ferry

WGY Coin & Stamp

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WGY Coin & Stamp Co.We recently ran across this picture we took 10 years ago of a fading sign for parking for the WGY Coin & Stamp Company of Schenectady. This was affixed to the side of the building at the corner of State and South Ferry, now gone. WGY Coin and Stamp was long a fixture at 120 State Street, and later at 142, though as nothing more than the most amateur of schoolboy philatelists, we rarely ventured inside. Unlike the grocery stores that licensed the name, we don’t find an indication of any particular relationship between the numismatic dealer and its namesake radio station. While we have found at least two gentlemen associated with it who have passed on in recent years, we found little on the business or its ownership. In a 1970 edition of the Gazette, it was listed as one of Schenectady’s businesses that had been around for under five years, putting its genesis somewhere after 1965.

WGY Coin Co. Ad

“One Thing I Know, They Won’t Find Arsenic”

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hendrickson-maria-van-deusen-18331853As rough and tumble as Albany could be in the early to mid 19th century, some of the most notable crimes occurred out in the suburbs. One was the shocking poisoning of a young wife, Maria Van Dusen Hendrickson, by her philandering young husband, John Hendrickson, Jr. It was one of the earlier cases of forensic pathology used to prove a murder case in the United States.

In January, 1851, John Hendrickson Jr. married Maria Van Dusen, daughter of former county clerk Lawrence Van Dusen, “a most respectable citizen, and a man of unquestioned integrity;” he was said to have considerable wealth. Maria was 17, “well educated, accomplished, amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate.” Hendrickson pursued Maria although her parents opposed marriage “on the ground that Hendrickson’s character was bad, his conduct rowdyish, and that he had led a life of idleness, and was not, therefore, a fit companion for their daughter.” They married anyway, and lived with the Van Dusens in Clarksville while occasionally visiting Hendrickson’s father, who lived four miles away in Bethlehem.

That very summer, Hendrickson committed a “gross assault upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville.” After a side trip to Schoharie County, where he made a promise of marriage that Maria found out about, he took off for Corning, NY (for reasons not revealed) and stayed there for about three months, until the end of 1851. While he was away, Maria gave birth. Shortly after his return, the six-week-old child was found dead in the bed “in a very singular manner, Hendrickson occupying the middle, the wife the back, and the child the front part of the bed.” More than that is not explained.

“After the return of the prisoner from Corning, he communicated to his wife a loathsome disease, which he had contracted during his absence, and which was the original and only cause of the illness under which his wife ever labored, a disease of the womb, which, as a matter of course, was a source of not only great bodily affliction, but also of intense mortification and shame to her sensitive mind.”

On discovery of this, Hendrickson was cast out of the house in January 1852 and moved to his father’s, but the couple continued to visit each other from time to time. Maria’s health improved (the precise disease she contracted is not explained). In January 1853, Hendrickson convinced Maria to visit his father’s house two or three times, and then she went back there in February to stay for a period of time. She was expected to return to her mother’s house on March 6, a Sunday, but for some reason she did not. That evening she went to church with the Hendrickson family and, after reading from the bible and a religious paper, retired to bed with her husband about 10 o’clock, in an attic bedroom they had only slept in for two or three nights – prior to that, they had slept in the same downstairs room as the two sisters of Hendrickson.

How the alarm was raised was not quite explained, but somewhere around 2 in the morning, Hendrickson was “halloing” and his sisters went up the stairs to find Maria non-responsive, but they were not of the belief that she was dead. None of the family thought to ask him what had happened.  In his address to the jury, the district attorney, Andrew J. Colvin, said,

“Return we now to the deceased. We shall find the family engaged in using means for her revival, but to no effect. Neighbors were sent for, but not physician, although she was not supposed by them to be dead for a considerable time after they found her. And, gentlemen, it will be told you that there was no physician residing within three miles, and that for that reason they did not send for any . . . The prisoner follows the body, as of course he must, or instant accusation would have been the consequence, and a coroner and able physician and surgeon from the city follow in his wake on the same day; for, gentlemen, suspicious circumstances attend the event of her death, and the whole community is moved by the apprehension that a dark and shocking murder has been perpetrated.”

Hendrickson apparently immediately embarked on a campaign of appearing as suspicious as possible. Actually, the campaign had started at least a week before. Hendrickson had been wandering around Albany, visiting pharmacies asking for prussic acid. “On Tuesday or Wednesday of the week preceding the death of his wife, the prisoner is found asking for prussic acid at Dr. Springsteed’s. On Saturday he is seen going into another drug store, and some time during the same week, a person answering exactly to the general appearance, and dressed in a costume corresponding exactly with the ordinary apparel of the prisoner, buys of Mr. Burroughs, the druggist, an ounce of the tincture of aconite, the very kind of poison with which, it is charged in the indictment, the prisoner poisoned his wife.”

Tincture of aconite was known for its potency and it difficulty of detection. So, while being held, and while a post mortem is being conducted, Hendrickson asked someone what the physicians and coroner were doing and what they had found. He was told they were taking out her stomach, and that it was not known that they had found anything. To that he responded, “One thing I know, they won’t find arsenic.” Well, yes, that’s an innocent statement. Then he asked, “Suppose they put poison into her stomach yesterday, can it be known or ascertained?”

There is more, so much more, to show that Hendrickson was an all-around horrible human being, and that he may have tried to poison her once before. He claimed he got the venereal disease from a “fall on the railroad” while in Corning. He was caught passing a note to a prostitute. After his child’s death, he was courting a woman he had previously been engaged to. He gambled and stole and fought with his wife. A week after the death of his wife, he was “seen in the county jail dancing negro breakdowns and other hilarious dances with all the vehemence in his power, and subsequently doing the same on the Sabbath as well as on week days.”

The DA introduced evidence that she died by tincture of aconite, which created some particular effects revealed by autopsy, and which was found in her body. (You may know aconite as monkshood or wolf’s bane.) The post mortem was conducted by the esteemed Dr. Swinburne. With a preponderance of evidence of the terrible character of the suspect and his own semi-incriminating behavior, the jury did not delay in finding Hendrickson guilty, guilty, guilty.

In pronouncing sentence upon Hendrickson, Judge Richard P. Marvin showed tremendous prescience:

“…I desire to impress, not only upon you, but upon all, the fact, that as science advances – as it unfolds to the student the great storehouse of knowledge, and lets man penetrate into the very arcana of nature – that as it advances, step by step, it enables its votaries to detect the most subtle poisons, and to trace the very footsteps of crime. Chemists are enabled now, through the wonderful developments of science – and science detects your crime – to detect almost all poisons, whether vegetable or metallic, to trace out cases of poisoning, (no matter what may be the character of the poison administered), with almost unerring certainty. And it is as dangerous to attempt murder with the most subtle vegetable poison, and as certain to be detected, as if the murder were committed with the dirk or the stiletto. Your case may have its moral effect upon community in this view of it. Community should understand that the crime of murder cannot be committed in this day of light, in any manner or by any means, without leaving the evidence of guilt; and this evidence always points out, unerringly, to the guilty individual.”

The judge pronounced that on August 26th, 1853, Hendrickson was to be hung by the neck until he was dead. He was the first prisoner hanged in the new Maiden Lane jail.

 

Fred Lillie, Armless Announcer

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While describing the relative safety of employment at the Schenectady GE works in 1913, we glossed over what was one of the most dangerous forms of employment of the time, railroad work. At that point, railroad work carried a fatality rate of 2.4 deaths per 1000 employees. Non-fatal accidents, of course, were even more common, and many were the workers who went home short a limb. Fred Lillie was one, as told in this 1906 Albany Evening Journal article:

Fred Lillie, the young messenger of the New York Central Railroad Co., who had his arms cut off in the West Albany yards about a year ago, has secured a position as train announcer at the Union station. He took up his duties this morning, but few of the many persons who passed through the station realized that the clear-voiced young man was armless.

Lillie was at one time employed as a messenger by the Central and made frequent trips between here and West Albany. About a year ago he jumped on the engine of train 29 at the Union station and started for West Albany. Arriving there he leaped from the engine while the train was in motion and fell across the opposite track with his arms spread across the rail. Another train came along at the time and severed his two arms near the shoulder.

He was taken to the hospital, where he recovered, and has secured a pair of artificial arms. Of course he is practically helpless, but the Central officials looked about to see what they could do for him, and it was decided that he could perform the duties of announcer very well. The megaphone which Announcer Day used has been suspended on a hook so that it just reaches Lillie’s mouth, and there is no doubt that he will make good as a caller of trains.

In 1905, Frederick C. Lillie was listed as 19 years old, a messenger living at 5 Clinton St. with family –  his 23-year-old sister, and his mother Mary and  stepfather Joseph Alexander. We’re sorry to say that while the loss of his arms led him to work that depended on his lungs, Fred’s lungs weren’t on his side either: he died of tuberculosis in 1907, at the age of 22. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Fishing Is Dangerous!

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Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” from 1919 gives us an unsurprisingly romantic view of the Schenectady General Electric works at that time. In addition to providing us with Charles Steinmetz’s private shorthand method, its appendix section (titled “Fragments”) gave a little recitation of industrial accident facts to show that life at GE was pretty safe, especially in comparison to some occupations.

“A man who fishes for a living is really in a very dangerous occupation, as on the average three men out of 1,000 lose their lives at this work every year. Comparing this with the figures of the General Electric fatalities . . . it is seen that in round umbers that it is 30 times more dangerous to fish for a living than to work in the General Electric shops, surrounded by high pressure steam, high voltage electricity, with tons of steel and cast iron being swung over your head by the electric cranes, and with tens of thousands of tons of freight moved daily on the two railway systems within the works.”

industrial-accidents-1919Using figures from 1913, Ripley showed that pretty much every industry of the time had a significantly higher rate of fatal accidents than the GE Schenectady works did. At a time when the works employed nearly 21,000 people, it suffered only two fatalities in 1916 (a rate of 0.099 per 1000). Only the line of “general” manufacturing even approached GE’s rate, at 0.25 per thousand. Only the overall rate for “all other occupied females” fared better than GE, at 0.075 per thousand.

“Who would ever imagine that men engaged in agricultural pursuits, the farmers, should suffer from a high rate of ‘industrial accident?’” Hoxsie has met a lot of farmers and even today, their fingers often don’t add up to 10, so this is no surprise.

It’s a little hard to make a comparison to the present day, as what is included in these categories may have changed over time. What then fell under draymen and teamsters would almost certainly be truck drivers and freight loaders today, with a whole different set of threats. It’s certainly safer today to be a street railway employee, though the opportunities have also decreased. But for even a rough comparison, the building and construction trade saw 1875 deaths in 1913. In 2014, the private construction industry saw an uptick in fatalities, to a total of 899 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). If you lump together mining and quarrying in 1913, there were 3560 fatalities. A century and a year later, fatal injuries in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries rose to 183. BLS now lumps farming, fishing and forestry together, with 253 deaths (77 of those in logging) in 2014; in 1913, that number was probably more like 5,447.

Since those are absolute numbers, not rates, it helps to have a little bit of perspective. In 1913, the US population was about 97.23 million. In 2014, it was about 318.9 million – 3.28 times greater.

So for everyone who says, “We didn’t used to have all this safety stuff, and we were fine” – no, you weren’t. You died in droves. Unless, of course, you worked at the Schenectady works.