Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Coroner's Report for 1889

For the final post of the decade we’re stepping back 130 years to check out the coroner’s year-end report for 1889. Coroner Neven C. Gamble and the Deputy Coroner was George T. Barnhill released their report explaining that their office handled about 145 cases, the various causes, and the names of the victims.

This does not mean only 145 people died in New Castle County that year. It means they were called upon to determine the cause of death and if criminal circumstances or negligence played a role in the deaths of 145 people. To do so they formed a jury that looked at the facts related to the death and assigned an official cause and determined if was the result of criminal or negligent actions.  Of those 145 deaths, 68 were considered violent deaths with the greatest number of people, 30 in all, met their fate from railroad accidents.

Railroad switching yards were dangerous places and Wilmington’s West Yard was the largest and busiest in Delaware. These switching yards were not fenced off, locals would often cut through when walking, kids would go to watch trains, and people would board freight trains to travel. Additionally, people used the tracks as walking paths and being on the right of way was not considered trespassing.

The stories of the dead are often horrific and newspapers of the day went into very graphic detail, providing a glimpse of both the danger and the vastly different way the departed were handled at the time. A sample of their stories include the following.

Ernst Gabriel, age 15, was on his way to work at Edge Moor on January 10, 1889. He was hit by a train at Landlith when he ran across the tracks attempting to catch the workmen’s train and was hit by a passing freight train. The coroner’s jury censured the railroad and engineer because they felt the freight train was running too fast. No charges were made but the censure open the path for civil action against the railroad be Gabriel’s family.

Charles E. Spencer, 30-years old, were working as the conductor of a northbound freight train at New Castle on February 1 when he fell under the wheels and was cut in half. His remains were carefully gathered up and conveyed to Wilmington by train and then transferred to his home at 707 Spruce Street. At his memorial service a railroad friend recalled Spencer once commented about the dangers of railroading, “I want a through ticket when I go, and I think I have one.” Spencer left behind a wife and child.

Roger Bayne, track worker was found dead at West Yard on March 9.  He was apparently struck by a train but no train crew never noticed striking anyone. Bayne lived at 1111 Chestnut Street and his body was brought to his house.

Michael Madden, age 25, was killed at West Yard on March 12 as he attempted to hop onboard a moving freight, slipped, fell under the wheels, and was run over by 30 cars.

Two men were struck and killed by a train at West Yard while walking the tracks on September 30. One had papers in his pocket identifying him as Patrick Ryan and the second man was unidentified. Both though to be in their forties and recent immigrants from Ireland. Many people stopped by the morgue to have a look, but neither body was ever claimed.

In that era, so many people were killed on the railroad that the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad had both a hospital and morgue at its station in Wilmington. If you read the article you will also notice that amongst the 145 deaths investigated in New Castle County, there were 4 people killed by gunshot wounds, 2 stabbed, 13 drowned, 5 suicides, and 12 other types of accidents.

Anyone working for the railroad had to have known more than one coworker who was killed and could very well have picked up the remains and transported them to the station onboard the train. The notion of delivering a person's remains to their late home is just not anything that has happened in many decades. The situation at the house on Charles E. Spencer must have been beyond anything imaginable when his remains were returned to his late residence at 707 Spruce Street.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Christmas Blizzard of 1909

Evening Journal 12-28-1909
On Christmas Day in 1909 the snow started falling in Wilmington. The snow kept falling for two days straight and Wilmington, the surrounding areas, and much of the east coast were hit with one of the worst blizzards on record. Over 20 inches of snow fell and many high drifts wreaked havoc throughout the region. The main issue in snowstorms, back then as well as today, is primarily transportation. In 1909 travel through snow was a lot different than today.

Today we count on DelDOT’s massive plows, some weighing as much as 70,000 lbs., to clear our roads in short order. Then many people fire up snow blowers and then set out in
Evening Journal 12-28-1909
all-wheel-drive vehicles. In 1909 things were much different, Henry Ford’s famous Model T Ford, which was the cutting edge of personal transportation had only been around for one year. People in 1909 mostly relied on trolley cars, trains, horses, and their own feet to get around. As the snow continued to fall transportation became more and more difficult until it all came to a halt. And Wilmington did not own a single snow plow! The newspapers were filled with stories of people being stranded, helping each other, and making the best of the situation.

Everyone who lived through the Blizzard of 1909 has passed on, there are no films, and few photos, so what we have left are the colorful newspaper accounts. The piece is an attempt to highlight some of the interesting accounts.

Evening Journal 12-27-1909
Trolley cars were stranded all over, people made the best of it, and often strangers stepped in to help stranded folks with food and lodging. One People’s Railway car was stranded near Rockford Park with 6 men and 6 women on board. The men dug a path to a nearby house where the women spent the night. The men returned to the trolley car where the spent the night smoking cigars, singing, and telling yarns. The next day the Bancroft and Sons Company sent a team of eight sturdy horses pulling a plow to clear the way to rescue the stranded passengers.

Evening Journal 12-30-1909
A group of three hundred young people were roller skating at the Country Roller Rink at Brandywine Springs when the trolley line became impassable. They spent the night at the rink and about seventy went to the nearby German Kitchen restaurant where they were fed by proprietors Mr. & Mrs. L. C. Martin. A group tried to walk home but only made it as far as Greenbank where they were forced to take shelter overnight in the New Castle County Workhouse. Another trolley was heading from New Castle to Delaware City and became stranded and the whereabout of the trolley car and safety of the crew and passengers was unknown for several days.

The powerful locomotives of the Pennsylvania Railroad were no match for the drifting snow.
Morning News 12-27-1909
A locomotive attempting to push through a snow drift derailed at Middletown causing it to come to rest sideway across the tracks closing the railroad altogether. A Norfolk-bound passenger train near Dover with two locomotives became stuck for twelve hours in another massive snow drift. The passengers told to Morning News they broke out decks of cards and played pinochle while an orchestra onboard played music. When the train finally made it to Dover the Pennsylvania Railroad was ready with hundreds of fresh oysters, ham and cheese sandwiches, and gallons of hot coffee for everyone.

Over on the B&O Railroad a passenger train became stuck in a massive snow drift near Stanton holding its passengers captive for twelve hours while another train became stranded at Silverside. The Reading Railroad did not escape without calamity, two locomotives derailed in the vicinity of New Bridge causing much excitement in the area around Rising Sun and Henry Clay Village.

Evening Journal 12-28-1909
The trolley companies were paralyzed and rounded up a thousand men to dig out. These men were offered cash to labor with shovels to clear the colossal amount of snow. Many showed up with burlap sacks tied to their feet as protection from the cold. The Wilmington Police Department offered a deal to the local drunks locked up in the city jail, freedom in exchange for helping to dig out the snow-bound city.

The Wilmington Police Department had to disconnect its
Morning News 12-27-1909
callbox system because the heavy snow caused electrical wires to fall onto the police callbox wires. Each time this happened a high-voltage shock came through causing the reporting booth at the station became filled with a blue flame. The officers on duty reported “the display was pretty to look at, but very unpleasant for anyone who happened to be near the reporting instrument.” One can only imagine what that must have been like.

By December 30, 1909 Delaware was mostly dug out. The trolley lines within the city were operating but the lines to Newport and Holly Oak were still blocked and trolley car were reported as being stuck somewhere out on those lines. All of the railroad lines were reported
Morning News 12-29-199
to be operating and life was returning to normal. The Morning News praised the local milkmen who made their way through the deep snow to deliver milk to the residents of Wilmington. The Wilmington Police Department reported there was not much to do because since every able-bodied man was shoveling for the last few days there were no drunks getting into trouble. They turned their attention to youngsters sledding who were in danger of being run down by trolley cars or toppling pedestrians on sidewalks.

Another 87 years would pass until the next time Wilmington saw more than 20 inches of snow when the Blizzard of 1996 delivered nearly 2 feet of snow. There have been a few storms since then that have dumped more than 20 inches of snow, including Snowmageddon in 2010, but in no time in history has Wilmington dealt with so much snow using almost exclusively manpower.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Electrical Connections -- Garrett, Miller, & Company -- 1889-1997

The story starts with a December 24, 1915 ad for toy electric trains in the Evening Journal.
The toy trains, probably some of the first sold in Wilmington, were being offered for sale by Garrett, Miller, & Company. If you’ve lived in Wilmington long enough you know that name. The way research works is often one little bit of information sparks interest in something else which is the case with Garrett, Miller, & Company, a company certainly worth writing about.

Garrett, Miller, & Company dates back to February 14, 1889, when George W. Stone and J.R. Hudson incorporated the Stone and Hudson Supply and Machinery Company. This company was located at Water Street in Wilmington and its primary business was plumbing and ship chandlery. Two year later it was reorganized as Delaware Electric & Supply Company and moved to 211 Shipley Street where it operated for many years.

On February 26, 1895, Wilmington native Frank S. Garrett and his friend Henry K. Miller left positions with the William Sellers Company of Philadelphia and purchased the electrical department of Delaware Electric & Supply to form their own company. This company went on to be one that Wilmingtonians came to know and trust for a century-- Garrett, Miller, & Company.

Garrett was the grandson of Thomas Garrett, Underground Railroad conductor and friend of Harriet Tubman. The two of them led hundreds of slaves to freedom and Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington honors the pair.

Delaware Electric & Supply continued on Shipley street and Garrett, Miller, & Company set up shop at 4th and Orange Streets. It’s important to note that these were the early days of electricity and the future held many electrical devices not yet invented. Initially the firm sold electrical supplies for construction but soon ventured into other electrical devices.

From the Evening Journal
February 16, 1916
In 1916 they were offering upright vacuum cleaners and lamps. in the 1920s they jumped into selling the cutting-edge technology of AM radio. They were selling the Atwater Kent brand which was manufactured in what was reported to be the world’s largest radio factory in Philadelphia. Today the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent carries that name.

By the 1920s they were selling a wide array of electrical items including added smaller items such as toasters, curling irons, and heating pads along with the larger appliances including the White Lily brand washing machines and Frigidaire brand refrigerators in the 1920s as well. In 1925 their ads boasted, "Now only $190 now only for the unit that makes your ice box a Frigidaire." In the 1930s the firm picked up the Philco brand of radios and soon became a regional distributor.

Electricity had brought a technological revolution and Garrett, Miller, & Company was riding high. Through the years they became Wilmington
premier appliance retailer. Henry K. Miller died in 1925 at age 64 and the business continued with Garrett in charge until his retirement in 1948. Donald K. Farquhar became vice president and general manager and eventually purchased the company. Garrett died in 1950 at age 81.

In the 1960s the company moved to Germay Drive and continued to dominate the appliance market in Wilmington. By the 1990s the landscape for retail appliance sales had changed and Garrett Miller struggled on until 1997 when the company closed its doors forever. Farquhar remained active with the company until it closed.

The Delaware Electric & Supply Company remained on Shipley Street and in 1930 changed its name to Desco Corporation. With the electrical business sold, their focus was selling industrial piping and fittings. The company left Wilmington in the 1960s and moved to Basin Road and became McArdle-Decso Corporation. They were eventually taken over by Deacon Industrial Supply and the Basin Road facility was closed.

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