A streetcar named Fitzgerald

GM derailed Galesburg's electric streetcar system


By Norm Winick


Galesburg once had a thriving system of inter and intra city streetcars. There were trains to all areas of the city, to the parks, to Abingdon and Knoxville. They were inexpensive to use and operate. They were clean.

They did not disappear because people preferred motorized buses. The streetcars jumped the tracks because of a conspiracy hatched in Detroit.

In the 1930's, most families did not have a car. They didn't need one. Most large and medium sized cities had efficient electric streetcar systems like Galesburg's.

While this sounds like the dream of many urban planners today, it didn't fit into the plans of General Motors. Streetcars were an obstacle to the company's goal of selling buses to transit companies and a new car to every household.

GM took action in 1932. Then the largest U.S. auto and bus manufacturer, they funded a company called "United Cities Motor Transit Company." Its purpose was to buyout the streetcar systems in the cities of America, ditch the cars, destroy the tracks, and replace the system with GM buses.

It worked brilliantly. Springfield Ohio, and Saginaw and Kalamazoo, Michigan were the first targets. After taking over and motorizing the systems, UCMT sold them back to local operators who agreed to replace them with GM buses.

As UCMT worked on taking over the system in Portland, Oregon, the American Transit Association blew the whistle, censured GM, and GM went underground.

GM started working with an outside company, Omnibus, and ran the scam the same way. Within 18 months, the world's largest electric streetcar system, that of New York City, was converted to gas and diesel GM buses.

Now, GM schemed to destroy the hundreds of remaining smaller systems, including Galesburg's.

E. Roy Fitzgerald was a bus system operator in Minnesota. In 1933, A GM salesman talked to him, about the efficient streetcar system in Galesburg and how it was hurting his automobile sales. Fitzgerald was made an offer he could not refuse. GM agreed to finance Fitzgerald's purchase of the Galesburg system if he would convert it to GM buses.

"One night, the streetcars stopped operating. The next morning we started operating modern buses," is how Fitzgerald described his conversion. There was no concern for the legality of the deal or the efficiency of the buses.

After Galesburg, Fitzgerald and GM destroyed systems all over the Midwest. East St. Louis, Cedar Rapids IA, Tulsa OK, Jackson MS all followed. Streetcar tracks were ripped up across America.

But even GM did not have enough money to finance all these purchases. GM and Fitzgerald approached other companies who were the natural beneficiaries of these conversions. While BF Goodrich refused to participate, Firestone agreed. Standard Oil of California was in; so was Greyhound (inter-city rail systems were dug up, too.) Together, these companies invested $10 million in the scheme.

By 1949, GM was involved with replacing electric rail systems by buses in more than 100 cities, including Galesburg, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Oakland, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

The courts took notice.

In April 1949 a jury in Chicago convicted GM, Standard Oil of California, Firestone, and E. Roy Fitzgerald of criminal conspiracy. They were found guilty of "conspiring to replace electric transportation with gas and diesel powered buses and to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to transportation companies throughout the country."

GM and the other companies were fined $5,000 each. Nobody went to jail. The bus, auto, gas and tire sales were worth billions of dollars to each.