Tag Archives: Gurdon Wattles

We Can’t Drive 55

June 8, 2017 by

I have a little pinback button with a red flag emblazoned with the words “Safety First.” It was produced in 1915 by the Nebraska Safety League, which seems to have been one of a number of grassroots efforts to improve public safety.

This was in response to the nationwide development of a group called the National Council for Industrial Safety, which initially focused on workplace safety, but expanded its scope in the next few years to include traffic and home concerns (changing its name to the National Safety Council).

About that time, Omaha’s city commissioner, John J. Ryder, visited New York and discovered something called the “American Museum of Safety,” which functioned, in part, to instruct school children about street safety. He was enamored with this idea and advocated for a local version.

Both recommendations came at the end of an era of almost unbridled carnage in the streets. To read the newspapers of the era, crossing the street sometimes sounded like a game of Frogger, with pedestrians dodging carriages, streetcars, automobiles, and runaway horses. Auto fatalities had skyrocketed—a total of 54 people had died in crashes in 1900, but by 1915 nearly 7,000 Americans had been killed on the roads.

The first talk of speed limits in Omaha seems to have occurred as far back as 1903, when an automobile ordinance was proposed. There weren’t many car owners in town, and they tended to be wealthy, and tended to get their way as a result. When the ordinance suggested a low speed limit of six-to-eight miles per hour, the car owners rebelled. Included among them was Gurdon Wattles, who made his fortune in transportation. He complained that cars only went two speeds, slow and fast, and slow was too slow to be much good, and fast was too fast for the speed limit. He suggested 12 miles per hour would be satisfactory.

They got their way, but almost immediately advances in auto technology rendered this limit moot. By 1905, cars were speeding around Omaha at 40 miles per hour, and police were complaining it was nearly impossible to enforce the limit—to tell a car’s speed, police had to watch a car travel from one area to the next and count seconds, and then do some quick math. In 1909, there was even a proposal to reduce the speed limit again, back down to six miles per hour, to discourage cars driving at dangerous speeds.

Instead, the speed limit crept upward. By 1911, it was 15 miles per hour. By the 1920s, with the advent of highways built specifically for automobiles, the maximum speed jumped to 25 miles per hour. By 1935, it was 35. And in 1969, speeds on the highways leapt to 60 miles per hour.

So it has been ever since, but for a brief period in the 1970s when, in response to spiking oil prices, there was a national maximum speed limit off 55 miles per hour, which proved unpopular enough for Sammy Hagar to enjoy chart success with a song titled “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The federal limits were repealed in 1995. Currently, the maximum speed limit in Nebraska is 75 miles per hour, a speed that Gurdon Wattles probably would have enjoyed.

This article was printed in the May/June edition of 60 Plus.

We Can’t Drive 55

April 27, 2017 by

I have a little pinback button with a red flag emblazoned with the words “Safety First.” It was produced in 1915 by the Nebraska Safety League, which seems to have been one of a number of grassroots efforts to improve public safety.

This was in response to the nationwide development of a group called the National Council for Industrial Safety, which initially focused on workplace safety, but expanded its scope in the next few years to include traffic and home concerns (changing its name to the National Safety Council).

About that time, Omaha’s city commissioner, John J. Ryder, visited New York and discovered something called the “American Museum of Safety,” which functioned, in part, to instruct school children about street safety. He was enamored with this idea and advocated for a local version.

Both recommendations came at the end of an era of almost unbridled carnage in the streets. To read the newspapers of the era, crossing the street sometimes sounded like a game of Frogger, with pedestrians dodging carriages, streetcars, automobiles, and runaway horses. Auto fatalities had skyrocketed—a total of 54 people had died in crashes in 1900, but by 1915 nearly 7,000 Americans had been killed on the roads.

The first talk of speed limits in Omaha seems to have occurred as far back as 1903, when an automobile ordinance was proposed. There weren’t many car owners in town, and they tended to be wealthy, and tended to get their way as a result. When the ordinance suggested a low speed limit of six-to-eight miles per hour, the car owners rebelled. Included among them was Gurdon Wattles, who made his fortune in transportation. He complained that cars only went two speeds, slow and fast, and slow was too slow to be much good, and fast was too fast for the speed limit. He suggested 12 miles per hour would be satisfactory.

They got their way, but almost immediately advances in auto technology rendered this limit moot. By 1905, cars were speeding around Omaha at 40 miles per hour, and police were complaining it was nearly impossible to enforce the limit—to tell a car’s speed, police had to watch a car travel from one area to the next and count seconds, and then do some quick math. In 1909, there was even a proposal to reduce the speed limit again, back down to six miles per hour, to discourage cars driving at dangerous speeds.

Instead, the speed limit crept upward. By 1911, it was 15 miles per hour. By the 1920s, with the advent of highways built specifically for automobiles, the maximum speed jumped to 25 miles per hour. By 1935, it was 35. And in 1969, speeds on the highways leapt to 60 miles per hour.

So it has been ever since, but for a brief period in the 1970s when, in response to spiking oil prices, there was a national maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour, which proved unpopular enough for Sammy Hagar to enjoy chart success with a song titled “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The federal limits were repealed in 1995. Currently, the maximum speed limit in Nebraska is 75 miles per hour, a speed that Gurdon Wattles probably would have enjoyed.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

Gurdon Wattles and the Streetcar Riots of 1909

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt WIeczorek

It is difficult to imagine Omaha’s once-bustling streetcar system. Scarce evidence remains: There are alleys downtown paved in brick with rail lines running down them, and some old buildings that were once car barns, but that’s about it.

If there is little physical reminder of streetcars’ heyday, there is nothing left of the labor unrest that enveloped the era, despite the fact that it was national news and left an astonishing legacy.

The main character of this story is Gurdon Wattles. A native of New York and a graduate of Dartmouth, Wattles came to Omaha in 1892, finding work here as the vice president of one of the city’s banking concerns.

pagesanThere were several competing forms of transportation at the time. There was the Omaha Horse Railway, which provided something called “horsecars,” which were essentially streetcars drawn by horses. They had five miles of track running through the city, transporting almost a half a million Omahans per year. Then there was the Omaha Cable Tramway Co., which owned a cable car, the only one in the city. The Omaha Horse Railway eventually merged with the Omaha Cable Tramway Co. in 1889.

The city was a mess of rail lines and competing services, which would sometimes sue each other. Wattles joined the fray in 1890, buying controlling interest in one of the companies, and then taking advantage of a Nebraska legislative measure calling for all the lines to be consolidated. The result was the Omaha Traction Co., which was not only one of the nation’s earliest streetcar lines, but also one of it’s longest–lasting. Omaha still had streetcars in 1955.

The streetcar company grew to include 140 miles of tracks and 1,500 employees, and that was a lot of employees to keep happy. In 1909, a national streetcar union called the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees attempted to unionize local labor, but Wattles rebuffed the attempts in a way that was common at the time. He hired strikebreakers.

Wattles told his men that he would not allow a union. When they went on strike, he replaced them with laborers from New York, whom Wattles cheerily described as a “jolly lot of disreputable” and “always ready for a fight.”

The strikers were ready for a fight, too. On September 19, 1909, they rioted in downtown Omaha, attacking streetcars and battling strikebreakers. They continued to riot for four days, and largely had the support of the public, who refused to ride streetcars during the strike.

But the strikers could not compete against cheap labor that was on hand to fill their positions, and by October the strike had ended. Wattles would write a book about it, crowing about his success. The book—titled A Crime Against Labor—argued for a standing national force of strikebreakers for similar incidents of labor unrest.

However, the strike damaged Wattles’ reputation in Omaha. Once a city leader, he felt himself attacked by “socialistic and anarchistic elements.” In 1920, he moved to a small citrus grove in Los Angeles, and invested heavily in the development of the neighborhood, which expanded quickly and grew rich.

And that’s the strangest legacy of the 1909 strike: That neighborhood was Hollywood. His mansion still stands there today.

Visit douglascohistory.org for more information. Omaha Magazine