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Electric taxis are not a new idea for New York City

Battery powered, hybrid taxicabs are a common sight in Manhattan today.  This may seem high-tech, but in the late 1890's gasoline-powered vehicles were the exception.  Battery-powered electric vehicles outnumbered gasoline engines, by a considerable margin.

The rise and fall of the electric taxi

When William C. Whitney bought the failing New York Electric Cab Company, around 1898, his plans were grandiose.  Then as now, the problem with electric vehicles is the available range.  They soon exhaust batteries, and they require time to recharge.  The company cannot sell this idle time, so costs are high.

Mr. Whitney’s idea is to stockpile fresh, charged batteries and swap them out as needed.  Rather than recharging, a cab simply swapped their batteries and was ready for service.  This allows far more uptime, and costs begin to fall.  The Electric Cab Company expands from less than twenty taxis to two-hundred.  

With plans of a grand expansion, they order sixteen-hundred electric cars.  No one has carefully thought this out.  The logistics of keeping the batteries charged and replaced, prove too much.  Breakdowns and delays become common, and the company fails.

Slower expansion may have bought a little time for the idea.  Likely, it would fail regardless as the much more efficient gasoline-powered  vehicle is literally, right around the corner.  A far greater range, higher speed and lower costs are too much with which to compete.

The first U.S. traffic fatality

Scene of the Henry Hale Bliss fatality in New York City, 1899

The first-recorded, pedestrian/automobile accident, in the United States, was in New York.  Ironically, the first-fatality was also there and only blocks away. Henry Hale Bliss, a New York City real estate broker, died, early September 14th, 1899.  An electrically operated taxi ran over Mr. Bliss the preceding evening.

Late in the nineteenth-century, the Upper West Side is developing, at a rapid pace.  The addition of the American Museum of Natural History and the Dakota Apartments encourages building in the area.  Mr. Bliss recently moved from the Colonial Hotel, to a boarding house at 235 West 75th Street.

One block to the South, Miss Lee works in a home at 129 West 74th Street.  This evening they would interact in a way that would prove disastrous.   It is unclear if the two were together, but apparently they were acquainted.  

About nine, that evening, Mr. Bliss and Miss Lee are traveling in a trolley, south on Central Park West.  The trolley stops in front of the San Remo Hotel, at West 74th street.  Trolley drivers know the area as “dangerous stretch,” because of several accidents this Summer.

How the accident scene may have appeared in 1899

Electric taxicab #34 is also traveling south on Central Park West, driven by Arthur Smith.  Dr. David Edson, the passenger is returning from a late call in Harlem. Another vehicle, believed to be a beer truck, partially blocks the right lane, in front of the San Remo Hotel.  The taxi starts around the obstruction, approaching West 74th Street.

Mr. Bliss assisting Miss Lee off trolley

Mr. Bliss exits first and standing outside the trolley, turns to help Miss Lee step down. Such a courtesy is common with gentlemen of the time.  With so few motorcars on the road, pedestrians would not give oncoming traffic much though.

This evening is dark, and it is too late to stop. Taxi #34 knocks Henry Bliss to the ground and runs over him.  They rush him to the Roosevelt Hospital surgery, a few blocks away, at West 59th Street and Ninth Avenue.

The original Roosevelt Hospital Surgery in 2012 

Miss Lee, frantic, runs to a boardinghouse, where Mr. Bliss lives, and tells them what has occurred.  Henry Bliss suffers injuries that are too serious and passes away early the next morning.  In a much different time, the courts decide the tragic event is an accident, as Mr. Smith did not intend to harm anyone.  

The unmarked grave of Henry Hale Bliss

 Mr. Bliss is quietly laid to rest on September 16, 1899 in Cedar Grove Cemetery, in Flushing New York.  This is the way his grave appears today, with no headstone to mark the spot.


Sight of the original boardinghouse today

Today, little remains of the 1899 world, in which Mr. Bliss lived.  The trolley tracks are gone, replaced by buses and subways.  The Astor Apartments replace the boarding house, in 1901. Luxury apartments, of the same name, replace the San Remo hotel.

The famous Dakota Apartments and the American Museum of Natural History are still original.  Walking around the area today, distinguishing it from any other part of the Upper West Side is difficult.

Dangerous stretch has faded into history much as poor Henry Bliss.  Today thousands travel through the area in safety.  Better roads and traffic signals have helped.  Perhaps today, people are far more aware, that a few careless moments result in tragedy. 

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