Saturday, December 30, 2006

Chester


Before such conveniences as the Second Avenue Elevated, New York was laced with trolley lines - trolleys drawn by strong teams of horses. As the automobile started to take over, horse-powered trolleys were among the last to disappear.

The trolley that ran up First Avenue from Jones' Wood, up the Harlem River Speedway to Marble Hill and back was drawn by a pair of horses, one of which made the run several times a day for 13 years. This horse's name was Old Chester, and he was a great favorite with the passengers and all the various merchants and laborers which he passed several times a day. Chester was a brown horse with a distinctive silhouette-shaped black patch on his side. He often showed up in political cartoons during election season, usually with the silhouette altered to whomever the opponent would be, and (taking more artistic license) with the patch moved tailward. The captions for these cartoons would say "Chester's Choice," "Horse Sense," or "The Steed of Victory?"

When the old line was finally shut down in 1915, Chester was given a great send off. On his last run, he was feted with sugar gumdrops, marzipan, and lots and lots of beer. Yet, the next morning, Chester impatiently stomped around the stall, kicked open the door and went off down his familiar route, where the delighted crowds again showered him with sweets and brew. Chester was getting to like this. He would caper and spin in the street - both showing off and trying to avoid the traffic.

Willie Hammerstein knew a good thing when he saw it and booked Chester into the Victoria on 42nd and Broadway. The act took advantage of his well-known patch, as comic "quick-draw" artist Kevin W. Cruise with charcoal in hand would transform the spot into recognizable caricatures. A stoplight was put onstage so Chester would not walk off or do tricks during this time. The act ran for a couple of months, and made a lot of money for all concerned. Chester even went across the street to the Ziegfeld Follies for a walk-on cameo in Will Rogers' act. Plans were being made for a national tour when Chester died in his sleep on October 18, 1916.

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