W.Va. native managed town’s 1st street railway
A horse-drawn streetcar is shown at the junction of Broadway and Market streets, Hannibal, Mo. The first street railway service began in 1878, and George Mifflin Dallas Conley was Hannibal’s first street car superintendent. Photo from “The Story of Hannibal” by J. Hurley and Roberta Hagood.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
George Mifflin Dallas Conley is most likely a name that will not ring a bell with any current resident of Hannibal, Mo. He came to town from Jefferson County, West Virginia, circa 1878, and slipped away to St. Louis sometime before 1885. But in between these important post-Civil War years, he held a responsible and impactful position within this small-yet-growing town located along the banks of the Mississippi River.
He was Hannibal’s first street car superintendent, and is credited with the timely establishment and operation of the town’s first orderly system of horse-drawn public transportation.
Those who study Hannibal’s history know that samples of surviving Hannibal newspapers for those days are sporadic. But other newspapers - such as Conley’s hometown newspaper in Shepherdstown, W.Va., survive, and chronicle the advances in Hannibal’s street railway construction from the vantage point of the young man from their community who moved west.
On Aug. 8, 1878, the Shepherdstown Register reprinted a story from the Hannibal Courier: “Amongst the laudable enterprises recently introduced in Hannibal, and which has already proven a success, is the Hannibal Street Railway, a project entered into by a company of four persons, only a few months since, and today, at the expiration of just two weeks, it has been demonstrated that the street railway is to be a paying institution, despite the croaking of those, who having no interest in the matter, insisted that it would not pay.”
George M.D. Conley was still a young man of 30 when he came to Hannibal, but he already had experience working with street railroads in the East. In December 1876, he was employed as a conductor on a street car in the nation’s capitol, and in the spring of 1877, working as a purchasing agent, came back to his home county in nearby West Virginia in order to purchase horses for the street railroad system then serving Washington, D.C.
After the line was complete in Hannibal and open for business, he drew a compliment from the Hannibal Courier (which was then owned by Elliott C. and Julia M. Bennett): “Under the efficient management of Mr. G.D. Conley, the superintendent, the street railway is now in splendid condition and the cars are run strictly on schedule time. By his courteous manner of doing business he is making a host of friends in this city.”
The officers of the road, according to the Aug. 10, 1878, Shepherdstown Register newspaper article:
C.N. Armstrong, president.
J. L. Van Every, vice president. (Born in Canada in 1844. During the era of 1875-1880, ice dealer between Bird and Hill in Hannibal. The family moved to Los Angeles sometime after 1880, where John L. Van Every died in 1916.)
Benton Coontz, secretary and treasurer. (Father to Rear Admiral Robert E. Coontz.)
Charles Soat, assistant secretary and treasurer; and
G.D. Conley, superintendent.
The first step required of railroad construction was procuring the street right of way from the city, followed by the ordering of iron, ties and cars for the road. Once the procurement was accomplished, construction began.
The contractor and builder was Goodwin Otis Bishop, of Hannibal, a railroad contractor who in 1880 lived at 400 N. Fifth.
Three months following the street railway’s inaugural launch, work was completed on a spur along South Main Street. In November 1878, the Shepherdstown Register offered an update on Hannibal’s progress:
“The street railway is now completed along South Main street to its junction with the Broadway line, and today the track of the connecting curve is being laid. Mr. Conley deserves credit for the successful manner in which he has engineered the laying of the tract throughout, and especially for the curve and railroad crossing on Collier street. (Hannibal Courier)”
Also: “The track of the South Main street railway is in excellent condition, and is due to the skillful management of Mr. G.D. Conley. (Hannibal Clipper)”
The new company acquired three cars, made by the Stephenson company, known as double-enders, consisting of a platform at each end. They were designed to run without a conductor, and were patterned in the “bobtail” style used in larger cities. Tickets were initially sold in slips of five for 25 cents.
Information provided by J.Hurley and Roberta Hagood in their book, “The Story of Hannibal,” reveals that early street car tracks were installed North Main to Hill Street, and South Main to Collier; and westward on Broadway to the wedge at Market and Broadway.
George M.D. Conley wasn’t the first of his family to venture West following the Civil War. His brother, William H. Conley, settled in Quincy, Ill., in 1867, working as a contractor. At the onset of the Civil War, William H. Conley enlisted in Company B, and served throughout the war in the Stonewall Brigade.
William H. Conley returned for a visit to his childhood home in Virginia during early February, 1878, in company with his wife Jennie McLaughlin Conley, and their three young children, Nettie, Belle and William.
Perhaps at that time he encouraged his younger brother, George, to move west as well.
George M.D. Conley was united in marriage to Kate E. M. Saunders in September 1879 at Hannibal.
During the next decade, three daughters are known to have been born to the family, Lillie S. Conley, born in 1880, Jennie Van Brown Conley, born in 1883, and Prudence A. Conley, born in 1887.
While the family was visiting in West Virginia, Jennie Van Brown Conley died at Brown’s Crossing, Jefferson County, W.Va., March 13, 1885, aged 2 years and 13 days.
The Conleys ultimately separated and subsequently divorced. George D. Conley spent the rest of his years in his home county of Jefferson, W.Va. His wife remarried and settled in St. Louis.
In 1912, George M.D. Conley’s daughter, Prudence A. Smith, (by now married to Leonard C. Smith of St. Louis), made a visit to West Virginia to see her father for the first time in 22 years. Mrs. Smith was just six months old when her parents separated.
George M.D. Conley died in February 1917 in his home county, and is buried at Edge Hill Cemetery, Charles Town, Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Note: John G. Stephenson, an American coach builder, patented the first streetcar to run on rails in the United States. Wikipedia
Wikipedia: West Virginia was born out of sectional differences during the Civil War. The schism that split the United States in two during the Civil War did the same to Virginia. ... Although Virginia joined the Confederacy in April 1861, the western part of the state remained loyal to the Union and began the process of separation.
George M.D. Conley wrote the following verse in honor of his daughter, Jennie Van Brown Conley, who died March 13,1885. It was published in the Shepherdstown Register March 27, 1885.
Underneath those little lashes,
Were the sweetest, tenderest eyes
Sometimes radiant, sometimes sparkling.
Bringing pleasure, joy, surprise.
Sometimes playful, sometimes serious,
In color like the rose so red -
Velvet rose, soft and pretty,
Changed to color of the dead.
Pretty mouth and golden tresses,
And the dimple in her chin,
This one true belief is ours,
That the angels kissed it in.
Little jewel, oft pretended
When her heart with joy was high,
That the table was hermetic,
Singing, “Wait till the clouds roll by.”
And we often saw her sitting,
’Drinking in, believing all,
With an interest so unusual
In a child so very small.
Most too bright was our darling,
Friends would make us start and fear,
That for her ’twas as they fancied -
Heaven and angels very near.
God has taken our precious fairy
As an angel, though so small -
“Precious jewel of greatest value,”
Up to Heaven at his call.
She so patient in her sickness,
Taking everything they gave her,
Kind physicians, Christian women,
Doing all (poor child!) to save her.
Conscious to the end, our darling,
In her cradle, still, she laid,
Calling Mama, Calling Papa,
Are the last words that she said.
Written by her Papa, G.D.C.
Hall of Justice on Centre Street, New York 1870. Wikimedia commons. Hannibal’s street railway cars were patterned in the “bobtail” style cars used in larger cities, as shown in this illustration.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com