By Thomas Robinson
Portland’s Jitney industry dates to 1915 when, in many American cities, any person with an automobile was free to travel along trolley lines ahead of the street cars to pick up awaiting passengers and collect their fares. Jitney’s were named after the then-current colloquial term for a nickel. 5¢ was the standard trolley fare on the west coast, and thus became the Jitney fare.
The Jitney bus originated in Phoenix, Arizona, during a trolley carmen’s strike. The first two began operating June 29, 1913. A little over a year later, about October 1914, a man who had observed the Phoenix Jitneys followed suit in Long Beach, California. A flock of others followed him. Almost overnight, the epidemic spread to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The afflicted trolley companies said they were being dealt a “solar plexus blow” by Jitneys carrying capacity car loads on their tracks.
The “Jitney Panic” struck Portland in early 1915. In Portland, the first legal strategy to be explored to control them was by the City Attorney, who considered whether Jitneys placing a placard or sign on their vehicles made them subject to Portland’s license ordinance. A $10 fee was required for soliciting on the streets, but the term soliciting had previously been interpreted as calling out by voice. No action was taken.
“Jitney Jaunters,” the riders, were mostly middle class people unable to keep a car, and the elderly & disabled. “Jitney Jehus,” the drivers, ranged from unemployed truck drivers to college graduates. As one advertisement by a car dealer quipped “If you are a hustler, you can make big money.”
Jitney drivers worked the short haul lines of close-in residential districts to downtown and back, usually going no more than two miles per fare. President Griffith of the Portland Railway, Light & Power company said in a speech before the Transportation Club at its annual dinner on January 17, 1915, that the trollies needed the revenue of the short haul passenger to pay for the long haul service. He explained that a variable fare based on mileage would cost more to implement than it would earn. He also pointed out that the city earned practically no revenue from Jitneys, but that the trollies were paving streets and paying 20% of their gross income in taxes.
But President Griffith’s pleas to Portland City Council fell on deaf ears when he testified before them the next day, on January 18th. Apparently, no consensus could be found amongst the members. One of the commissioners suggested using all city-owned vehicles as Jitneys, and to turn that revenue into the city’s general fund.
The first regulation of Jitneys in Portland began a week later, when a judge issued 50 warrants for motorists, all Jitney drivers, who drove between standing street cars and curbs. They were fined $5.00 each for such conduct. One driver was arrested for the third time in two weeks for driving a car between a street car and the curb while passengers were de-boarding. Witnesses said an elderly couple narrowly escaped being struck by the Jitney, and the judge fined him $20.
That same week the largest Jitney bus company in Portland asked the City Council to regulate Jitney service, by requiring a bond to the city. The company had invested in a small fleet of ten-seat busses and were complaining that individual owners were waging a war against them for their customers. Council was less than sympathetic to the ironic pot-calls-kettle-black request. Council upheld their previously stated philosophy of not siding with either the trolley or Jitney interests. At that time, the majority of individually owned Jitneys were second-hand, four-seated vehicles (not including the driver).
A factory was built in Portland to manufacture 20-seat Jitney buses built onto Reo brand trucks. Their prototype cruised Alberta street in January, 1915, and they immediately set out to manufacture another 14 of them.
In only a year, Jitneys revolutionized transportation in Portland. There may have been 400 cars running by February. The controversy surrounding Jitneys was widely debated in local clubs, civic groups, and the press. The losses of the trolley companies appeared likely to result in service reductions to outlying areas or increases in fares. Real estate and construction companies needed trolley service to neighborhoods. Most outlying neighborhoods, Sellwood for example, had sidewalks on most residential blocks, but the streets weren’t paved. During the rainy season the streets were largely impassible to automobiles, so trolley service was essential.
The first woman Jitney car driver was Mrs. Jennie Riemann, who drove her own car from 10AM to 10 PM from Second and Washington streets to Twenty-third and Thurman. She began driving January 25, 1915. On her fourth day of driving, her 5¢ fares added up to $19.25.
The first regulations applied to Jitneys was announced by Mayor Albee, who declared that a new ordinance regulating taxicabs, passed on February 1, 1915, applied to Jitneys. On Friday, February 5, Mayor Albee instructed the police to enforce the taxi ordinance provisions to Jitneys. The regulation limited overcrowding. It was common for passengers to have to sit in each others laps, or stand on the running board, which would obstruct the rear-view mirrors. It also prohibited drivers from smoking.
The Carmen’s union presented a petition protesting Jitneys with 14,000 signatures to the City Council. Meanwhile, the trolley company itself became more competitive to combat Jitneys. It changed its routing to offer more trollies, eliminate layovers at the end of the line to get the trolley back in motion as soon as possible, and ran later hours.
Not to be outdone, the Jitney drivers formed their own political organization, the Auto Transit and Welfare Society. On February 8, they signed an agreement with the City of Portland that they would regulate themselves. The city agreed it would not take any new actions for a period of sixty days while the new rules were being tried out. At the same time, the Oregon Senate was considering three bills regulating Portland Jitneys. The Auto Transit and Welfare Society testified against the bills.
The city tried a scientific experiment to measure the profitability of a Jitney. The City Engineer drove Mayor Albee’s personal car for a day and a half on Washington and Thurman streets. The report found that a driver could make $1.76 a day profit after all expenses. Taxation of Jitneys was one of the policies being considered at the time.
Jitneys were becoming part of popular culture. In the cinema was Charlie Chaplain starring in “A Jitney Elopement”, which came to Portland theaters in March, 1915.
In the anarchistic world of Jitneys, altogether new crimes cropped up overnight; Drivers were robbed at knife or gunpoint — and in Portland one driver was killed; Jitneys were hijacked and then subsequently used to rob passengers or commit other crimes; pickpockets harvested wallets and purses; one policeman arrested a Jitney driver for ‘joyriding’ after he noticed the same two females and one male in the same car for over an hour — they were found to be tipsy. The police had the ladies’ husbands come down to the station to pick them up.
The streetcar conductors and Jitney drivers were at virtual war with each other. Tacks had been found on the road next to tracks in Seattle, and it was suspected that Carmen had placed them there to flatten the tires of Jitneys. About a week later, tacks were found on a Portland street by the City Engineer.
Reporting over the next month shows that Police arrested many Jitney drivers at the behest of the Carmen, and the Jitney drivers had a few Carmen arrested for driving infractions.
Hearings about Jitney regulation before the City Council dragged on for three months as the ordinance regulating Jitneys was debated. The law was passed on April 2nd, 1915 and took effect one month later, on May 3rd. The law was long and detailed, but the main features are that each driver must pass a test to get a permit, must have their car inspected, must select a route and not leave it and must operate a certain schedule each day. However, that ordinance was put on hold because the Carmen invoked a referendum, which automatically placed a two-year hold on it taking effect.
The City Auditor then placed the law as a ballot measure to let voters pass on in the June, 1915 election. On June 8, voters passed the measure regulating Jitneys. The vote was Yes: 6033; No: 4216; majority for: 1817.
Uber started its Portland service a hundred years after the Jitney War of 1915. Although there are many differences between Jitneys, Taxicabs and Uber, the fact remains that Portland is no stranger to drastic and unpredictable disruptions in transportation caused by changes in technology and opportunity.
Thomas Robinson, October 15, 2016
Sources of specific information:
Morning Oregonian, January 6, 1915 page 9, columns 3-4.
Morning Oregonian, January 9, 1915, page 3, col. 2.
Morning Oregonian, January 13, 1915, page 18, col. 5
Morning Oregonian, January 19, 1915, page 15, col. 1
Morning Oregonian, January 21, 1915, page 3, col. 4
Morning Oregonian, January 22, 1915, page 10, col. 1
Morning Oregonian, January 24, 1915, page 3, col. 1-3
Morning Oregonian, January 30, 1915, page 4, col. 2 with portrait
Morning Oregonian, February 4, 1915, page 1 political cartoon
Morning Oregonian, February 5, 1915, age 11, col. 1
Morning Oregonian, April 3, 1915, page 11, col. 3