Port of Spain in the last two decades of the 19th century, the 1880s, was a prosperous town. There were vicissitudes in both the principle economies, cane and sugar, notwithstanding trade. The export-import business fairly flourished with dozens of well-established merchant houses. There were ten steamship agencies and several well-appointed hotels.
The Port of Spain Gazette of January 30, 1885, carried an interesting notice placed there by a Mr. A.W. Grey. It notified the public that his telephone exchange, although well established since the “15 ultimo”, felt that it had to apologize to his subscribers who were at a distance from his exchange in the delay of installing their telephones. It fact, Adelbert Grey had been in town for a couple of years. He had come out representing the Tropical American Telephone Company. A lot of time and energy was spent putting up poles and stringing wires all over the city, much to the consternation of the many kite flyers. It was, however, with no little embarrassment that Mr. Grey, upon making a trip to the U.S.A., fell foul of the law. It would appear that he was paying his own salary from funds meant to be used in establishing the telephone service.
It took some doing, but Adelbert untangled himself, returned to Port of Spain and re-established his position. His rates were for business houses within one mile of his exchange, which was at Almond Walk (now Broadway), $ 4 per month, payable in advance. For residences of business subscribers $ 3 per month, also in advance.
Historian Michael Anthony reports that he did very well, so much so that he formed a company on the 5th March, 1885, the Trinidad Telephone Company Limited. It had eight employees and a shareholding of 335 shares. During this period, the police band was organised by Mr. Lionel Modrant Fraser, who was at the time inspector commandant. The customs house and steamer warehouse were completed in 1880. The San Fernando waterworks commenced to operate in 1883. José Bodu comments that the town received a liquid of the colour of pea soup and the odor of rotten eggs. This result was due to the Director of Public Works, neglecting the advice of Mr. Unsworth, and English expert, to obtain water from the Montserrat Hills, and supplying San Fernando from a sulfurous spring names La Coulee. The result has naturally proved disastrous. The San Fernandians preferred to stick to the rainwater tanks of their ancestors.
The cricket pavilion at the Queen’s Park Savannah was completed in 1887 to the delight of the lovers of the game. The architect was Mr. Gerold. Jose Bodu records that on the 7th November, 1883, the first aeronautic experiments made in the colony occured at Shine’s pasture during the course of the month. The performer was a member of Donovan's Circus, then visiting.
The first attempt was unsuccessful. The balloon hadn’t risen 10 feet high when the parachutist jumped out. A successful attempt wax made on the 11th, when the balloon reached a height of 500 ft. On a third occasion, on the 15th November at the Princes Building, the balloonist, on account of not receiving sufficient public patronage, elected to remain on terra firma and sent up the balloon without him. Shine’s pasture was generally in the area of where Victoria Square is now.
On November 17, just as the inhabitants of Port of Spain were quietly sitting down to their dinners about six o’clock, a rumour spread to the effect that fighting was taking place on the wharf. A vast crowd directed itself to the South Quay where it was seen that the Venezuelan steamer ‘Bolivar’ which had started a short time previously on her fortnightly voyage to the city of the same name, had to put back and had taken a berth alongside to the end of the steamboat jetty. It appeared that soon after weighing anchor, a number of Venezuelans had been found on board, unprovided with either ticket or passports. On being asked by the parser for their papers, several of them produced revolvers and commenced firing. An attempt was also made to seize the wheel of the steamer, but the wheelhouse was defended by Mr. Harry Lee, the son of the owner of the vessel, alongside the jetty.
The firing attracted attention on shore and the news was telephoned to the police station. In the meanwhile, corporal Skinner and two water policemen boarded the vessel. Fortunately, during the firing, only two men fell wounded, general Uritis and lieutenant de Freitas. One death occurred, but that was by drowning, Mr. Emira Ochoa, one of the party that had attempted to seize the vessel. He had jumped overboard and, while endeavouring to effect his escape by swimming, apparently entangled himself in the garments of which he was trying to divest himself. With the intervention of armed police and the arrival of colonial secretary Hon. Henry Fowler and the Hon. Vincent Brown, acting solicitor-general, order was restored and the perpetrators arrested.
In much the same manner that Adelbert Grey was given permission by the island’s colonial authorities to establish a telephone system in the early 1880s, A.M.R. Roblins of New York was allowed to lay down a system of tramways in the streets of the city. Any novelty created a stir. At a time when most residents could remember the period of emancipation and the emancipated slaves walked the streets together with their former masters, the idea of public transport, one of life’s little equalizers, attracted both attention and a degree of speculation. Already, the streets were becoming lined with tall poles, carrying thin wires through which the voices of the well-off traveled from home to exchange and from exchange to other homes and offices. Fashionable ladies acquired the knack of striking elegant poses while on the ... Now the sight of steel rails being laid out upon the city’s macadam or burnt earth streets attracted attention and discussion. A huge mule stable had been erected not far from the La Basse, near to the railway station, for the accommodation of the power that would pull the public transport, with standing room for some 80 animals (the stables, not the public transport).
There were town routes which commenced at the railway station on the Queen’s Wharf. In accordance with the colour they were painted, the trams were known as the Red and Blue Trams. The Red Mule Tram started from the railway and proceeded along South Quay, up St. Vincent Street, turning west along Tragarete Road and up Cipriani Boulevard, to the corner of Queen’s Park and turned around, making its way back along the same route.
The Blue Tram, on the other route, started from the railway station, went up Almond Walk, along Frederick Street, turning east at Keate Street, up Charlotte Street and Queen’s Park East as far as the café and the big silk cotton tree (which fell this year) at the corner of Belmont Circular Road to return by the same route.
The fare for each journey was 5 cents. Tickets could be purchased at six for one shilling (24 cents). In 1895, the mules went into retirement and the trams were electrified. The new trams, imported from Philadelphia, were painted red, blue and green. They had seats that could be reversed by swinging round their backs. It was forbidden to speak to the motorman, and one was warned to wait until the car stopped before getting on or off. This did not prevent the famous city personality ‘Arthur Tramcar’ from performing spectacular feats of acrobatics on, in and around tramcars. He, to the delight of both passengers and onlookers, would rush a tram, leap on to the running board, and perform several cartwheels along the board that ran the length of the car, to jump off with the flourish of an Olympic star.
A lunatic rivalry commenced between Arthur and the motormen. Arthur, taking a bet one time that he could run right through a tram as it passed the crossroads of ... Road and Norfolk Street in Belmont, waited poised on ... Road, facing east. His brand-new, white watchekongs gleamed in the sunlight. The tram, traveling sough on Norfolk, had picked up maximum speed from as far away north as Clifford Street. Arthur pounced as the tram bolted, passed and emerged triumphant on the other side of ... Road. For those of you who wondered, the word ‘watchekongs’ is derived from an advertisement that described canvas shoes as “Watch Your Corns”.
Arthur tramcar was not the only person affected by the introduction of new forms of transport. Another city character who was much taken by the new-fangled automobiles was Mahalle. Mahalle drove with great dexterity an invisible motorcar, which would be parked on a city street. Mahalle would be seen polishing it, applying the wax and working up a sweat getting the shine just right, scrubbing the tires and spitting on the chrome, shining it to an extent that he alone could admire himself in it. He would then go and bathe, in public, and put on his best clothes, Panama hat, two-tone shoes, the lot, approach his car, flick off any dust, warned the little boys not to lean or even touch his brightly shining automobile, get in, slam the invisible door, turn the key, press the starter, put it in gear, release the brake and drive away. Many stories are related about Mahalle ‘pulling up’ in front of an orange vendor, buying six navel oranges, paying for them, tossing them into the invisible backseat and ‘driving off’.
Mahalle used to pick up his friend Spit-in-the-sea, another Port of Spain personality, who would walk, every day, from upper Duke Street to Cocorite to spit in the sea. Spit-in-the-sea would get in behind Mahalle’s invisible car, slam the door, make himself comfortable after rolling down the invisible window, and off they would go, busily walking one behind the other, one driving, the other quite relaxed, looking out at the passing scenery all the way to Cocorite for his fare to spit in the sea.
Mahalle had a sister, who sewed on an invisible sewing machine, and a brother who picked invisible cocoa. In those days, the town was peopled by greasy-pole climbers, sharpening knives and scissors artisans, ice salesmen and pot and pan solderers. Cartermen muscled their way through the donkey cart traffic jams and almost naked Indians carried enormous loads upon their heads, their lean and scrawny bodies seemingly on the point of snapping in two. There were no washing machines, and washer women washed and put out mountains of laundry to bleach on huge piles of stones. They collected them from the better-off and had to starch and iron them with dozens of irons heated on coal pots. In those days, everybody wore hats, men, women, boys and girls, rich and poor, hats were in until well after the second world war. The same with bicycles - hundreds of them flooded into the city everyday to line the pavements (unlocked) in wait of their owners.
Electricity was introduced in 1892 by the American entrepreneur Edgar Tripp. He leased a parcel of land from the Borough Council for $ 100 a year, so as to set up his plant in the general area of Stone Street, not far from Victoria Square. The Electric Light and Power Company came into existence in 1894 under the chairmanship of W. Gordon Gordon. Other directors were Eugene Cipriani and Lucien F. Ambard. More wires were strung throughout the city and its outskirts and homes and streets were illuminated by pale yellow lights which cast a strange and modern glow into the eyes of the new generation. In those days, when the moon was full, the new streetlights would be switched off so that the populace could promenade in the moonlight.