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Night lunch wagons were popular a century ago

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-02-18

Night lunch wagons were popular a century ago
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 02-18-17

Amsterdam historian Hugh Donlon, born in 1896, was alive during the middle and end of the era of downtown night lunch wagons.

Two lunch wagons were drawn by horses each afternoon, one to Church and East Main Streets and the other to the intersection of Market and West Main. These wagons were owned by the McNally family, who stored them in sheds near what is now the post office on Church Street.

In his 1980 book “Annals of a Mill Town,” Donlon wrote, “Wafted on the summer zephyr or swirled fiercely by the winter’s gale, the onionized fragrance of a McNally western egg sandwich could be sensed blocks away.” A western egg sandwich cost a dime; a piece of pie was a nickel.

Eat-in or take out night lunch wagons had first appeared in New York City in 1893, according to an article by Joyce K. Schiller of the Norman Rockwell Museum. The temperance movement sponsored these original eateries as a way to keep hungry working people out of saloons at night.

William McNally from Hudson, Massachusetts, established the first night lunch wagon in Amsterdam during the 1890s.

“The business thrived from the outset,” according to McNally’s 1944 obituary, “Chiefly because of the industriousness of the originator and the sincere confidence of the public which he quickly gained.”

Early in the twentieth century William McNally turned the operation over to his relatives, mainly John McNally, who may have been William’s cousin. William continued as owner and frequently visited Amsterdam.

Some restaurant proprietors opposed the mobile eateries. An attempt to ban the two wagons operated by McNally and a third such eatery owned by a man named William Cooper failed to pass the Amsterdam common council in 1904. Cooper parked his wagon on East Main Street near the local trolley waiting room.

The newspaper reported that McNally paid twenty-five dollars in local taxes, said to be as much as was paid by businesses with brick and mortar locations.

William McNally was tapped to co-manage the restaurant at Amsterdam’s Central Hotel in 1906 and the Recorder reported he was picked for the job because his wagons “have come to be known all over the state for the quality of food they put out.”

On a frigid Valentine’s Day in 1916 this lunch wagon story was reported, “Traffic on the Main and Market Hill divisions of the trolley line was halted for half an hour due to difficulty experienced in getting one of John McNally’s night lunch wagons in its customary station at the corner of Market and West Main Streets.”

A worker’s lighted cigarette accidentally ignited gasoline being poured into a tank of one of McNally’s wagons in its Church Street shed on June 24, 1920. Both wagons, called beaneries in the story, were destroyed in the fire, the shed collapsed and damage was estimated at $6,000. A kitchen used to prepare food in the building was damaged.

But McNally soldiered on. The wagons finally disappeared in July 1926 after the death of John McNally.

For many years Matty Curran was chef at the Church Street wagon location. Curran later opened Matty’s Lunch on West Main Street. In late 1936 he disappeared from his Amsterdam rooming house and died three months later after being found wandering in Birmingham, Alabama, suffering from pneumonia. There was speculation that he was the victim of amnesia.

In 1951 another former lunch wagon chef named Charles Munsey died in Amsterdam at age 91. After the wagons closed, Munsey held other cooking jobs then worked for retailer Montgomery Ward. His nickname from his cooking days was Charley Beans.