The Staten Island Omnibus Incident That Inspired Herman Melville’s Greatest Novel (artist recreation)!

Herman Melville was virtually destitute when his brother Thomas, governor of the old sailor’s home at Snug Harbor, took him in and found him a position in the scheduling department of the Staten Island Omnibus Company, the organization whose mammoth, horse-drawn buses (affectionately known as “white whales”), achieved a commuting time comparable to today’s mass transit.

Though his new job had sounded dull, Melville was soon to learn it was just the opposite, as  immediately upon taking his post, he was confronted with a raucous crowd of concerned citizens who objected to the inadequate bus service that they felt was hindering the economic development of the island.

Herman Melville’s response to the stream of antagonism he encountered was a creative one. He devised a plan (later known as “virtual scheduling”) that was based on the concept of scheduling approximately twice the amount of buses that actually existed. This breakthrough diverted anger away from the Staten Island Omnibus Company’s office, and towards the company’s bus drivers who appeared to be perpetually late. Melville’s innovation increased office efficiency by 38%, and virtual scheduling is employed today by most large mass transit systems, including New York’s MTA. But despite this success, the author was forced to beat a somewhat hasty retreat to Manhattan, after a series of death threats from the local bus drivers union.

Before he left Staten Island however, Melville witnessed an event that burned itself into his psyche. He watched in disbelief, at the Snug Harbor bus stop, as a one-legged sailor chased fruitlessly for more than a mile after one of the “white whale” omnibuses — an incident that would serve as the foundation for his greatest work, Moby Dick. Despite his travails, Melville had fond memories of his time on the island. “Oh yes, I had written novels, before I went to Staten Island,” he recalled, “but it was in the scheduling office of the omnibus company there that I truly discovered the essence of fiction.”

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