Trams of North America:

The Horse-Car Era


America was overwhelmingly a rural nation at the time the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790. At that time, only about 200,000 people out of a nation of just under four million souls lived in urban areas. The largest city was Philadelphia, with a population of fewer than 55,000 residents. By 1830, New York City, linked to the continental hinterland by the Erie Canal and to the world by its excellent harbor, had grown to a population of 200,000, and was the nation's largest city.

In 1827, Mr. Abraham Brower initiated New York's first recorded public transit service, in the form of a rudimentary stagecoach service trundling up and down Broadway in Manhattan. At that time, British and Spanish currency remained as popular or more so with the American public than the young nation's own money, and the fare to ride Brower's buses was one shilling. The two coaches on the line were coyly named "Accommodation" and "Sociable," which was ironic in that while popular, they were rather lacking in accommodation and sociability. Visually appealing from without, the buses were rather unpleasant within, where passengers were subjected to cramped quarters, no heat and inadequate ventilation. New York omnibus drivers developed a reputation for coarse manners, vulgar language and reckless operation of their vehicles. This crass reputation still applied to their counterparts of the late 1800s, when Gilded Age New Yorkers would have felt their city considerably evolved from its rude ways during the heyday of rough-and-tumble Jacksonian Democracy. Some things never change.

In addition to the problems associated with its lack of creature comforts and civility, the horse- drawn omnibus suffered from a glaring drawback which was not then easily corrected: poor roads. During the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, American cities, with few exceptions, lacked paved thoroughfares. Bricks or large stone setts were the most commonly employed paving materials, where paving was undertaken at all. The omnibuses which rode over America's roads were equipped with iron-clad wooden wheels and primitive suspension mechanisms. The ride was bone-jarring, to say the least, and the pulling power of horses greatly diminished. These factors severely limited speed, and thus the distances to which one could effectively commute by omnibus. Consequently, omnibuses did relatively little to expand the populated limits of the cities where they were used.

The omnibus as a mode of urban passenger transportation in North America was generally limited to the largest of cities, at least early on. Boston's first regular hack service opened in 1829, and omnibus service followed soon after. Philadelphia, now America's second city, witnessed the opening of its first omnibus service in December, 1831. "Boxall's Accommodation" was the Quaker City's first bus line, running over Chestnut Street between Second and Sixteenth Streets. While the purely urban omnibus was associated with major cities, and its country cousin--the stage coach-- conjures up images of rural America and the Old West, a middle ground between the two modes also existed. Hybrid stagecoach/omnibus lines linking medium-sized cities with outlying wards, towns and villages became common in many places.


The development of a successor to the omnibus, the horse-drawn street railway, came about as an offshoot of the railway boom which swept America from the 1820s onward. Incorporated on April 25, 1831, the New York and Harlaem (Harlem) Railroad was intended to be the first segment of a conventional intercity railroad line between New York and Albany. The city fathers of old New York had no intention of allowing fire-breathing steam locomotives to invade the streets of Manhattan, at least not yet. The line's promoters came up with what seemed an ideal solution to the politicos' protestations: horse-drawn railroad passenger cars. Credit for the idea goes to John Mason, founder and president of the line, and president of the Chemical Bank of New York City. While Mason had not set out to create the world's first streetcar service, he realized that his railroad might do a handsome business by providing local service on this, the downtown portion of its route. The New York and Harlaem's cars were constructed by master coachbuilder John Stephenson, and were designed from the outset to be drawn by horses, more closely resembling large omnibuses than railroad passenger cars. Service commenced November 14, 1832, along the Bowery between Prince and Fourteenth Streets. According to various accounts, the line was a success.

The heyday of the animal-powered street railway, or tramway, still lay in the future. New Orleans followed New York's lead and opened two horse-drawn car lines in 1835, and there is evidence that such primitive lines opened in a few other cities, notably in Western New York State, in the 1830s. These lines were often known as "strap roads," as their "rails" consisted of wooden stringers topped with thin straps of iron. A period of economic decline and urban stagnation intervened, and further development of urban street railroads in North America would have to wait until the 1850s.

The opening of the Brooklyn City Railroad in 1853 marked the beginning of the second, and doubtlessly more significant wave of street railroad development. Brooklyn was followed by the Cambridge line outside Boston in 1856, and then Philadelphia in 1858. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago had horsecar lines running by 1859, while Canada's first horsecar lines opened in 1861, in Toronto and then Montréal. Many small- and medium-sized cities soon took to constructing their own horsecar lines.

Compared with omnibuses, horsecars provided service which was generally faster, more frequent, and considerably more comfortable. Hauling streetcars over steel rails laid in the streets made more efficient and comfortable use of horsepower than the use of omnibuses over unpaved or cobbled streets. Indeed, diminutive mules were employed as motive power by some systems, and quite satisfactorily at that. Thus the horsecar, with an average speed of 4-6 miles per hour, could travel farther in less time than an omnibus. This fact was a catalyst in the expansion of city boundaries, making it possible for residents to maintain jobs within the city center while enjoying living quarters outside of older, less attractive central city neighborhoods. The level of growth inspired by horsecar traffic was nowhere near as great as that inspired by the faster electric cars of a later era, but it was greater than any negligible hints of urban sprawl which may have been inspired by omnibus operation.

If horsecars were an improvement on the omnibus, it did not take long before visionaries and common folk alike were heard to lament that, as with all inventions, even horsecars could be improved upon. Firstly, there was the matter of laying rails in public streets. Along with the franchise right of using the streets for private enterprise, horsecar companies were charged with the responsibility of maintaining the tracks and the roadway surrounding them for a certain distance beyond the rails, sometimes the entire width of the street. If not maintained properly--especially in dirt roads--the rails presented a positive danger to other street traffic and pedestrians. Thus, it was important to keep the rails as close to flush with the road surface as possible. In winter, the issue of snow removal created heated battles in cities throughout the snow belt. Street railway shoveling crews made enemies no matter where they tried to toss the white stuff. The use of salt to melt snow and ice was deemed objectionable by many city governments, for various reasons. What many northern operators ultimately did was to put the steel-wheeled cars in storage during the winters, replacing them with sleigh cars mounted on runners.

By far, however, the largest source of expense and headaches for the horsecar companies was not the laying and maintenance of tracks, nor even the cost of the cars themselves. The horsecar's chief shortcoming was its very source of motive power, the horse. On average, a new tram cost between $600 to $1,000. Horses ranged from $125 to $200 in cost, but the ratio of horses to cars was strongly tipped in favor of the horse: each animal was only good for a few hours of service per day, so enough animals had to be kept on hand to relieve their comrades at the end of successive shifts. The care and feeding of horses on so large a scale worked a burden on even moderately-sized companies. Horses had to be properly housed, shod and groomed; neglect of animals adversely affected service out on the lines, which careless operators discovered to their peril. Still, horses were routinely overworked, especially in rush hours when cars were heavily loaded. Where hills were encountered, an extra "hill horse," or perhaps horses were hitched on to haul the cars up a grade.

Then, of course there was the issue of equine sanitary pollution--manure--and how to deal with it in such large quantities. Horsecars were a significant polluter, but they were not the only source of manure in the public streets, and so some of the smelly trail they left between the rails might be scooped up by the municipal street cleaning officials. What the horses did in the barn was strictly the company's responsibility. The sale of manure as fertilizer provided a tidy source of extra cash for more than a few operators, but it tended to pile up and sit around for some time before removal. This did not earn the street railway companies brownie points with their neighbors. Not exactly.

Matters came to a head in the early 1870s when a European horse disease, the Epizootic Apthnae, ravaged the streetcar horses of the eastern U.S. and Canada. This tragedy, known as the "Great Epizootic," left thousands of horses dead or disabled. Horsecar service was crippled and came to a complete halt in many places. In a few instances, teams of men were enlisted to attempt hauling the cars. This pathetic spectacle made two facts painfully clear: first, men are a poor substitute for horses. More importantly, horsecar magnates realized that an efficient mechanical substitute for horse traction was needed, and badly so.

In this 1958 photo, Toronto Street Railway horsecar No. 16 (by John Stephenson, New York, 1874) is seen on Toronto Transit Commission property alongside two Toronto omnibuses. Car 16 reportedly resides in the collection of the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario. What has become of the two omnibuses? --Roger DuPuis collection, photgrapher unknown.

Whatever its shortcomings, the animal-powered railway played a key role in the growth of cities in nineteenth century North America. It would take more than a decade of experimentation before the electric streetcar emerged as the undisputed successor to horse traction, and only then after expensive forays into the realm of cable and steam traction had been discounted as impractical. Oddly enough, horsecars passed into oblivion not at their nadir, but at their peak, as a thriving industry which was firmly ensconced in the daily lives of millions of people. The process of converting horsecar lines to electric operation was a fait accompli in most places by 1900, although there were a few holdouts. At least one New York City line is said to have lasted until 1912, while Pittsburgh's Sarah Street horsecar service wasn't terminated until 1924. One Arkansas line reportedly survived to 1926.

Today, North Americans can ride replica horsecars at the two Disney themeparks, and a more realistic replica of a Winnipeg horsecar reportedly operates at Calgary's Heritage Park. Bona fide antique horsecars are rare, but some have been preserved. I once read that there are six in the United States. That figure sounds a bit low to me, but I cannot state otherwise with any certainty. I have seen and touched three: in Rochester, N.Y. (Car 55 c.1867, now in storage at Rochester Museum and Science Center), at the Seashore Trolley Museum, and in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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