Public transit before the age of the trolley was a decidedly lowtech operation. Horsecars moved through city streets at speeds scarcely faster than a walk. Their tracks, embedded in the pavement, were primitive assemblies of wood and strap rail that hearkened back to the earliest days of railway engineering. The cars were tiny four-wheel affairs with hard seats, minimal lighting, and no heat. Braking power depended on the strength of the driver’s arm. The motive power was nature’s own beast of burden, which had been in drawage service since the beginnings of civilization.
The horse was a serviceable, if unenthusiastic, street motor, but horse railways were costly and inefficient. The beasts were expensive, subject to illness, capable of working only short hours, and always hungry. Their presence on city streets presented a health hazard, as well as an aesthetic one, in the form of urine and feces. Because thousands of horses were in regular use in the larger urban areas, the sanitary problem was inescapable. Human labor was also expensive. The cars required a two-man crew: a driver to manage the horses and brakes and a conductor to look after the passengers and collect the fares. Since the cars were so small, a great many were needed, thus swelling the demand for men, horses, and rolling stock.
This rudimentary form of city railway was clearly hard on both man and beast. With so many shortcomings, why did it last for nearly fifty years? Why were thousands of miles of track laid down in every major city in the nation for these hopelessly inefficient little vehicles? Why were millions of dollars invested each year?
The answer is simple: Horsecars worked. For all their failings, they could move passengers and earn their owners a decent profit. Reliability was their virtue. They did a job that nothing else could do until the advent of cable and electric traction. (Steam power was in very wide use for long-distance travel, but the need for compactness, rapid changes of speed, and frequent stops and starts made it inconvenient for most urban transportation.) When practical cable lines came into use, during the 1870s, they proved economical only for heavily traveled lines or unusual topographical situations, such as hilly San Francisco. Electric cars were not perfected until the late 1880s. And so, in an age devoted to science and industrial progress, city railways remained loyal to the most antiquated form of motive power.
It all started quite by accident. The New York and Harlem Railroad was incorporated in 1831 to build an ordinary steam railroad north through New York City to the Harlem River. It was never intended as a street railwaythe term was not even in use at the time—but intended or not, the Harlem line quickly evolved into the classic model for future street railways.
Service on the New York and Harlem began late in 1832, running along the Bowery between Prince Street and Fourteenth Street. At a festive City Hall dinner celebrating the opening, New York’s mayor declared, “This event will go down in the history of our country as the greatest achievement of man.” The NY&H used mules, then horses, then steam in its first few years as it expanded northward. The noisy, smoky, pine-burning locomotives drew considerable public opposition, however, and after an engine blew up at Union Square in 1839, killing the engineer and injuring twenty passengers, mobs tore up tracks on the Bowery. The city responded by banning locomotives from the densely populated southern part of town, and from then on horses pulled the cars to a safe rural area—eventually as far north as Forty-second Street—where steam engines took over.
New York was ripe for some form of cheap public transit. Omnibus—horse-drawn bus—service was just getting under way, offering the right compromise between walking and paying cab fare. But the buses were very small—a dozen passengers was a load—the streets were rough, which made for an uncomfortable ride, and climbing up the steep, high back steps of a bus was too much for many potential passengers.
The Harlem’s cars could handle twenty passengers with ease. The rails offered a fairly smooth ride, and getting on and off was no problem. As the NY&H extended its tracks northward to Harlem, city folk found it a convenient way to go uptown or downtown, particularly when the cars started running on a six-minute headway by about 1845. In 1863 the Vanderbilt family assumed control of the NY&H. The city end was operated separately but remained under Vanderbilt control. The horsecar operation grew and prospered until by 1893 the Fourth Avenue line, though only eight and a half miles long, carried 21.8 million passengers a year and was valued at $24.9 million. Even this late in the electric era it was a horsepowered line. Behind the times and inefficient though it was, there could be no question about its profitability.
The early success of the Harlem experiment did not, surprisingly, bring on a rush of imitators. In 1852 a second horsecar line, the Sixth Avenue, was opened in Manhattan. And then, as if some magic curtain had been pulled aside, other investors belatedly recognized the potential of city railroads. The Second and Third Avenue lines opened in 1853, as did a line in Brooklyn. A Boston-to-Cambridge line, opened in April 1856, was the first outside the New York area (except for a railroad in New Orleans that some have called a streetcar line). Within four years Boston had 57 miles of horsecar trackage and was carrying 13.6 million passengers per year. At the same time, New York had a dozen lines and was adding track and equipment rapidly.
A trend had started. Now everyone wanted a street railway. They were fashionable, they were convenient, and they promised to be very profitable. Philadelphia scurried to catch up with its rivals to the north by opening its first line in early 1858. During the next two years just about every city with any pretension of being major joined the ranks. Lines opened in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and even distant San Francisco. Washington was a little slow, with its first horsecar appearing in 1862, and Denver, a very young city, did not put tracks down until 1871.
The industry had come a long way in a short time. In 1860 there were just over 400 miles of street-railway tracks in this country. The industry’s investment value was $14.8 million. Within a decade that value went up to $65 million. Horse-car operations were spreading into the suburbs from the center city. By the early 1880s America’s horsecar business was a major operation, with:
- 415 street railways in operation
- 18,000 cars
- 100,000 horses
- 150,000 tons of hay consumed each year
- 11,000,000 bushels of grain consumed each year
- 3,000 miles of track
- 1,212,400,000 passengers carried
- 35,000 employees
- $150,000,000 invested
During the 1880s city railways grew faster than a well-fertilized pumpkin vine. Mileage almost tripled, and while horse-powered lines prevailed, other forms of power began to gain a foothold. This is how things stood in 1890:
Investors were attracted by the faddish street railways, though the prospects for a large return were somewhat oversold. Market analysts of the day could point to rising traffic: the passenger count on the New York City lines had doubled between 1855 and 1864. Yet few lines had net earnings any better than 8 percent, a so-so return in those days. The inflation caused by the Civil War doubled the price of feed, while wages went up by half. Most pioneer horsecar lines suffered from the inflation; Cincinnati operators reported losses; the St. Louis roads, in particular, were said to be very poor investments.
Rich and poor city railways agreed that the problem with the bottom line was horses. A hundred thousand of them were literally eating up the profits. The feed bill exceeded wages by nearly half and made track repairs and building maintenance look trifling. The care and feeding of horses made up 40 to 50 percent of operating costs and about 40 percent of total investment.
Horses needed more than just food. They needed shelter, grooming, medical care, long rest periods, bedding, stable clearing, and—sometimes as often as every three days—new shoes. The purchase and repair of harness was a costly extra requirement. In 1877 the Market Street Railway in Philadelphia registered these daily costs for keeping nine horses, the number required to dependably power a single two-horse car.
Add to this depreciation ($1.15) and interest on the cost of the horses ($.20) and the daily bill comes to $10.66. Why the conductor’s wages were omitted from this list is not clear; if included, they would add another $2.00 per day.
Why nine horses per car? The cars rarely traveled more than fifty miles in a twelve- to fourteen-hour day, but a horse could never be worked more than six hours, and three was preferable. Hence teams had to be replaced regularly. Men and cars ran the full day, but the horses worked short shifts and were pampered and treated with care, like the valuable assets they were. Their numbers were swollen by the need to keep 10 percent extra on hand for illness and another 10 percent for traffic emergencies. If normal needs called for 1,000 horses, an experienced streetrailway manager would insist on stabling 1,200.
Even more horses were needed by lines that had steep grades. Tow boys drove the double-headed teams required to pull a loaded car uphill, then rode back down to catch the next car waiting for a boost. Their rudeness and vulgarity were legendary. A Cincinnati newspaper described one in June 1872: “Though but ten or twelve years old, he is possessed of a wondrous precocity. He lives with the hostlers, who superintend his education, and he smokes, and chews, and swears prodigiously, being dirty and ragged, and sharp as a young Arab.…”
Horses not only spent twenty hours or more of their workday eating and resting but got a full day off each week, and active horses were kept separated from resting ones in the stables, so as not to disturb their sleep. Stables had to be huge—two or three stories high- because so much space was needed for hay and grain storage, shoeing, harness repair, and storage and manure bins. The North Chicago Railway’s barn at Beiden Avenue and Jay Street measured 125 feet by 238 feet and housed just 260 horses. Large systems had car barns and stables scattered around the city, and of course the price of land and structures further inflated the capital costs of the typical horsecar line.
Yet for all this good care, horses failed their masters when the need was greatest. Their energy tended to flag in the very weather when people used the cars most. When a heat wave hit, horses lay down in the street. When a blizzard blew in, they lost all interest in motion except toward the stable. Even in the best of weather, horses were given many days of sick leave because of minor illnesses, sprains, and sore feet.
Occasionally epidemics would sweep the stable. The worst of these was the “epizooty” (epizootic aphtha) epidemic that traveled the nation in 1872. A respiratory disease similar to influenza in humans, it lasted from seven to ninety days. Sick horses could not work, and American commerce nearly came to a halt. Express companies, freight teamsters, even fire companies shut down entirely, while most other transportation-related businesses were forced to cut back. The lines resorted to ox teams, and a few cities hired gangs of desperate laborers to drag the cars through city streets for a dollar a day, creating a scene hard to imagine in democratic America.
If there was concern over the health of the horses, there was also concern over the health of people required to live around them. Horses spent many hours a day on the streets and paraded through the most densely populated areas of the city, spraying their excrement everywhere, splashing it against the dashboards of cars or dropping it to the street to be run over and picked up by each passing vehicle. An average thousand-pound horse could yield nearly fifty pounds of dung a day, ten of them while working.
If horse manure had simply been smelly and annoying to step around, it might have been tolerable, but it also presented serious health problems, especially in the spreading of tetanus. Systematic efforts to sweep up helped, but not enough, considering the Augean-stable nature of the job. Curiously, there was a good side to this noisome by-product of horse traction. The manure shoveled out of the stables produced two to six dollars per horse per year when sold for fertilizer. A big operation such as New York’s Third Avenue line could thus boost its annual income by $14,000.
Mules were thought to offer relief to street sanitation problems because, amazingly, they could be toilet-trained. In 1880 a street railway in Louisville demonstrated this miracle. At the end of their run, the mules first were walked to a manure station to defecate, then to a drainage area to urinate, and finally back to their stalls. No one could ever do that with a horse, except perhaps a well-trained trick horse. Mules had many other advantages. Known for their ability to withstand heat, they were favored in the South. They rarely suffered from hoof or leg ailments and could work twentymile days even in scalding San Antonio. Plucky, enduring, strong, and swift, mules were good for ten years’ work. But then they would grow fat and lazy—and therein lay the problem. There was a poor market for secondhand mules. Horses, by contrast, were readily resellable, and at a good price, because few street railways worked them for more than four years.
Street railways bought about 25,000 new horses each year. Purchasing agents were advised to acquire a 1,100-pound animal, about 15/2 to 16 hands high, that was not too leggy and did not have too much daylight beneath him. Good legs and feet, of course, were very important, and so was a good disposition, because the horse would be commingling with other vehicles and crowds of people. Some horses adapted very well to railway service and would start and stop at the sound of the conductor’s signal bell without the driver’s even having to move the reins. Whenever possible, the same drivers and horses were paired, because the animals seemed to respond better when handled by someone they knew.
City railways were a rough-and-tumble business, and nothing in their service was gently used. Yet curiously, the component that received the best treatment became the subject of a zealous reform movement. Henry Bergh, a wealthy New Yorker, was horrified by the cruel treatment of animals he witnessed while serving as a diplomat in Russia in the 1860s. At about the same time, he became aware of the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England and so founded a sister organization soon after his return to New York in 1865. The focus of the ASPCA became horses, particularly those in heavy dragging service.
Horsecar drivers caught abusing their charges were stopped, scolded, and reported. Most drivers were decent men, but a few were brutal, and just about anyone could grow frustrated occasionally with the traffic or when running behind schedule or when the teams failed to start up or step along. Then the drivers would resort to the whip. Bergh’s organization posted ten men to patrol the city and stop any unnecessary lashing. At the same time, 150 drinking troughs were set up throughout Manhattan. During prolonged hot spells they proved inadequate, and many a horse died on the pavement. All this concern for the well-being of animals was certainly admirable, but one wonders why no Henry Bergh came forward to fight for the well-being of drivers and conductors, who received far worse treatment than the horses.
From today’s perspective street-railway workers in the horsecar era were an abused and ill-treated underclass, but from the nineteenth-century viewpoint they were lucky to have jobs. Hours were long, and the men worked outdoors in all sorts of weather, but none of this won the sympathy of most Victorians. Other workers struggled with far worse conditions for far less money: miners, lumberjacks, and railroad brakemen faced injury and death every day. Horsecar work might be routine, repetitive, and very boring, but it was hardly high-risk. Conductors and drivers made $2.00 to $2.50 per day, at least twice the day laborer’s normal wage. The 1880 census noted that machinists at the Baldwin Locomotive Works averaged $2.46 a day in a job that demanded much more training and skill than flogging along a tramcar.
Even so, the horsecar employee’s life was hardly luxurious. He was treated like an enlisted man in the military. Disrespect or incurring the displeasure of a supervisor could bring on furlough or dismissal. A worker late for duty got three days off without pay. The same punishment was levied for failing to note the car number or the driver’s name on each trip report. If the car ran behind schedule, a suspension of one or two weeks followed. Any complaint registered by a passenger meant a day off.
The dress code required that an employee be neatly attired and cleanshaven and have well-blacked boots. He had to buy his own uniform hat, and even a used one cost $1.50; combined with the 50-cent chain for his ticket punch, there went a day’s wages. The hours of service varied from line to line, but few ran for less than twelve hours a day. There were no shifts; employees worked the full day, be it twelve, fourteen, or even sixteen hours. The cars ran seven days a week. There were no paid holidays and no days off, except perhaps for a death in the family—and any time a worker did miss, he of course was not paid. Some men sacrificed a day’s pay a week just to be with their families.
A conductor on the Citizens Passenger Railway spoke of his life on the cars to a reporter for the Baltimore American in August 1880. He first established that he was not a “growler” but was happy to have his job, for he knew others would eagerly take it at even lower wages. But he did go on to talk about his long day and how little he saw of his family. He ate a hasty breakfast at home and hurried over to the car house to begin his sixteenhour stint. He had no breaks for lunch or supper, so one of his children would meet him along the car line and hand up his dinner basket. He ate the meal on the fly on a part of the trip where patronage was low. After his car pulled into the barn, he returned home on foot to find his family already in bed, for it was after midnight. The conductor had been on his feet all day, punching fare receipts, tripping the fare indicator, helping the old and young on and off the car, signaling the driver to go ahead or stop, and helping strangers find their way around the city.
The driver had much less to do with the public than did the conductor. He stood on the front platform, while passengers boarded and exited from the rear, leaving him in peace to manage the horses and the brake. Overhead, mounted under the roof canopy, was a small brass bell—more like a little gong—connected to a cord passing back through the car to the rear platform. The conductor pulled the cord: one ding to stop, two to go, and three to speed up. The driver stopped the car with a large brass gooseneck brake lever that pressed iron shoes against the wheels, and the horses helped by digging their hooves into the pavement and pulling back. On a level line with a good team, the brakes probably did little of the work.
There appears to have been a universal belief that conductors were knocking down on the company—that is, pocketing fares. After all, it was a temptation for a poor man, when handling so much money, to keep a little for himself. If a car took in twenty-five dollars a day, who would miss three or four? Most transit managements became obsessed with this problem and developed strategies to deal with it. New employees were gravely lectured about the sins of pocketing fares. The Third Avenue Railway in New York required a thousand-dollar bond (presumably bought from an agent, like a bail bond) plus a twenty-five-dollar cash deposit from every new conductor.
Each conductor was issued a bell punch and was required to use it in the presence of each passenger upon payment of the fare. If six passengers got on but only five rings came from his punch, everyone on the car knew he was knocking down. The conductor also worked an indicator mounted inside the car to register the fares collected. It too had an audible bell. The indicator turned up numbers on a dial, so that at the end of the run the fares registered and the cash turned in could be compared. Lord help the poor conductor if they did not agree. As a further inducement to honesty, spotters roamed the system. They dressed in various disguises to fool the conductors, even resorting to female attire at times. They listened for the bell punch, counted the passengers boarding, and watched for any hint that the conductor was slipping coins into a separate pocket. A man could lose his job for misplacing a single nickel fare.
Street-railway workers were kept well in their place until very late in the horsecar era; the violence and disruption of the great 1877 railway strike seem to have inspired not the slightest initiative on their part. But St. Louis conductors and drivers struck for a week in 1885, and a more violent strike erupted in Brooklyn and New York in 1888. The strikers blocked tracks with loads of coal, burned cars run by scabs, and completely shut down the largest system in the nation. But in general the industry was not forced to deal with a strong national transit union until long after the horsecar had become a museum piece.
To a casual observer horsecars might have appeared to be little more than wooden boxes on wheels, but in fact they were fairly complex structures that combined lightweight construction with surprising strength. Considerable thought and study went into horsecar design. The main goal was to reduce weight, because of the modest motive power available. A heavy frame might produce a robust vehicle of great endurance, but if the horses could barely haul it, it was a liability. The earliest horsecars were large, boxy affairs that looked like foreshortened railroad cars, with flat sides, high ceilings, and massive floor frames. They weighed three to three and a half tons—very light by steam-railroad standards but far too heavy for hayburners. Designers got busy cutting down their overall size.
The ceiling was lowered to seven feet, and the body width at floor level to six feet; it then swelled out in a pair of gently curved panels. Also, center and intermediate sills were left out; the frame consisted of side sills and a few light cross timbers, all of wood.
The careful selection of wood shaved off more weight. Ash allowed the use of small framing members with no loss in strength; Spanish cedar or poplar made up the very thin side panels; the window sash and interior panel were often made from cherry. The lightest chilled cast-iron wheels (only 200 pounds each), coupled with slender forged-iron axles, also held down the weight.
As early as 1860 a Philadelphia car builder, Kimball and Gorton, claimed to be building a full-size twenty-passenger horsecar that weighed only 3,300 pounds. No other builder appears to have surpassed this achievement (assuming it to be true), for major producers such as Stephenson and Brill could not bring in a car of this size for much less than 4,300 pounds. Lightweight construction carried too far would reduce serviceability, and these cars were expected to bear very large loads. During rush hour a twenty-three-footlong car crammed with ninety passengers would be carrying around 13,500 pounds.
Horsecars came in a number of sizes and configurations. The most basic division was between open (or summer) cars and closed (or winter) cars. Only the larger systems had summer cars; smaller lines could not afford to maintain a double set of vehicles. If any one style of closed car was typical, it was the twenty-three-foot-long, twentytwo-passenger double-horse car, which cost around a thousand dollars. Its short wheelbase of six feet, made necessary by sharp curves common on city railways, gave it a bouncy, unstable ride.
Ventilation was achieved in several ways: opening the end doors and windows, perhaps while drawing louvered wooden shades, and opening the small glass windows mounted in the roof eaves. Most horsecar roofs featured a low clerestory built into the curved sides of an ogee-shaped roof, its ornamental effect enhanced by ruby red or royal blue glass in the clerestory windows, sometimes cut or etched in decorative patterns.
The body was set low on the wheels to make getting on and off as easy as possible, and a broad step helped all but the most feeble climb aboard without too much trouble. Small children and the very elderly might need assistance, as did fashionably dressed ladies whose frocks made all but the most delicate steps nearly impossible to mount.
John B. Slawson, a street-railway manager in New Orleans, invented the compact “fare box” or “bobtail” car in 1860 for lightly traveled lines where patronage was limited. It seated ten passengers, weighed just over a ton, was pulled by a single horse, and operated without a conductor. The little bobtails were wonderfully economical, but they were never popular with the public, which objected to their cramped quarters and a ride even bumpier than in their larger cousins. But the bobtails prevailed, despite all grumbles, and were found in service everywhere in the United States.
Efforts to introduce larger, more comfortable horsecars met with far less success. Double-deckers, around since the 1850s, offered extra seating, fine views, and fresh air, but the disadvantages outweighed these benefits. The narrow stairways to the top were difficult for many, and wind, rain, and snow discouraged rooftop travel as well. Two-level horsecars never progressed much beyond the experimental stage in this country.
City railways kept trying to imitate their big brother steam roads. In 1871, with the palace-car craze running at full fever, the Third Avenue Railway began running a sumptuous parlor horsecar that featured revolving chairs, sofas at either end, carpets, large plate-glass windows, silver spittoons, and fancy interior woodwork. The West Philadelphia Railway began operating a similar car a few years later. Apparently too few riders were ready to pay a fifteen-cent fare, and parlor-car service was never much expanded.
Most cars had plain bent-veneer seats with holes punched for ventilation and had little light and no protection against the cold—except for a few pitchforks of hay to insulate the passengers’ feet from the car floor. Those who complained about drafts were advised to buy warmer overcoats. As for lighting, tiny oil lamps, mounted in opposite corners at either end, cast a feeble glow just bright enough to let someone with good eyesight enter and leave the car. A few lines operated cars fitted with a center ceiling or dome light, which did much to brighten the interior. But the elegant lamps added a hundred dollars to the cost of a new car, and most city-railway managers felt they were too dear.
Street-railway men dreamed of being freed from the slow-moving, costly horsecars, but they could not find a ready alternative. The search for substitute power was quite broad. Steam, ammonia, soda, compressed air, naphtha, electricity, and even human power were tried. The exotic soda and ammonia cars proved disastrous. Compressed air worked fairly well, but only for very short runs.
Electricity had been the energy source of choice from the beginning, but not until around 1880 were there generators that could supply the power needs of a large street railway. By the eighties a host of inventors and mechanics had finally devised a truly practical system. Cable and horsecar lines were converted to trolley operations, and by 1890 one-sixth of all U.S. street railways were electric. Ten years later the conversion was virtually complete; only 259 miles—one percent of the total system—were still horse-powered.
The horsecar became a dinosaur in a single decade. The clomping hoofs and jingle of the harness bells were soon a memory. The new electrics were an enormous improvement: they were powerful, relatively cheap to operate, fairly quiet, smokeless, dependable, and prone to few ailments. Best of all, they did not eat when off duty, and they never soiled the streets.
Technical progress rarely sweeps clean, and horsecar holdouts endured well into the electrical age. Most were marginal short lines—“dinky operations”—where traffic was too modest to warrant the investment of bonded rails, poles, overhead wires, and electrical feeder lines. Horsecar operations stayed on until a better traffic developed or some way was found to abandon the line entirely. Not all such operations were in remote rural settings. New York City held on to a number of lines after 1900 because of unusually high installation costs, laws against overhead wires, and the expense of third-rail systems. Motor buses finally offered a way out, and the last New York horsecar ran on Bleecker Street in July 1917. Pittsburgh kept a small horsecar operation going until 1923. A little line in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas, which did not shut down until 1926, is believed to have been the last one in the country. Right to the end the old-fashioned hayburners seemed determined to demonstrate that sophisticated technology is not required in the public-transit business.