History of Horses in the Cities

Horses in the City

Horses were the main source of transportation and deliveries in the up and coming cities of the 1800s
Horses were the main source of transportation and deliveries in the up and coming cities of the 1800s | Source

Horses and the Expansion of Cities

Horses have played an important role in every aspect of man's development through time. In the 1800s urban cities began to grow. Most of the deliveries of food, supplies, and transportation within the city was done by horse drawn carts.

The amount of horse drawn traffic in the new metropolitan streets created hundreds all kinds of problems city developers had never anticipated. There were frequent fatalities in pedestrian and carriage ride accidents. The skittishness of horses at times created an unpredictability and added a danger to this kind of transportation. The vehicles also presented safety hazards.

Omnibus in New York City

Source

The First Form of Mass Transportation

The very first mass transportation vehicle in the U.S. was the omnibus. This looked like a stagecoach and was pulled by pairs of horses, and were the predecessor of the modern bus. The first omnibus ran up and down Broadway in New York City in 1827. The omnibus ran along a designated route and was an economical form of transportation for city dwellers. Horse drawn omnibuses ran in the U.S. until about 1905.

The omnibus was a difficult vehicle to brake so they were often made with large wheels that made it top heavy and prone to turning over. This often happened on winding streets and with reckless drivers.

The clatter of the horseshoes and wagon wheels on the pavements made of cobblestone produced a lot of noise pollution. Traffic and congestion was also a big problem in the cities filled with horses.


The ASPCA and Horse Cruelty

Henry Bergh started the ASPCA to prevent cruelty to animals
Henry Bergh started the ASPCA to prevent cruelty to animals | Source

Henry Bergh Founder of the ASPCA

Horses were mistreated on the streets of NYC, which motivated Henry Bergh to start the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Horses were mistreated on the streets of NYC, which motivated Henry Bergh to start the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals | Source

The ASPCA and Horses

The ASPCA was started to protect the treatment of horses
The ASPCA was started to protect the treatment of horses | Source

The Start of the ASPCA

The horses traveled slowly, and had difficulty in stop and go conditions. A horse and wagon took up more space than the modern truck of today does. The city streets were often slick and slippery. Horses that would fall had to be helped up. Those horses that were injured were shot on the spot or left to die, which clogged the already crowded streets even more, sometimes even bring traffic to a halt. It was not easy to remove the horse, and would sometimes be left there for days.

Horses working in urban cities were often worked to death because it was less expensive for owners to have fewer animals than care and feed for a larger number of horses. The average streetcar horse only lived to about the age of two because of the deplorable way they were treated. These horses were often whipped and beaten by their drivers.

Henry Bergh took action. He had founded the ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in 1866, for the main purpose of improving the conditions of the city horses. During the 1890s, Col. George E. Waring Jr. vastly improved the street sweeping services that were copied across the country.

The stables that housed the horses were often dark, with no ve ntilation, and rarely cleaned. Horses were often crowded together in these conditions. This was uncomfortable and unhealthy for the horse. In 1872, The Great Epizootic Epidemic, a horse influenze killed about 5% of the urban horse population in the Northeast, and many more horses were debilitated. The equine flu began in Canada in the summer of 1872 and made history because it demonstrated how vulnerable an industrialized nation became. The flu reached widespread proportions and was so contagious, it spread from the north to the south and the east to the west coast within 90 days, causing it to turn into an epizootic, which means an epidemic that affects the animal population.

Today there is a vaccine for this, but in 1872, it brought a nation, dependent on horses to a near standstill. The disease was not contagious to humans, but because the horses could not deliver food or pull the firefighter’s wagons, people were greatly impacted in almost every aspect of their lives. Nearly all business came to a halt in what became known to this day as an historic animal epidemic.

Wagons to deliver coal were pulled by people, so that the locomotives could run. Trains and ship cargo could not be unloaded. Tram cars didn’t move and basic essentials couldn’t be delivered. The everyday conveniences that people took for granted, had virtually disappeared.

In the west, the U.S. Calvary and the Apache War was fought on foot, as neither side could use their horses to in battle. In Boston in November, 1872, a fire broke out in Boston and with no horses to pull the fire wagon, 776 buildings were destroyed across 65 acres.

From September 1872 to December 1872, approximately 2,000 horses died in the major Northeastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.


Electric Streetcars

Electric streetcars replaced horse drawn omnibuses and made traveling in the city easier and safer for people and horses
Electric streetcars replaced horse drawn omnibuses and made traveling in the city easier and safer for people and horses | Source

Electric Streetcars and Automobiles

The emergence of the electric streetcar took the place of the horse’s role as the main source of people’s personal transportation in cities. At the end of the 1800s and beginning of 1900s, William Phelps Eno reduced the number of horse drawn vehicle accidents by coming up with rules of the road. He invented the stop sign, the yield sign, the crosswalk, the stop light, the one way street, traffic circles, pedestrian island, and the taxi stand. He set up rules for driving on the right side of the road.

In addition to all of these improvement and with the invention of the automobile, the urban horse problem slowly disappeared. Cars were even cheaper to own and run than horse drawn vehicles. In 1900, 4,192 cars were sold in the United States. By 1912, 356,000 cars were sold. This year was the first year that showed there were more cars on the streets of New York, than there were horses. In the 1920s the motorized truck became the last replacement of the horse cart.


Traffic Jams in Early Urban Cities

Roads were congested with traffic on city streets
Roads were congested with traffic on city streets | Source

Horses in 19th Century Cities

Cities were overcrowded by horse traffic
Cities were overcrowded by horse traffic | Source

Horses and How People Traveled

In 1800, there were about 21 million horses, and about 4,000 cars, in the United States. By 1935 about 3,000 buggies were made in the U.S., primarily for use in rural areas. To this day, the Amish still manufacture carriages for their communities.

By 1900, about 40% of the population in the U.S. lived in cities with populations of more than 2,500. Times Square, a well known part of Manhattan was originally called Long Acre Square and was a main center of business for the carriage industry. It was here that thousands of carriages were purchased, sold, and repaired, and where blacksmiths conducted much of their business.

In 1900, approximately 130,000 horses worked in New York City, which is more than ten times the number of yellow taxicabs on NYC streets today.

In the 1900s, many city buildings and houses were made of wood. People generated their light and heat by open flame, making fires a common issue in these structures. Fighting fires was difficult and the firemen depended on the horses, who did a great job of getting the firemen to the fire. The brigades would keep a team of horses in specialized stalls in the firehouse. Fire horses were agile, quick, strong, and intelligent. The equipment that the horses pulled weighed about 4,000 pounds, as they maneuvered their way through heavy traffic in a race to get to the fire as quick as possible. Fire horses were so effective, respected and admired that even after motorized fire engines were developed, many cities were hesitant to give up their horse drawn fire equipment. 1922 marked the last time a team of fire horses in New York City ran to fight a fire. Thousands of people watched their final run.

In winter, people traveled differently. Walking was difficult due to the deep snow on the trails and the wagon wheels would often get stuck. People were not able to travel by boat because of frozen water on the lakes.

In the winter people mostly traveled by sleighs, which were carts with no wheels.There were two runners which were flat metal bars that would slid easily on snow. Cutters were small sleighs pulled by one horse. People kept themselves warm by covering themselves in fur blankets because the sleighs had no covers and made traveling on them very cold. Foot warmers were also used to keep warm. Foot warmers were metal boxes filled with hot coals that sat on the floor of the sleigh.

Parks were Developed for the Wealthy

Central Park in New York was the first park created in the U.S. for the wealthy to get away from the congestion of the city
Central Park in New York was the first park created in the U.S. for the wealthy to get away from the congestion of the city | Source

City Parks, Horses and the Wealthy


In London, in the mid 1800s, there were over one million horses stabled. A ton of horse manure had to be cleared from the streets daily.

Railroads and manufacturing created an inland expansion of cities, producing more wealth. Parks came about so that the wealthy city dwellers would have a recreational place. The wealthy would drive along the promenade of the park in horse drawn carriages. Central Park in New York City in 1857, became the prototype for urban parks, which featured pathways reserved exclusively for carriages for the upper class.

People were judged by their mode of travel, as they ranked people’s horse and carriage. By the 1870s, carriages were mass produced and became more affordable and widely used. This led to increased mobility. by the late 1800s, the buggy was the most popular vehicle in America. The buggy was a light four wheel vehicle with or without a foldable top. It sat one or two people. Mass production enabled the buggy to be purchased for $20 through mail order catalogs. The average yearly salary of a non farm employee was about $483.

Railroads and manufacturing created an inland expansion of cities, producing more wealth. Parks came about so that the wealthy city dwellers would have a recreational place. The wealthy would drive along the promenade of the park in horse drawn carriages. Central Park in New York City became the prototype for urban parks, which featured pathways reserved exclusively for carriages for the upper class.

A traffic study done in 1907 in New York City, showed that horse drawn vehicles moved at an average speed of 11.5 miles per hour. In a traffic study done nearly 60 years later, cars moved through the business district of New York City at about a speed of 8.5 miles per hour.

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2 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 20 months ago from Olympia, WA

I love articles like this one. Informative and interesting...a good combination. Thanks for the mini-history lesson. This old history teacher appreciated it.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 20 months ago from Australia

How amazing that Times Square was the centre of the carriage industry! An interesting hub, thank you

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