The Horse Car Home Page

by Joe Thompson


Rolph and horse
2014 -- The Year of the Horse -- 2014
Rolph and horse


If you came to this page from an outside link, you may want to see the Picture of the Month and visit my main page.


What Is In a Name?

I have seen horse cars called by different versions of the name:

  • horse car
  • horse-car
  • horsecar

The most commonly used term in current times seems to be "horsecar". It is the name I have used many times in my websites. However, in preparing for this article, I surveyed Nineteenth Century literature and have found that "horse car" and "horse-car" were far more commonly used. So on the analogy of "cable car", I have decided to use "horse car".

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What Is a Horse Car?

Before cable cars, there were horse cars. A horse car is a horse- or mule-drawn transit vehicle which runs on rails. Horse cars replaced omnibuses, which were essentially urban coaches, which had a slow, rough ride on the cobbled or unpaved streets of the Nineteenth Century. The minimal friction of steel wheels on steel rails (or iron on iron) allowed a horse to pull a larger load and make better time than he could with a road vehicle.

John Stephenson ad A John Stephenson ad shows a bob-tailed car, a standard car, and an omnibus.

Tramways had used animal power, human, horse, or other, to pull or push carts which ran on wood or stone rails as early as the 16th century. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which is considered America's earliest common carrier railway, began by using horses to pull its trains. Steam power did not begin to become common on railroads until well into the 1830's.
horse locomotive Around 1830, the pioneering Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which had used horses to pull its trains, tried a locomotive in which the horse walked on a treadmill, which drove the wheels through gearing.

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What Was the First Horse Car?

John Mason John Mason, which is considered by many to be the first horse car.

On 27-November-1832, a horse-drawn railcar named "John Mason", built by a young carriage-builder named John Stephenson, rolled down the New York and Harlem Railroad's Fourth Avenue line. When the railroad requested a franchise to operate the line, it was required to use horses rather than steam locomotives. John Mason was the first president of the New York and Harlem Railroad and the founder of the Chemical Bank. Many consider the John Mason to be the first horse car.

The Fourth Avenue horse car line was not a success. Steam-driven trains replaced the horse cars in 1837. Horses returned to Fourth Avenue in 1845, but no further lines were built until 1852. John Stephenson went on to build transit vehicles for the rest of his life.

People may question whether the Fourth Avenue line was truly a horse car line, and the John Mason was truly a horse car, since many mainline railroads were using horses. At least we know the date it first ran.

From Wonders and Curiosities of the Railway by William Sloane Kennedy, 1884. p 169-170.

The first street railway in the world was the New York and Harlem, incorporated 1831. The first cars were run in November, 1832 from Prince street to Harlem Bridge. These cars were curious structures, from the point of view of people of this generation -- being very much like the stage coaches of the time, each having three compartments with side doors; there were leather springs, and the driver sat on an elevated seat in front, and moved the brake with his foot. The car represented in the cut was one of the first two that were built for the Harlem line, and was made by John Stephenson. The opening of the road, says W. H. Brown, excited a good deal of interest, and the streets along the route were crowded with curious spectators. The bright new car, the "John Mason," led the way, and the ribbons were handled in gallant style by a well known knight of the whip, named Lank O'Dell, who always drove a pair of gray horses. Both the cars that figured on the occasion contained city officials (the mayor and members of the city council) and invited guests. It was thought by many that there would be great difficulty in stopping the cars quickly enough to avoid accidents to street vehicles. But the vice-president of the road, being very desirous of convincing people how ungrounded were their fears in this regard, determined to give them ocular proof of the ease with which the cars could be brought to a dead stop. So on the trial day, he posted himself with a number of witnesses somewhere about the corner of the Bowery and Bond street, having previously ordered the drivers of the two cars to watch for his signal, and then stop the cars with all the haste they could. Now, when O'Dell came dashing along and saw the signal, he easily brought up the car, since he had previously some experience in hauling materials for the road; but the hackman who drove the second car, forgetting the lever of the brake, only drew hard on his lines and shouted, "Whoa!" But in vain; his car slid inexorably forward, and the tongue went crashing through the rear end of the "John Mason," causing the dignified inmates to beat an unceremonious retreat, amid the laughter of the bystanders. No one was hut, however, and soon the triumphal train moved on to Harlem Bridge. This is the first street-car collision on record, and it occasioned a good deal of merriment among the citizens, and considerable annoyance to the vice-president; since for several days afterward, the roguishly inclined among his friends would imitate his attitude and gesture on that unlucky street-corner, and raise their arms for him to stop, as he had done to the car-drivers. The fares were paid in silver sixpences of the old Spanish currency then in circulation. In 1837 the road temporarily succumbed to steam cars, but resumed work in 1845. The old Harlem Railroad Corporation still owns the right of way through the Bowery and Fourth avanue, and receives a large income from the street railraod, as well as from the Hudson River and the New Haven railroads, in return for a cession to them of right of way.

John Stephenson add, 1886 An 1886 John Stephenson ad shows the John Mason and a modern horse car. November, 2007 Picture of the Month.

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Horse Cars Spread Out

Valley City horse car A Grand Rapids, Michigan horse car.

When horse cars were revived in the 1850s, they quickly spread across the United States, and to many other countries. Manhattan went on to have the longest and most heavily patronized set of horse car lines in the country.

horse car broadside This 1887 Carter-built horse car ran for the Oakland Railroad and then a line in Berkeley. It is preserved at Ardenwood Historic Farm. The Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroad Resources (SPCRR) hopes to build new running gear to replace the rubber tires. September, 2006.
horse car end view An end view of the horse car at Ardenwood Historic Farm. September, 2006.

horse car This horse car, built around 1880 and preserved at Travel Town in Griffith Park, ran in Los Angeles. It needs restoration. July, 2007.

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Putting the Horse Car Before the Horse

From 1883 to 1910, an unusual horse car line ran in Englewood, south of Denver, Colorado. A horse pulled a car from Hampden and Broadway up a steep hill on Broadway to Quincy. At the top of the hill, the horse backed onto the rear platform, and the car proceeded down the hill by gravity. This line became a major tourist attraction and was a popular subject for postcards. I understand the car is still on display in the Englewood Civic Center.

Similar lines ran in West Denver and Southern California.

It is a popular story that when the horses used on these lines were sold to farmers, that they would pull plows uphill, but not down.
Cherrelyn horse car John Bogue, driver, stands on the front platform. The horse stands on the back platform.

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What Happened to the Horse Cars?

Horse cars spread rapidly, but they had problems.

  • Horses deposited tons of feces and gallons of urine on the streets every day
  • A horse could work only part of the day, but would eat all day
  • A horse car could run all day, but it would require many changes of horses
  • A line's investment in horses could be wiped out by diseases like the Great Epizootic of 1872.
  • Horses could not pull cars up steep hills

Busy lines like those in Chicago found it very expensive to maintain service with horse cars. They found cable cars to be cost effective, despite their much higher intial cost. Read P. G. Hubert, Jr's article The Cable Costs much Less to Run than Horse Cars.

Cable cars were too expensive for most cities, but electric streetcars were inexpensive enough to operate in cities and towns of almost every size.

These tables, from a January, 1889 Manufacturer and Builder Magazine article, "The Bentley-Knight Electric Railway System", are probably a bit skewed because they were intended to promote electric traction over horse or cable, but they give an idea of the cost ineffectiveness of the horse car.

CONSTRUCTION AND EQUIPMENT.
- HORSE ELECTRIC CABLE
Ten miles of track @ $7,000 $70,000@ $7,000 $70,000@ $7,000 $70,000
Forty cars* @ 830 34,000@ 700** 28,000@ 950*** 88,000
Four hundred horses @ 150 60,000- -
Ten miles of conduit - @ 25,000 250,000**** @ 65,000 650,000
Steam plant - 20,000 25,000
Dynamo plant - 24,000-
Forty motor trucks - @ 1,500 60,000-
Machinery and sheaves- - 10,000
Building 40,000 10,000 10,000
Total $204,000 $462,000 $808,000

ANNUAL RUNNING EXPENSES.
- HORSE ELECTRIC CABLE
Feeding, replacing & caring for 400 horses @ $219 $87,000- -
Coal, at $2.50 per ton- $7,756 $9,581
Engineer and assistant, at $2.50 and $1.50 - 1,480 1,480
Firemen (two), at $1.50- 1,095 1,095
Oiling sheaves - - 4,000
Wear and tear ***** @ 5 p.c. 7,200 /td>@ 3 p.c. 13,860****** @ 3 p.c. 23,694
Maintaining cable - - 13,200
Interest, at 6 per cent 12,240 27,720 48,180
Total $107,030 $51,891 $101,210

* Car bodies cost from $700 to $1,200.
** Axles and wheels are included in motor trucks
*** Including Grip.
**** From $50,000 to $100,000 per mile of track -- curves, crossings and switches constitute a heavy additional expense.
***** $204,000, less $60,000 (cost of horses).
****** $803,000, less $13,200 (cost of cable).

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, almost all horse car lines in the United States had been converted to electric operation. There were few survivors.

The Bleecker Street horse car line continued to operate in Manhattan until 26-July-1917. Read a newspaper report about the last trip.

NY Last Horse Car This postcard says it shows the last horse car in New York, photographed at Broadway and Bleecker on 26-July-1917. Note the horse car behind it.

The Sarah Street line in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the last regularly operated transit line operated with horse cars in the United States, running until 27-October-1923.

Horse cars continued to operate in Central America for many years.
Matamoros Mule Car This mule car was photographed in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico around 1910.

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Horse Cars in San Francisco

South Park An Omnibus Railroad horse car passes South Park, on Third Street (Source: San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, AAC-8187).

San Francisco's first horse car line was the Omnibus Railroad, which started operations in 1861. It operated broad gauge lines on Third Street and Howard Street. Many other operators started within the next few years, including the North Beach and Mission and the Central Railroad.

Union Hall on Howard Street Union Hall, on Howard near Fourth. The ground floor was used by the Omnibus Railroad as a horse car barn from 1862 until 1895, when the horse lines were converted to electric (Source: [group 8:73], Roy D. Graves Pictorial Collection, ca. 1850-ca. 1968, BANC PIC 1905.17500--ALB, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).

Horse car lines were limited to relatively flat streets, although Andrew S Hallidie is claimed to have conceived of the idea of the cable railway while watching horses struggle to haul cars up Jackson Street, from Kearny to Stockton Street. The horses had to be whipped cruelly. They would sometimes slip and be dragged back down the hill.

The Sutter Street Railroad, unprofitable as a horse car line, became a great success as a cable car. Read more about it in "The Sutter Street Railway - San Francisco's Second Cable Car Line" by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria.

Baloon Car Henry Casebolt built the famous balloon car for the Sutter Street Railroad in 1876. It saved the expense of building a turntable at the end of the line. (Source: San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, AAC-8118).

Cable car operating companies used horse cars to operate service in less-populated areas. After electric traction became common, a few horse car lines survived to protect franchises. Read an 11-March-1906 newspaper article about Michael Houlihan, who drove the United Railroads' franchise-protecting horse car line on California.

Last Car Mayor Rolph holds the reins of the last franchise-holding horse car on Sutter Street on 03-June-1913. The startled horses pulled a heavier load than they had in many years. (Source: San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, AAC-8182).

The Sutter Street Railway's horse car line which connected the end of the cable line at Sutter and Market with the Ferry Building, survived the conversion of the cable cars after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The city fought with the United Railroads over ownership of the outer tracks used by the horse cars. The horse cars survived until URR made a deal with the city. The last run on 03-June-1913 turned into a mob scene as Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph took the reins of car 45 and drove the car all the way to the barn with a much larger crowd than the horses had ever pulled. Read an 04-June-1913 newspaper article about the last horse car to run in San Francisco in regular service.

Rolph and horse Mayor Rolph gives some oats to one of the horses (Source: "After Years of Waiting Last Horsecar is Driven to Barn, While Thousands Line Route", San Francisco Call, 04-June-1913).

So far, the last horse car to operate in San Francisco was Sutter Street trailer 54, which operated on the outer tracks on Market Street in a parade after the last streetcar lines used the tracks in July, 1949.

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Motion Pictures Which Feature Horse Cars

I'd be happy to hear about other fiction movies which feature horse cars.

The Bell Boy

In 1918, comedian Roscoe Arbuckle directed wrote and starred in a two-reeler called "The Bell Boy".

Roscoe, Buster Keaton and Roscoe's real-life nephew Al St John are bellboys, desk clerks, horse car drivers, elevator operators and barbers in the Elk's Head Hotel.

Bell Boy/1 After some guests check out of the Elk's Head Hotel, Al St John prepares to drive them to, I presume, the train station.

Bell Boy/2 After bringing a new load of guests from the train station, Al St John oils the horse.

Bell Boy/3 A group of crooks, foiled by Roscoe, Buster and Al in their attempt to rob the bank, run away and steal the horse car. The blue tint indicates that this scene takes place at night. Ignore the heavy shadows.

Bell Boy/4 The crooks, pursued by Roscoe, Buster and Al, drive the horse car up a steep hill.

Bell Boy/5 The horse breaks away and the horse car rolls backwards down the hill and crashes into the lobby of the Elk's Head Hotel, where Roscoe, Buster and Al capture the crooks. Roscoe gets the girl and Buster and Al get the money.

The movie is full of funny acrobatics. Buster Keaton smiles once.

Released: 1918
Directed by: Roscoe Arbuckle
Written by: Roscoe Arbuckle

Check the Internet Movie Database

Speedy

Harold Lloyd's 1928 Speedy was his last-released silent movie.

Photoplay Speedy Harold Lloyd and his horse car (Source: Photoplay, November, 1927).

This movie is unusual for the period because it features extensive location shooting in New York City. It tells the story of the last horse car in New York. A wicked street railway company (!) is trying to consolidate all the lines in the city and needs to buy the horsecar franchise, but the owner, Pop Dillon, won't sell. To maintain the franchise, he has to run the car on its tracks once a day. Harold Lloyd's character Speedy Swift, who is in love with baseball and Pop's cute granddaughter, foils the thugs who steal the car and he gets Pop $100,000 for the franchise. No one is sad that this marks the end of the horse car line.

Released: 1928
Directed by: Ted Wilde
Written by: Al Boasberg, Albert DeMond, John Grey, Jay Howe, Lex Neal, Howard Emmett Rogers, Paul Girard Smith)

Check the Internet Movie Database

The Shootist

The Shootist was John Wayne's last movie.

John Wayne plays a gunfighter who is dying of cancer. He wants to live his remaining time in peace, so he finds a quiet boarding house in Carson City, run by widow Lauren Bacall. The movie features a horse car.

Released: 1976
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Glendon Swarthout (original novel), Miles Hood Swarthout, Scott Hale

Check the Internet Movie Database

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Horse Car Collectibles

horse car stamps A set of transportation stamps includes the John Mason and a bobtail car from Arkansas.

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Where Can I Ride a Horse Car?

I'd be happy to hear about other places where people can ride horse cars.

The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway has operated along the promenade in Douglas, Isle of Man since 07-August-1876. The line was closed briefly during World War Two, but it continues to operate every summer. It is operated by the Douglas Borough Council.

The Victor Harbor Horse Drawn Tram operates double decker trams in the town of Victor Harbor, South Australia. Most of the route runs over a wooden causeway.

The Tourist Tramway of Iquique, Chile has operated a horse tram and a double decker battery tram since 2004.

Thank you to Leroy W Demery, Jr for letting me know about the Historical Village of Hokkaido in Sapporo, Japan . According to the village website: "A horse-drawn trolley provides transportation along the main street, which is lined with old wooden and stone buildings." ( http://www.kaitaku.or.jp/info/info.htm). They appear to have two cars.

The Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroad Resources (SPCRR) has operated a horse-drawn railway at Ardenwood Historic Farm, just across the Dumbarton Bridge in Fremont. The line is a tribute to the South Pacific Coast Railroad's horse-operated Centerville branch. Read more about it, and see some videos, on my Park Trains and Tourist Trains site.
horse tram At Ardenwood Historic Farm, Jiggs the horse pulls the horse-drawn car into Deer Park. September, 2006.
horse car ladder The loading arrangements for the horse-drawn car at North Park. Note the fire extinguisher, there in case the horse bursts into flames ;0). September, 2006.

A fleet of four horse-drawn streetcars has operated at Disneyland in Anaheim, California since opening day in 1955. Many of the other Disney parks also have horse trams. Read more about the Disneyland horse cars on my Park Trains and Tourist Trains site.

Golden horse car Disneyland Railroad horse car Number 4, painted gold for Disneyland's 50th anniversary, lays over near Tomorrowland. July, 2005.
horse car near plaza Interior of a Disneyland horse car as it circles the Plaza. July, 2003.

Passing loop Disneyland horse cars 1 and 2 in the passing loop on Main Street. August, 2004.

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Walt Disney World's Main Street Horse-Drawn Streetcar

Horse-Drawn Streetcar Cover

I have not yet read Walt Disney World's Main Street Horse-Drawn Streetcar by David Leaphart, but I am looking forward to it. Check his Disney World Railroads website.

Steven says to potential readers: "The book is definitely a labor of love, and I hope it shows if you read it. I wrote it as a journey by you and me through the story of Main Street, horses, and streetcars. On this journey, you will get to know the cast members who create the magic and the wonderful horses who make it happen. I have developed wonderful relationships with both, and these dwarf the book itself."

If you are interested, you can order it through Lulu.
The hardcover:
Walt Disney World's Main Street Horse-Drawn Streetcar hardcover.
The eBook:
Walt Disney World's Main Street Horse-Drawn Streetcar ebook.

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Horse Car Bibliography

Books

  • Fickeworth, Alvin A. California Railroads. Golden West Books, San Marino, CA. 1992. To quote the subtitle: "An Encyclopedia of Cable Car, Common Carrier, Horsecar, Industrial, Interurban, Logging, Monorail, Motor Road, Short Lines, Streetcar, Switching and Terminal Railroads in California (1851-1992)"
    Check Amazon.Com (includes review)
  • Leaphart, David, Walt Disney World's Main Street Horse-Drawn Streetcar. Steel Wheel on Steel Rail Studio. 2013. Horse cars at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
    See ordering information
  • White Jr, John H, Horsecars, Cable Cars and Omnibuses. Dover Publications, Inc, New York, NY. 1974. Builder photos from John Stevenson.
    Check Amazon.Com

Newspaper Articles

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Last updated 01-February-2014