Hard Work & Horse Power

How America Was Built on the Back of a Horse
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The story of America is the tale of a people always on the move.  It is also the story of the continual search to find new and better ways to transport people and goods as dependably and as fast as possible. The story of America begins with the horse. 

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angle-left Carrying the Goods

Carrying the Goods

Information on carrying the goods in Hard Work & Horse Power exhibit.
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From 1860 to 1910, despite the fact that millions of settlers had left the cities, these urban centers with entertainment, shopping and work opportunities continued to grow at a phenomenal rate.  In 1860, only one American in four lived in a city.  By 1890, one in three did.  And by 1910, nearly half of all Americans lived in a city.  And just as the horse was essential to life in the West, he dominated the nation’s urban areas as well.

American cities teemed with horses.  Private citizens rode to and from work and carried out their errands on horseback.  Many policemen patrolled their beats astride their mounts.  Horse-drawn delivery wagons, peddler’s carts, fire engines, ambulances, cabs and private carriages clogged the city streets.  Every well-to-do residence had its own stable and carriage house.  From the time that cities began to grow, inhabitants needed some form of public transportation.  The earliest solution was a horse-drawn vehicle, called an omnibus.  The omnibus made its initial American appearance in New York City in 1831. Traveling on an omnibus was far from an enjoyable experience.  The buses were always overcrowded with passengers who bumped into each other and stepped on each other’s feet.  Many of the early city streets were paved with cobblestones, and riders were jarred and thrown about as the buses moved along the uneven surfaces.  

As omnibus travel became increasingly popular, and yet more difficult and dangerous, transit owners began to search for a more comfortable and less hazardous way of moving people around the city.  They found their inspiration in the earliest railroads, which in 1830, were just being developed. From the example set by the railroads emerged the horsecar, an omnibus-type vehicle pulled by horses over rails set into city streets.  John Mason, one of New York’s wealthiest citizens, established the first horsecar line in the United States.  The horsecars were highly decorated and featured cast-iron wheels. By 1859, the vehicles filled the streets of such cities as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore and Cleveland.  A report issued in 1881 proclaimed that 415 horsecar lines, consisting of some 3,000 miles of track, were flourishing throughout the United States.  More than 100,000 horses pulled the 18,000 cars involved in these operations.

More horses were needed to keep the lines moving along. Most companies avoided using young horses because they were too frisky to pull the cars along at a steady pace.  And they avoided older horses because it was difficult to change their ways and teach them to make smooth stops and starts. The horses were treated with care.  Fresh animals took over every four or five hours.  Back in the stable, they were groomed, watered, and fed hay and grain three times a day, along with treats, such as oats and carrots.  Every horsecar stable employed its own veterinarian who kept the animals healthy.

Although the omnibus and the horsecar were the most common means of urban public transportation, there was another, less crowded, considerably more expensive way to move about the city.  This was a hansom cab, an early version of the modern taxi. By the 1840s, hansom cabs operated in many American cities.  This vehicle was a light, usually elegantly appointed buggy-type conveyance.  It was so light, in fact, that a passenger had to climb aboard carefully to keep the cab from tipping over.  A single horse, meticulously groomed, pulled the cab.  

Horses didn’t just transport people around the city; horse-drawn vehicles transported almost all goods, and freight wagons of almost every description clogged the cities.  Most of the nation’s growing factories were located within these urban centers, and they required enormous amounts of raw materials to manufacture their products. Teams of powerful horses hauled the wagons that delivered the materials and manufacturing machinery.  These wagons made their way daily through the city and lined up in front of the factories’ receiving platforms, waiting to be unloaded. As cities continued to grow, more materials were required for the construction of office buildings, stores and homes.  Horse-drawn freight wagons, filled with lumber and bricks, poured through the city streets.  Added to all this traffic were the thousands of delivery wagons that supplied the stores with their goods.