Transportation, for freight and passengers, in a rapidly growing city of the late nineteenth century relied heavily on horsepower supplied by . . . horses. In Chicago during this period it is estimated that close to 75,000 horses were stabled within the city, there being 9 horses for every 22 of the city’s inhabitants. [Tarr & McShane. The Horse as an Urban Technology. www.tandfonline.com]
After about 1850 technology moved away from the horse drawn omnibus for transporting passengers in a city to trolleys that rode on rails laid at street level. It was an improvement for patrons who paid cheaper fares for faster and more dependable transportation around town. It was still an burden for the horses.
“The equipment proved a nightmare to operate,” wrote Perry R. Duis in his Challenging Chicago. “The weight of the car and the frequent stops and starts exhausted the animals after traveling only a few miles of a route. The company had no choice but to own and maintain a large herd—usually seven horses for each car—which also required a lot of blacksmiths, grooms, hostlers, and barn hands as well. Many of the animals perished each year because of falls, rough handling, or other urban hazards.”
Particularly hard on a horse’s vulnerable legs was pulling the dead weight of the loaded trolley from a standing start, something that happened over and over again as it plied the route. Horses could generally work no more than five hours without being totally exhausted, and they were usually kept on the transit routes no more than five years before they were sold or put down.
There were times when the price of horseflesh brought more for a carcass than one being sold after retirement from the transit lines. No insurance was paid to an owner who destroyed his own animal, so many horses were worked until they dropped dead in the streets. Rendering companies bid on the rights to pick up dead animals, guaranteeing their service within a few hours of the death of the horse.
Consider this account from Chicago, carried in The Chicago Daily Tribune on this date, December 20, in 1871.
A cold rain had been falling that day until 2:00 in the afternoon when it began to snow. At about that time a horse trolley left Cottage Grove, drawn by an “emaciated, woe-begone-looking white horse, that stumbled along as if on its way to a bone yard.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, December 20, 1870]
Because of the snow the car was crowded. The horse was shoeless while “the cobblestones remained slippery. The horse “under this combination of adverse circumstances” was “about as often down as up, slipping all the time.”
By the time the trolley reached Harrison Street (probably having traveled four miles or more), there were two inches of snow on the tracks. The cars following this one began to stack up until there were 17 cars lined up looking “for all the world like a funeral procession.”
“Every time the car came to a halt, which was about every fifty yards, the horse would sink together from sheer exhaustion, and there was a trembling in every limb. When encouraged to make a fresh start it would be convulsed with spasm, sway from side to side, and fall on its knees, but full of good pluck, somehow would manage to get started again.”
When it came to the end of the line, there were 22 cars piled up behind the poor horse and the car it was pulling.
Scenes like this were commonplace in the wild days of growth just before and after the fire of 1871. Next time I am out in the cold, waiting on the 151 and see two of them pull up to the stop, one after the other, I’ll swipe my fare card, thinking of that poor exhausted nag, pulling its heavy load of citizens through the Chicago snow.