New York City: From Horsecars to Trolleys

By Shauna Quinn (#115223064)

Embedded in the streets of early 19th century New York City were rails used by the City’s very first urban light rail system: the horsecar (Causey, 2015). Horsecars were an improvement from the coaches that were being used at the time, as they could pull more weight (due to the rails) and carry more passengers at one time (The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, 2011). In addition, the cost was more affordable than coaches and protected passengers from the elements. The vast network of rails allowed for the movement of people and goods into new and different neighborhoods in the city (Causey, 2015). However, the horsecar did not move very fast and the streets were filled with horse manure.

Photograph 1. New York City Horsecar. Courtesy of Days Gone By
Photograph 1. New York City Horsecar.
Courtesy of Days Gone By.
Photograph 2. Horse manure-filled New York City street at Times Square. Courtesy of Stuff Nobody Cares About.
Photograph 2.  Horse manure-filled New York City street at Times Square.
Courtesy of Stuff Nobody Cares About.

Not long after the American Civil War, new technologies emerged that led to the use of cable cars. Cable cars operated at a steady, fast speed but often caused accidents due to the speed of the cars. The population of the city was also rapidly expanding, calling for the need of additional and better public transit.

Photograph 3. Crowded New York City Street at the end of the 19th century. Courtesy of MetroFocus.
Photograph 3. Crowded New York City Street at the end of the 19th century.
Courtesy of MetroFocus.

By the 1880’s new technology would once again help transform New York City’s public transportation system. In 1890, the Coney Island Avenue streetcar line was electrified and became the city’s first fully motorized trolley line. Once again, with ever expanding rails across a rapidly growing city, more and more people and goods were free to move throughout the city.

Photograph 4. Trolley car number 311 at the car barn of the Williamsburg Bridge trolley line, photographed on March 22, 1928. (Eugene de Salignac/Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives). Courtesy of The Atlantic.
Photograph 4. Trolley car number 311 at the car barn of the Williamsburg Bridge trolley line, photographed on March 22, 1928. (Eugene de Salignac/Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives).
Courtesy of The Atlantic.

Eventually trolleys would replace all horsecars, last run in 1917, and cable cars, last run in 1905, in New York City. The last trolley in the city ran on October 31, 1956.

Below is a video showing a typical trolley ride down Broadway and Union Square:

References

Causey, D. (2015). It was the 5th largest industry in the USA but it has almost disappeared. Do you know what it was?. [online] Days Gone By. Available at: http://daysgoneby.me/industry/ [Accessed 25 Oct. 2015].

MetroFocus, (2012). Teddy Roosevelt’s Battle With the Deeply Depraved New York of Yore. [online] Available at: http://www.thirteen.org/metrofocus/2012/03/teddy-roosevelts-battle-with-the-deeply-depraved-new-york-of-yore/ [Accessed 26 Oct. 2015].

Stuff Nobody Cares About, (2012). Old New York in Photos #22 – Times Square 1908. [online] Available at: http://stuffnobodycaresabout.com/2012/09/13/old-new-york-in-photos-22/ [Accessed 29 Oct. 2015].

The Atlantic, (2012). More Historic Photos From the NYC Municipal Archives. [online] Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/06/more-historic-photos-from-the-nyc-municipal-archives/100318 [Accessed 25 Oct. 2015].

The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, (2011). BHRA: History of the Streetcar. [online] Available at: http://www.brooklynrail.net/info_streetcar.html [Accessed 26 Oct. 2015].

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