Omnibuses and Horse Cars or What I Have Learned from Assisting Researchers

deg_22: Pier 42, French Line at Horatio and Jane Streets, c. 1880. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It always starts with “Hello. How can we help you?” A simple phrase that begins a relationship between two strangers—the researcher and the archivist/librarian. I provide assistance and guidance to DORIS’ collections. This doesn’t mean that I perform the patrons’ research for them. Sometimes I simply retrieve the requested records or book. More often, I have to dig a bit deeper into our collection guides and catalog to help patrons. It’s those occasions that I find the most interesting and when I learn the most.

Omnibus Advertisement, August 7, 1852, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

One of our long-term researchers, I’ll call him Mr. F., began researching in the library over two years ago. Frequently here two to three times a week, he is not an academic, student or author. Rather, he has a life-long interest in New York City surface transit. Having traversed the City on buses since childhood, his goal is to correct some of the information that is available in books and online. It is from him that I learned about omnibuses and horse-cars and other modes of transportation.

When I met him in August of last year he thought he had exhausted all that the library had to offer, although he still had unanswered questions. The more he talked, the more I learned. I introduced him to the mayoral records in the Archives. The first time he found an archival document related to his quest—a letter in Mayor LaGuardia’s papers—he was giddy with excitement. He was hooked and so was I.

By now you’re probably asking “But what are these different modes of conveyances: horse-car, omnibus? Didn’t everyone just ride horses and in carriages and wagons?” Not really.

deg_29: Broadway, with horse-drawn rail cars at right, looking northwest from 22nd Street, ca. 1880. Photo by Robert J. Delvin, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In colonial New York most people lived and worked in the same location. As the City prospered, wealthier families moved northward, away from the crowded lower Manhattan business district. Thus was born the “commuter” who required public transportation.

The stagecoach was the first scheduled mode of public transportation. Soon thereafter, the Common Council imposed regulations: where stages could stand awaiting passengers, the speed of the coaches, where they stopped, and the right-of-way. Coach owners had to be licensed, and drivers were required to be over 21 and obtain a permit from the Mayor. A listing of stage coach owners in the 1800s, and some permits can be found in the Archives collection.

Petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Signatures from the petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Stagecoaches traveled between New York and Albany, Boston and Philadelphia as early as 1789. Fraunces’ Tavern was used as the stage-office. By 1811, there were five daily scheduled stagecoach trips between lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, then the northernmost reach of the City. In 1816, Asa Hall’s line started at the corner of Pine Street and Broadway, near Trinity Church. The fare was 1 shilling. In January 1829 the Common Council fined the “Omnibus Men” Asa Hall, Kip & Brown, and James Dickenson $25 (over $600 today) for parking their stages illegally and blocking street and pedestrian traffic. Imagine a $600 parking fine! They petitioned the Council to cancel the fine. They lost their appeal but the text of the petitions are telling, acknowledging that they did in fact violate “a law passed 18th of June 1828 regulating the standing in waiting for passengers.” Asa Hall owned the oldest stage line. In his petition he states that it was a burden he could ill afford and that Kipp & Brown should bear the greater burden of the fine because they had more stages then he and James Dickenson. Additionally, they all stated that they could not manage what the drivers were doing when they were not around. In later years, Sol Kipp, of Kip & Brown, would lament the coming of the horse-drawn rail car and the construction of the Eighth Avenue Line to which he lost his right of way.

In 1832, the New York and Harlem Railroad was created to bring passengers from Prince Street (today’s SoHo) to Harlem, mostly along 4th Avenue. The cars were built in John Stephenson shop on 28th Street and horses pulled the cars along tracks. The era of horse-cars, and omnibuses (an oversized stagecoach sometimes called a horse-bus) had begun.

deg_42: Yorkville and Harlem stages in front of City Hall Post Office, Broadway and Park Row, ca. 1880. Photo by A. Simpson, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Omnibuses were painted with the name of their route on the outside and accommodated about twelve passengers. Some were heated and some were not. People often describe the rides as slow and uncomfortable, being “jostled about the car.” A poem by Punch published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1852 entitled “Children must be paid for” [sic] describes, in the second verse, travel during the summer:

“If in an omnibus we ride,
It is n (sic) beauteous sight to see,
When full the vehicle inside,
Age taking childhood on its knee.
But in the dog-days’ scorching heat,
When a slight breath of air is pray’d for,
Half suffocated in our seat,
We feel that “Children must be paid for”

Omnibus travel in Brooklyn began in the 1840s, facilitating travel between Manhattan, Flushing, Jamaica and points east. They connected ferries docking in Brooklyn to the Long Island Railroad and the Jamaica Brooklyn Railroad. In 1853 the Brooklyn City Railroad began horse-car service that ran from the Fulton Ferry Terminal along Fulton Street and Fulton Avenue, a distance of 3.43 miles. Horses and mules pulled the cars along the double-track and took 37 minutes to travel one-way.

deg_21: Pier 44, White Star Line, Christopher Street "Entrance for Teams," ca. 1880. Photo by W.T. Colbron, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Transportation in New York was segregated and the omnibus, horse-car and railroads were no exception. African-Americans were prohibited from riding on some omnibus lines or were restricted to specially marked cars or the outside of the car. Sometimes the decision to allow an African American on board was left to the driver and the conductor. On the Sixth Avenue lines, every sixth car was marked with a sign “Colored Persons allowed to ride in this car.” In Brooklyn, Montgomery Queen, the owner of a line that went from the ferry to Bedford had a strict rule not to let “darkies” ride in his buses. Instances of African American men and women being forcibly removed or assaulted verbally and physically are covered by contemporary newspapers.

In 1855, African American school teacher Elizabeth Jennings boarded a car that lacked a sign prohibiting her use.  She refused to disembark at the request of the conductor. As the omnibus continued along the way, a policeman was hailed. He and the conductor “roughly removed” Miss Jennings. She sued the railroad, won her suit and was awarded damages of $225 plus costs of $22.50. As a result of this case, the Third Avenue Railroad immediately desegregated its service. Full access to transportation for all would not occur until after the Civil War. 

By the end of the 1850s, the Common Council (which covered only Manhattan) had issued over 400 omnibus licenses. As the number of railroad franchises grew and more and more track was laid, horses continued to pull the rail cars.

bps_05824: Stage Line Manhattan Bridge, Eugene de Salignac, photographer, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives

Horse-driven omnibuses and railcars dominated surface transportation until the arrival of steam-driven cars in 1883 and then the electric trolley cars. But the era of the omnibus, or horse-drawn rail car, continued through to the 20th century. In 1899, 113.44 miles of track were still dedicated to horse lines. It was on the Bleecker Street & Fulton Ferry line that the last horse car made its final trip on July 27, 1917. By then the cars were dark, dirty and smoky. New Yorkers had moved on to more modern transportation above ground, and below.

This is not the end of the story of surface transportation in the City. There is a treasure trove of information to be found in the collections. Needless to say, Mr. F. will be here for quite a while longer.

bps_05829: Stage Line, Desbrosses Street Ferry, general view of stages waiting, November 6, 1919. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives.