With its network of privately owned horse cars, elevated railroads, and trolleys, New York in the mid- to late-19th century had a relatively decent public transit system.
But getting around could be rough in bad weather, especially in one of the horse cars—the way thousands of workingmen, shop girls, and other New Yorkers regularly traveled.
“The cold, bitter gale from across the Hudson River nearly swept me into the sunken lots, as I waited at the lower corner of 57th Street for the horse car to come down Eighth Avenue,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor, of an episode that happened during his boyhood on the West Side in the 1860s.
“The wail of the wind through the telegraph wires on the lofty poles gave additional dreariness. Then the sharp scrape of horses’ shoes on the cobblestones seemed to add to the tingling cold.”
Each horse car had a driver, who sat on top and wore a wool cap and “a soldier’s overcoat with the cape brought up over his head,” wrote Kelly. A conductor was also in the car, clad in “a large fur cap” and “a huge seedy overcoat, ragged and patched at the pockets from being worn away by making change.”
The cars seated 13 passengers on each side; a trip generally cost a nickel. Riders could also sit up front with the driver or stand outside on front and rear platforms.
There was no heat in the cars, of course. Piles of straw thrown across the floor, like a barnyard, offered some insulation from the elements. Two kerosene lamps at each end of the car glowed weakly at night.
“The window panes were so encrusted with ice and frost that one had to scratch it off to see the street,” Kelly remembered when the car was on its way to Vesey Street. “I began to get restless, so I went out on the front platform, where I found great pleasure in watching the straining muscles of the lean horses.”
The “fumes of the kerosene mingled with those of the wet straw and damp clothes of the passengers made it hard breathing … I worked my way up and out to the front beside the driver, who by this time looked like a snowman.”
During rough trips like this one, Kelly recalled that passengers became very friendly. “They would talk and laugh with one another like villagers, and occasionally, someone would start singing, in which many would join.”
“Some of the conductors were very jolly, and the men who were generally smokers on the front platform, had a cheerful, if storm-beaten trip.”
Their good cheer came in handy. Cars sometimes jumped track; male passengers would exit and lift it back on the rails (horse cars followed iron rails laid down on the street).
It wasn’t easy for the overworked, underfed horses. Of a fallen horse, Kelly wrote, “its lean flanks heaving and sighing was the only response it gave to the beating, howling, and yelling” of passengers who tried to help the animal. Once the horse had been taken off the road, a new team was hitched to theirs.
“The snow seemed to make the passengers unusually sociable,” he wrote. “The men began hobnobbing … while the clear air rang with the girls’ merry laughter…. So it went on till we reached the 49th Street stables.”
[Top photo: 34th and Broadway, 1899, MCNY; second-fourth images: NYPL; fifth photo: snow all cleared at 34th and Lexington Avenue, 1899, MCNY]