Horsecars on Rails

Horsecars on Rails and the West End Street Railway Company

During 1832, New York City experimented with yet another form of mass transportation. Horses could haul larger or heavier loads of passengers in coaches more smoothly over rails - two parallel rails set in streets. Much could be said in favor of the omnibus. They could go anywhere, even in the worst of winter. But more could be said about horsecars running on rails. A hundred years ago, streets were full of ruts, mud and bumps. Operating a car on rails assured a more comfortable ride, and horses could pull greater loads at much higher speeds.

Initially there were objections from the general public in Boston to the laying of rails in their neighborhood streets. Public opinion was eventually favorable, so an initial trial of street railways and a long period of competition in and around Boston resulted between horsecar and omnibus operation. On March 26, 1856 the first horsecar line started operation from Central Square, Cambridge to the West Boston Bridge to Bowdoin Square.

During the mid to late 1800's some twenty different horsecar companies offered service to Boston and surrounding communities. Lax supervision led to over-duplication of existing services, fares were not regulated, and competition for passengers was fierce. The General Court of Massachusetts, having been made aware of these problems, passed the West End Consolidation Act (Act of 1887, Chapter 413) consolidating all lines into one operation to be known as the West End Street Railway. This led to the creation of one of the largest street railway operations in the United States at that time.

A hundred years ago speed was not the prime consideration that it is today. However, most street railway managements were constantly seeking new sources of motive power. The West End's major problem was caring for some 8,000 horses. The latter were all subject to diseases and the heavy task of pulling horsecars full of people often lead to injuries. Additional problems were encountered as city streets became more and more clogged with all forms of traffic. It was clearly time for a new technology to take hold in public transportation.

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