Transportation in the 1800′s
Here’s a photograph taken in 1860. St. Joseph’s is at center left — it’s the only building still standing from this photograph of Sixth Avenue. It’s recognizable from its triangular roof. Everything else reminds one more of a western movie than a great East Coast metropolis. Notice the wooden canopies hanging over the sidewalk?
Also, notice the rails running down the center of the avenue. These were for horse-drawn omni-buses like the ones seen below. Those were precursors to the elevated trains, known as the El’s. Horses would drag bus-like cars along the rails for the public to hop on and off.
New York’s first regular street transportation was by oxcart on Broadway as far north as Houston Street. Along this route, at regular intervals, passed slow-plodding animals drawing heavy, creaking wagons and carts, which were laden with farm produce on their way to town and with merchandise on the way north.
The wretched condition of Manhattan’s roads made the rail-guided omnibus far preferable to the stagecoach for much of the 19th century.
For almost a century the stagecoaches monopolized the public transit of Manhattan, giving way to omnibuses early in the nineteenth century. Since the omnibuses were themselves horse-drawn, the change was merely one of degree. The omnibus was a stagecoach grown larger and adapted to city needs, chief of which were greater capacity and shorter runs. In 1832, rails were laid down the center of Fourth Avenue, so that horse-drawn omnibuses could ride along the rails, creating a much smoother ride. By 1855, three more avenues had been ‘railed,’ including Sixth Avenue. By 1866, New York’s population exceeded 700,000, and twelve horse-drawn lines carried about 60,000,000 passengers a year.
Omnibuses would remain in service throughout the 19th century, though the introduction of elevated trains in 1870′s would greatly reduce their traffic. The term ‘omnibus’ came from the latin ‘omni,’ meaning ‘all,’ since omnibuses made no distinction based on class or race. Everyone could ride.
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