Transportation, New York City

The Crowded City, Then and Now

Manhattan was a very crowded place in the 19th century.

The actress Jenny Lind  arrived to perform at Castle Garden (then a performance space) on September 11, 1850.   30,000 people met her at the dock and another  20,000 lined the streets to her hotel.  You can read about this in more detail at the New York Times.

But then you could just go to one of the many city guides such as The City of New York: A Complete Guide, published in 1876, and read the ads for the city’s many hotels. You can read this online; the list of hotels starts on page 65.

The Gilsey House hotel, mentioned in The Gilded Hour  opened for business in 1871, and is still standing, and is still a hotel.  Daytonian in Manhattan — a blog dedicated to New York city history — has a great post about the Windsor Hotel, which was standing and in business in 1883. In general I’d recommend Daytonian in Manhattan when you’re wondering about history.

omnibus-horses-in-winter-stieglitzIn 1883 traffic was a major problem. It was worse, in many ways, because thousands of horses pulling wagons of all kinds meant manure, and no easy way to get rid of it. (More on this below.) The photo to the right I like especially because I think it makes it clear what it was like to be on the street in the winter. It’s a Steiglitz photo.

There were train tracks everywhere, and accidents were common.  You can read about an accident in heavy traffic in 1874 here. With the introduction of  elevated trains: more accidents. And there were cabs. Such as this line of handsome cabs waiting for customers on the north side of Madison Square. That arm you see in the background is from the Statue of Liberty. While they were fundraising to build the pedestal in the bay, they put the arm in Madison Square Park and charged people to climb to the top.

All of the images at the end of this post date from between 1880 and 1890. You’ll note the large number of small horse drawn carriages — cabs. Lots of them.

Union Square, cab line
Union Square, cab line

madison-square-1893 sixth-ave-shoppers washington market

Lower East Side
Union Square
Union Square
Winter traffic 1887
Winter traffic 1887

It’s hard to imagine what the streets of New York were like when horses were the primary way things and people moved. The following  excerpt from “The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City” provides some perspective.

The Horse & the Urban Environment

While the nineteenth century American city faced many forms of environmental pollution, none was as all encompassing as that produced by the horse. The most severe problem was that caused by horses defecating and urinating in the streets, but dead animals and noise pollution also produced serious annoyances and even health problems. The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable. While cities made sporadic attempts to keep the streets clean, the manure was everywhere, along the roadway, heaped in piles or next to stables, or ground up by the traffic and blown about by the wind. […]

If the horse created many problems for the city, it was also true that urban life was extremely hard on the horse. The average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of about four years, and it was common to see drivers and teamsters whip and abuse their horses to spur them to pull heavy loads. Overworked and mistreated urban horses often died on the city streets.

In 1866, the Citizen’s Association Report on the Sanitary Condition of the City observed that, “The stench arising from these accumulations of filth is intolerable.”


Because of the manure on the streets, especially when rain created a quagmire, “crossing sweepers” (like those in London), appeared, to help ladies and gentlemen wade through the liquid manure. Citizens frequently complained about the “pulverized horse dung” which blew into their faces and houses and which covered the outside displays of merchants. The paving of streets accelerated the problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the dust. Writing in Appleton’s Magazine in 1908, Harold Bolce argued that most of the modern city’s sanitary and economic problems were caused by the horse. Bolce charged that each year 20,000 New Yorkers died from “maladies that fly in the dust, created mainly by horse manure.”

Although not as serious a problem as the manure, the noise created by horses’ iron shoes and the iron-tired wheels of cars and wagons on cobblestone streets was a constant annoyance. Benjamin Franklin complained in the late-eighteenth century of the “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, wagons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise” which assailed the ears of Philadelphians. Boston and New York both passed ordinances banning traffic from certain streets to protect hospitals and legislative chambers from the noise. As late as the 1890s, a Scientific American writer noted that the sounds of traffic on busy New York streets made conversation nearly impossible, while the author William Dean Howells complained that “the sharp clatter of the horses’ iron shoes” on the pavement tormented his ear.

Tarr, Joel and Clay McShane. 1997. “The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City” in The Making of Urban America. Raymond Mohl, ed. New York: SR Publishers, 105-130.

Carriage trade

In 1883 Broadway at 42nd — known as Longacre Squarein the 19th century, and now as Times Square — was far out of the city proper and sparsely populated. The name was taken from London’s center of the carriage trade, also Long Acre. The carriage trade was primary, with wain- and wheelwrights, carriage manufacturers and horse farms.

Broadway at 47th Street 1878
Broadway at 47th Street 1878

American Horse Exchange

William K. Vanderbilt, when asked about his profession, called himself a horse breeder. He had so much money that he could have called himself anything he liked; what he liked was horses, and horse racing. In 1879 he opened the American Horse Exchange on Longacre Square. In its first incarnation the Exchange  extended from Broadway to Seventh Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. At its center was a huge brick building that served as the meeting place for the trading of thoroughbred horses.

american horse exchange

Horse Power

hansom cab
hansom cab

While there was some steam-driven transportation in the early 1880s, most of what moved was pulled by horses. Commercial vehicles crowded the streets, while omnibuses and cabs (and the elevated trains) transported the majority who couldn’t afford to keep their own carriages. Hansom cabs  were particularly popular (cab is a shortening of cabriolet, a specific kind of horse-drawn carriage) because they  were fast, light enough to be pulled by one horse and were quick and agile, a necessity in traffic jams.

Private Carriages

Few could afford to keep horses and carriages, and even fewer had their own stables. The Rockaway carriage was one of the more popular models in the last half of the 19th century.

The website of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages includes photos of most of the kinds of carriages that would have been in service in Manhattan in the 1880s.


Public Transportation

From The History of Transportation in NYC:

19th Century Transportation Modes

Cable Cars

Relevant to the Waverly Place novels: New York City’s first cable car line opened in 1883 on the new Brooklyn Bridge. Cable Cars were moved by steam-driven machinery in a powerhouse, which continuously drew a loop of wire cables through a slot beneath the street. When the cable car operator wanted the car to go forward, he gripped the running cable with a special device. When he wanted to stop, he released the moving cable. Cable cars were useful on grades that were too steep for horses. But once electricity became available for trolleys, the value of steam-powered cable was limited, ending the run of cable cars in New York City in 1909.

See also: Elevated Trains and Railroads


Grand Central Depot
Grand Central Depot

Elevated Trains


Elevated Train - Transitmuseum.orgVia the

New York City’s earliest form of rapid transit was the elevated railway, or el.  The first elevated line with passenger service was the cable-powered West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, which opened in 1868 and ran for just a few years.  When the New York Elevated Railway introduced small steam locomotives to replace cables in 1871, the age of the els had arrived.  Designed to run on tracks nearly three stories above city avenues, the elevated trains drastically changed the ways in which New Yorkers viewed their city and lived their lives.  By 1880 most Manhattan residents were within a ten-minute walk from an el.  By 1903 the elevated systems in Manhattan and Brooklyn had shifted from steam to electric power, offering a smoother, cleaner ride. The els ushered in aspects of urban life that we now take for granted – from being able to live, work, and shop in different parts of the city, to constantly interacting with people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds.  Although the els were dirty and noisy and blocked sunlight from the streets below, they allowed people to travel quickly and cheaply throughout the city for nearly a hundred years, helping transform New York into a bustling metropolis.

Sixth Ave at 42nd Elevated station 1879


Elevated Train Map ca 1881
Elevated Train Map ca 1881 Library of Congress


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