Before the Motor City: the horse age in Detroit

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

For nearly 200 years the only means of transportation on the streets of Detroit was a horse. The horse and people population rose together. In 1837 Detroit had four livery stables for horses. In 1860 the Detroit Waterworks survey of the city listed 17 stables. By 1894 it had risen to 82 stables and about 12,000 horses on the streets.

While the pace was slower — carriages moved at about 6 mph, freight wagons at 2 mph — there were still accidents and traffic jams, called "blockades." Since there were no traffic laws, only a few horse-drawn wagons bunched together could result in an hour delay of shouting, threats and fights, which many times ended with a policeman's billy club. Carriages and freight wagons drove on both sides of the road, stopped in the middle of the street, and parked where and when they wanted.

Horses also powered many industries. Walking a treadmill, they sent a ferry across the Detroit River. They turned winches, raised houses by turning giant screw jacks, laid sewer pipe, pulled in fishing nets on Belle Isle, and hauled rocks from excavations. Horses that did such work were described as "living machines." There was debate beginning with French philosopher Rene Descartes about whether horses and other animals experienced emotion or could even feel pain; many in the 19th century considered horses as mechanical devices for human use.

Horses pull a sleigh loaded with logs at a lumber camp in Grayling, Mich. in the 1890s.

The horse industry was important economically. There were blacksmiths, wheelwrights, breeders, auctioneers, veterinarians, carriage builders, carriage painters, express men, teamsters, draymen, harness and saddle makers, and more. But in the early 1900s, with motorized cars, trucks and electric-powered trolleys on the streets, the horse's days were closing. By the end of the 1920s, aside from a few peddlers, milk trucks and fire wagons, the horse vanished from the city and a way of life vanished with it.

Detroit's first horses

Appropriately, the first horses were brought to Detroit by Detroit's founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. In 1704 Cadillac brought three horses and 10 head of cattle overland to Detroit. Two of the horses died but one named Colin survived, and Cadillac used him for plowing, removing tree stumps and pulling logs. Cadillac also rented him out to settlers who needed him.

More than a century later, Lewis Cass brought his family to Detroit from Ohio in June 1815 in a fine carriage pulled by a team of horses. It made such a conspicuous scene that Cass ended up selling the horses and storing away the carriage for special occasions, adapting to the Detroit style of ponies and two-wheeled carts.

Before the 1830s urban horses were not common in American daily life and were unknown in Detroit. Horses were generally reserved for the military. According to urban historians professors Joel Tarr and Clay McShane, in the U.S. there was little knowledge of horse breeds, especially working horse breeds, until the Victorian era. Men worked farms by hand. Horses required a lot of hay and oats, which were too hard to supply in the winter months.

In Detroit French settlers relied upon ponies, more durable than horses for Detroit winters. The ponies, typically described as from "Norman stock," were simply branded and allowed to forage on whatever they could find in the surrounding woods.

People and goods were hauled in two-wheeled wagons called carioles. These vehicles were indispensable during the muddy springtime, when they were backed up to buildings, houses or churches and passengers' feet never touched the unfit street. While some gentry placed chairs on the cariole, most people, including Lewis Cass and his family, rode "Turkish style," sitting on the floor of the cariole with blankets or buffalo robes. Carioles were commonly seen on Detroit streets until the 1860s.

While light and quick, the two wheels made the wagon unstable, occasionally dumping its passengers or loads out the back end.

"A runaway occurred on Woodward Avenue yesterday in which a little French pony, a Canada-go (i.e., a cariole) cart, and a corpulent market woman figured extensively. The pony started off … in spite of the efforts of his female owner who tugged away at the lines and shouted French in the most energetic manner. The cart was full of cabbages which flew in all directions." — Detroit Free Press, Jan. 26, 1860.

Sleigh rides and horse racing

As soon as winter arrived, Detroiters were in sleighs going up and down Lafayette or Jefferson. Sleighing seemed to have brought out the entire city. It was part fashion parade, part horse race, but mostly pure fun.

"Here are sleigh loads of laughing children, cheeks all ruddy and eyes aglow with the spirit, life, enthusiasm and the happiness of the hour. For who does not delight in sleighing?" — Detroit Free Press, Nov. 28, 1869

Sleighs were common sights on Detroit streets in winter. Just about anything that could have runners attached to it was used, from dog-pulled carts to posh four-horse carriages with stoves.

Since nearly anything could have runners attached to it, sleighs ranged from boys riding dog-pulled carts to four-horse carriages with stoves and "all the fixings." All classes of people mixed together. Some attached wooden runners onto packing crates. One inventive farmer flipped over a chicken coop, attached runners and drove his family up the avenues.

The Detroit Riding Club and other groups featured wealthy families with their elegant coaches and matched horses during annual spring horse parades down Woodward Avenue. The 2-mile parades included as many as 300 vehicles and 50 horseback riders as thousands lined the street.

Until the mid-1800s horse racing was an amateur activity. The favorite racing places for French Detroiters was the ice on the Rouge River and the city of Ecorse, and by midwinter on the Detroit River. Race tracks called "speedways" began to appear as early as 1830s in Hamtramck or off Grand Boulevard near Second Avenue in 1900.

"Matinee horse races" was the name given to amateur racing that did not require an entrance fee. Eventually the racers formed Matinee clubs, such as the Detroit Matinee Club. Matinee clubs called their races "brushes." They used only "road" horses, not specialized thoroughbred racers. Most cities and towns had segments of roads set aside for the "Brushing Brigades."

Horse racing on the frozen ice of the Rouge River or the Detroit River was a popular pastime for many, including future President Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed as an Army lieutenant in Detroit in the late 1840s.

One of the horse racers from the late 1840s was Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed in Detroit. He was an Army lieutenant at the time and loved to race horses up and down Grand River and Jefferson with Frenchmen like David Cicotte and Alexander Campau. Decades later during the Civil War General Grant was said to have only fond memories of his days in Detroit, racing in the winter.

The racing on the Detroit streets, especially on Jefferson, became a frightening annoyance to residents. During the horse age there was no such thing as a speeding ticket; however, police did give tickets for something called "furious driving."

It was considered reckless and dangerous, and proof was a horse foaming at the mouth. It frightened people, such as this letter to the editor shows from 1859:

"In the name of humanity I would inquire whether there is a law or an ordinance … to prohibit furious driving. … It is shameful that poor silly fellows who evidently know no better should be permitted simply because they have more money than brains to endanger the lives of citizens who are compelled to walk. … Let the streets of the city be exempt from such ridiculous and dangerous exhibitions."

Stagecoaches, omnibuses and horsecars

The Detroit Gazette printed this announcement on May 31, 1822, the very first stagecoach run outside of the city and immediate area:

"Judge Clemens … has recently established a stage to leave this City weekly after the arrival of the steamboat and to arrive at the seat of Justice in Macomb Co. on the same day. Seats may be taken at the very low price of one dollar."

Detroit stagecoaches were not like English stages or stagecoaches from cowboy movies. They were typically converted lumber wagons drawn by four horses. Omnibuses were much larger versions and originally ran from the steamboat docks or railroad stations to hotels. Omnibuses and stagecoaches had agents at desks on boats or trains to book people before they arrived in Detroit. Others yelled or clanged cow bells from the docks to attract people as they arrived. Some basically shoved clueless immigrants into their coaches and drove them to the various hotels before they knew what was happening.

Serious discussion began in the 1860s when other U.S. cities had developed carriages with railcar wheels called horsecars. On Nov. 24, 1862, 30-year franchises were offered by Detroit Common Council for exclusive rights to develop the tracks, horses, stables and personnel. Cornelius S. Bushnell and backers from New York established the Detroit City Railway Company in 1863.

They began laying track with the stipulation that horsecars could go no faster than 6 mph, have a car pass by every 20 minutes, and keep fares at 5 cents. Lines had to operate on Woodward, Jefferson, Gratiot, Grand River, Fort and Michigan Avenue.

Horse-drawn carts and carriages were still a common sight in downtown Detroit in the early 20th century, but the advent of electric-powered streetcars was one indicator of a major change in transportation.

Each horsecar used four to five separate pairs of horses bought from huge dealers in Chicago, who in turn bought the horses at auctions from ranches in the west. Horses were not purchased outright but were first evaluated to see if they had the proper temperament for pulling rail cars. If the new horse wandered in his walk, kicked, or balked in the trial, he was rejected, but if he took to the task the company would buy him at anywhere from $100 to $175.

Car horses were fed three times a day, and ate 26 pounds of oats and minced hay daily. They were serviced by an army of hostlers, who were responsible for 18 horses each. Every day a hostler had to feed, water and clean his horses under his care. He also had to harness and prepare his horses for the day's work.

The horses pulled cars of about 30 to 40 passengers for about four hours a day. While their legs were said to be the first to give out, the hardest part for the horse was the jarring strain of start and stop, which jerked the horse's shoulders. This was greatly aggravated at special events when cars often were grossly overloaded.

The working lifespan of a car horse was seven years. It was a sad life for these horses, which often left service broken and crippled, sold to peddlers for next to nothing.

Another large stable in Detroit was the Detroit Creamery Co. Milk drivers assembled at 11 p.m. while 303 horses were hitched to begin milk routes seven days a week. Each milk wagon made 200 to 350 stops to service a total of 60,000 customers.

Not in my backyard

Stables were usually not desirable in residential neighborhoods; the majority were located near the train depot or on Larned. They were noisy, smelly, and loaded with rats and flies. Horses produced between 15 and 30 pounds of manure a day along with six quarts of urine. Many stables made substantial income selling manure to dealers, but nevertheless it did not make them popular with neighbors.

The common layout of stables also made them also susceptible to horrific fires:

"At about eleven o'clock last night Mr. John B. Long's livery stable on Randolph Street … was discovered to be on fire, and so rapidly did the flames spread that the whole building was said to be enveloped within five minutes. There were forty-two horses in the stable out of which only eleven were saved. ... The spectacle was most distressing, the poor horses neighing and moaning most piteously." — Detroit Free Press, March 8, 1855

Commercial livery stables were commonly three stories high. On the main floor were carriages, wagons, buggies and sleighs. Some were privately owned, which a stable stored for a fee, while others were owned by the stable to rent out. The horses were located on the second floor, and the third floor contained hay and feed for the horses.

When needed, the horses were led to the street down a wide central ramp. But men could not get horses out fast enough during a fire.

Stables sometimes had goats on site, as it was a superstition that goats prevented horse diseases. Stables also were a favorite hangout for dogs, which were attracted to the odor of burning horse's hooves which occurred when a blacksmith was fitting a horse with new shoes; dogs liked to eat the toasted hoof shavings.

Development of the draft horse

As the railroads began to flourish, companies needed some way to transfer their freight from the stations to sites in the city. This required larger wagons and powerful horses. It was in the 1850s that draft horses began to truly specialize; horse breeders sought unique traits suited to specific tasks. Midwestern states, especially Illinois, were the leaders in breeding giant draft horses; it was claimed that the high calcium content of their Midwestern grass was needed to support these giants that grew beyond 2,000 pounds.

Department stores like J.L. Hudson's and other retailers wanted powerful looking horses matched in color and size for their painted delivery wagons and the store's image. Beer breweries sought out gigantic horses with hooves like tree stumps to haul enormous wagons stacked with barrels of beer. Hostlers at brewery stables claimed their horses were known to love beer, some refusing to leave the stable until they had had their bucket of beer in the morning and another at lunch.

"The Pabst Brewery Company's 'Blue Ribbon Team,' 11,400 pounds of horseflesh, arrived yesterday in Detroit. … The finest six horse team that it has been Detroit's good fortune to see in many a day was carefully unloaded. Attached to a heavy box truck resplendent in red varnish and brass mountings, the six dapple grays were driven by D.D La Prairie through the down-town streets." — Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1904

The most popular breed of draft horse through most of the 19th century was the French Percheron. This breed was desired for two reasons. First, its imposing size, power and dramatic appearance; a gray coat was preferred over black because it was believed black horses seemed smaller.

The second reason Percherons were popular was the stallions' legendary reproductive powers. When the French brought over the world famous Percheron Louis Napoleon to the U.S. for breeding, 400 mares awaited him in Illinois with a fee of $10 per mare. He was said to service even small mares with "perfect gentleness." Colts from Louis Napoleon sold for $600 to $1,000, ten times the price of domestic horses.

That's why they're called Teamsters

Teamsters drove four-wheel wagons and earned their name to distinguish them from one-horse light trucks and two-wheeled carts. Teamster wagons were pulled by at least two horses. They began to appear in the 1830s and by 1900 their numbers had soared.

Driving two horses or more required special knowledge and skills. For a team of two, four reins were held in the right hand, leaving the left for the whip or the brake. The hold on the reins needed to be tight so the horses knew they were under control but the grip could not be excessive or it hurt and damaged the horse. For a four-horse team, eight reins were held in one hand. Backing up such a team to a loading dock drew crowds of onlookers.

From the start, the 20th century made life hard for horses in cities. Rock hard street pavement demanded for motorized vehicles was punishing to horses' hooves. Horses slipped on oil and grease. Automobiles zipping past the horses frightened them; teamsters called autos "gasoline bugs."

Excavation sites for the new century's multi-story commercial buildings were among the most difficult work for horses as the ground was sometimes wet with thick mud. Horses were loaded with great masses of rock and stones, then were whipped as they carted loads up steep, slippery ramps. It became a national concern, as voiced in this letter to the editor of the New York Times from 1907:

"I must daily watch the frantic efforts of both horses and men to get these dead weights of stone out of the soft hollow and onto the roadway. … Derricks would save the horses the horrible, frantic rush and strain under the sting of the lash … It is awful to see the struggle, and harrowing to watch the poor jaded creatures, their heads drooping, waiting to be harnessed for the next effort."

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

In 1865 the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in New York. Its particular focus was horses. In Detroit the movement picked up steam, headed by Mrs. Abner E. Larned, chairwoman of the Animal Welfare Committee.

The committee raised money for horse watering troughs. They held special parades and city contests featuring skilled control of draft horses. The committee would send out "agents" who would report to police on cases of cruelty. Even children were used to spot problems on streets. Police were assigned to oversee building excavation sites.

Beating and ill treatment of horses was something everyone witnessed on a regular basis, and it became a deeply emotional issue as horses were becoming less essential and were being replaced even on farms by motorized tractors and trucks. The sympathetic outpouring also seemed to dispute the notion that horses were merely "living machines"; they recognized people's voices, had personalities, and were not unfeeling.

Horse values plummet

As more and more professions and industries abandoned horses for autos and motorized trucks, only the poor peddlers, teamsters and milk men who could not afford to change were left with "five dollar" nags on their last legs. The value of horses out west fell to $1 to $3 a head, especially when the horsecar industry switched to electric powered trolley cars. Detroit's last horsecar was paraded down Woodward accompanied by a band. When word was given the crowds tore pieces off of it for mementos. "The last horse car was kindling wood within less than a minute," a newspaper reported.

People whose entire life had been spent caring for horses were not only without a job but without a profession. Some made the transition from making carriages to auto bodies, from uniformed footman to chauffeur, from stable to garage; but, across the country newspapers reported sad tales of those who struggled with change.

"Despondent because his employer was modernizing his delivery equipment by motorizing it, Joseph Steir, who loved horses, committed suicide yesterday by hanging himself in his home. … On a note he left on his bureau: 'I'm in the basement. Don't buy me flowers.' " — New York Times, July 31, 1929

Families traded the family horse for an automobile, described in 1917: "Year after year the favorite driving horse faithfully served members of the family. Father drove it in the daytime. One of the boys hooked up 'Old Billy' after supper and went courting. On Sunday the old horse hauled the family to church or on a fishing trip. ... Someway no one thought of selling 'Old Billy' because he had become part of the family."

But they did by the tens of thousands.

This photo shows that some milkmen were still using horses for deliveries in 1954.

The results of faster, heavier motorcars, untrained drivers (some as young as 11), and no traffic code of laws was devastating to city streets. In 1923 the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that there were 678,000 people seriously injured in automobile accidents in the U.S. and more than 22,000 deaths. Nevertheless, the auto world was inevitable. In 1926 Detroit passed an ordinance banning horse-drawn vehicles from major city streets.

When the horse's final days came and he or she died in harness or was put down, the animal's carcass was taken to the knacker. Everything on a horse had value: hair, hide, hooves, bones, teeth. On a farm the process was different. Donald Hall, who taught at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for nearly 20 years and later was named U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote about this ending in his poem "Names of Horses":

"When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,

one October the man, who fed and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,

led you through a corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,

and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,

and fired a slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,

shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost."

For further reading on this subject, see the book "Horse in the City" (2011) by Clay McShane and Joel Tarr.

Bill Loomis is the author of two books on Detroit. His third book "On This Day in Detroit" is to appear on bookshelves in the Fall of 2015. He is a regular contributor to WUOM 91.7 FM's "Stateside with Cynthia Canty."