Urban Horses of Halifax

Steven Archibald recently posted Reckless Pedestrians where he looks at old photographs of Halifax, and compares how much more pedestrian-friendly they were in the days of the horse, before the car. This didn’t seem right to me, and caused me to go searching for urban transportation pre-automobile.

When you look at the photos, the people look posed. The streets are also relatively empty. It doesn’t feel like the hustle and bustle of a city. The reason for this lies in the technology used to take the images. Wet plate processes had existed since the 1850s but had 10 second exposure times. Dry plate processes in the 1870s improved exposure times greatly, but they still could be long enough that moving objects are not captured. The result of this, is that moving objects are not seen in the photos.

People and wagons are posed. The blurs are moving people, who could not be exposed properly.

The horse itself was the cause for a great deal of muck on the streets. Each horse produced 15-30lbs of manure per day, and a quart of urine. Most of this would be deposited on the street. The horse-powered trams required 11 horses per day to run. The Sherbrooke, the Dartmouth ferry Team Boat, required 9 horses to power the vessel across the harbour, and the ferry company maintained multiple sets.  Besides the muck itself, as it dried, it would form dust, and be swept into the air by the wind. The manure also attracted and became breeding grounds for common flies, which were discovered to carry numerous diseases, including typhoid. By the turn of the century, the motor car was seen as a savior from the muck, and a tool to improve the heath of cities.

On-street parking and horse drawn tram


Horse powered trams existed before the electric streetcar. The rails allowed for a smoother ride for passengers, and reduced resistance, which allowed the horse team to pull a larger load. The Halifax City Railroad was inaugurated in June 1866 , and ran from the foot of Inglis Street to Duffus Street in the north, terminating at the Nova Scotia Railway station in Richmond. Cars ran on the line every fifteen minutes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. until 1874, when frequency increased to every ten minutes between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. The service was unprofitable, and the move of the train station to downtown (at the foot of North Street) caused the service to shutdown in 1876. The Halifax City Railroad stable and car barn was located at the corner of Hanover Street and Campbell Road. At the time of dissolution, they owned 50 horses, which were sold, along with the cars.

A Double Decker Horse Drawn Tram in the London Transport Museum

After 1876, Haligonians were forced to rely on Omnibuses. Omnibuses were a horse-powered wheeled bus. They were more expensive to use then the street railway, the ride was rougher, on account they were wheeled, and they had a lower capacity.

Example from London, London Transport Museum.

The Halifax Street Railway was formed in 1886. They purchased 15 new cars from the John Stevenson Company, as well as the stable and car barn used by the Halifax City Railway. They also purchased the omnibus service to eliminate competition. The Halifax Street Railway went bankrupt in 1889. it was purchased by the Nova Scotia Power Company, who intended to electrify the service. They too went bankrupt and and were purchased by the Halifax Electric Tramway Company in 1895.  Electric trams started running in February 1896.

The other assertion is that the horse-powered vehicle is smaller then the modern car. However, this is not the case  – the oxcarts in the photo of the market  (2 above) appear to be 15-20′ in length, and the NSMMA has a Sloven on display, a type of typical Halifax freight wagon that by itself is 20′ long, not including the team. For comparison, my Nissan Rogue is 15′ long.

Cities included massive multi-level livery stables to accommodate the horses and carriages – analogous to our modern parking garages. Halifax had the Metropolitan Livery Stable on Hollis Street, across from the Halifax Hotel,  Robinson’s Livery Stable on Doyle Street, and the Bengal Lancers Stable, which still exists as a stable, though in abbreviated form. Robinson’s Stable on Doyle still exists, though in much modified form. When the horse went out of common use after the First World War, the stable was converted to various other uses, including a car dealer, parking garage and most recently, office and retail space.


In NYC in 1900, 200 people were killed by horse and horse-drawn vehicles. There were 270 auto related deaths in 2012 (pedestrian and vehicle collisions). New York’s 2012 population was 8.3 million, it was 3.4 million in 1900. The roads in the time of the horse were much deadlier places to be. Chicago had similar stats. I was curious if I could find out what the stats for Halifax were, however I discovered that there were no death records kept in Nova Scotia between 1877 and 1908, though there is a ledger for Halifax.

William Phelps Eno  was trained as an architect, however went on to become the Father of Traffic Control. In his books, he writes of the chaos he experienced in streets of New York, Paris and Italy, and how pedestrians had few safe places of refuge. As a boy, He rode velocipedes, early pedal-less bicycles in Paris.  Though he died in 1945, he never possessed a driver license and was unable to drive himself.

Eno is  credited with the creation of the first traffic code, which he did in 1903 for New York City. He is also credited with  the invention of the crosswalk, stop sign, stop light, yield sign, the pedestrian island, the traffic circle and the one way street. Born in 1851, more then half his life was spent before the widespread adoption of the automobile. His primary goal in traffic control was to reduce the number of accidents caused by horse-drawn vehicles.

His code for New York explicitly gave right of way to road traffic.

Article IX. The Respective Rights and Duties at Drivers and Pedestrians.
The roadbeds of highways and streets are primarily intended for vehicles, but pedestrians have the right to cross them in safety, and drivers of vehicles and street cars must exercise all possible care not to injure pedestrians. Pedestrians should, on their part, never step from the sidewalk to the roadbed without first looking to see what is approaching, and should not, needlessly, interfere with the passage of vehicles or street cars.

By crossing a street as nearly as possible at right angles, preferably at a regular crossing, and when a traffic policeman is stationed there, by waiting for his signal, pedestrians will greatly add to their own safety, facilitate the movement of traffic, and make it much less difficult for the horses, which often have to be reined in suddenly and painfully to avoid careless and un­thinking pedestrians. Nothing in the foregoing should excuse drivers from constant vigilance to avoid injury to pedestrians under all conditions.

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