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Snowbound 19th-Century New Yorkers Used This To Get Around

By Nicole Levy | January 22, 2016 5:56pm | Updated on January 23, 2016 10:18am
 A horse-drawn omnibus sleigh, the city's public transit for snowy days in the 19th century
A horse-drawn omnibus sleigh, the city's public transit for snowy days in the 19th century
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While the future of the horse carriage industry hangs in the balance and the city cowers before the prospect of a snowpocalypse, there's no time more fitting to examine the history of the horse-drawn omnibus, outfitted in the picture above for snowy streets.

In the first half of the 19th century, the closest thing New York City had to mass transit were large horse-drawn carriages that seated a dozen or more passengers and traveled along predetermined routes up, down and across the city. 

The forerunner to the modern bus succeeded stagecoaches that made regularly scheduled trips from the suburbs as early as 1811.

Horses belonging to an entrepreneur named Abraham Brower pulled the first omnibus on Broadway in 1829. Brower's 12-passenger open-sided vehicle had a rear entry and lengthwise seats. Three or four horses were required to pull it along the city's roughly paved streets.

By 1833, New York had issued licenses for 80 omnibuses, which adhered to fixed schedules and charged riders lower fares than stagecoaches. The number of omnibuses peaked in 1854, with 683 vehicles driving on city streets.

The cars usually operated between two to five miles an hour (the next time you're frustrated by an MTA bus inching along in traffic, consider the omnibus), under speed limits enforced street by street. They came as regularly as every five minutes.

But the ride wasn't a comfortable one: "a perfect Bedlam on wheels," the New York Herald described it.

Still, it was public transportation the middle class could afford. 

After winter snowfalls, the omnibus lines used sleighs instead of the usual car on wheels — which has us fantasizing about all the ways we could employ those soon-to-be out-of-work carriage horses when precipitation halts subway service