Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Persistence of Horses


I've taken the New Jersey Terminals project all the way back to the beginning of railroading in the area. As early as 1812 Stevens had published his Documents Tending to Prove the Superior Advantages of Railway and Steam Carriages over Canal Navigation. In 1814 he surveyed a route across the state between New Brunswick and Trenton, pretty much what would eventually be the Northeast Corridor, even though Stevens's project itself was never realized. Still determined at age 76, Stevens in 1825 built a demonstration railroad on his property at Hoboken, New Jersey. While it was just a circular route to nowhere it was the first steam-powered railroad in New Jersey.

The consensus of railway historians is that the Stockton and Darlington Railroad, in northeastern England, was the first railroad to operate scheduled passenger and freight services, in 1825, the same year as Stevens's demonstration.

But the first practical railroads in the state were not steam powered. Early on, steam locomotives were small and underpowered, and had a tendency to break down or, worse, a tendency to explode because pressure was poorly regulated. Good locomotives were also hard to obtain. A company had to choose between the expense of importing one from England or the risk of allowing an American inventor to see if he could build one. As a result, conservative investors preferred the time-tested horse as motive power. Given smooth iron wheels running on smooth iron track, a horse could pull a greater load by railway than it could on ordinary streets. That was enough.

The first railroad opened in New Jersey was the Camden and Amboy. Its route will today seem peculiar: from South Amboy to Bordentown. The idea was to form a land route as short as possible between boat passages in New York Bay and on the Delaware River. The railroad opened at the end of 1832 with horses pulling the cars. Horses were changed three times so that each team worked a distance of less than ten miles. The company already had a locomotive on hand but did not trust the track or locomotive enough to use it. It had arrived from England as a kit, with no instructions, and had been fitted together in 1831 by a young mechanic who had never seen a locomotive. John Bull finally pulled a train late in 1833. The rest of the railroad, Bordentown to Camden, opened the next year. It's not clear from what I've read when the last trips were made by horse.

But South Amboy is not even on the New Jersey Terminals map. The familiar plan of running to a Jersey City waterfront terminal followed soon after, with the construction of two railroads.

The Paterson and Hudson River Railroad was the second railroad incorporated in the state and the second to open. Construction was supervised by two West Point engineers, McNeill and Whistler (the uncle and father of the later well known painter). Paterson was an industrial town taking advantage of hydropower from the drop in the Passaic River at Great Falls, but had poor transportation. Local investors pledge more than a million dollars toward the railroad, an incredible sum in 1831.

The first section of the P&H, horse operated, opened in 1832 between Paterson and a river landing at what is now Passaic. The more difficult section across the soft ground in the Hackensack Meadows was completed at the end of 1833, but there the railroad ended, at the location later called Marion. The new section was again powered by horses, and so were the carriages that completed the journey by road to the Hudson ferry.

The obstacle of course was Bergen Hill. The cut through the hill was being built jointly by the P&H and the New Jersey Railroad. Work began in 1832 and took six years to complete. All they had was black powder and hand tools.

The New Jersey Railroad was to run via Newark and Elizabeth to New Brunswick. The first section was finally opened late in 1834, almost a year after the P & H, from Newark to the junction. The companies built a temporary track by a routing I cannot identify over the top of Bergen Hill and then down to the ferry.

Neither company ran a steam locomotive until 1835, when they acquired one each, imported from England. The NJ's engine Newark actually managed to go up and over Bergen Hill pulling one coach.

The opening of the Bergen Hill cut in 1838 was also the occasion of running all-steam trains on the New Jersey Railroad. Up to that time locals to Newark were still horse powered, running in between steam trains to New Brunswick. Of course there were only a few a day on each service.

I don't have to hand the date when the P&H stopped running horse trains. It was probably earlier than 1838.

The really persistent use of horses was on my own familiar Morris and Essex Railroad. The M&E opened in 1836 from the New Jersey Railroad's Centre St station in Newark to Orange, horse powered, and onward to the original terminal at Morristown Green the next year. The M&E's cars were handled by the New Jersey Railroad to and from Jersey City.

The M&E got its first locomotive in time for the Morristown extension. It was built in Newark under the direction of inventor Seth Boyden, the polymath who already had the patent on patent leather and would in his later years develop the Hilton strawberry. Orange was probably the first locomotive built in New Jersey. It managed to go up the steep hill from Broad Street Newark to the Morris Canal crossing, a 2.5% grade, lessened today because the line is now above ground level at Broad Street and below ground level at the City Subway crossing. Reportedly Orange also achieved sixty miles an hour somewhere out in the Oranges. Doubt about that rests more on the crude condition of the track than any slight to Boyden's engine.

Boyden provided a second locomotive, Essex, the next year. But that was all, for quite a while. Local service between Newark and Orange continued to be run with horses, while the steam trains ran nonstop over that section. This is an arrangement you would expect to be very temporary in nature, but it was not.

The horsecar locals to Orange continued until 1851! Amazingly late. People in East Orange were complaining about having to change cars whether they were going east or west. And the service was so infrequent that an omnibus company had been formed to pull horse drawn stages over the parallel public road.

All this comes to mind as I work on the maps for 1835 and 1845. Should I indicate the horse services? I'm inclined not to, because I don't distinguish electric and steam operation later.



  1. It's just a different form of motive power, right? Same infrastructure, same cars, same inadequate service? If so, then no, no special marking.


  2. The Smithsonian operated John Bull as recently as 1981, but I don't know how much it was like Great Grandfather's axe, with it's two new heads and three new handles.

  3. Mechanised and unmechanised transportation seem qualitatively different to me, so I'd like to see some indication (or accompanying notes/blog post) of which sections only had horse-powered service. For that matter maybe you should indicate electrification too.