Horsecars and trolleys and plank roads, oh my

One of my favorite things about being an archivist at BHS is all the different people I get to meet in the library. Researchers and their work are fascinating, and with each new person I work with, I get to learn something new. When I first started working as an archivist, I was amused to make the connection that libraries and archives have regulars– folks that come in often enough that you know their names (and sometimes their stories and their quirks)– just like the bars and coffee shops and restaurants I’d worked at in the past. At BHS we have some great regulars, either because they live in the neighborhood and love working in our amazingly beautiful library, they are researchers for hire who return often with new research for new clients, or because their research requires them to delve deeply in to the collections here at BHS.

One of our favorite regulars falls in to this last category: Darryl Heller is an American History PhD candidate at University of Chicago, whose work around 19th Century Brooklyn has brought him back to our archives on repeated trips. This week brings him back to Brooklyn again for more research and a presentation at Proteus Gowanus. Proteus Gowanus is a gallery, press, and reading room, and each year they chose a theme around which they build projects, exhibits, and events. This years theme is Transport, “an exploration through art, artifacts, books and events of How We Get There in the never-ending journey toward our destinations.” As a part of this exploration, they asked Darryl to talk about the history of early transportation in Brooklyn. For those of you unfamiliar with pre-HopStop public transport in Brooklyn, it was made up of a complicated and confusing assemblage of competing routes, technologies, companies, visions, and legislation. Following is a preview from Darryl of some of what he will be talking about:

Brooklyn is known for many things, among which is as the home to famous Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers, of course, was a shortened name for the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, a moniker that came to represent the baseball team after 1911. This title was appropriate given that Brooklyn had one of the most extensive street railway systems in the nation. Crossing the streets of the borough was, to some extent, a hair-raising if not life threatening endeavor. However, the trolley era, and its ubiquitous overhead wires, was preceded by the horsecar railway, a lower tech, but critical mode of transportation that occupied the streets of the city for almost half a century.


This early form of urban transportation was constructed by laying smooth rails along city streets and using horses or mules as the motive power. Between 1853 and 1898 over twenty different companies provided transportation around the city of Brooklyn with lines radiating like the spokes of a wheel from downtown to all parts of Kings County. At its height, some companies stabled more than 3000 horses to pull cars and move residents between home, work, and pleasure destinations such as Coney Island. Lines stretched from Fulton Street to East New York, Atlantic Avenue to Jamaica, Main Street to Williamsburgh, and Hamilton Ferry to New Utrecht and Gravesend.

One of the reasons that the horse was so important is that steam locomotives were banned from operating within city limits because of their noise, smoke, ashes, and sparks. Although the Long Island Railroad was provisionally allowed to run steam trains along Atlantic Avenue, most other steam roads operated in the rural towns and villages beyond the city line. Some companies used both forms of power, that is, travelers would board a horsecar at an East River ferry and ride it to the border of the city. They would then disembark and transfer to a steam train in order to continue on to Bath Beach, Coney Island, or other shore locations.

By the late 1880’s electricity was developed to the extent that it provided a viable solution to the horse. Out of this was born the horseless trolley, with its power station that replaced the stable. For many, this was a welcome advance and by the turn of the century the role of the horse was fading from memory. Nevertheless, its contribution to the development of the modern city is unquestioned.

Join Darryl Heller, Proteus Gowanus, and quite likely a few BHS staff, this Friday at 7PM at Proteus Gowanus, 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, New York 11215.


About Chela

I am the Director of Library and Archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society. I joined the BHS team in 2008. Prior to that, I was lucky enough to work in the archives of two other great history museums-- The New York Transit Museum and The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford outside of Detroit.
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4 Responses to Horsecars and trolleys and plank roads, oh my

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  2. Virginia B says:

    Very interesting and the photo is great. Thomas Graham, my great-great grandfather, became a ‘car driver’ when he arrived in Brooklyn from Ireland in 1851. He worked at the Fulton Ave Depot and later became a foreman of stables on Gates Ave. His son, James P. Graham, also worked on ‘the cars’ as a conductor. He became an early labor leader with the Knights of Labor, leading a major strike, and was then elected to the state legislature. Other family members worked on ‘the cars’ but they lost their jobs when new technology replaced horses. Thanks again for the info and photo.

  3. This is a pretty cool article. I love reading about all aspects of history, especially concerning urban studies. Growing up hearing about the Brooklyn Dodgers from my Grannie only makes me want to read more stuff like this.

  4. Jill says:

    Great article! As a University of Chicago alum and also a Brooklyn-phile, gotta say I’m proud that Heller’s doing his work on Brooklyn. 😉

    Very interesting; and of course, the prevalence of horses in Brooklyn during this time also gave rise to the gory side of life out at Dead Horse Bay. Such a fascinating time in Brooklyn history.

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