The age of the urban horse ended in Southern California not with a bang but a putter -- the sound of an engine firing on one cylinder as the Erie and Sturgis Gasolene Carriage rolled down L.A.'s streets on the morning of May 30, 1897. With this historic test drive of the city's first automobile began the long decline of equine power, a technology whose importance to U.S. cities in the late-19th century rivaled that of the internal combustion engine in the 20th.
Though they powered everything from plows to water pumps, horses made their greatest contribution as the motor of intracity transportation. For a time, nearly every vehicle on an L.A. roadway -- the streetcars and omnibuses of the city's first public transit lines, the hacks and cabs of its for-hire services, the carts and wagons of its farmers and freight haulers, the buggies and carriages of wealthier Angelenos -- moved only because of the horses attached to them.
This dependence on equine power profoundly affected land-use patterns. In 1900, 8,065 horses called Los Angeles home, one for every 12.7 people. Inside the city, stables, saddlers, and blacksmiths occupied prime real estate along L.A. streets. Outside the city, farmers planted countless acres with the oat and alfalfa that fueled these animal engines.
And the horse-drawn vehicle was hardly a zero-emissions machine. In fact, though Southern California's millions and millions of internal combustion engines have added up to an environmental disaster, the urban horse made the automobile look like a clean technology by comparison. A single animal produced 15-30 pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day, much of which festered on the city streets, attracting flies, soiling shoes, and mingling with dirt to form noxious mud when wet and eye-stinging dust in dry weather. And when draft animals collapsed from over-exertion, their drivers often left their carcasses to rot in the roadway -- a sight that disturbed humans and spooked other horses, occasionally triggering mad stampedes through crowded streets.
City officials struggled to keep this public health menace in check, contracting with street sweepers and dead animal removers, but ultimately it took the replacement of equine by automobile power to clean up L.A.'s streets.
But the urban horse didn't quite gallop into the sunset. It merely trotted. Until Henry Ford's mass-produced Motel T hit the market in 1908, horse-drawn vehicles still transported most ordinary Angelenos around town (when they didn't walk). Horses continued to power freight transportation for even longer, until the 1917 introduction of the Liberty Truck's heavy chassis -- developed with federal funding during the First World War -- finally provided an efficient mechanized alternative to equine power.
Even still, horses continued to march down and foul up Los Angeles streets well into the 1920s. Not until 1924 had the balance of power tilted to motorists such that city leaders felt comfortable banning horse-drawn vehicles from downtown during rush-hour -- a traffic-relief measure that remains on the books to this day.
- McShane, Clay and Joel A. Tarr. The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2007.
- Morris, Eric. "From Horse Power to Horsepower." Access, Spring 2007, 2-9.