Title

When L.A. Was a Horse-Powered Town

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.

Horses and horse-drawn vehicles race past the Downey Block in this 1880 lithograph from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Horses and horse-drawn vehicles race past the Downey Block in this 1880 lithograph from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

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.

Further Reading

  • 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.
Three muscular horses pull a Los Angeles fire engine up a First Street Hill, circa 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Three muscular horses pull a Los Angeles fire engine up a First Street Hill, circa 1900.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

 

Horse-drawn buggies, carts, wagons, and streetcars move down Spring Street in this circa 1884 view. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Horse-drawn buggies, carts, wagons, and streetcars move down Spring Street in this circa 1884 view.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Story continues below

A horse-drawn stagecoach stands outside the Pico House, which in 1884 was the city's finest hotel. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
A horse-drawn stagecoach stands outside the Pico House, which in 1884 was the city's finest hotel.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Before and Andrew Halladie's cable-car technology and later electric motors replaced them, horses powered Los Angeles' earliest public transit vehicles. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Before and Andrew Halladie's cable-car technology and later electric motors replaced them, horses powered Los Angeles' earliest public transit vehicles. Courtesy of the USC Libraries -California Historical Society Collection.
Stables occupy prime commercial real estate in this 1874 view of Main Street, just north of Temple. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Stables occupy prime commercial real estate in this 1874 view of Main Street, just north of Temple.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
J. G. de Turk's Livery, Feed and Sale Stable, seen here circa 1884-91, stood catercorner to a saddlery and harness shop at First and Broadway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
J. G. de Turk's Livery, Feed and Sale Stable, seen here circa 1884-91, stood catercorner to a saddlery and harness shop at First and Broadway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries -California Historical Society Collection.
Louis Roeder's blacksmith shop, seen here circa 1878 occupied the west side of Spring Street just south of First. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Louis Roeder's blacksmith shop, seen here circa 1878 occupied the west side of Spring Streetjust south of First. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Horse-drawn wagons crowd the Central Market at Alameda and Sixth, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Horse-drawn wagons crowd the Central Market at Alameda and Sixth, circa 1905.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
A horse-drawn wagon, seen here at Pico and Figueroa circa 1890, transports hay from the countryside into the city. Courtesy of the Security-Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A horse-drawn wagon, seen here at Pico and Figueroa circa 1890, transports hay fromthe countryside into the city. Courtesy of the Security-Pacific National Bank Collection -Los Angeles Public Library.
Horse-drawn vehicles dominate this typical early-20th-century L.A. street scene. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
Horse-drawn vehicles dominate this typical early-20th-century L.A. street scene.Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives andSpecial Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
The urban horse survived well into the 1920s, but by the time of this circa 1924 photo horse-drawn vehicles were relegated to the edge of the Los Angeles roadway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
The urban horse survived well into the 1920s, but by the time of this circa 1924 photo horse-drawn vehicles were relegated to the edge of the Los Angeles roadway.Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading