What is a Horsecar?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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A horsecar is a tram or streetcar on rails with power supplied by a horse or team. In some regions, mules, donkeys, oxen, and other large animals were used for the same purpose. Transit authorities began introducing horsecars in the 19th century and they were used into the early 20th century as public transit before being replaced by other systems. Some replicas can still be seen in action in some corners of the world as a novelty for tourists and other members of the public.

Originally, public transit vehicles like coaches and omnibuses pulled by horses ran on regular streets and roads. The horsecar made an efficient replacement, as rails reduce resistance, allowing horses to pull larger loads. A single large draft horse could pull a large tram, and people could also use teams. In addition to being useful for public transit in urban areas, horsecars were also useful on large farms and plantations for moving goods and people around internally.


People and goods could go on a horsecar, and the size of the load varied, depending on how many horses were available to pull it. Most of the cars were open, with roofs to protect people from rain and snow. The driver and conductor were often exposed to the worst of the weather because they had to be outside to manage the animals and collect fares. Some transportation museums have examples of restored or replica cars on display to show people what this mode of transportation looked like, and people may be allowed to enter the horsecar to explore.

The horsecar had a number of disadvantages, although it was superior to many other public transit options at the time. Horses deposit large amounts of manure, creating a mess in the streets, and the companies also had to maintain large stables in the city, requiring space for the animals, along with room to store supplies. It was necessary to have numerous horses available, as they could only work for a few hours before becoming exhausted.

Replacements for the horsecar arrived in the form of subways, buses, cable cars, electric trams, and a variety of other options. Some cities retained their horsecars on transit routes into the 1920s before finally retiring them. The rails were left in place for other public transportation. The handful of remaining horsecar services are usually found in tourist destinations, and may provide only a short trip between locations, as the goal is entertainment for visitors, rather than transit.


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