The Unheralded Horsecar

At sixteen, John Stephenson convinced his father to let him become a coach maker. He wanted to design better, more efficient models that served the needs of New York’s growing industrial class.

Stephenson’s new horsecars were designed to operate on iron rails and had three separate compartments seating ten passengers each. He dropped the vehicle’s floor between the wheels and added elliptical springs to improve riding comfort. These early cars were ornate, featuring glass windows, latticework, and reversible cushioned seats as well as stovepipe heating. In April 1833, he received a US patent for his design.

By 1845, his six-story business at 27th Street took up sixteen city lots. Stephenson continued to improve his product. He slashed the weight of his 6,800-pound vehicles in half reducing the number of horses needed to pull a car from four to two. He eliminated side doors and added a single entrance at the back. Open seating was placed along the sides of the horsecar. Stephenson’s efficient engineering was designed for anyone to board and sit anywhere they wanted.

Manhattan’s new rail companies all banned African Americans from riding with white customers. Some occasionally ran “colored only” cars or allowed blacks to occupy outer platforms. These railroads weren’t ready for the “mass” in mass transportation that Stephenson’s design allowed setting up a civil rights confrontation that was 20 years in the making.

Horsecars traveled city streets at about 4 mph. Today’s buses are lucky to hit 7 mph.

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