New York’s Pedestrian Danger In 1890

Before Automobiles, Runaway Horses Caused New York’s Traffic Accidents

Runaway horse Brooklyn side of bridge Harper's Weekly March 15 1890 illustration John Durkin

Runaway on the Brooklyn side of the East River Bridge – drawn by John Durkin (Harper’s Weekly March 15, 1890)

Horses are a rarity on New York Streets. In 1890 there were tens of thousands of horses supplying transportation to the city.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is not a fan of horse drawn vehicles. Since his election in 2014 de Blasio has been inundated by animal activists to ban Central Park’s carriage horses. His efforts to do so have only removed the horses from waiting for customers outside the park.

Mayor de Blasio also doesn’t like automobiles. His Vision Zero initiative is meant to reduce pedestrian deaths caused by vehicles. It doesn’t stop the mayor from traveling around the city  by auto, supposedly, at the suggestion of the NYPD. There will soon be a congestion tax imposed upon drivers entering Manhattan traveling below 60th Street.

Combine these two nuisances: horses and vehicles with people and you have New York’s big threat to pedestrians in the 19th century.

Specifically runaway horses were a problem and Harper’s Weekly examined the issue in their March 15, 1890 edition. It’s interesting to see what has changed and what has remained the same in 130 years; technology and animal activists

We reprint the short article here.


THE problem of runaways early became a subject for consideration on the part of the authorities of the Brooklyn Bridge. The number of these mishaps range from three to eight a month. Formerly they were more numerous It is not altogether clear what the decrease is to be attributed to but the presumption is that a beneficial education of both drivers and horses has been going on with reference to the vicissitudes peculiar to the bridge travel. The chief causes of the runaways are the breakage of harness or the striking of the horses by the wagon when going down the incline at either side of the elevated centre in consequence of badly regulated or the absence of breeching. It is possible that they are sometimes caused by the passing trains on the cable road but the bridge officers think that this is rarely if ever the fact. In many cases no satisfactory reason for the occurrence is ascertained as the stories of most drivers when the question of their own carelessness is involved are not to be relied on.

One definite conclusion that was sometime ago reached by the trustees was that it would be wise to place strong gates at the exits of the roadways in order that the frightened teams might not plunge with their vehicles into the busy streets at the ends of the great structure. Some of the members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at first protested against the use of these barriers for the horses to throw themselves against but it has been amply demonstrated that there would be much more cruelty in permitting them to go on than in thus stopping them. Where there has been time to securely close the gate neither a human being nor a horse has been killed. On the other hand in one instance where the horse was not checked in this way a woman who was trying to save her child was knocked down in the street by the animal and killed In another case a runaway team dashed from a bridge exit into a street car and wrecked it.

There is a telegraph system on the roadways provided with knobs at certain intervals. A pressure on one of these by an officer at his post notifies the gate man that a runaway is coming and to act accordingly. At times the situation becomes critical when near the exit for the gate to be closed properly. In an accident which recently occurred at the Brooklyn end of the bridge a picture of which is printed in this issue of the WEEKLY this was the case and the situation was complicated by the wagon being caught between the gate and the wall and the horses who were frightened by another runaway team in the rear breaking away. Fortunately they were soon stopped and no one in the street was injured In respect to the runaways that take place nearer the centre of the bridge the situation is much the same as that of a narrow street where the vehicles are all going one way and there are no pedestrians. The career of the horses is usually short owing to the amount of traffic that is in the way of their progress but more damage is likely to ensue than at the gates. Those riding over the bridge in wagons or carriages who are inclined to apprehend danger from runaways may find comfort in the fact that the percentage of them to the vast number of teams that cross is exceedingly small and that those which do occur are generally of little consequence.

One thought on “New York’s Pedestrian Danger In 1890

  1. Pingback: 1890s – Problems with Horses, Cyclists and Road Deaths – Hamilton Urban Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.