The term 'Horsecar' is a relatively modern term, created by historians to describe the small horse-drawn vehicles used in the 19th century by street railways. During this era, the vehicles used on street railways were called 'street cars' or just 'cars'. After street railway companies started electrifying their systems in the 1890s, the term became 'electric street cars' or 'electric cars', to differentiate from the previous horse-drawn vehicles. As time went on the word 'electric' was dropped, and as automobiles began being referred to as cars, the term 'streetcar' remained to describe a public transit vehicle that ran on rails at street level. Even though the word is a modern creation, this website uses the term 'horsecar' to avoid any confusion with its electric descendants.
The HSR started service in May 1874 with one route completed, the Eastern Branch. This route ran from the old Great Western Railway station at Caroline and Stuart, east along Stuart, then south on James to King, then east on King to Wellington, but was soon extended to Wentworth. Two more routes were shortly added. The Western Branch also started at the Great Western Railway station, but at James & King it turned west onto King and headed as far as the Crystal Palace (now Victoria Park) at Locke. The East Hamilton Branch followed the route of the Eastern Branch, but continued down Wentworth from King to Main, and along Main as far as the Driving Park (now Gage Park). The HSR's first stables and car barn were on Stuart at Bay, next to the Customs House (now the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre).
Not much is known about the HSR's original horsecar fleet. The original manufacturer is believed to be the John Stephenson Company of New York, but this is uncertain. These early horsecars were 'bobtail' style horsecars, and had seating for 14 with enough room for the same number of standees. A single horse could pull this many people because of the low friction caused by steel wheels running along steel rails. The cars were labelled and painted based on the route travelled, with Red for horsecars running on the Western Branch, and Green for horsecars running on the Eastern Branch. Horsecars bound for the East Hamilton Branch were identified by two flags on the roof, and so may not necessarily have been Green. Known horsecar colours are in the following table:
After 1874, the HSR would expand its horse car lines. By 1892, tracks would be on James St from the Lakeshore at Guise St up to Herkimer, and then west on Herkimer to Locke. The lines on both King St West and East would be double-tracked from Locke to Wentworth, with the East Hamilton branch merged into the Eastern branch, and the tracks on Wentworth removed and relaid on Sanford. Tracks were built on York St, from James to Queen, and on Barton, from James to first Wentworth, and later as far as Ottawa. Five routes were operated:
Additional Horsecars were purchased by the HSR as the system grew. Fleet expansion was slow at first, with only 22 horsecars on the roster by 1886. This would more than double to 46 horsecars by 1891. These later horsecars were a mix of open and closed horsecars. The newer closed horsecars were larger than the early ones, with room for more passengers.
In addition to the facilities at Stuart & Bay, two new maintenance and storage sites were built. The East Barn, built in 1890 and located at King & Sanford could store 18 cars and 60 horses. The South Barn, built in 1891 and located at Herkimer and Locke could store 12 cars and 42 horses. (the original site was renamed the North Barn). A turntable was built in 1884 into the intersection of King & James for turning cars, but was removed by the end of the decade and curves were reinstalled.
The HSR's franchise to run on the streets of Hamilton was renewed in 1892. Included in the new franchise was a provision allowing for electrification. Wires were installed during the spring of 1892, and the first electric streetcar ran in Hamilton at 5 p.m. on June 29, 1892. Horsecars were pulled off of the Green route that afternoon, and off of the James St North and King St West route on the afternoon of the 30th. They were pulled off the James, Herkimer and Barton route on July 1, but put back on for a few more days as it was discovered that additional feeder cables were required for the ends of the electric system furthest from the powerhouse, otherwise not enough electricity would be available for the streetcars. Full electric service began on this route on June 11. Work on York Street had been delayed due to sewer construction, and so full electric service on that street did not start until July 19.
The HSR did not plan to get rid of all horsecars and horses immediately. As part of a negotiated settlement with the Hamilton, Grimsby & Beamsville Electric Railway, the HSR had agreed to abandon the East Hamilton branch when the HG&B began service. As this would not to happen for a year or more, and with the HSR unwilling to invest in a line that would shortly be abandoned, horsecar service would remain on the East Hamilton branch.
Ten of the later, heavier closed horsecars and five of the open horsecars were renumbered and rebuilt into electric streetcars in the Spring of 1892 with new trucks from the Brill company, while ten of the open horsecars were converted into unpowered trailers (Additional Horsecars may have been rebuilt at a later date). Most of the lighter early 'bobtail' horsecars were scrapped, but four were kept on the roster until the end of service on the East Hamilton branch in 1894.
HSR 1 on King St West between MacNab & Park in 1875 (now the site of the Ellen Fairclough Building). The text above the windows reads ‘G.W.RY STA. (Great Western Railway Station) & KING ST. WEST' identifying this as a red car. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)
HSR 2 at King & James in 1874. Although the photo is dated 1874, the horsecar looks like it is on top of the turnable that was installed at King & James in the mid 1880s.
HSR 4 at King & James in the mid-1880s. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)
On August 1, 1879 the McInnes building on the SW corner of King & John was gutted in a massive fire. In the lower right corner is HSR 14, which has been blocked by the firefighters and the crowd of spectators. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)
HSR 14 at King & James on February 2, 1887. The archway over the intersection was part of the 1887 Winter Carnival.(Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)
Two horsecars at King & James in the mid 1880s. HSR 35? is heading north after having been turned on the turntable, while the other horsecar is being spun. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)
HSR 38 on King at Hughson circa 1884.
Angus, Fred F. "The Sesquicentennial of the Horsecar Era" Canadian Rail, Sept-Oct 2003
Mills, John M. Cataract Traction: The Railways of Hamilton Toronto: 1971