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 HSR Horsecars

HSR Horsecars

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 first three horsecars arrived in mid April 1874. There were five by the start of service in mid-May, eight by the first of July, and ten by mid August. 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:

HSR Number Horsecar Colour
1 Red
3 Green
4 Green?
5 Green
7 Red
8 Green?
9 Green

After 1874, the HSR would expand its horsecar lines. Known deliveries of horsecars are in the following table. One difficulty in determining the number or horsecars is that predictions and promises by corporations announced in the newspaper were often not met, and so announcements of streetcar purchases must be taken with a grain of salt.

Year Number of cars HSR Numbers Builder Notes
1874 10 1-10 Stephenson?
1875 4 11-14
1878? 2 open? 15-16
1879 2 17-18 From Schenectady NY, (J. M. Jones?) 'painted in MacLean and MacDuff tartan', first two-horse horsecar
1880 2 19-20 two-horse horsecar
1884 1 ?
1887 4 closed, 2 open ? Brill
1888 3 closed, 4 open ? Brill
1888 1 closed ? Brill
1890 5 closed, 6 open ? 2 built by J. M Jones, possibly all.

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). Four of the lighter early 'bobtail' horsecars were kept on the roster until the end of service on the East Hamilton branch in 1894.

The HSR did not scrap its remaining horsecars right away, and kept a number on storage tracks in the East end yard. On Sept 24 1900 a group of small boys broke into the East end yard and decided to play 'streetcar' with some of the old horsecars. Unfortunately while pushing around the cars Charles French's foot was crushed under a wheel. In October 1903 the HSR converted one of the old horsecars into an electrifed sand car.

HSR 1, on King St West between MacNab & Park in 1875

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

HSR #2 at King & James between 1881 and 1885. The horsecar is on top of the turnable that was at King & James in the 1880s. This image has been used in postcards with the incorrect caption of 1874.

HSR 4 at King & James in the mid-1880s.

HSR #4 at King & James in the mid to late 1880s. Notice the turntable along the bottom edge of the photo. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives)

HSR #5 passes HSR #1 in front of the Royal Hotel at James & Merrick.

HSR #5 passes HSR #1 in front of the Royal Hotel at James & Merrick in this undated stereoscopic card. Notice that the horse drawn wagon behind HSR #5 is also using the the HSR tracks. This was perfectly legal in Hamilton at the time, as long as drivers didn't interfere with the operation of the HSR horsecars.

HSR 14 near McInnes fire, August 1, 1879

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. Looks like the driver has given the horse a break and taken him over to a nearby watering trough leaving the horsecar under the eye of the conductor. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)

HSR 14 at King & James on February 2, 1887

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

Two horsecars at King & James between 1886 and 1890 during winter. 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

HSR #38 on King at Hughson circa 1884.

HSR 38 on King at Hughson circa 1884

HSR Horsecar on James at King. The number is unfortunately covered by the banner advertising today's "Base Ball" game at Dundurn Park. The lettering above the windows reads "G.T.R. STA & EAST HAMILTON". Date unknown, but this photo was published in the Hamilton Spectator's August 1889 Carnival edition. (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)


"Brill Order List from 1887 to 1899"

Angus, Fred F. "The Sesquicentennial of the Horsecar Era" Canadian Rail, Sept-Oct 2003

Hamilton Spectator
"Hamilton Street Railway-The First Sod Turned" April 7, 1874, pg 3
"Mere Mention" April 16, 1874, pg 3
"Second Track" April 23, 1874, pg 3
"H. S. R." May 15, 1874, pg 3
"Increased Facilities" July 20, 1874, pg 3
"First Serious Accident to a Street Car" August 7, 1874, pg 3
"New Cars" August 13, 1874, pg 3
"Mere Mention" April 8, 1875, pg 3
"Mere Mention" May 1, 1875, pg 3
"City Council" January 6, 1876, pg 1
"Local Briefs" August 8, 1878, pg 4
"Local Items" May 29, 1879, pg 4
"A Busy Institution" July 24, 1880, pg 4
"Local Items" August 9, 1880, pg 4
"The Reporter's Grist" June 20, 1884, pg 4

Hamilton Times
"Tea Table Gossip" Sept 24, 1900, pg 8
"Tea Table Gossip" Oct 19, 1903, pg 8

Mills, John M. Cataract Traction: The Railways of Hamilton Toronto: 1971