Essex County Chronicles
---- — Over the years, this column has paid scant attention to the non-human creatures who have also played a role in the development of our corner of Essex County. Chief among the neglected is one of the most noble of beasts, and one which for nearly three centuries was the backbone of the region’s transportation system, the horse.
One of the earliest North Shore references to horses can be found in the journal of the Rev. Francis Higginson, who arrived in Salem on one of five vessels that ferried English emigrants to the fledgling plantation in 1629. In his diary, Higginson notes that aboard the ship George were, in addition to cattle, sheep and other livestock, 12 mares. These were used by the new settlers for personal transportation and for hauling crops and other goods to market.
Like everything else in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, horses were the subject of periodic scrutiny and action by the General Court. One piece of equine-related legislation, passed in 1647, made it illegal for citizens to use another’s horse without authorization. This was a common practice in an area where the animals were allowed to roam free to graze. In 1672, the General Court further decreed that horses should not be ridden at excessive speeds, especially on crowded areas.
Naturally, owners of horses were taxed for each equine they owned to raise monies for the Colonial coffers.
In the early years of the Salem plantation, people usually traveled by boat, as the town, Boston and most other settlements were situated either on the coast or along one of the nearby rivers. But as the population exploded in the 1630s, a result of the Puritan persecution in England, new immigrants began developing new communities in landlocked areas like present-day Hamilton, Wenham and Peabody. In those areas, horses would become increasingly important.
One impediment horse riders encountered when traveling from Salem to Boston or points north was the area’s numerous rivers. Beginning in the late 1630s, this problem was alleviated by the appearance of ferries, which could accommodate animals, as well as humans. While not exactly a panacea — ferries’ schedules were erratic, especially in inclement weather — this development helped stimulate travel by horseback.
Horse-related transportation would get another big boost in the mid-18th century as bridges began replacing unreliable ferries and the region’s road system improved. Stagecoaches, each drawn by a pair of horses, began operating between Boston and Portsmouth, N.H., in 1761.
The route wound through Ipswich and what are now Peabody and Danvers. By 1770, there was also a stagecoach operating between Salem and Boston.
In the early 19th century, Salem’s Manning family controlled much of the area’s thriving stagecoach business. The firm also carried on a lucrative side business buying and selling horses. On his horse-brokering trips around New England, Samuel Manning was sometimes accompanied by a nephew, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The aspiring author used these trips to gather material for future writings.
The appearance of steam driven trains on the North Shore in the late 1830s was a serious blow to those in the stagecoach industry. As the train pushed farther north toward Newburyport and Gloucester, stagecoach companies began folding up their tents due to decreasing ridership.
But a quarter-century later, horse-powered mass transportation would reappear in the region and in a big way. In 1863, the Salem Street Railway Company began operating horse-drawn trolleys between Salem and present-day Peabody. The streetcars were an immediate success, and over the next 2 1/2 decades, many new routes were added. By the time the Naumkeag Street Railroad Company acquired the firm in 1887, it was also operating trolleys between Salem and Marblehead, Beverly, Danvers, Hamilton and Wenham. Its most popular line in the summer months was Salem Willows.
Another company, The Salem and Danvers Street Railroad, operated similar trolleys primarily in Salem, Danvers and Peabody. It, too, was acquired by the Naumkeag Street Railroad Company in 1887. At that time, the combined number of horses employed by the two original firms hovered just below 400.
By the mid-1890s, however, most local trolley service had “gone electric,” and dobbin transportation days were nearing an end. The arrival of the automobile in the early 20th century would prove to be the final nail in the coffin.
But old habits die slowly. As late as 1925, there were still as many horse-related businesses on Salem’s commercial Bridge Street as there were automobile dealers, mechanics and parts stores.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.