10 Relics From Horse-Powered Cities Hiding in Plain Sight

The horse rings in Portland, Oregon, have a new use.
The horse rings in Portland, Oregon, have a new use. / piddix, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The commerce and transportation of modern cities initially relied on the horse. While there are still places where they serve a vital role, on the whole the horse has disappeared from the urban environment as cars, trains, subways, and other hoofless transportation took over in the 20th century. Look closely enough, though, and you can still find reminders of this equine past in our infrastructure.

1. Stables

A city powered by horses needs shelters for them to rest and sleep. Stables and carriage houses thus once lined the streets, their arched doorways still recognizable even when converted into homes and businesses. Mews all over London still have rows of stables, often dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, which are almost entirely housing now. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in New York City alone, there were around 4500 stables by the beginning of the 20th century.

Artists, appreciating their roomy floorplans, were sometimes the first to take over stables after the horses had gone. MacDougal Alley in Manhattan, for example, changed over from housing horses to sculptors and painters in the Gilded Age. Elsewhere, sculptures of horse heads still crane their necks from former stable façades, such as on 19th century stables in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the 1906 stable for Schlitz brewery in Chicago. 

2. Horse Walk

Some carriage houses incorporated "horse walks." These interior passageways allowed a horse to walk from the street to a stable. Dense urban areas like New York City still have evidence of these discreet entrances, such as at 7 Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, constructed in 1831, and 336 West 12th Street in the West Village, from the 1850s. Often they just appear as a door alongside the main entrance to the home, wide and tall enough for a horse to slip through.

3. Equestrian Staircases

Equestrian staircases are most often found in old European cities, built into or alongside castles and other complexes as sloping steps for horses to access upper floors. A 16th-century example in Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, for instance, has a "rider's staircase" so knights didn't have to dismount to enter. In Bologna, the town hall contains a huge staircase designed by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante to accommodate carriages.

4. Troughs

A carriage horse walking by a trough in Central Park.
A carriage horse walking by a trough in Central Park. / BDphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Horses have to drink, but urban settings rarely have convenient streams with clean water. Organizations concerned with animal welfare—like the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, formed in 1859 in London—spearheaded the construction of troughs with freely available water. Henry Bergh with the ASPCA was particularly involved with installing troughs with fresh water around New York City, and a few are still visible, including a low granite one by the carriage horses that still give tourists rides in Central Park. The trough in Grand Army Plaza is one of the many funded by local Edith Bowdoin, and was rededicated in 2001 at its current site. The troughs weren’t the ASPCA’s only initiative for Manhattan steeds, however: They also offered free showers on the streets and gave out eye-shading straw hats for horses with specially designed ear holes. 

5. Fountains

Like troughs, horse fountains offered water for urban steeds, but fountains were often incredibly elaborate. One with a clock and Shakespeare quotes can still be seen in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The 1919 Gumbel Memorial Fountain in New Orleans is adorned with a dramatic sculpture by Isidore Konti, and the Temperance Fountain in Washington, D.C., has water flowing from the mouths of dolphins, the overflow of which was collected for horse drinking. As that one’s name suggests, many of these doubled as temperance fountains, built to encourage humans to drink water instead of beer. Others were simply donated by animal-loving philanthropists, like advertising agent John Hooper, who died in 1889 and left $10,000 for two fountains "whereat man and beast can drink." The 1894 Hooper Fountain in Manhattan has a monumental column topped with a lantern, with a broad basin below fit for horse muzzles. 

6. Auction Houses

Horses did not come into the cities through spontaneous generation. Auction houses were a common sight for the horse trade, with large entryways similar in structure to private stables. The grand Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan, for instance, was erected in 1896 as the American Horse Exchange. Artists later converted these as well, including the Beaux-Arts 1904 Van Tassel and Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 126-128 East 13th Street in New York City. After it ceased sales in the 1920s, it was a candy factory and school before artist Frank Stella purchased it in 1978.

7. Mounting blocks

To give carriage passengers and horseback riders a boost, mounting blocks—basically just a block of stone or a tiny staircase—were installed in locations of regular use. A few are still preserved in the sidewalks. London’s Waterloo Place has one from 1830, which, according to its plaque, was placed “by the desire of the Duke of Wellington.” Another of these upping stones is inscribed with the initials "WW" in Camden, New Jersey, just outside the house of none other than poet Walt Whitman.

8. Hitching Posts

A hitching post in New Orleans's French Quarter.
A hitching post in New Orleans's French Quarter. / Spondylolithesis/iStock via Getty Images

Hitching posts weren’t just a Western fantasy for cowboys in saloons—all cities with horses needed convenient tethering points to keep the animals from straying. They were often just a pole with a ring, but others were more elaborate, like the horse-shaped ones in Brooklyn’s 19th-century Green-Wood Cemetery and in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. You can even find a combo version in Homer, New York, that’s both a hitching post and a mounting block.

9. Tethering Rings

More integrated into the infrastructure than hitching posts but basically serving the same purpose, tethering rings are discreet metal loops embedded in walls, sidewalks, and curbs. They are sometimes ornate, like the one shaped like a dragon in Florence, Italy, that doubles as a sconce, but on the whole they are plain. Now mostly obsolete, some have found an unusual afterlife in Portland, Oregon, where they host ephemeral art installations, including tiny horses

10. Horsecar Tracks

A horsecar in New York City.
A horsecar in New York City. / The Brown Brothers, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before there were trolleys and then buses, aboveground transportation often involved the horsecar. Omnibuses were pulled by horses on rails, and these tracks would often transition over to be used by electric cars. The horsecar tracks in Portland, Oregon, changed over to electricity in the late 1800s, while the former horsecar tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina, were turned electric and began operation in 1891. During the turn of the last century, horses and trolleys would sometimes be riding side-by-side. A photographer in Manhattan caught one of the last horsecars riding the rails in 1917 (see above image), while the electric trolley raced alongside, and presumably overtook, the fading fixture of transportation.

This article originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.