Thursday, March 05, 2015

Horses and Traction: Why Did Cities Have Cobblestone Streets? Why Did Traction Matter?

A cobblestone street in Italy is paved with round stones; some sources say that a "cobble" originally meant a round stone. These look like old cannon balls. Were they put there to keep horses off the plaza or to help them?

When newcomers get off the ferry on Nantucket Island and settle into a car, they are soon shaken up. They're expecting an idyllic entry to the old New England whaling town and tourist center. Instead, they rattle across a rough cobblestone street that will shake the fillings right out of your teeth.

And the islanders like it that way.

Even though they seem slick and tricky for today's horses, "modern", or flat, cobblestoned streets were a godsend to horses. And, as you might suspect, there's a hoof connection that holds this whole story together.

Cobblestones streets are romantic today. But they weren't always. They were a practical move of early urban renewal,  laid to make street travel safer for horses pulling heavy loads in traffic and to get rid of the mud, muck and manure path that was there before.

The original cobblestones were rounded river rocks. Take a look at the original Italian cobblestones in the photo: were the stones put there to discourage horses from crossing the plaza, or to help them? How did those stones feel on a horse's frog and sole? Would a bigger foot or a smaller foot have an advantage?

What we call cobblestone streets are actually "Belgian block" streets, or "paver stone" streets. Belgian blocks were used in ballast of sailing ships that arrived in America from Europe; if the blocks were not needed for the return trip, they were off-loaded and used to pave the dock areas. This explains why so many surviving cobblestone streets in America are in coastal cities and river towns. Most of the cobbling was done in the early 1800s.


Please excuse this article for referring to rectangular-cut stone blocks used to pave streets as "cobblestones"; true cobblestones would be round and found in nature.

Nantucket, Massachusetts has the distinction of being a town that actually increased its cobblestoned streets, more than a century after the Belgian blocks stopped arriving. The source may have been Europe (one theory), which proposes that when the empty whaling ships returned from delivering whale oil to European ports, they loaded up with stone for the sandy streets on the island.

Wood-paved streets were tried first, especially in London, as a remedy for the mud, muck, and dust pit known as a city street, but when the wooden pavers were saturated, they exploded because they were packed too closely together to allow for expansion. The street surface also was slippery when wooden, which meant the horses weren't safe in their work.

Cobblestones showed up in unlikely places, and not just in cities. The Grandview Trail in the Grand Canyon National Park was said to be paved with "cobblestones", but they are a far cry from the cookie-cutter stones that paved the industrial areas of major cities in the East. Do you think they helped the horses more going up the trail or coming down? This 1905 photo is courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.

From a London observer, circa 1880: "Whilst on the subject of animals, I should like once more to draw attention to the terrible suffering which greasy wood pavements entail upon the poor horses. The scene on Ludgate Hill is often heartrending. The poor beasts, struggling madly to gain a foothold on the slippery surface, strain and tremble and sweat, and often seriously injure themselves. It is no uncommon thing for the whole traffic to be stopped by a heavily-laden waggon, which the horse, with the ground slipping from under him, vainly endeavours to drag up the hill. Oaths, kicks, and brutal beatings the poor beast gets; but it never seems to strike any one that a little sand or fine gravel thrown in the morning over these wood pavements would conquer the difficulty...One would imagine they were big share-holders in a joint stock horse-slaughtering company." (Quoted from Horses and Roads, by J.T. Denny)

The New England Architectural Center in Newport, Rhode Island has studied cobblestones--they also recycle the old ones, and sell them to architects. They tell us that, "Our most common reclaimed cobblestone sizes are Medium and Jumbo. A Medium cobblestone ranges from 5 to 9 inches long, 4 to 6 inches deep, 4 to 5 inches wide, and weighs between 12 to 15 pounds. A Jumbo cobblestone ranges from 9 to 14 inches long, 7 to 8 inches deep, 4 to 5 inches wide, and weighs between 20 to 30 pounds."

Look at those dimensions again. The weight varies. The length varies. The depth varies. But the width is the same, whether medium or jumbo.

Why would that be?

In this Library of Congress photo from the early 1900s, you see that the center of 11th Avenue in New York was also a freight line for the New York Central Railroad. Multiple sets of tracks go down the middle of the wide thoroughfare. Law required that a horseman proceed down the street in front of the freight train, to clear the route; apparently people were routinely run over, otherwise. Notice that all the manure on the tracks part of the street is right in the middle, and that the tracks are laid with paver stones. The outer lanes of the street are not. The automobile at the curb prefers to drive on the smooth surface while the brewery wagon sticks to the cobblestones in spite of the approaching train. Do you think that the choice of surfaces was to accommodate the different ways horses were shod or were horses shod to suit the surfaces they would negotiate?

Cobblestones were a uniform width to fit a prescribed distance between the toe calk and inside heel calk of a commercial horse's shoe. Today, paving stones are set close together and mortared in place. In the horse's day, the stones were set in place with a few inches of space all around each paver. This was especially important for a street with any sort of slope.

The spacing of the paver blocks is critical. It is so critical that it was even argued before the United States Supreme Court. US Patent Holder Charles Guidet changed the way the streets of lower Manhattan were paved with his system, and he patented it. But could he defend his patent? In an interesting court decision, the justices said no. He had, in effect, attempted to patent the empty spaces between uniform, hoof-sized cobblestones, set apart with exactly enough distance to accommodate the calks of horseshoes.

Apparently, you can't patent space. The Supreme Court said that was the talent of the artisan who did the work. Had they judged otherwise, we might we walking down Guidet streets and alleys today instead of cobblestoned ones. The right to leave the space for horseshoe calks was given to all stonelayers.

Bryan Holden, author of The Long Haul: The Life and Times of the Railway Horse, laid a railway horse shoe in a cobblestone street to show that it will still fit today. Ted Jones, a railway farrier in Manchester, England, described the heels as "turned down", rather than finished, so they would catch in between the stones, or "sets" as they were called there. The red lines show you the outline of the heels and toe calk, which appears, from this angle, to be offset. Image © Bryan Holden, used with permission. 

That space left between the paving blocks gave cobblestoned streets another advantage: they didn't freeze and crack like solid-paved streets. No potholes to repair!

The horseman who did not have his horse regularly shod would find the horse struggling to pull a load up a hill, since if a calk was worn, or a removable calk was missing, the horse couldn't grab onto anything.

A note about the shoe in the photograph: this shoe is believed to have been made by Ted Jones, a well-known farrier and authority on railway horses in Manchester, England. He refers to the heels as "turned". A separate aspect of this shoe is that it appears to also be drilled for removable calks, probably for winter conditions.

The rectangular cobblestone paving system changed the way that horseshoes worked. They were no longer just protection or traction. They were a device that encountered and engaged with the ground--ground artificially designed in units prescribed to fit the horse. Horseshoe and stone interacted, and the horse went along. Certainly, horses learned to use their calks to find the spaces between the cobblestones, but this was engineering on the bottom of a horse's foot taken to a new level.

It's easy for anyone who knows about horseshoeing to start waving a red flag at this point. If the paving stones were all of uniform size, that's fine, but all horses do not wear the same size horseshoe. To some extent, the location of the calks can be adjusted or calks can be angled so there is a consistent distance between toe calk and the inside heel calk, but this system is an invitation to an institutionalized system of shoeing the vast majority of city horses with one size and type of shoe, and then fitting the foot to the shoe, instead of fitting a shoe to the foot.

Short of breeding horses with uniform-sized feet, that is how it had to be.

There were other ways to do it: On Cadillac Hill in Akron, Ohio, every fourth row of pavers was raised, to give the horses a traction bar. It was computed based on the length of the average freight horse's stride.

Once winter hit, the horses were on their own if their stablemen hadn't seen to their shoes. And even then they were sometimes helpless. This horse was the first of the winter to fall on the streets of Boston in November 1922. His right hind shoe appears to be sprung or half pulled, perhaps in a scramble to stay on his feet. This horse may know that if he goes down, he might not ever get back up.
The first cobblestone streets must have been a shock because of the noise of horse hooves and iron-rimmed wheels. But it was music to businessmen's ears because the horses and freight wagons were safer on the streets. You've all read Black Beauty, so you know about horses with broken knees, and horses that went "down in the traces" on stony-paved city streets in winter.

Winter was dangerous for horses and the people who tried to help them once they were down. But the golden age of the horse in the city coincided with the golden age of American capitalism, and business must be conducted. Horses weren't expendable, and the loss of profit when horses were injured or if the streets were too snowy or icy for safe travel, put a lot of pressure on drivers and horses.

There was a need to find a way to keep the fleet of freight, cab and carriage horses on their feet and moving.  There was a concern, loudly voiced by the activist humane organizations, against the cruelty of working horses in dangerous weather. And there was a response, as you'll read in this series of articles, from horseshoers across the nation who invented hundreds of devices, shoes, and boots to stabilize horses on city streets.

When an announcement in the National Humane Review announced a prize of $2500 to anyone who could invent a safe horseshoe or device to help horses on winter streets, the horseshoers started to file patents.

None of those devices, shoes and boots are in use today, with the exception of frost nails. Maybe they should be. But the ingenuity to solve a problem and the desire to help the horse were remarkable and inspiring, as you'll see.

More in the Hoof Blog 2015 series on winter traction:

To learn more:

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