Hold Your Horses – This Transit System Took Its Last Gallop

January 11, 1913

In France, a transportation milestone in Paris took place when the last of the city’s horse-drawn omnibuses (horse-buses) made its final run. This means of transit first became a major part of daily life in France’s capital in 1828, when horse-buses began running on a regular basis between the right bank of the River Seine and the city square called the Place de la Bastille.

These vehicles quickly became a popular way to travel around Paris. By the early 1840s, there were 23 horse-bus lines operated by a total of 13 companies within the city. Over the course of several decades, these vehicles allowed people to more easily travel beyond their own neighborhoods to spend quality time in other parts of Paris. This transportation system was ultimately seen as a reflection of the Belle Époque (French for “beautiful era”), a period in the history of Paris from the establishment of the French Third Republic in the early 1870s to the start of World War I in 1914.

The expression Belle Époque was first widely used after World War I to characterize what many fondly remembered as a golden age of Paris in which a shared sense of optimism and opportunities prevailed throughout the city. Those bygone years would be defined not only by public transportation networks that more closely connected the city’s communities than ever before but also such other key developments as the hosting of three universal expositions (in 1878, 1889, and 1900); the building of the iconic Eiffel Tower; and the blossoming of the Impressionism art movement.

Notwithstanding their long-term significance to the daily routines and rhythms of Paris, the city’s horse-buses – eventually facing stiff competition from more modern types of public transportation such as electric tramways and motor buses — fell victim to the technological progress that became a trademark of the Belle Époque. The last horsecar to operate in Paris traveled between the Church of Saint-Sulpice on the left bank of the River Seine and to the community known as La Villette in the city’s northeastern edge. The afternoon run took place, according to the London-based Standard newspaper, “with much mock solemnity and more merrymaking.” A large crowd followed the double-decker omnibus, which was covered with funeral wreaths.

“Immediately behind the vehicle, and acting as chief mourner, was a large motor car covered completely with a huge black pall plentifully besprinkled with large silver tears, while the engine thumped and groaned in its mechanical grief,” reported the Standard. “Next came a long procession of motor vehicles of all sorts, shapes, and sizes, from motor bicycles and ‘run-abouts’ to limousines and heavy lorries, in higgledy-piggledy fashion.” The newspaper also noted, “Many of them carried placards rejoicing in the disappearance of the horse-drawn vehicles.”

For more information on the public transit services in Paris during the Belle Époque, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_in_the_Belle_Époque#The_omnibus,_the_tramway_and_the_metro.

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