We’ve had cars for 120 years. They’ve kind of changed things
We can look around us anywhere, on any day, and literally see the effects cars have had on, well, everything. The existence of suburbs, paved roads, shopping malls, chestnut blight and rural electrification are related to the automobile. But this New Year’s season, we’re going to think of what we don’t see.
There was a lot to be said for the horse-and-buggy era. I live in a town of about 15,000 people; about 20 miles south is a town of about 8,000 people. At the turn of the century (as in 19th to 20th, when their populations were about 7,500 and 5,000 respectively), there was a rail line connecting the two.
It carried 12 million passengers a year. The automobile took both the rail line and the mill jobs that employed their passengers. It even pulled up the tracks themselves and sent them to Chicago and Detroit to be melted down. Like mill towns everywhere in America, we never recovered.
A horse-drawn infrastructure required not only that people were close together, but that horses were fed and cleaned up after. “Street sweeper” used to be a job description, not a noun, and it wasn’t a nice job, either. Horses required huge amounts of organic material moving in and out of everywhere, and horses were all there were.
An electric trolley might have had a few main routes and there was a train station downtown, but everything else moved by horse—buses and trolleys, fire equipment and every single thing needed for living, working and manufacturing. It wasn’t only messy, it was hugely dangerous. Both my wife and I have ancestors whose cause of death was “kicked in the head by a horse,” and she’s got a “steam boiler explosion” in there somewhere, too. Even the best horses could spook, maybe when a chicken flew into its head. “Run down by team of horses” happened…a lot.
With the horse came an amazing support structure. Stables were everywhere—all those carriage houses used to hold carriages. What open land wasn’t being used to feed people was growing hay. Cows weren’t being fed corn and ethanol didn’t exist, nor did megafarms. A stream of organic material went in and out of population centers, all in service of horses. All of that, good and bad, is gone.
Any town on the East Coast with a decent stream of water had some sort of industry; the better the water and the closer the resources, the more industry it had. Chattanooga, of course, had iron works, and was the nation’s second-largest producer of steam boilers. But it didn’t really matter how big a town was; it was the water and the power it made possible that was important.
Life working in those factories and mills was no picnic, especially for the children they employed, but the car didn’t make it any better, and who knows how many thousands of those buildings stand virtually as they were the day they closed.
Think about what’s outside your window right now. If you’re in the suburbs, you would have seen either croplands, industry or forest. In the city, the streets, you’d find filth. Well, filth, huge dangerous animals, trolley tracks and urchins.
The automobile changed literally everything, not just how we live our lives, but the way our entire world looks. It’s worth not taking for granted.
David Traver Adolphus is a freelance automotive researcher who recently quit his full time job writing about old cars to pursue his lifelong dream of writing about old AND new cars. He welcomes the inevitable and probably richly deserved kvetching about Airbag and anything else on Twitter as @proscriptus.