An Omnibus Overview

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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America’s first transportation industryincluded more than a million different variations and sizes of vehicles.  If that sounds a bit far-fetched, considerthe fact that, at one time, Studebaker claimed to have offered over 500different sizes and configurations of farm wagons alone!  Add to that the fact that most of the tens ofthousands of known vehicle builders had their own way of doing things withevery vehicle they made and it’s easy to see how the math can quickly add upover a couple of centuries.  Overall,it’s just part of the reason that any serious study of America’s early vehiclescan be challenging at best.

Among the diversity of wheels used inthe Old West were a host of city transports. Drays, grocery wagons, business wagons, carts, beer wagons, ladderwagons, police vehicles, and an entire host of other specialized designs notonly dominated the eastern cities but also quickly made their way west.  Among the custom creations used was a specialconfiguration for city transit and hotel hospitality.  It was referred to as the Omnibus. 

Don Berkebile in his book, Carriage Terminology: An HistoricalDictionary, defines an omnibus as a “public street vehicle intended tocarry a large number of persons.”  He furtheroutlined features including longitudinal seats, paneled sides, and a rear doorallowing easy ingress and egress. Ultimately, it’s a vehicle purpose and basic design need that’s still inuse today.  In fact, it’s where we getthe term ‘bus’ to begin with.

This extremely rare, originalmanufacturer photo shows an omnibus built by Andrew Wight.  It’s another example of the kind of scarcehistory preserved in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
Often graced with elaborate letteringand ornamentation, these large, early ‘buses’ were built in differentsizes.  Many were designed for around adozen passengers while, perhaps, the largest one in America measured thirty-sixfeet long and was reported to have a capacity of 120 passengers (talk about astretch limo!)  Some double-deckeromnibuses were also used in the U.S. but even more so in England.  Another note of interest is that advertisingmessages for businesses eventually found their way onto many of these vehicles– just as buses and city cabs still incorporate today.  Again and again, we see how much our modernsociety has been affected by ideas and designs originally drawn by horses.
So, where did the concept for an omnibuscome from?  The August 1895 issue of The Hub – picking up an article fromLondon-based Cornhill Magazine – indicatesthat this style of vehicle had its origins with the French... 

The ‘germ’ of the omnibus was of course an old one,and was to be found in the various ‘stages,’ coaches and diligences, where anumber of persons were conveyed long distances in one common vehicle.  Mr. Charles Knight, indeed, recalls someexperiments made in the year 1800, when a lumbering vehicle running on sixwheels and drawn by four horses was plying in London for short distances, butwas not very successful.  An old Irishreminiscent also ‘minded the time’ when a stage of similar character, on eight wheels,worked in 1792 between Dublin and Seapoint, a suburb about four miles off.  There was here a boarding-house or hotel ofsome fashion, where Charles Matthews was fond of staying.  The truth is, however, that we owe theinvention to our so-called ‘lively neighbors.’ A retired officer named Baudry, living at Nantes, had established bathsat Richebourg, which, he found, were patronized not so extensively as hedesired.  He accordingly, in 1827,started a sort of general car to transport his customers, which plied betweenthe baths and the center of town. Baudry, later, set up his vehicle at Bordeaux and also at Paris; but asin so many other cases where the community is benefited, the inventionflourished, though at the expense of the inventor.

In 1829 forage was dear, the roads bad; theundertaking ruined the luckless Baudry, who is said to have died ofdisappointment.  It was in this year thatthe enterprising undertaker sent out the first London ‘bus, which, according toa now defunct Dublin newspaper, Saunders’Newsletter, “excited considerable notice, from the novel form of thecarriage and the elegant manner in which it is fitted out.  We apprehend it would be almost impossible tomake it overturn, owing to the great width. It is drawn by three beautiful bays abreast, after the Frenchfashion.  It is a handsome machine.”  It then describes how “the new vehicle,called the omnibus, commenced running this morning from Paddington to thecity.”  It started from the “YorkshireStingo,” and carried twenty-two passengers inside, at a charge of a shilling orsix-pence, according to the distance.  Tocarry eleven passengers on each side it must have been nearly double the lengthof the present form of vehicle, and of the size and appearance of one of thelarge three-horse Metropolitan Railway ‘busses. An odd feature of the arrangement was that the day’s newspaper wassupplied for the convenience of the passengers...

According to John H. White, Jr. in his2013 book entitled, Wet Britches andMuddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America, the first use ofomnibuses in the U.S. can be traced to New York City.  While there were a number of Americanbuilders of these vehicles, the most prominent is likely to have been JohnStephenson, also located in NYC. Stephenson is not only the builder of the massive, thirty-six-footomnibus mentioned above but his firm is estimated to have constructed over25,000 streetcars and countless horse-drawn vehicles in its roughly 85-yearhistory.  The firm found its niche in1832 with the construction of a streetcar for John Mason, a well-known bankerand merchant.  The design includednumerous features making it easier and more stable to use.  It was an instant hit with the owner and thepublic.  The rewards didn’t stop withsimple accolades.  On April 22, 1833,Stephenson was granted a patent for the design – America’s first streetcar(tram) on rails.  Even so, hisinnovations didn’t stop there.  For thenext half century, he was granted numerous patents for streetcar designs.  One of the most detailed histories on Mr.Stephenson can be found in the online archives of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin. 

Andrew Wight was another notable builderof omnibuses as well as street cars, express, business, and freight wagons, andalso circus wagons and cages.  Wight hadbeen an ornamental painter for John Stephenson’s legendary firm in New Yorkand, likewise, held horse-drawn vehicle patents.  In 1858, Wight had the itch to move west,settling in St. Louis and opening his own vehicle manufactory.  By 1874, he provided work for 100 employeeswith street cars sold throughout the West and omnibuses permeating theMississippi Valley region.

This image shows a portion of an earlyadvertising card used by Andrew Wight. It’s also housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
Another organization involved in thecreation of omnibuses was located in Cortland, New York.  The company was founded in 1881 by W.T.Smith, originally of Homer, NY.  Afterthree decades of carriage-building and manufacturing omnibuses for roughly ahalf dozen years, Smith found himself enticed to move to Cortland.  Once there, he entered into a co-partnershipwith the Cortland Wagon Company to form the Cortland Omnibus Company.  Within a decade, the firm was building asmany as 175 omnibuses per year and shipping them all over the U.S.  During this time, the vehicles ranged inprice from $300 to $500 each.
Courtesy of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages, thisphoto shows another type of omnibus design. The ‘Grace Darling’ was used in the New England region for a variety ofexcursions and event transportation needs.
This blog, in no way, is meant to be adetailed study of omnibuses.  There is agreat deal more to the story of these vehicles, including the early designevolution from ‘Sociables’ and ‘Accomodations’ as well as a myriad of builders,the industry as a whole, and the vehicle’s transition into today’s busconfigurations.  Ultimately, my intenthere has been to help shed some light on other vehicle types and theircontribution to municipalities and businesses all over the country – includingthe West.

Just as nineteenth century resorts andhotels used horse-drawn omnibuses to transport passengers to and from the traindepot, many hotels still use a ‘bus’ to pick folks up from the depot (i.e.airport terminals).  Similarly, municipalitiesalso continue their use of modern-day buses for both intercity and intracitytransportation.  Times may have changedbut transportation needs will always be a priority; the result being that many ideasstarted in the horse-drawn era remain as an equally important part of modern society.   

Horse-drawn omnibuses were a commonsight on America’s well-populated streets in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  In many cities, they numberedin the hundreds.
Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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