When trolleys came to town . . . they were pulled by horses

A horse trolley in operation in Portland in the late 1800s. Maine Historical Society

For generations, anybody wanting to get around within Lewiston or Auburn had two choices: they could walk or they could get a horse.

The luckiest and richest folks could also add a buggy or cart for their horse to pull.

Roads in the 19th century were often a little more than mud and manure, at least until hard-pressed authorities began paving some of them with bricks and stones as populations grew.

But by the mid-1800s there was something in town that offered a tantalizing alternative: railroads featuring belching steam engines and reasonably comfortable passenger cars that could swiftly move people across long distances.

Pretty sweet, yes, but it was often easier to get to Portland than to get across town.

Not until the 1880s did anybody begin to figure out how to bring a bit of mass transit to the streets of the Twin Cities.

What they found turned out to be a short-lived solution: a trolley system built on more than 14 miles of tracks through city streets and powered by horses.

Horse trolleys offered scheduled service over regular routes for a low price, making it possible for residents to live further from their jobs, head out into the country for relaxation and get around without the necessity of risking those treacherous roadways.

In the summer of 1881, George Mellen bought 500 tons of iron rails that he planned to use for the Lewiston and Auburn Horse Railroad’s first line down Main Street to the State Fairgrounds.

“I ordered them on my own risk,” he told a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter, “as they were going up fearfully” in price from the current $62 a ton.

Mellen said he planned to construct a first-class operation.

“I’m not going to use one-horse cars, or wheelbarrows, or have anything one-horse about the line,” said the owner of the new company.

He told the Lewiston council a few days earlier that he anticipated he would need 100 horses and expected the first line to be more a novelty than anything else.

“People would ride for amusement, probably,” Mellen said. But the nickel fare for those who buy tickets, he said, would help provide income to build out the rest of the lines as residents discovered the utility of jumping on the trolley to get around.

The horse trolley would run from spring until late fall, able to push some snow off the tracks but not enough to make it possible to operate in the winter. Mellon said, though, that he would switch the cars so they could operate as sleighs in the coldest months.

But as is often the case with business ventures, things went astray for Mellen. In 1882, the company was sold after he got tired of fussing with city leaders about who should repair streets and which roads could handle rails.

A horse trolley on Lewiston’s Lisbon and Main streets line. Lewiston Evening Journal


The new owners got cracking. By the end of the year, the horse railroad had tracks laid on Main, Lisbon and Pine streets.

On April 6, 1883, the company kicked off a new year with a car running along Main Street, the same day the paper reported “the first mad dog of the season,” found on College Street in such bad shape that it died before a police officer could shoot it.

In the summer of 1883, the Journal described newly arrived cars for the growing line as possessing seating for 50 on wooden benches and room for another 50 people to stand.

Finished in polished ash and white wood, the cars had lamps at each end and open sides, with curtains to protect passengers from sun and rain.

The Journal called the cars “cozy and decidedly ornamental,” painted a deep crimson with gold trim.

The company was already eyeing the possibility that summer of switching propulsion for its cars from real horsepower to steam horsepower.

Lake Grove in Auburn, which became a popular recreation area for Twin City residents. Seashore Trolley Museum

The horse railroad firm realized during its first year that one of its most popular routes took people out to Lake Grove on Lake Auburn, which quickly became a big picnic ground and started growing even bigger as a summertime haven with a roller skating rink, bowling alley and shooting gallery.

In 1885, Auburn refused to let the horse railroad switch to electricity or steam. Its officials offered no explanation for their refusal.

But business boomed anyway.

That year, more than 236,000 riders took the horse trolley in the two cities, including more than 44,000 trips to Lake Grove.

State Fair in Lewiston Androscoggin Historical Society


In September 1885, the horse railroad killed a man at the fairgrounds.

Frank Kinney of Augusta, an employee working at the fairgrounds, “lurched over on the track and a car run over him,” the Journal reported. “His leg was crushed to a jelly.”

Surgeons tried to save the drunken man to no avail.

The Journal’s story that day declared “the horse railroad employees are entirely blameless. They could not possibly have avoided the accident. Rum did it.”

The next day, a coroner’s inquest looked into it as well, with Kinney’s hat on a City Hall windowsill and his shredded clothing on the floor. A casket with his remains sat on some chairs in the middle of the room.

The jury decided that Kinney bore the blame for his death.


Ridership kept going up, with more than 4,000 additional passengers per month in 1887, when new stables were built on Chapel Street for more than 100 horses.

A drawing in the Lewiston Evening Journal of a horse trolley passenger reading the city’s afternoon newspaper.

It got so popular that some folks began figuring out ways to cheat the system.

The horse trolley company’s treasurer told the Journal that it received “countless numbers” of coins each year that had been punched “so that a blind man would know” they weren’t real. But its operators often didn’t actually see the coins that people plunked into collection boxes, so fakes were common.

The Journal called it “a melancholy sight” to witness so much “burglarized specimen of the money of Uncle Sam,” which the company would collect and sell for its metal weight.

By 1889, the horse trolley’s lines connected virtually every populated part of Lewiston and Auburn, tying the community together in a way that had never before been possible.

Residents often expressed wonder at how they’d gotten by without it.

That didn’t stop them, though, from clashing with one another every spring about whether the company’s rails should be cleared of snow so it could operate or cover up so that sleighs wouldn’t smack into the rails.

It got to be so regular an issue that the Journal talked about the annual war that erupted between the two camps, usually in Auburn. Ultimately, warmer weather has always resolved the issue.

In 1892, the trolley company’s board of directors voted to electrify its entire network, a move that would end the necessity of having horses.

That set off a new round of debate that went on for several years, with officials doubting the wisdom of the proposal while the company insisted it was just a matter of propulsion, nothing for anybody to get worked up about. City leaders, though, proclaimed that caution and good legal advice were the best approach.

By 1895, at least part of the lines were electric. Cars running out to Lake Grove, for instance, had no need for horses.

By the following summer, it appears there were no horse-drawn trolleys left in operation in Lewiston and Auburn. They’d all gone electric.

And the best years for trolleys were still to come.

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