by D. Scott Molloy

The omnibus, a crucial urban link.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, April 1994. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Early omnibus timetable on the Mt. Pleasant route. Note the "late" service on Saturday night. "Single Fare, .08 Cts; Children' Fare, .05 Cts; Sixteen Tickets, $1.00."

As the stagecoach disappeared from the urban scene with bittersweet memories for drivers and passengers, it was replaced temporarily by the next stage in the evolution of local mass transit—the omnibus. The "bus" or "buss," as it was popularly known, proved to be a crucial link in urban mass transit. The name was actually coined in France where this type of service, in the congested European capitals, predated American experiments by a decade.

New York City hosted the earliest omnibus in the United States in the late 1820s. These vehicles were modified stagecoaches with back entrances for easy boarding by urban passengers on short fixed routes. They resembled circus wagons and could seat twenty-five passengers on long benches. Most of the conveyances were decoratively painted, often with patriotic designs. Owners lettered the sides with whimsical names like antique vanity plates. In 1831, John Stephenson, a coach maker by trade, designed and equipped a sturdy model for trips on Broadway in New York City. By 1835 a fledgling fleet there grew to 100 and multiplied to almost 700 by 1853.

Excursion wagons

Rhode Island historian Robert Grieve mentioned that after the demise of long distance stages, "omnibuses were very generally used for local transportation." Another nineteenth century observer, Welcome Arnold Greene, described them as "furniture wagons" with a design peculiar to Providence. These "low gears" with upholstered seats became the era's "excursion wagon" of choice. The reign of the omnibus was brief in America's cities but very important to the expansion of the riding habit. Providence in the 1850s was still a "city of pedestrians." The state's population and downtown business district were just too small to sustain more than a modest fleet of omnibuses but they provided a glimpse of what was to come.

The antebellum decade was the heyday of the bus in the Ocean State. The most patronized line bumped along Broadway in Providence to the bustling factories and tenements in Olneyville. Lucy Howlett, a seamstress who worked in Providence between 1848 and 1852, was a typical rider. She made a notation about a bus ride in her unpublished diary on March 24, 1850: "Yesterday we had a snow-storm. The snow was falling all day, but the weather was so warm that it did not accumulate very fast, but the walking was very bad, I rode home in the Olneyville Omnibus, with eighteen other passengers." Earlier that month she mentioned a similar ride when it rained. Most workers and especially mill operatives could not afford daily ten cent fares and walked whenever possible, saving a fare for bad weather or a Sunday outing. By the Civil War the Olneyville line operated every ten minutes.

Half hour and hourly

Other routes ran less frequently on half hour and hourly schedules. The line to Friendship Street in Providence, for example, left every sixty minutes from 6:30am to 7pm. Similar service was provided to South Main Street, South Providence, East Providence, Elmwood, Knightsville, Smith Hill, North Main Street, Charles Street, and to the Pawtucket city line. There were also incidental trips between several downtown train depots. A Providence timetable in 1853 promised that passengers could leave downtown at noon, have lunch on the East Side, and return to work by one o'clock.

The description of the East Providence omnibus was typical of the period. Passengers entered the "turtleneck" through a rear door with three steps. A leather strap attached to the door extended along the top of the inside roof of the bus and was wrapped around the driver's leg at the front of the vehicle. When a patron wished to leave, he tugged on the strap, paid the fare, and the driver loosened the cord. The author of a local transit article in 1930 suggested that "As most of the drivers owned the bus which they drove it is a safe bet that they never ran by any passengers."

Swan Point Cemetery

One particularly pleasant omnibus line went from downtown Providence to Swan Point Cemetery, a bucolic spot located at the end of Blackstone Boulevard. A popular carriage rendezvous after the Civil War, the cemetery was more of a public park than a place of eternal rest. Swan Point accommodated thousands of guests on summer Sundays. When the Union (Horse) Railroad initiated a route to nearby Butler Avenue in 1876, about a mile and a half from the cemetery, the omnibus simply shortened the line and carried passengers from the horsecar terminus to Swan Point. Displaced omnibuses from the former Mt. Pleasant line were transferred to the East Side for this popular service. The horsecar company purchased the profitable franchise the following year and outfitted its own larger bus to handle the crowds. The Butler Avenue line was electrified and extended to the gates of Swan Point in 1900.

Riding conditions were primitive, of course, on all lines. There was no heat so a layer of straw served as insulation. Patrons claimed the straw was liberally spread, not to provide rudimentary comfort, but to hide any change that a customer might drop. Drivers retrieved coins at the end of the line. In 1864 the Manufacturers and Farmer's Journal observed another form of larceny: "The man who smokes in the omnibus may be mean and disgusting, but he isn't so dangerous a fellow-passenger as the man who rides in the omnibus for the purpose of appropriating articles that may be dropped or left in the vehicle." In late years, when the status of bus travel had deteriorated, riders on the Lonsdale line were still complaining about smoking. The Providence Morning Star frowned on such transit behavior and condemned "the nuisance of nasty pipe smoke, particularly in the presence of ladies, and not especially agreeable to any inhaler of God's pure air."

Allen Amalgamates

Surprisingly, the bus did not disappear with the coming of the horsecar. Ebenezer Allen, the proprietor of the South Main Street omnibus, apparently attempted to amalgamate the different bus lines. The accompanying timetable advertised "Allen's Line of Omnibuses" to the following streets: Hope, South and North Main, Charles, Cranston, Broad and High (present day Westminster Street). The dream of a unified system of mass transit in and around Providence would come later, however. Most bus franchises were purchased by the horsecar company in the 1860s. Although the "animal railroad," as the horsecar was sometimes referred to, marginalized the omnibus, the surviving bus lines served a purpose. Horsecar proprietors kept a close eye on bus patronage, especially in emerging neighborhoods, as an indicator of profitable new routes for rail transit.

By 1882, seven omnibus lines survived in Providence although some were relegated to picking up school children. The introduction of electric streetcars to the state in 1892 began a decade of trolley extension into every major community. The electric railway even replaced passenger traffic on some established railroads. The trolleys and outgoing horsecars managed to create a few new omnibus lines even at this late date. When the Union Railroad extended Elmwood Avenue horsecars to Auburn in Cranston in 1878 an independent omnibus ran service between that community and the state prison at Howard twice a day. That line was electrified in 1889. The Rhode Island Company, the successor to the Union Railroad in 1902, operated the state's last omnibus line in 1904 when it used a primitive wagon-bus on a cross-town route between Knightsville and Edgewood in Cranston. This Park Avenue line was electrified in 1908 and finally ended the six-decade journey of the omnibus.

The march of progress

The anonymous author of an article in All Aboard, an employee publication printed by the local Union Electric Railways Company in the 1930s, wryly noted that "Those old omnibuses crawling along through the dust and mud were doubtless expected to fill the bill forevermore, but like the stagecoach they had to yield to the march of progress."

The following letter to the editor originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, June 1994.

Dear Editor:

"Omnibus in Rhode Island Crucial Urban Link" by D. Scott Molloy in the April issue of Old Rhode Island, brought back fond memories to me. Not that I remember back into the mid-1800s—no way! My memories are of the electric trolleys that ran in the Westerly, RI-Pawcatuck, CT, area—in particular the runs out of Westerly to Watch Hill and Pleasant View (now Misquamicut).

The same tracks were used by both scheduled routes down the Watch Hill Road to the intersection with Winnapaug Road. At this junction the Watch Hill line continued down the Watch Hill Road, while the Pleasant View line went straight ahead over open territory straight to Pleasant View.

A different fare was charged for the remainder of the trips, since the ride to Watch Hill was no longer than the ride to Pleasant View.

These lines ran only during the warmer months. The cars were open and entered from the side to seats facing forward. The conductor walked a long step on the outside of the trolley as he collected fares and deposited the coins in a metal container strapped to his waist. Once in a while he dropped a coin into the trolley bed.

As youngsters summering in the Winnapaug Dunes, we would hike the two miles up the beach to where the trolley line turned inland, [where we] followed the line almost to the Watch Hill Road and then started searching for coins, usually nickels and dimes—don't recall any quarters. Enroute back home we would stop at Lamb's Store in Pleasant View and buy a soft drink or a candy bar, and arrive home just as broke as when we left in the morning! But it was a fun outing and that's all that counted.

Years later I learned that there was a Pleasant View boy who beat us to the punch by going up to the trolley line in the morning, before we arrived. Maybe that's why we didn't find any quarters.

He is now a retired Chief of the Westerly Police Department.


Charles W. Utter
Editor Emeritus
The Westerly Sun

D. Scott Molloy is a professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. A former bus driver for RIPTA, he is the author of Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line, and an Images of America book entitled All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode Island. As a member of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee he educates the public about the role of Irish immigrants in Rhode Island labor history. 10,000 pieces from his extensive collection of labor movement memorabilia are preserved in the Smithsonian.

More Mass Transit in Rhode Island...

Part 1: The early turnpikes from Indian trails to tollgates
Part 2: The stagecoach era; symbol of rapid transportation in 1815
Part 4: Rhode Island's first horsecar, Providence to Pawtucket
Part 5: Horsecar workers
Part 6: Horsecar drivers and customers
Part 7: The first Rhode Island trolleys: Woonsocket and Newport
Part 8: New England's only cable car, the Providence Cable Tramway: the struggle on 'Quality Hill'
Part 9: The Providence Cable Tramway becomes a reality
Part 10: The first trolley in Providence, 1892

This article last edited August 8, 2015

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