Horse flu hampered mass transit in Toledo


Toledo’s first mass transit system was laid low by the smallest of scoundrels in the 19th Century

By “mass transit” we mean horse-drawn streetcars that could accommodate up to 15 passengers. By “scoundrel” we mean the dreaded “epizoon” (that’s how newspapers referred to it at the time), essentially equine influenza.

The year was 1872, by which time Toledo had a population of more than 50,000 and a traffic problem to rival the occasional congestion we see today.

Because the city had liberally handed out franchises since 1861, there were 16 streetcar firms operating in the downtown and surrounding areas. Horses and the occasional mule were the beasts of burden.

When the flu struck that year, the streetcar system came to a virtual halt. Horses remained in their barns, too weak to pull anything but their own weight. Even the steeds that pulled the city’s fire wagons were affected, prompting concerned citizens to volunteer to pull the vehicles if necessary.

Concern was amplified when word arrived that Boston’s fire department animals had also been struck with the flu, making them useless when a great fire decimated much of that city’s downtown that same year.

By the time the pandemic subsided city officials had already begun to consider alternatives, chiefly the electric streetcar being tested in several other cities across the country.

Today’s Blade archive photo of horse-drawn streetcars was taken in 1881 in front of the Erie street barns. Less than a decade later — in 1889 — they would approach obsolescence when electric streetcars finally came to the city’s streets. The last horse-drawn streetcar ended in 1892.

Go to​memories to purchase historical photos taken by our award-winning staff of photographers, past and present, or to purchase combinations of stories and photos.