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From the archives: Bad roads, worse drivers. Today? No, 150 years ago

From the archives: Bad roads, worse drivers. Today? No, 150 years ago
From the archives: Bad roads, worse drivers. Today? No, 150 years ago

Horse-drawn carriages on Notre Dame St, Montreal, about 1895. A speed limit of 6 miles per hour was implemented in 1865 in an attempt to curb reckless driving in the city. Wm. Notman & Son / McCord Museum

This story was first published on April 21, 2004, in the Montreal Gazette.


Sherbrooke Street. Our attention has been called to the practice by the owners of trotting horses of turning this street into a race course. … Now it is barbarous in the extreme that (people) should be in perpetual danger of death or maiming by fast men and fast horses.

Gazette, Wednesday, April 21, 1852


The Gazette wasn’t exaggerating. Like speeding cars today, carriages and wagons going too fast put in peril the health and even the lives of their drivers, to say nothing of anyone standing nearby. A century and a half ago, the scarcity of sidewalks merely added to the danger. Even Sherbrooke St., fashionable then as now, didn’t have them, and “promenaders have to use the middle of the street,” teams rushing by on either side.

Well into the 19th century, a driver was expected to ask permission first, or at least to excuse himself, before urging his horse to pass someone ahead. Alas, such good manners had pretty well disappeared in the crowded city, where they were more needed, long after they continued to linger on in the countryside.

In 1827, one Montrealer was so angered by the “malicious conduct” of some drivers that he wrote, with more pomposity than clarity, “Hand bills should be placed on all the church doors in this district, as it appears absolutely necessary – in a country where gross ignorance or utter contempt of the law, as well as of common honesty, stalks abroad in open day (for it may justly be looked upon as a species of highway robbery) – that every lawful method should be adopted which has for its object the protection of life and property.

“The rule of the country is to keep on the right hand side, and to give the road to loaded carriages only, both in summer and winter, and in all cases to discover a mutual and reciprocal disposition to ‘give way to each other’ to prevent the slightest injury occurring.”

In Montreal, cabmen could be a particular scourge. The wildest of them were known as jehus, after a Biblical king of Israel: “And the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously.”

In 1865, a Montreal bylaw laid down that “no person driving any carriage or vehicle or riding any horse, mare, gelding or other beast in or through the said City shall permit the beast or beasts to run, gallop, trot, pace or go at any rate exceeding six miles to the hour.” But though the law, custom and plain common sense all ruled against furious, Jehu-like driving, drivers continued to flout the rules when it suited them.

The speed limit didn’t apply to ambulances. On wheels in summer or runners in the winter, they could career through the streets as fast as their drivers dared. The early ambulances, pulled by two horses, were light, covered wagons with space in the bed for a stretcher and an attendant.

Up front, an intern sat beside the driver, ringing a bell mounted on the dashboard to warn everyone out of the way. Many of the horses had been retired from local racetracks but were still capable of a lick of speed. Others were acquired from private owners: The inclination of these horses to bolt made them unsuitable for family use, though they could be controlled by professional drivers.

According to Dr. D. Sclater Lewis, historian of the Royal Victoria Hospital, it wasn’t just a concern for the ill or injured that lay behind an ambulance’s speed. As the 20th century dawned, the Royal Victoria, Montreal General and Notre Dame hospitals had ambulances, and all three services might be notified of a single emergency.

It was a matter of pride that each outrace the others to get to the scene first.

The intern first able to leap from his ambulance and actually touch his quarry could claim the case for his hospital, though the etiquette didn’t always work smoothly. It’s claimed that more than once, as two interns and their drivers argued over who had laid on hands first, the third ambulance crew would arrive, stealthily load up the unfortunate victim and wheel him away – at top speed, of course – before the disputants were any the wiser.

Also exempted from the speed limits were fire reels. The reels were heavy, and horses drawing them were correspondingly heavier than an ambulance’s. They would be hitched two or three abreast, a marriage of power and discipline. The fire bell ringing, the doors of the fire hall swinging open, the team emerging to begin its thunderous charge through the streets: It was a scene not easily forgotten.

The last of Montreal’s fire horses were retired early in 1936, but they didn’t exactly fade away. One of them was acquired by a milk deliveryman who, later that year, was making his rounds along Park Ave. A woman happened to be watching through the window as the deliveryman left his wagon with some bottles for a house across the street.

Suddenly, one of the city’s new, motorized fire reels went rushing by on its way to a distant fire. It seems to have been equipped not with a siren but a bell, which was being clanged madly. It was all the milk horse needed.

Facing in the opposite direction, it smartly wheeled about and galloped off to answer the call as well. All the poor milkman could do was watch as horse and wagon disappeared after the speeding fire reel.

“How it ended we never knew,” the woman recalled, “but at least the horse knew what he was doing. He was going to do his duty. He was galloping to that fire, as he had been trained to do.”

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