A closer look: Omnibus on 15th Street, circa 1860

If it weren't for the majestic, columned façade of the Treasury Department, this photograph would be unrecognizable as a view of 15th Street downtown. The virtually deserted cobblestone street, the large shade trees, and the horse-drawn wagon stopped at the side of the road evoke a much quieter era. And so it was before the Civil War. But the horse-drawn wagon is actually a unique urban artifact—a rarely photographed pre-war omnibus, the first mass transit vehicle the city ever saw.

Detail of a circa 1860 stereoview of the Treasury Department (Author's collection).
What we now think of as a city bus—a road vehicle traveling a set route and carrying multiple passengers for a low fare—first appeared in the 1820s in London and Paris. In short order they were dubbed “omnibuses,” from a term originally coined by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and derived from the Latin word meaning “for everyone.” It wasn’t until the 20th century that “omnibus” would be shortened to just “bus.”

Abraham Brower, a New York businessman, is generally credited with introducing omnibuses to America when he opened his first public coach line along Broadway in New York City in 1827. As for Washington, the first omnibuses began operating in early 1830, traveling along Pennsylvania Avenue from Georgetown to the Capitol. What you see here is one such omnibus. If you look closely, you may be able to make out the word "Capitol" across the top front of the carriage and "Georgetown" along the side.

An omnibus seated twelve inside and two outside, including the driver, whom we see here perched on top. The fare was six and one-quarter cents or five tickets for a quarter. With such a small capacity, omnibuses frequently filled up, and often one could see an overflow passenger precariously balanced on the flimsy rear step and clinging to the back door handle for dear life as the vehicle rattled along the city's rutted, unpaved streets. Omnibuses were often individually named for famous people or events, and some had elegant paintings of sailing ships or early steam-powered vessels on their sides. Keeping them clean must have been a constant battle. They were cramped, dirty, hard to get in and out of, and ran unreliably.
Drawing of a typical D.C. omnibus (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)
Omnibus drivers could become quite reckless as they vied with each other for customers. The city council took up a bill in 1850 to “prohibit racing and several other improper and dangerous practices, which generally result from the rivalry of different lines,” according to The National Intelligencer. Eventually omnibus drivers were subjected to a five-dollar fine for “passing ahead of or in front of, or in any other way to annoy the passengers or drivers of any other omnibus.” But this was only after an alarming incident had occurred on the very stretch of 15th Street shown in this photo. As recounted in The Evening Star in June 1855:
A respectable citizen tells us that in the afternoon of the day before yesterday the driver of the Georgetown omnibus, No. 25, at a point on Fifteenth street, opposite the Treasury Department, drove up to the side of the lead-horse of a three-horse stage, and commenced beating that horse most unmercifully, causing in the melee the running off of both teams, a wheel horse of each to fall, both being dragged some distance. The omnibus was crowded with ladies, who left it. The conduct of the driver was most reprehensible, and endangered the lives not only of the horses, but of the passengers—men, women, and children—in both vehicles.
By this time the city's omnibuses were under the control of Gilbert Vanderwerken (1810-1894), the city's first transit mogul, who was known as the "omnibus king." Born in Waterford, New York, Vanderwerken left home at age 17 to be an apprentice to a stagecoach builder in Newark, New Jersey. He opened his own coach-building business in Newark around 1830 but went bankrupt during the financial depression of 1837. He moved to Washington in the late 1840s and invested in an omnibus company known as the Union Line. In 1851 he gained full control of the company, which by that time was one of two consolidated omnibus companies operating in the city. In 1855 he and his partner, John E. Reeside, bought out the other line, known as the Citizens Line, and merged the two into a single D.C. omnibus monopoly.

Despite his investment in omnibuses, Vanderwerken was likely the first to try to bring streetcars to the District. Streetcars represented a clear technological advance. Horses could pull a much heavier load on a streetcar riding on steel rails than on a wooden-wheeled wagon. Riders enjoyed a smoother ride and more commodious seating. An ambitious businessman, Vanderwerken first petitioned Congress for a street railway from Georgetown to Capitol Hill in December 1852, but Congress was slow to act. It would be ten more years before the exigencies of the Civil War spurred Congressional authorization of the District's first street railway. The first line to be constructed, in 1862, followed the same route as the Georgetown-Capitol omnibus line, which by that time extended beyond the Capitol to the Navy Yard.

Streetcar in the distance and original tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue. Tracks like these were also laid in the cobblestones on 15th Street alongside the Treasury. (Author's collection).
Though not specified in the law establishing the new company, buying out Vanderwerken’s competing omnibus line seems to have been one of the requirements for getting the new streetcar operation underway. Vanderwerken agreed to sell horses, cars, and other company property for $28,500 and leased his stables and other real estate for $2,500 per year. The railway company would eventually purchase Vanderwerken’s strategically located stables in Georgetown, which they converted into a car barn and maintenance facility (now Georgetown Park), as well as his Navy Yard stables.

Once the new streetcar lines began operating, passengers could transfer to the old Vanderwerken omnibuses to complete their trips on routes still under construction. In October 1862, with all three of its planned lines nearly finished, the company’s directors decided to donate 20 of the old omnibuses to the army for use as ambulances. They were much needed to transport wounded soldiers, who by that time were pouring into Washington from nearby battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. Perhaps the omnibus in our photo was one of the ones that was destined for war service.

The full stereoview
As seen here, the Treasury Building's massive Ionic colonnade was one of the first sections of the structure to be completed, in the early 1840s. At the time this photo was taken, the building's north façade, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, had not yet been started. Instead, the old State Department building is still standing. Though mostly obscured by the large tree in the foreground, the staircase and first floor windows of the building can be seen immediately behind the omnibus. This building, one of four distinguished, federal-style structures designed by architect George Hadfield (1763-1826) as the Executive Branch's first office buildings, would be torn down in 1866 when work to complete the north wing of the Treasury Building began.

Photo by the author.
A view of 15th Street from the same angle today reveals another notable difference: the Washington Monument now looms beyond the Treasury Building. Construction of the monument had halted in 1854 due to lack of funds, and the segment that had been completed was not tall enough to be visible from this spot in 1860. Construction resumed in 1877 and wasn't completed until the 1880s.

A streetcar encounters pedestrians, delivery wagons, and two herdics in this scene in front of the Patent Office circa 1890. (Author's collection).
As for omnibuses, their deliberate elimination in 1862 proved to be short-lived. In 1875, regularly scheduled horse-drawn coaches were reintroduced to compete with streetcars. Some were very similar in design to pre-war omnibuses, but by the 1880s an improved design known as a "herdic" after its inventor, Peter H. Herdic, made its appearance. Herdics saw service into the early 1900s. Modern motorized bus service began in 1921.

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Portions of this article previously appeared in Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, D.C. Additional sources included John Steele Gordon, Washington's Monument And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk (2016); Leroy O. King Jr., 100 Years of Capital Traction: The Story of Streetcars in the Nation’s Capital (1972); John Anderson Miller, Fares, Please! A Popular History of Trolleys, Horsecars, Streetcars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways (1960); Pamela Scott, Fortress of Finance: The United States Treasury Building (2010); and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

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