The Omnibus Revolution(s)

Let’s roll back the hands of time to talk about a nineteenth-century transportation phenomenon that few people remember, but one that revolutionized the concept of mobility in the Charleston area and continues to impact our community in the twenty-first century.  I’m talking about the omnibus.  More than just a curious episode in history of transportation, the horse-drawn omnibus was an important step in the economic growth of the Charleston region.  As a historian, I’m convinced that understanding the facts surrounding the rise and fall and resurgence of the omnibus in the nineteenth century can help us better understand our current transportation crisis.  And in case you didn’t know, the legacy of the omnibus is alive, but not-so-well on our streets today.

The Omnibus Revolution(s)

Let’s begin with some definitions, because the word “omnibus” can have several different meanings.  In the world of transportation history, an omnibus is a four-wheeled carriage drawn by horses.  Remember, the word “carriage” itself is a generic term used to describe a wide variety of horse-drawn vehicles, so technically an omnibus is nothing more than a type of carriage.  More specifically, an omnibus is a type of horse-drawn carriage that travels along a predetermined route, following a predetermined schedule, carrying passengers for a predetermined fee.  An omnibus might be a small carriage capable of carrying, say, six passengers drawn by two horses, or an omnibus might be a longer carriage capable of carrying, say, twenty passengers drawn by four horses.  Most omnibuses had two axles and four wheels, but there were a few mighty omnibuses in the biggest cities with three axles and six wheels.  Typically, however, there was one characteristic physical difference between a generic carriage and an omnibus: where a small carriage usually had two bench seats oriented in parallel lines with the axles, an omnibus usually had two long bench seats oriented perpendicular to the axles.  In short, you might think of an omnibus as a sort of “stretch” carriage, not unlike a “stretch” limousine that you might see on the road today.

A typical Parisian omnibus of 1828

A typical Parisian omnibus of 1828

The arrival of the omnibus in the first quarter of the nineteenth century represented the avant-garde of a world-wide transportation revolution that eventually gave rise to such technological marvels as the railroad, the velocipede, the automobile, and the airplane.  Unlike those later inventions, however, the omnibus itself was not the product of any technological revolution.  Rather, the advent of the omnibus in the early nineteenth century was the product of a commercial innovation.  That is to say, the early proponents of the omnibus took pre-existing technology and pre-existing cultural practices and redeployed them in novel ways that created a market that did not previously exist.

To fully understand the importance of the omnibus revolution, we need to back up and look at the ground transportation options available to people around the year 1800.  At the most basic level, of course, people walked wherever they needed to go.  Foot travel is slow, however, and limited by one’s physical stamina.  Walking also isn’t very practical when one needs to carry any sort of cargo.  People with a bit of money could purchase or even rent a horse, which is the next step up on the transportation ladder.  Persons wishing to go from point A to point B carrying cargo and/or passengers could purchase or rent a carriage, a chair (a two-wheeled vehicle pulled a horse), a cart, or a dray (a flat cart without sidewalls).  These transportation options had existed in Europe for many centuries, and of course they came to the New World with the earliest colonists.

American colonists also imported two forms of ground transportation commerce called the “hack” and the “stage.”  A “hack,” short for “hackney” or “hackney coach,” was essentially a taxi service: a man with a horse and carriage waited for customers who paid him to carry them to a specific location.  In general, the hack was an urban phenomenon, just like the taxi or Uber of our modern city streets.  If one needed to go from town to the country, or from one town to another in early America, however, one could ride the “stage” or “stage coach.”  This was a mode of horse-drawn transportation that specialized in making longer-distance trips in stages, with stops at predetermined intervals to feed, water, or refresh the horses.  The earliest known stage coach service in South Carolina commenced in the late 1760s, carrying passengers overland to the northward.  You might think the 1760s sounds a bit late, nearly a century after the founding of Carolina, but keep in mind that in those early days it was always easier, cheaper, faster, and even safer to travel by water than over land.  Innovations in ground transportation didn’t really begin in this country until the early years of the nineteenth century, which brings us back to the omnibus.

Like the hackney coach, the omnibus was principally an urban phenomenon.  But while a hack is a vehicle waiting passively for a customer, an omnibus is a vehicle that is continually in motion.  It travels along an established route, usually a loop that ends where it began, and picks up passengers along the way.  Rather than negotiating a fee for this service, omnibus passengers purchase tickets at fixed prices.  In short, the nineteenth-century omnibus was the forerunner of the twentieth century bus, which is, technically, a motorized omnibus with an abbreviated name.

As I mentioned earlier, the invention of the omnibus didn’t involve new technology.  Rather, it represented a new business strategy that was born out of the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping the Western world in the early nineteenth century.  As factories and mills began to proliferate in Europe, spawned by the rise of steam-powered machines, there was a surge in demand for laborers to work in urban and suburban factories.  The capitalists who invested in building steam-powered textiles mills, saw mills, foundries, and other industrial plants, desperately needed people to run the machines.  Since most of this industrial work required little skill or education, and offered very little pay, the average factory worker could not afford to own a horse or carriage for transportation to and from work. Some workers might live close enough to be able to walk to work, but most of the labor pool in the early nineteenth century lived beyond the limits of new industrial cities.  Enter the omnibus, which is actually a word borrowed from Latin, meaning “for all.”  By creating a reliable, predictable, public transportation network that carried workers from their homes to the factory and points in-between, the creators of the first omnibus network gave birth the modern concept of public mass transit.  The advent of the omnibus was a significant boost to the world of commerce and consumption in general.  Simultaneously, the omnibus ushered in a new era of personal mobility that changed society forever.  Although its novelty was soon eclipsed by the more technologically-impressive steam locomotive, the omnibus remains one of the most significant transportation innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

The earliest omnibuses appeared in France in the late 1810s, and by 1820 were a common sight in the crowded streets of sprawling Paris.  As this new commercial venture flourished in the City of Lights, businessmen from abroad began to take notice.  New York witnessed its first omnibus in 1827, followed by London in 1829, then Philadelphia in 1831.  Keep in mind, however, that all of these ventures represented private rather than public investments.  Although the omnibus was a revolution in public mobility, there was no municipal or government investment in the early years of this phenomenon.  The same was true in Charleston, where in 1833 a group of private investors saw an opportunity to create an omnibus market in South Carolina’s business capital.

Before we get into the details of Charleston’s first omnibus service, let’s take a minute to assess the market for such a service in our city.  In 1833, Charleston was the commercial hub of a vast agricultural network that relied almost exclusively on the labor of enslaved, unpaid workers.  Almost all manufactured goods consumed in South Carolina were imported through the busy port of Charleston.  Although the city boasted a handful of steam-powered machines at that time, Charleston was not on a trajectory to become a manufacturing powerhouse, and our political leaders were firmly committed to continuing our exploitive agricultural economy.  Nevertheless, some investors recognized the utility of some of the latest technology.  To facilitate the transportation of rice and cotton to the city for export, and conversely to facilitate the distribution of imported manufactured goods throughout the region, a group of investors formed in 1827 the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, and by 1830 it was operating the first commercial railroad in the United States.  By the summer of 1832 there was daily commuter passenger service between downtown Charleston and the new “bedroom” community of Summerville. Shortly thereafter, railroads linked Charleston to other, more distant cities, and the movement of people and goods through the port city grew at an exponential rate.  Hotels appeared like mushrooms, and Charleston’s residential neighborhoods crept further up the peninsula.  Even without becoming a manufacturing town like Manchester or Pittsburgh, Charleston in 1833 was facing its own transportation conundrum: how do we move people around the city in an expeditious, economical, and reliable fashion?  The answer, of course, was the omnibus.

Because the omnibuses of nineteenth-century Charleston were operated as private businesses, and those businesses have long since disappeared, there are very few surviving records to help us re-imagine the heyday of the omnibus in our community.  Almost everything I know about this topic has been gleaned from the extant newspapers of Charleston, which you’re welcome to come to the library and read for yourself. For example, in the Southern Patriot of October 9th, 1833, we find the following brief editorial notice: “A few enterprising gentlemen of this city have ventured on the experiment of introducing Omnibuses for the accommodation of the citizens for conveyance to and from the Rail Road.  Two of these vehicles arrived here yesterday in the ship Harriet & Jessie, from New York.  We wish the enterprize [sic] every success.”  A few days later, on October 14th, the same newspaper carried a more robust description of the proposed service:

Charleston Southern Patriot, 14 October 1833

Introducing the Omnibus, in the Charleston Southern Patriot, 14 October 1833


A week later, the Southern Patriot of 21 October 1833 carried a revised schedule that helps us imagine both the route of Charleston’s first omnibuses as well as the new concept of public transit through the city:

Our first omnibus schedule, published in the Charleston Southern Patriot, 21 October 1833.

Our first omnibus schedule, published in the Charleston Southern Patriot, 21 October 1833.

From this modest beginning in the autumn of 1833, Charleston’s omnibus service flourished over the next three decades.  As competitors entered the lucrative market, new routes or “lines” were created that connected people to all points on the peninsula, from White Point Garden and the Battery on the city’s south edge to Washington Race Course and Magnolia Cemetery on the north, from the wharves along East Bay Street to the new residential areas on the upper west side.  Visitors arriving in Charleston by steamboat or railroad could hop on the omnibus and ride to their hotel, just like visitors to New York or Paris.

In order to allay concerns about the possible mixing of different classes of people, most omnibus proprietors, including those in Charleston, took pains to assure their customers that the greatest attention to propriety and decorum would be observed within their buses, and that no breach of polite etiquette would be tolerated. In antebellum Charleston, that policy translated into an unspoken tradition of racial segregation.  I haven’t found a single written statement prohibiting enslaved people, or even free people of color, from riding our city’s omnibuses, but I’m quite sure that the majority of the white citizens in pre-Civil-War Charleston would not have permitted such people to ride.  Did the omnibuses admit enslaved servants accompanying a white person, such as a nurse or valet? That’s a good question, but unfortunately I’d have to do further research before hazarding a guess.

The total number of omnibuses plying the streets of antebellum Charleston is a bit of a mystery since there are no surviving records of any of these extinct businesses.  The number was apparently high enough to attract the attention of City Council, however, and in the spring of 1843 the city began requiring licenses for omnibuses.  Charleston had required commercial vehicles such as carts, drays, and public carriages to purchase and display annual licenses since the late colonial era, as a way to offset the costs of road maintenance.  Since the new omnibuses were also contributing to the wear and tear on Charleston’s streets, it was only natural to extend the law to include them.  Starting in April of 1843, the operator of a four-wheeled omnibus had to pay the large sum of $40 for the privilege of conducting business on the streets of Charleston.  As the number of vehicles and ridership increased, so too did public pressure to reduce the fees.  In August 1849, the City Council reduced the annual license fee for an omnibus drawn by two horses to $4, while the license for an omnibus drawn by four horses cost $8.

In January 1852, the City Council took a step closer to actually running the omnibus system by creating a law that prescribed the routes, fares, speed, and wheel size of the vehicles.  The license for a two-horse omnibus was set at $20 and a four-horse bus at $30, but these license rates were reduced by half if the vehicle in question had wheels greater than four inches in width (because wider tires were less likely to make ruts in the city’s sandy streets).  Every omnibus was required to mount “lamps” inside and outside the carriage for night-time use.  The city prescribed the routes of four regular “lines” through the city: the Exchange Line, East Bay and Battery Line, Meeting Street and Battery Line, and King Street and Battery Line.  The regular single fare, whether one rode for just one stop or for a complete circuit of one of the prescribed lines, was set at six and a quarter cents, while children under the age of three rode for free (when accompanied by an adult, of course).  No passengers were allowed to ride on the outside or on top of the vehicle.  Finally, the 1852 minimum speed for Charleston’s omnibuses was four miles per hour, with a maximum speed of six miles per hour.  Turning a corner in a long, horse-drawn vehicle had to be done at a slower rate, defined here as being “in a walk.”

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the omnibus business continued to grow as Charleston’s residential and commercial interests expanded, and the City Council continued in its noble efforts to regulate the increasingly busy streets.  Omnibuses continued to serve the urban and suburban community during the war years, 1861 to 1865, but the number of buses was greatly reduced and the size of routes greatly contracted.  Business and traffic rebounded quickly as soon as the winds of war settled down, but there was a change looming on the horizon.

The omnibus was really an 1820s concept that came to Charleston in 1833.  In more recent years, the transportation phenomenon of the 1850s was the street railroad, which didn’t arrive in Charleston until after the Civil War.  After more than a year of laying tracks made of steel rails through the streets of urban Charleston, the city’s first horse-drawn street railway, or street car system, hit the road on December 15th, 1866.  The main advantage of this hybrid of railroad and omnibus technology was a smoother ride, but in many ways it was merely an incremental improvement.  The street rail system was perhaps less prone to weather-related interruptions, and perhaps moved a bit faster, but it still relied on old-fashioned horse power and thus was also subject to the vagaries of the animal’s temperament.  Nevertheless, the advent of Charleston’s first street railway system in 1866 signaled the decline of the omnibus, which had appeared on our city streets just thirty-three years earlier.

When I first began exploring the history of Charleston’s omnibuses, I fully expected to find evidence that these vehicles were totally replaced and superseded by the new-fangled street cars in the late 1860s.  In some respects, my hunch proved accurate, but not entirely so. In fact, the story is much more complicated, more interesting, and more relevant than I imagined.

After the inauguration of Charleston’s first street railway cars in December 1866, the private company that funded the venture quickly expanded its services.  As new track was laid, new street cars came online to serve more customers and to connect them to more points around the peninsula, and beyond.  Like the older omnibuses, the street cars followed prescribed routes on a predictable time-table and sold tickets according to fixed prices.  The urban rail cars did the same job as the omnibuses, but in light of Charleston’s unpaved streets, they did it better. In response to these changes, the proprietors of the old-fashioned omnibuses focused their attention on a service that had once been just a niche market: customized routes and customized transportation services.

For example, the proprietors of a fancy hotel might contract with an omnibus driver to shuttle its guests between the hotel and the train station, or the steamboat landing.  The organizers of a special event, like a horse race, picnic, or fancy ball, might contract with an omnibus driver to shuttle private guests to and from the event.  The railroad companies even hired horse-drawn omnibuses to whisk their customers to and from the train depot to keep them from getting lost in busy Charleston.  In short, omnibuses became the limousines and shuttle buses of late-nineteenth-century Charleston.  The omnibus represented an older technology, but its ability to change routes without having to move steel tracks gave it a valuable advantage over the street car.  Even after the electric trolley replaced the horse-drawn street cars in the late 1890s, horse-drawn omnibuses continued to ply the streets of Charleston well into the 1920s.

Eclipsed in the 1860s by the street car and by the electric trolley in the 1890s, the omnibus survived into the early twentieth century and eventually had its revenge.  The ally of the antebellum omnibus during this era was the latest transportation phenomenon, the gasoline-powered automobile.  As early as 1905, the owners of electric trolleys in London began experimenting with what they called the “motor omnibus,” to see if the new vehicles would prove more flexible and comfortable than the street rail system.  The paying public soon grew to prefer the motorized buses, as they were sometimes called, and the owners of trolley franchises around the world took notice.  Technological improvements in the automotive world appeared at a lightning pace during the early years of the twentieth century, and Charleston was not left behind.  In August of 1917 the Charleston Transport Company, a private firm specializing in transporting baggage and passengers around town, announced that they had sold their horses and purchased a “motor omnibus” and a “taxicab style of motor car.”  This move in 1917 was the beginning of the end for the trolley system.

By the spring of 1918, the members of King Street’s Retail Merchants Association were fed up with the trolleys clogging the narrow street and discouraging customers.  According to a report published in the News and Courier on February 22nd, the business community was convinced that “motor omnibuses would solve a serious problem.”  For the next twenty years, our community debated the pros and cons of the electric trolley, with its fixed routes that generally took up the center of every street it used, and the motorized omnibus, with its ability to change its route and steer in any directed the driver wished.  In the end, the motor bus won the day.  On February 10th, 1938, the electric trolleys of Charleston made their last circuit of the city’s street rail network and were then consigned to the scrap heap.  During seventy years of competition and coexistence, the omnibus adapted, persevered, and eventually proved to be the better vehicle.

In twenty-first century Charleston, public transportation is a red-hot topic.  The condition of our roads and infrastructure, not to mention the demands of our economy and workforce, suggest the present need for viable mass transit solutions is greater now than at any other point in our history.  The street cars and electric trolleys of the late-nineteenth-century were once popular and profitable, but the nostalgic desire to bring back the street rails system would be prohibitively expensive.  Today diesel buses ply our city streets and suburban highways, but unfortunately public support and ridership aren’t very high.  Charleston is a city and a region steeped in history, and tourism is an important part of the local economy.  I’m not an economist or a politician, but as a historian I can offer this bit of insight.  Buses, in various forms, have played a significant role in Lowcountry transportation history.  After experimenting with other, more expensive modes of public transportation for a couple of generations, Charlestonians of a century ago expressed a decided preference for the flexibility and comfort of the modern motor bus.  Now that our streets and highways are more crowded than ever, perhaps it’s time we embraced the legacy of the omnibus.  After all, it’s been a Charleston tradition since 1833.