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This ambulance rescued injured horses on the streets of Detroit at the end of the 19th century. ID.00.574.1


August 2006

Help for the Wounded

When 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a catastrophic ankle fracture while running in the Preakness stakes, millions of horse racing fans followed the veterinarians’ efforts to save his life. But on the streets of American cities during the 19th century, hundreds of less well-bred horses suffered accidents every day and the average citizen took little notice. If an injured horse was lucky, it might be picked up by an ambulance like the one shown here.


MORE:  Help for the Wounded

Henry Bergh used every opportunity to crusade against the mistreatment of horses. This drawing accompanied an article he wrote for Harper’s Weekly magazine in 1880.

From Horse Drawn Ambulances (Carriage Museum of America, Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania, 2004)

This 1873 illustration showed one of the S.P.C.A.’s ambulances in use. The man at the right is turning the crank that pulled the movable floor back up inside the ambulance.

From Horse Drawn Ambulances (Carriage Museum of America, Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania, 2004)


Nineteenth century cities ran on horsepower—genuine four-legged, oat-eating horsepower.  Horses pulled carriages, cabs, street cars (before electric trolleys), and all manner of commercial wagons.  But life for a city horse was usually very hard.  Cobblestone and Belgian block pavements were slippery in both wet and dry weather.  A horse loosing his footing could, at best, expect a painful fall.  At worst, he suffered a broken leg.  Such injuries were not repairable in the 19th century, and the horse with a broken leg was destroyed.  Draft horses often pulled extremely heavy loads and many were not given enough water.  If a horse moved too slowly or stopped to rest, some drivers beat the animal to get it moving.  Pedestrians who deplored the mistreatment of draft horses rarely intervened for fear of being attacked themselves by drivers. 

The plight of draft horses prompted wealthy New Yorker Henry Bergh to organize the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1864.  Bergh successfully campaigned for passage of anti-cruelty laws in New York and thirty-eight other states, and S.P.C.A. organizations spread throughout the country.  But Bergh did not confine his efforts to city halls and state capitals.  He became famous for personally intervening when horses were harshly treated.  After the passage of the anti-cruelty laws, Bergh sometimes made citizen’s arrests of drivers abusing horses.

In 1869, Bergh designed an ambulance for use in removing injured horses from the street. If the horse could stand, he entered the ambulance via a tailgate ramp. But if the horse could not get up, the ambulance had a movable floor that was rolled out on top of the tailgate. The horse was slid onto this floor and the floor was pulled back into the ambulance by means of a winch.  Bergh’s own New York S.P.C.A. used the first such ambulances, but the idea spread to other cities and was adopted by private veterinarians.

Our veterinary ambulance, made around 1900, was built to Bergh’s basic design.  It was used by Dr. Elijah E. Patterson, who practiced veterinary medicine in Detroit from 1890 to 1940.  Horses shared the city streets with automobiles well into the 20th century; Dr.Patterson’s ambulance no doubt got plenty of use.  Ironically, a similar roll-back floor was later adopted for trucks used to move disabled automobiles.

Bob Casey, Curator of Transportation




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