PORTLAND, Maine — Before automobiles screamed onto the scene around the turn of the 20th century, horses rolled most of the city’s wheels. They hauled carriages, wagons, carts, trolleys and fire engines. In the winter, they pulled sleighs and snow-removal equipment. Horses even helped unload heavy ship’s cargo on the waterfront.
Before 1900, Portland was truly a horse-powered city.
Those days are over, but you can still find evidence of the city’s equine-centric past, if you know where to look. Here’s five places to start.
An ornate, granite horse watering trough and fountain sits on Federal Street, behind the central fire station, in Portland. Installed in 1910, it was dedicated in memory of pioneering animal rights activist Stanley Thomas Pullen (Left). An old brick barn behind the Expo on Park Avenue in Portland bears a horse-themed weathervane. It was originally built as part of the city’s poor farm and alms house. Later, it became stables for the city’s police horses (Top right). A hitching post with rings stands outside 357 Spring Street in Portland. It’s one of at least a half-dozen such posts currently surviving in the city (Bottom right). (Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN)
Federal Street, behind the fire station and in front of the courthouse, is where you’ll find the Stanley Thomas Pullen memorial horse-watering trough and fountain. It was installed in 1910 and still provides cool drinks for horses pulling tourists around the Old Port in the summertime. Pullen helped found the Portland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Maine Society for the Protection of Animals. Today, he’s thought of as one of Maine’s animal rights pioneers.
The horse-themed weathervane atop the old brick barn behind the Expo on Park Avenue is a clue to the building’s past. It was originally part of the city’s poor farm and alms house. Back then, it probably housed horses. It was definitely home to Portland’s police horses in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1993, an arsonist set fire to it, injuring the two police steeds stabled there. Widespread public sympathy helped pay for their rehabilitation but the mounted patrols were eventually dropped for lack of funds.
A cast-iron hitching post in the shape of a horse’s head stands upright on the sidewalk outside 357 Spring St. Wealthy businessman, mill owner and — oddly enough — avid bicyclist Benjamin Farnsworth built the house in 1866. The post is one of at least a half-dozen surviving in Portland. This one is particularly handsome, still bearing its two rings. Greater Portland Landmarks has mapped many of the other remaining hitches.
A historic plaque marks the spot where prominent African American hack driver and anti-slavery activist Reuben Ruby once had his stand in Portland. It’s at the corner of Federal and Temple Streets (Left). A carriage mounting block bears a house address on Bowdoin Street in Portland’s West End. The city’s older neighborhoods are still dotted with the 19th-century relics meant to give people a step up onto a horse or horse-drawn carriage (Right). (Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN)
For much of the 19th century, if you wanted to snag a ride downtown, you’d go to the corner of Temple and Federal streets. That’s where cabman Reuben Ruby had his hackstand. Today, a Portland Freedom Trail plaque marks the spot. In addition to being a businessman who helped found Portland’s first African-American church, Ruby was also a prominent anti-slavery activist and Underground Railroad conductor. With his hack, he transported many people fleeing slavery to safehouses around the city.
Flat, square hunks of granite dot the sidewalks in the West End. Known as carriage mounting blocks, they once helped people get people in and out of horse-drawn wagons. The blocks also assisted in mounting single horses as well. Some still have hitching posts next to them. The stone at 62 Bowdoin St. has the address carved in the front. Check out this map to find more of them.