More Historical Transportation Resources: Horse-Drawn Vehicles and Canals

A few months ago I wrote an article titled Get Your Characters from A to B Authentically: Online Resources for Ground Transportation. With this follow-up article, I’d like to share two other modes of transportation that you may find useful when drafting your historical novel.


“Four In Hand,” print by Currier and Ives. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2001699185


A web search on “horse-drawn vehicles” will bring up many museum websites, but only some of them provide substantial online content that would be useful to historical researchers. I’ll highlight the best ones I found below.



This organization’s website, which celebrates and preserves the history of the horse and its role in civilization, offers a page of horse-related video clips. Watch a London street scene in the 1890s (how did anyone make it across the street alive back then?), see a film of Victorian-era carriages, and view footage of an 1890s doctor’s buggy being driven. There are also some interesting clips on how to drive a carriage, which could be useful for making sure your historical character knows what he or she is doing when holding a set of reins.



This is a digitized version of a book published in London in 1853, presenting the world history of land vehicles to the mid-19th century. There are sections covering China, India, Russia, ancient Egypt and Rome, and the Americas.  There’s no bibliography, so this would be more of a starting point for research rather than an ultimate authority, but it does have some interesting illustrations.



While this museum offers only a small handful of carriage images on its website, historical novelists will find the link to the page of digitized carriage manufacturers’ catalogs very useful. The links which I spot-tested jump to the Google Books listing for that title. Click on the image of the catalog’s cover to open. Most of the catalogs are from the 1890-1910 era, but a few are earlier, going back to one from 1818, which lists prices. Regency authors will want to consult this Silk & Sons catalog to know how much their characters would have spent on their purchases.



The carriage collection is housed at the National Trust property at Arlington Court near Barnstaple in Devon. Its website has an interesting timeline of the history of carriage travel.  Facts in the timeline include: a coach took 14 hours to travel between Barnstaple and Taunton in 1805, and the barouche was introduced in England in 1760. The site also offers five images of highlighted carriages from its collection.



While the museum collects transportation equipment from all eras, HNS members may be most interested in the section of the website on the history of ox, mule and horse-drawn vehicles. Western authors will find the photos provided on this page about historical transportation in Texas useful for descriptions. Click on a photo to enlarge it. The text gives context to the pictures, as well as facts: teamsters earned $20 a month, and a 10-mule team could pull a wagon weighing 7,000 pounds.



George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, created this collection of historic carriages, which today are displayed at the Stockwood Discovery Center. The organization’s website offers a slideshow gallery of 27 images of historical carriages. Click on an image to retrieve a description and date for the vehicle.


“Eliz. Freeman enrout to Wash’n” [Elizabeth Freeman on her way to join a suffrage march in Washington, 1913]. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2002712188


This page from the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit offers 30 images of highlights from the Museum’s collection of American historical vehicles. See Tom Thumb’s miniature carriage, mail and hay wagons, hearses, and a veterinary ambulance. Click on “details” to see a full description, dimensions, and color and material descriptions.



Skyline is a “living carriage museum with an antique carriage & sleigh collection…” in Maine.  Its website offers a slideshow of about 80 images of horse-drawn vehicles from its collections.  While there are no descriptions or dates listed, the slides do provide a nice visual reference for a novelist’s descriptions.



[Windsor, Boulter’s Lock, Berkshire, England, ca.1890-1900]. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2002696960


As with carriages, there are many canal history websites out there, but only some of them have substantial free online content that could be of use to historical novelists.  I’ll highlight some of the ones I found below.



The Canal Museum Trust exists to “advance public education in the history and use of inland waterways…”  The above link will take you to a page with links to oral histories, offering “memories of people who lived and worked on the canals.” There are several interviews with lock keepers and people who worked the ice trade, and one who discusses what it was like to live on a boat with few amenities. The Trust’s website also offers a “picture shop,” with photos and prints available for sale depicting canal life, but website visitors can view the images without paying a fee.



This website is about the history of the U.S.’s most famous canal, especially the area around Rochester, N.Y.  The link will take you to the site’s images page, where you can view photos and postcards of the canal in the 19th and 20th centuries. The site also offers a “historical documents” page, which offers transcripts of important documents from the canal’s history. The “traces” page shows present-day photographs of the remains of the canal which are no longer in use. The “maps” section offers a multitude of historical maps of the canal, which you can click on to enlarge. The website lists the copyright owner as an individual, not a museum or historical organization, and has not been updated since 2017, but I think it still contains useful information for researchers.



The link will take you to a page which offers PDF documents aimed at educators, each one offering a primary source document on the canal’s history, like period newspaper clippings, or historical maps, followed by suggested exercises and activities for students to perform. This would be a good place to start your research, if you didn’t know much about the Erie Canal before you begin including scenes set there in your novel.



The link above will take you to the Trust’s learning resources page. Find the section “Activity Supplement Packs” to view a list of PDF files the Trust makes available to educators. The one titled, “Working Afloat” gives interesting information on what life on a UK canal boat was like.  It’s aimed at children, but sometimes children’s nonfiction literature is a great place to start to learn about a topic you don’t know much about.


Canal boat school, 1921. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2016831386


This organization’s website concentrates on canals in the state of Indiana, but I saw some out-of-state content as well. Of interest to researchers: there are boxes to click on called “Canal Biographies,” so if you are looking for a real-life historical figure to put into your novel about canals, here’s a wealth of information. Click on a name and a PDF document with biographical information about the man will pop up. Researchers should also click on the “Tour Guides, Books, & Articles” box, which will provide a list of clickable documents, some published by the Society, on various aspects of Midwestern canal history and life.



This state-based historical society offers substantial descriptions and statistics on the Morris and the Delaware & Raritan Canals, including timelines, diagrams, and photos. The “publications” link takes you to a page where you can view PDFs of past issues of the organization’s On the Level magazine about canal history.



While this website is run by an individual, not a society or museum, I think its historical images pages would still be useful to researchers.  The link above takes you to a history of pre-1850 Canadian canals, with an overview map, and links to click on canal sections such as Lachine and Soulanges.



The University of Florida’s Library website offers the Leonard Carpenter Panama Canal Collection, which documents the building of the canal starting in 1914. Digital images include photos of U.S. military personnel workers in the 1920s, dredgers, 1928 views of the canal, and various publications such as a 1929 booklet describing what it was like to travel on the canal in those days. Click on the “description” in the bar at the top of the screen for more information about the photos and documents.


Don’t forget: when you are thinking about using a website as a historical resource, perform the CRAAP Test on it before trusting the information.  Is it Current?  Relevant to your research?  Authoritative?

Accurate?  What’s the website’s Purpose?


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.


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