Drayage: Historically, Not an Easy Job

If you think drayage is a tough job today, imagine doing it with horses.

A hundred years ago, the horse was the primary power source for drayage operators in New York City, and the automobile truck, as it was then called, was newfangled technology, eyed with suspicion.

Otherwise, drayage operators and their drivers or “truckmen” had to endure problems similar to those they confront today: congested streets and long lines at the ports, hard work and comparatively low wages.

On April 17, 1901, the weekly newspaper The Horseless Age published a “thorough investigation” of the heavy trucking business — meaning the horse-trucking business — in New York City. The paper’s goal was to gauge the prospects for replacing horse-powered truck wagons with gasoline or electric trucks, but in doing so The Horseless Age provided a good overview of turn-of-the-century drayage.

Hauling freight in the New York area, then as now, meant dealing with “peculiar local conditions.” The Horseless Age cited “delays through the blocking of narrow streets in the lower part of the city with teams” (at the time, most ships called in Manhattan and Brooklyn, drayage trucks picked up smaller loads and carload freight was ferried on barges to rail terminals in New Jersey), “more particularly the waiting in line for a change to load or unload at the crowded dock or freight house, which frequently causes a delay of an hour or two.”

At the time, those delays were getting longer. By 1900, the growth of the port had caused “congestion of traffic in the harbor to such a degree that the time is not far distant when this will become a serious disadvantage,” according to a New York State Senate report from 1909 citing New York Commerce Commission traffic figures from 1900. “The Port of New York requires a solution of the freight problem that will abolish change of bulk on the waterfront and thus afford space for the expansion of steamship traffic.”

In 1901, steamship lines were charging customers 60 to 75 cents per ton per “transfer,” a rate considered “rather high” by The Horseless Age. What were the teamsters who operated dray truck wagons paid in 1901? According to the article, 75 cents per ton, but the “truckman” had to pay a 10 cent per ton charge for loading at the dock, so he netted only 65 cents per ton. A two-horse truck could haul 5 to 7 tons. A New York port trucker, then, would be paid between $3.25 and $4.55 for each fully loaded horse-drawn wagon.

“At that price, he would have to handle nearly 6 tons every working day in the year to pay expenses,” The Horseless Age said. For many, drayage at best was a break-even business.

Drayage expenses included the cost of a heavy two-horse truck, about $800 to $1,000 in 1901. Total annual operating expenses ran about $1,100 to $1,200, according to The Horseless Age.

After subtracting $150 a year for truck repairs and about $480 for care of the horses, that left about $470 to $570, which would include driver wages and any profit.

It’s doubtful drivers saw that much. The average wage in 1901 was $446, according to U.S. statistics. The average teamster wage (a teamster then being a driver who worked with a team of horses — the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was founded in 1903) in New York City in 1900 was $1.75 per day, according to a 1934 bulletin on historic wage rates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The only way in which the business is made to pay is by running a large number of trucks (sometimes as many as 12 to 75 trucks), having numerous large shippers as regular customers, and arranging the work so as to have loads in both directions.” The Horseless Age said. The newspaper — dedicated, as its name suggests, to advancing automotive interests — thought automobiles would help facilitate such networks and reduce costs, but truckers wanted proof.

“They all look upon an automobile as an untried, expensive experiment, a good investment, perhaps, when considered as an advertising medium, but not a practical business wagon for their line of work,” said the newspaper — since 1917 known as Automotive Industries. “In their work they feel they could not take the chances of trying to use a truck that was still an experiment.”

Other experiments considered at the time included adding a trailer to the back of the horse wagon to increase capacity, but “the employment of a trailer about a crowded dock or freight house in this city is impracticable.” Another new practice, the paper said, was charging a freight rate “that includes delivery at the store door of the consignee.” With better roads and more autotrucks, “the steamship lines might eventually be able to deliver freight 25 miles or more from their docks,” The Horseless Age predicted.

The truck wouldn’t truly replace the horse, however, until after World War I, when better roads and larger, better-designed vehicles made the transition possible.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter at @wbcassidy_joc.

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