This article from The Horseless Age offers a glimpse into drayage trucking in New York harbor at the turn of the last century, when horses provided the essential hauling power. Those familiar with drayage today will find much that is familiar — especially the low rate of pay for independent contractors engaged in the business. Also note the resistance to new, as yet unproven technology — in this case the automobile — despite its potential promise.
THE HEAVY TRUCKING FIELD IN NEW YORK CITY
WISHING TO LEARN the exact field for heavy automobile trucks in this city and also the present outlook for their introduction in heavy trucking work, we have recently made a most thorough investigation of the subject. In this investigation we have obtained the opinions and experience of companies and individuals in practically all lines of business connected with trucking. Some of these were steamship companies (trans-Atlantic and coastwise) steamboat companies, railroad companies, express companies, transfer companies, truckmen, coal dealers, etc. In the case of the steamship, steamboat and railroad lines, all of them, with a very few exceptions, have their trucking done for them by certain truckmen at a regular contract rate per 100 pounds. As all through freight, as for instance a shipment from a Southern point to a Western or New England point, via New York city, has to be transferred (carload lots by lighter and smaller quantities by truck) there is always a charge for transfer added to every through freight rate, which covers the cost of the transfer. On this account, the companies are not directly interested in any plan to reduce the cost of transfer. The only way in which they would gain by such a reduction would be by its enabling them to slightly reduce their charge for transfer, which would make only a very slight reduction in the whole rate.
“The only chance for the introduction of automobile trucks in this line of work is through these truckmen or transfer companies.”
Owing to the peculiar local conditions that at present affect this work (delays through the blocking of the narrow streets in the lower part of the city with teams, and more particularly the waiting in line for chance to load or unload at the crowded dock or freight house, which frequently causes a delay of an hour or two), this rate for transfer by truck is rather high, being usually from 60 to 75 cents per ton.
Lower Manhattan skyline from New Jersey, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress
It would, therefore, seem that the only chance for the introduction of automobile trucks in this line of work is through these truckmen or transfer companies. While they all seem to have given the subject more or less thought, very few have given it any serious consideration. 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.
Their only opportunity to judge of the success of automobile trucks has been through seeing the electric wagons in use in the city and learning the opinion of those who operate them. Their opinions, in most cases, were strengthened by the fact that a large number of the truckmen, about a year ago, were induced to give options on their businesses to an autotruck company, which stated that it would revolutionize the trucking business in the city with its patent autotruck. They have been waiting in vain for that company to start up or even to operate its one experimental truck successfully with loads. They cannot consistently be blamed if they have their own opinion of that sort of stock jobbing operation and place all automobile trucks in the category of experiments. In their work they feel they could not take the chances of trying to use a truck that was still an experiment. It would injure their business and cause them considerable trouble were such a truck to break down while hauling mail or baggage to a steamer or train. While some of them state that they would never invest in any kind of automobile truck, preferring to sell out their business when that time comes and let someone else make the experiment, others are perfectly willing to make the change, whenever they feel it can be done profitably.
“They (automobile trucks) were of too small capacity, being able to carry less than many horse trucks, though costing much more.”
In speaking of the faults of the present types of automobile trucks, some of the criticisms made were as follows: They were, first of all, untried and unreliable, the chances of their breaking down while hauling freight being too great; they were altogether too expensive, their first cost being about four times that of a good team and truck, and no one knew the cost of operating and maintaining them; they were too complicated, increasing the chances of getting out of order and necessitating the employment of more expensive men to operate them; they were of too small capacity, being able to carry less than many horse trucks, though costing much more, and they cannot be handled in a small space as easily as a horse truck. To meet the conditions in this line of work and to overcome the objections of the men in the heavy trucking business, any automobile truck would have to fulfill the following requirements: It should have proved, by a sufficient trial in actual business work, that it is a practical truck, and has passed through its experimental stage, being as reliable as a horse truck in hauling freight daily on all conditions of pavement and in any weather; its first cost should be so high as to be prohibitive to a truckman of moderate capital, and it should have proved, by a sufficiently long trial in actual service, that its cost of operation and maintenance is low enough to enable it to haul freight cheaper per ton mile than a horse truck; it should be free from complication in construction and operation, in order not to require expert men as operators and to allow of any machinist making ordinary repairs; the machinery should be so placed as to be readily accessible for oiling and inspection, and it should never be necessary to unload or shift the load in order to reach some bolt or part of the machinery that is liable to cause trouble on the road; the engine, gears, etc., should all be cased in to protect them from dust and to reduce all noise possible; it should be capable of being handled in a cramped space, by an ordinary operator, as easily as a horse truck, and should be able to exert full power in backing up, in order to get up to a platform to load or unload; it should have a capacity of at least 6 tons, or better still, 8 tons, as many of the present horse trucks have a capacity of 5 to 7 tons, and extra large trucks carry even heavier loads; and it should be designed so as to remove all liability of setting fire to any kind of freight or dock flooring.
“At that price (65 cents per ton), he (the truckman) would have to handle nearly 6 tons every working day in the year to pay expenses.”
Until automobile trucks have been given a thorough trial in actual business service, so that reliable data can be obtained as to their cost of operation and maintenance, it would seem as if the manufacturers would be obliged (in making any sales) to give a guarantee as to this item of expense to the user of their trucks. While they give figures showing the comparative cost of hauling freight per ton mile between their truck and horse trucks, figures which show a great saving, we do not know whether any of them give such a guarantee. The capacity of a truck could be greatly increased by the use of a trailer behind each truck. While in some lines of business this method could possibly be used with good results, the employment of a trailer about a crowded dock or freight house in this city is impracticable. The cost of a heavy two-horse truck (capable of hauling 5 to 7 tons) in this city is from $800 to $1,000, the truck costing from $350 to $450, and the harness, blankets, etc., from $50 to $100. The cost of running a truck is from $1,100 to $1,200 per annum, the feeding and shoeing of the horses being about $480, the repairs on the truck about $150 and the balance being the wages of the driver. If the truckman gets 75 cents per ton for hauling, he nets only 65 cents, as he has to pay a uniform charge of 10 cents per ton for loading at the dock. At that price he would have to handle nearly 6 tons every working day in the year to pay expenses. 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.
It has been a practice with some of the railroad and steamship lines carrying freight from this city to Western and Southern points to make a freight rate that includes delivery at the store door of the consignee. The general manager of one of the steamship lines running to some of the Southern cities stated that if this practice of making store door deliveries of freight was continued and extended, as he believed it would be, it might result in the steamship lines adopting automobile trucks for that service in several Southern cities. He thought that, with the great improvement in roads which would necessarily be made were such trucks adopted, the steamship lines might eventually be able to deliver freight 25 miles or more from their docks. They would, in that manner, be able to recover a part of the freight business which has been taken from them by the railroads.
One of the transfer companies, though having had a very discouraging experience in their experiments with electric delivery wagons, state that they are having built for them a gasoline delivery wagon, which they expect to have in regular service, hauling trunks, in about two months. One of the largest retail coal dealers, who operates about twenty coal trucks, has just ordered three Massachusetts steam trucks, having a capacity of 5 ½ tons. These trucks are to be delivered in July and August, and are to be used in their regular service, delivering coal from their yard to different parts of the city. Should they prove successful in that work, the firm will remodel their present trucks and use them as trailers behind the steam trucks.
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Note: The Horseless Age is still with us, as Automotive Industries. Its name was changed to Automotive Industries in 1917.