When a herd of herdics roamed D.C. streets

John Kelly
Columnist January 7, 2012

I found an old ticket, good for one fare on the Metropolitan Coach Co., Washington, D.C. I can’t seem to find any information on this company, so I’m turning to you for help.

Mary Root,

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Remington, Va.

Metropolitan Coach ran a line of herdics in Washington. You are excused if you have no idea what a “herdic” is. Until just the other day, Answer Man didn’t, either.

Today, we would call a herdic a bus. In 1881, when the herdic was patented, it was a horse-powered carriage. It takes its name from the man who invented it: Peter Herdic, the kind of up-from-his-bootstraps character who makes you proud to be an American.

Herdic was born in 1824 in Fort Plain, Pa. His father died soon after, and his mother moved the family to Ithaca, N.Y. By age 10, Peter was cutting a cord of wood a day. To raise extra money, he snared rabbits and quail.

When he was 13, the family moved to Bradford County, Pa. Peter and his brother cleared the 50 acres their widowed mother had bought. She told Peter that when he turned 20 he could take over the farm. “No, mother,” our hero said, “let Ben have it, and I’ll go and care for myself.”

This he did. Herdic worked in a sawmill. With the money he saved, he bought an interest in a shingle-making business. With that money, he bought a farm in Lycoming County, Pa., and went into lumber. It was his idea to float pine logs down the Susquehanna. He made a fortune. He became Williamsport’s mayor. He bought the gas works and built a water works. He discovered hot springs on his property and built a hotel on top of them. He founded a bank; built rubber, brush and nail factories; owned an opera house; and spent $60,000 to build an Episcopal church, which he then gave to the congregation. He was active in Republican politics.

In 1878, the economy tanked. Herdic lost $2 million and went bankrupt. But he clawed back, turning his mind to improving the horse-drawn conveyances that moved people through cities. His eponymous invention boasted two or four wheels and had improved springs and an innovative system to connect axles, shaft, springs and body. Passengers entered from the back and sat in seats along the side.

Herdics became popular in many cities, but nowhere more than in Washington. They were an improvement over the District’s horse-drawn omnibuses, which the late D.C. streetcar historian LeRoy O. King described as “nothing more than urban stagecoaches.”

Metropolitan Coach was a descendant of the Herdic Phaeton Co. Its main route was up and down 16th Street NW. While there eventually was a streetcar line on Connecticut Avenue and one on 14th Street, there was no line between them, in the most densely populated part of the city, and the herdics served that area.

However, the Metropolitan herdics eventually became pretty ratty. In 1904, hack inspector A.R. Lamb noted that the company’s coaches were “in such a dilapidated, unsightly and unsanitary condition as to be absolutely unfit for use . . . . The wheels are in such a condition that they are likely at any time to collapse and some of these vehicles have holes broken through the panels. They have not been painted for years, and are, altogether, a disgrace to the city.”

In 1908, the city forced Metropolitan to replace its four-legged fleet with motor buses, also called herdics. (The company’s president at the time was S. Dana Lincoln, a developer of Garrett Park.) The company doesn’t seem to have been run much better. Part of the problem may have been disputes over transfers: Almost every bus and streetcar line was run by a separate company, and they didn’t always honor one another’s transfers.

But the main problem was the undependability of the herdics. As the Washington Times wrote in 1911, when the city government was trying yet again to regulate the coaches, “The herdics are practically useless now because nobody knows when they will arrive or depart.”

The ramshackle buses inspired a wag to compose this poem:

How dear to the heart is the 16th Street Herdic

When rounding the corner it rolls into view;

Its battered old sides and its windows all broken

It still is a haven of refuge to you.

How oft have you tackled that lumbering wagon,

That jolting contraption, that motor car freak?

The 16th Street Herdic, the tumble-down Herdic,

The rattle-trap Herdic that runs once a week.

Metropolitan Coach went out of business in 1915. Today Washington boasts a state-of-the-art public transportation system that never breaks down and always runs on time.

Send questions to answerman@washpost.com.

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