Nothing New — Runaway!

Well into the 1920s, horses were as ubiquitous a sight in the cities around Grays Harbor as SUVs are today. From the most powerful lumber-hauling dray horse to the leanest buggy-puller, a usually obedient equine, when spooked, would race recklessly through the streets to the accompanying shouts of “Runaway!”

To address the situation, Ordinance 92 was passed by the Aberdeen city council on June 7, 1893, requiring horses to be securely hitched while “parked” in the business district. The law was not always heeded, resulting in untold damage and injuries, with scofflaws facing the authorities, as in this item from the Aberdeen Bulletin in February 1905: “Officer Birmingham arrested Thomas Hood Saturday on the charge of leaving his horse unhitched in the street in violation of the ordinance. This morning he paid a fine in the court of Justice Bush amounting to $9.45. The arrest of Hood is a warning to many others who constantly violate the local law and which is to be strictly enforced hereafter.” Despite the risk of a fine and impoundment, drivers would every now and then leave their mounts unattended and untethered for “just a minute” while they took care of their business; sometimes a team would spook while being driven and take their unfortunate passengers on a wild ride.

On October 24, 1895, the Aberdeen Herald reported, “An exciting runaway occurred Monday morning. H.E. Varing had unhitched his horse from his express wagon at Shelley’s warehouse and hitched up one belonging to a Swede by the name of Riley, when without any provocation, it started to run. Turning at F Street, it made a bee line for the Chehalis River. Varing, a stout, gritty man, held on, thinking he would stop her; but at Miner’s foundry the wagon ran into a lumber pile, throwing Varing out, and breaking the coupling. The horse continued on with the forward trucks, toward the river, and passing in through the south entrance to Burrows’ warehouse, made a sharp turn to the left, and flew like an arrow through the building. He continued up F Street to River Street, and River to G, where he turned to the right. In turning the corner at River and G Streets, horse and truck turned completely over and continued up G to the Herald office, where in turning into the alley it again fell, and the race was over. Varing was not seriously hurt and the horse escaped without a bruise.”

The August 31, 1903 Aberdeen Herald recounted a spirited chase extending nearly twenty blocks: “The team of white ponies attached to the delivery wagon of the Grays Harbor Commission house had an exciting run away Saturday afternoon. The team started from Heron Street at H, and ran up Heron to Broadway; Broadway to Fifth; Fifth to H; H to Fourth; Fourth to G; G to Wishkah, and Wishkah to F, where the wagon struck a fire hydrant and they were stopped. Strange to say, the run was made without striking anything, but a milk wagon on G Street, until the finish. The wagon was badly damaged but the ponies are none the worse for their run.”

One month later the same publication related this saga: “A team belonging to the Pacific Transfer Co. ran away with an express wagon loaded with trunks, Thursday afternoon, on Heron Street, and the driver narrowly escaped severe injury. A trace became loose, which started the team on a run down the street. The driver stuck up to the lines manfully, until the corner of G Street was reached, where the wagon was overturned and crashed into the plate glass window of the Aberdeen State Bank. The spectators expected that the driver was killed, but he emerged from under the wagon and trunks without the least injury. The big window was demolished and the wagon badly wrecked.”

Others weren’t so lucky. In June 1906, the Aberdeen Bulletin described one man’s near-fatal ordeal: “A.M. Phillips, a First Street merchant, looks like a man who had been mobbed. His face is covered with cuts and bruises, there is a long gash on top of his head, his hands and arms are covered with wounds, and he has been otherwise hurt. On Wednesday afternoon, as Mr. Phillips was standing on the sidewalk in front of his place of business, a runaway horse put in an appearance. The horse had lost everything except the shafts of the wagon. The frightened animal took to the sidewalk on First Street, running between the buildings and a pile of wood on the street. Mr. Phillips was caught in this narrow passageway, from which even a dog could not have escaped. He says that the horse charged him when it saw him. Mr. Phillips was knocked down and dragged for 100 feet. He was rendered unconscious, and when he regained consciousness, he was on the operating table at the Aberdeen General hospital. He is now able to be around.”

Finally, this colorfully-written piece from the July 5, 1904 Aberdeen Bulletin demonstrates how perilous life could be in the central shopping district: “A team belonging to Ninemire & Morgan made a perilous passage through the alley between Wishkah and Heron streets from F to G this morning and in turning the rock piles in front of Maley’s new building site, struck the pavement across the street. Two ladies passing just then probably saved their lives by jumping into R.J. Hilts’ office. A bicycle belonging to Mr. Hilts and another owned by L.P. Dudley were not so lucky. Neither are they bicycles any more. Both wheels were moored to the curb in apparent security when the wagon descended upon them. Mr. Hilts found the air he had in the tires and a handful of twisted things down the street when the storm passed by, but Mr. Dudley searched in vain until the team had been stopped somewhere near Anderson & Middleton’s mill and brought back. Mixed up in the running gear of the badly battered wagon was something that might once have been a bicycle and Mr. Dudley finally succeeded in identifying the fragments as his property. Nothing else was injured to any noticeable extent.”

It’s been several decades since a horse last careened through the streets of Aberdeen with a battered wagon in tow, but at one time it was a common enough occurrence that shouts of “Runaway!” would send fear into the hearts of the townspeople. Today, simply riding a horse in downtown Aberdeen can result in a $300.00 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and would rather drive a Honda than ride a pinto.