Chicago: Carriage Rides Give Different View of City

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By Ally Clark
The Red Line Project

Posted: May 11, 2010

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of stories about what happens in Chicago during the night. 

Water Tower sparkles at night with its dramatic lighting and gardens of white tulips. Sometimes street performers entertain tourists and passersby, other times street vendors sell art. But one staple can constantly be found at the Water Tower — the horse carriages.

The line of carriage drivers begins at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Pearson Street. It then winds around Water Tower Place onto Chicago Avenue. This historic mode of transportation offers a tour of the city from a different perspective.

"There are two routes," explains driver Bruno Jabrowski. "The first one is more romantic and goes along the lake. The other is “touristier” and goes through the city."

Jabrowski has been a driver at Chicago Noble Horse for seven years. Before that he worked as a farmer in Poland.

"It seemed like the natural transition,” he said. “On the farm I worked with a lot with animals and in this job I can still work with them.”

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Danny Sugrue also works as a driver and is one of the managers for Noble Horse. He’s worked for the company for 12 years and has seen the business slowly begin to decline.

“It’s because the novelty has worn off,” he said. “It used to be that Chicago was one of only two cities [Chicago and New York in the U.S.] where a tourist could ride in a carriage. Now, you can find it in almost every city it seems.”

Sugrue agreed. Carriage rides are now available in cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, Columbus, Ohio and Williamsburg, Va.

Carriage companies in Chicago, like Noble Horse, do their best to compete and offer a little extra. They cater to couples looking for romance and tourists looking to relax while sightseeing. Most of Noble Horse’s business continues to come from men looking to propose or give their special someone a romantic ride.

“Night time is the most popular time for couples,” Jabrowski said. “I see many night-time proposals. I see very many.”

Sugrue said his company also offers additional help for individuals aiming to plan a lovely night at no extra charge.

“Guys call up all the time and talk to our receptionists,” he said. “A lot of times they need a little help brainstorming ideas and we have fun helping them out.”

The fun comes from planning locations of personal interest or romance. Sugrue remembers helping create a ride for one man in particular that stopped at seven different spots. Two roses were places at six of the various locations across Chicago while the seventh location was where he proposed.

 “The girl ended up with a dozen roses and a proposal,” he said. “Trips like that can take hours.” Hours equal profit.

Typically, rides vary in time and price. The shortest and cheapest ride is 30 minutes for $40. Anything over an hour will be over $80. Additionally, there is an extra charge for a party with more than four people. Drivers only keep 25 percent plus tips for each ride with the other 75 percent going to their respective management company.

 The drivers’ average workday is about 14 hours. Nighttime is the final stretch for a long day. However, the horses are not subject to the same long hours. In fact, the horses have it a much easier than their drivers.

Bruno Jabrowski Photo

Bruno Jabrowski and his horse Bonzo take tourists, couples and
others on a trip through downtown Chicago. (Photo by Ally Clark)

According to Chicago’s rules and regulations for horse-drawn carriages, horses are not allowed to work over six hours in a 24-hour time period. Jabrowski adds that most of the horses in his company only work once a week. On this night, Jabrowski is working with a 6-year-old horse named Bonzo.

Just like the drivers, the horses go through training, which allows them to stay calm despite the loud sounds and fast movement from the vehicles on the road. The horses learn to understand traffic signals.

“Yes, the horses are trained to know the order of the lights,” Jabrowski said. “Sometimes they will even speed up when they see a yellow light.”

At one point during the ride, the red hand begins to blink indicating the light will be changing yellow. Suddenly the soothing clip-clop-clip-clop rhythmic sound begins to quicken to clip-clop-clip-clop.

The gentle sway in the carriage turns into rocking. All indicating that Bonzo decided he is going to make the light.  Once the street is crossed, the soothing rhythmic sound returns and the rocking turns back into a gentle sway. Jabrowski looks back to flash his teeth and raise his brows.

Another thing about the horses is that they have little fear of the cars. Several times during the ride, the horse actually tailgated cars and buses as if it were a car. Have accidents ever happened?

“In my seven years of driving, I have only had one accident,” Jabrowski said while holding up one finger to emphasize the fact. “The only accident was not my fault. A woman got too close and she hit the wheel of my car. There was not too much damage.”

As the ride ends, Jabrowski talks a little about the competition that exists among companies.

“Look at all of them going home,” he said while indicating to the carriages leaving Water Tower Plaza. “Now I am in the No. 2 position and have a chance for one more ride.”

The burden for customers rests solely on whoever is in the front of the line. If the person in front cannot secure a customer, then those behind him cannot secure them either. As a result, the competition over which company moves the line faster can get ugly.

“I don’t get involved,”Jabrowski said at the end of the ride. “The people I work with are all good people. Business is just slow righ now. It is a slow night. Most nights I usually only see one to two rides at night. We are still not in our high season. That begins after June 16.”

Sugrue echoed that sentiment by pointing out the drop in the numbers of drivers Noble Horse used to employ.

“Ten years ago we had 25 drivers,” he said. “In five years we cut back to 15 and three years ago we have gone down to 10. Ten seems to be plenty right now.” There are two important things to know before going on a carriage ride: payment and route.

“Pay me at the end,” Jabrowski said in a thick Polish accent. This is important to know for those who are used to paying for things up front. It is for the off chance that a passenger decided to take a longer route. A different route can add more time to the ride.

Sugrue pointed out that the only exception to this rule is generally if the passenger is too intoxicated.

“They are the most likely to try and skip out on the payment,” he said.

The second thing to know is what route to choose. The tourist route travels south down Michigan Avenue and varies from there depending on the length chosen for the ride. The romantic route travels along the lake and goes through Grant Park and past Buckingham Fountain. This route is very popular for couples according to both Jabrowski and Sugrue.

“Couples aren’t the only ones who enjoy the carriage rides,” Sugrue said. “Last summer we saw a lot of Chicagoans touring the city and this year we expect the same.  We also noticed a new trend that our high season begins when school lets out, and ends when school begins.”

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