2017-07-08 / Columnists

HORSE TALES

The Mackinac Carriage Some Call A Surrey
by Candice C. Dunnigan

Taking a horse-drawn carriage ride on Mackinac Island is often a highlight for many of our visitors. Ever since the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma” made its Broadway debut, people still remember the phrase: “The surrey with the fringe on the top.” On Mackinac Island, most of our public carriages have just that, some kind of fringe around the top of the vehicle, be it a taxi, hourly rig, or large green and white 32-passenger wagon. We have generalized this term of “surrey,” incorporating many styles of horse-drawn transports. In fact, Mackinac Island has come up with its own version of a “surrey” and most us take for granted that it is indeed a surrey, but in definition, it is not.

The best examples of a true surrey can be found at two places on Mackinac, the Carriage Museum at Surrey Hills, and the Grand Hotel-Mackinac Island Carriage Tours Barn, on the road below Surrey Hills. One can rent a real surrey, complete with fringe around its top, from Jack’s Livery Stable on Mahoney Avenue. With that, you also get a horse and the novelty of driving it. But one can take an hourly tour in a carriage or an actual Mackinac Island Carriage Tours tour and perhaps get the same feel that you are riding in a surrey.


Passengers ready to see Mackinac Island from a touring “Mackinac Surrey.” Passengers ready to see Mackinac Island from a touring “Mackinac Surrey.” Truth be told, an actual surrey is a four-wheeled carriage that is open entry with no doors. It appeared in the late 1800s to World War I. The vehicle has two to four seats that face forward. There is no separate seat or box for the driver, nor an extra area for an assistant (driver’s groom). The carriage can be driven with just one horse in shafts, or with a pair of horses. In the latter case, a center pole is attached to the undercarriage. A surrey can be of several sizes, smaller to be drawn by ponies, or standard for an average horse.

The vehicle’s name comes from Surrey, England (northeast on the Thames River), which in the late 1800s first manufactured them as a light-touring wagon. The surrey was a tall affair, and the trim around the top (the fringe) not only helped to dress its roof up, but the fluttering of the fringe helped it to be seen as it traveled up and down the roads bordered with tall hedges. Surreys are lightweight and were meant to be taken out in fair weather, as they offer little protection in inclement weather. In the song, “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” Curley sings that his has “Isinglass (or Eisenglass) curtains you can roll right down, in case there is a change in the weather.” This meant that some surreys were complete with an early form of a clear material that was modified into side curtains that could be snapped into place to help keep the rain out.

“The dashboard’s genuine leather” refers to the dash. A “dash,” which is a term from the United Kingdom, also called dashboard, is a wooden square. Sometimes it was covered in leather, or patent leather. This allowed it to be easily scrubbed clean. It is the forward piece of the carriage that is attached to the front to prevent mud or rocks splashed or “dashed” onto the front passengers and drivers. The dash acted as a form of mud flap for the horses in the front.

I think the most interesting fact of the surrey from Surrey is that it became much more popular in the United States than in native England. This is possibly because the surrey was not an expensive carriage to make, and easy to manufacture. In turn, it was an affordable “second” vehicle, even for farmers, who would not have to go to town or church in the family wagon, and it could accommodate more people. Some surreys were elongated to have an additional seat, hence a threeseater that could hold six to eight people. Most surreys have a rigid roof that is not removable, but some were designed to convert (convertible) and turn into an open-passenger buggy. These days, the surrey is synonymous with American carriages.

On Mackinac, in the days before the consolidation of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, many tour-driving families here owned surreys, and many a cottager brought their surreys to the Island, where they remained. The surrey was an ideal rig from which to give a horse-drawn tour. It was high and open, enough for all of the passengers to be able to see, as well as hear, their driver. If you look at the photographs that still abound (in many of the hotels, shops, and restaurants) of the Island, you can spot many a surrey lined up on Main Street, waiting to give a tour. As this means of tour transportation and travel information increased on Mackinac, Mackinac Island Carriage Tours took to modifying the basics of a surrey into a larger passenger wagon. These vehicles became sturdier to manage a wide variety of human weights. Because inclement weather abounds at Mackinac, the carriages were fitted with stronger, clearer, vinyl side curtains, which apply to hourly carriages as well as our taxis.

As I passed a group of visitors setting out from the Island House one dreary, rainy morning last week, they were not distraught in the least. A husband was lightly singing a few lines from “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” to his wife, and the rest of those passengers broke into great big smiles. “Just watch that fringe and see how it flutters.” They were already having a memorable time and enjoying being in their carriage.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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