Sleek, comfortable, and speedy—today’s modern ambulances bear no resemblance to the vehicles that used to race to the scene of accidents in Halifax.

The Victoria General ambulance service began in 1867 with a single cart, drawn by a horse stabled behind the Jubilee building. Patients compared a ride in the horse-drawn ambulance to being on ship in a heavy sea.

In those days, patients and their families often needed convincing to even go to the hospitals. They were seen as places for the terminally ill.

When the ambulance picked up a patient, they’d envelop them in distinctive red blankets and gingerly hoist them into the cart.

A medical intern would accompany the patient, perching precariously on a narrow bench near the front of the cart. A curtain that flapped in the breeze gave a modicum of privacy, while a tin basin and other implements rattled and bounced.

And of course, the barnyard odour of the horse was inescapable.

The intern had a bag with various drugs (opium was a common panacea) and a bottle of all-purpose brandy was always on hand, needing constant replenishment.

Compared to road traffic, the ambulance did move quickly, with the driver constantly ringing a bell, yelling at anyone slow to give way. In one famous incident, an ambulance delivered a man who had taken a bad fall on the stairs from a Hollis Street hotel to the Victoria General in just 20 minutes. That was considered a remarkable feat at the time.

In 1928, the horse-drawn ambulances gave way to “Black Moriah,” a new motor vehicle. The next great leap forward came in 1949, with the purchase of a five-door vehicle with push-button ignition, air conditioning, and leather seats.  

Today, Emergency Health Services provides emergency response in Nova Scotia with a fleet of modern ambulances, plus a LifeFlight helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. (Learn more in this Halifax Magazine story). There are some 1,000 paramedics registered in the province, with crews strategically placed in various regions.

Halifax Magazine