Cinnamon, a robust, blond-maned Bavarian draft horse, clip-clopped slowly up Eureka's Second Street, pulling a stately maroon carriage behind her. Perched on the carriage's padded bench seat and clad in an oiled duster and felt bowler hat, reins in hand, was Marty L'Herault, owner-operator of Old Town Carriage Company. Twisting around, he ducked his head below the carriage's canvas roof to address his passengers. "People say the sound of horse hooves on asphalt resembles the sound of the human heart," he said, his mirthful eyes a-twinkle. "That's why it's so soothing."
L'Herault and Cinnamon have become fixtures in Old Town Eureka, offering seasonal carriage rides to locals and tourists alike. A Wisconsin native and theater major in college, L'Herault fell into his current career more than two decades ago in New York City's Central Park, where he landed his first carriage-driving job while pursuing acting gigs. There he met and trained a fellow carriage driver named Michelle, who would later become his wife and co-owner of Old Town Carriage Company. Over the years, the two of them have probably given tens of thousands of carriage rides, Michelle figures -- most all of them as peaceful and relaxing as the one my wife and I enjoyed last Thursday. As we rounded the corner by the gazebo at Second and F, a woman in a minivan rolled down her window and shouted a happy greeting: "Hey! Marty and Cinnamon! How's it goin'?"
L'Herault smiled wide before asking, "And you are?" She told him, said she'd be coming for another ride soon, and drove off. "She sure seemed happy," L'Herault said with a grin as Cinnamon continued on her route.
Two days later, on a typical evening ride through Old Town, something went wrong. L'Herault had brought the carriage to a stop in the gravel parking lot near First and D streets and was turned around chatting with his passengers, Jonathan and Nicole Speaker of Trinidad, when something spooked Cinnamon. Jonathan Speaker would later say it was skateboarders on the boardwalk who sent the massive animal into a panic. She bolted across the parking lot at a full gallop, collided with a parked car and kept running. The carriage side-swiped the automobile, then lurched forward again, slamming to a stop when it banged into a thick wooden post in the sidewalk, ripping off the front axle.
When Jonathan Speaker looked up, he saw L'Herault face-down in the street, unconscious and bleeding. He'd evidently been pulled by the reins as Cinnamon broke loose from the smashed carriage. The horse, meanwhile, was running loose down the city streets. Almost immediately, Speaker said, people sprang into action. One man ran and knelt beside L'Herault, holding his head to slow the bleeding. Another caught up to Cinnamon and led her out of the street. Nicole Speaker, a registered nurse, checked L'Herault's vital signs and stayed with him until emergency responders arrived.
Fading in and out of consciousness, L'Herault was taken to St. Joseph hospital. Early the following morning he was transferred to Mercy Medical Center in Redding as a precautionary measure. He'd suffered head trauma and was in pain, but he remained conscious throughout the night, much to the relief of his family. By Monday morning, Michelle L'Herault reported that Marty was going to be OK.
"Marty is fine; he's just super sore," she said. He was expected to be released from the hospital Tuesday, and Michelle said that they'll be offering carriage rides again soon -- more of them than ever, as a matter of fact. Their daughter just graduated from high school and is off to college this fall, so the L'Heraults plan to operate their business in Old Town year-round.
The frightening incident caused an outpouring of concern, well-wishing and, later, deep relief among the local community and beyond. St. Joseph Hospital staff lost count of the number of worried phone calls they received over the weekend. Michelle L'Herault also fielded countless calls from friends and family members. And in Old Town, on the bricks where Cinnamon and Marty stand each day, someone drew a blue pastel heart with the words "Get Well Soon."
Cinnamon was shaken up but uninjured, Michelle L'Herault said, though they planned to have her examined by a veterinarian just in case. And for concerned fans of Marty and Cinnamon, she offered a mailing address where people can send their "get well" cards:
Old Town Carriage Co.
3004 N St.
Eureka, CA 95501