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Winnipeg Streetcars: Our Most Valued Heritage History (Guest Post by author Brian Darragh)

Guest Post Written by Brian Darragh, author of The Streetcars of Winnipeg: Our Forgotten Heritage
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.    
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.
Interurban Car #6 poses with Trailer #18, June 14, 1929, taken in the Fort Rouge yards in Winnipeg. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Transit Photo Collection; Stan Styles Photo.
Heritage Winnipeg's "Doors Open Winnipeg" event happening the last weekend of May every year, helped to verify the true heritage value that the streetcars of Winnipeg provided to our city.  The insert in the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper listed 74 heritage sites. From the St. Boniface Museum and the Seven Oaks House, both built in 1851, to the most recent Manitoba Hydro place in 2009, and Le Cercle Moliere in 2010. Of the 74 sites listed in this paper, only 9 were here before streetcar service began in 1882.   

Streetcars were an integral part of the city's daily life. Here, Streetcar #596 is tipped during the General Strike of 1919. Photo courtesy of the Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection 1697 Winnipeg General Strike N2763.
The streetcars were here before the other 65 sites.  This means in most cases the streetcars were able to deliver customers or building owners to these 65 locations.  True, 9 of these 65 buildings were built after the streetcars left in 1955, but they had the city built up for 73 years so these buildings were needed.  34 of these buildings were built by 1905.  Unless you had a team of horses or buggy, you would have had to walk to these to work or shop, as the first automobile didn’t arrive here until 1901 and they would be in limited supply until 1905. It was also certainly not the kind of car you would drive in the wintertime!

Park Line open car with trailer built in Winnipeg 1901-4. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Transit Photo Archive Collection.
The streetcars were the only transportation system that the city had until the first four transit buses arrived in 1918.  The streetcars brought customers to T. Eaton Company when the store first opened in July 1905.  That continued for 13 years until the first four buses came. Starting in 1908 they also brought people from Selkirk, and in 1914 they also ran from Stonewall, Manitoba.  They ran until 1937 and 1939 respectively.

The first four Winnipeg buses in 1918. Photo courtesy of the JE Baker Collection, Real Estate News Feb. 14, 1997.
It was Albert Austin, not City Council, that inaugurated the horse cars on rails in 1882.  Austin came from Toronto in 1880 at the age of 23. His father was the head of the Dominion Bank in that city.  People thought he was too young to be involved with business, but a year after he came he sold shares in the horse car project and the shares were sold out in one hour.  Business people like McDermot,  J. H. Ashdown,  and Bannatyne all bought shares in the company.  These men were the Aspers, Richardsons, and Axworthys of our generation.

Horsecar on muddy Main Street, spring 1884. Photo courtesy of the H.W. Blake Collection.
By the next year, Austin had the track laid on south Main Street from Assiniboine Avenue to City Hall.  He acquired 20 horses and 4 horse cars and Winnipeg’s first public transportation system began October 21, 1882.   For the population of 8,000 citizens, the following year he extended the rail track north to Higgins Avenue where the CPR track crossed Main Street. It then went further north up Main Street to St. John’s Avenue. This same year, he had horse cars operating down Portage Avenue to Kennedy Street then south to Broadway where the first Legislature stood before it burned down.  The number of horses rose to eighty and the cars to twenty during their eleven and a half years of service to May 1894.  

Replica of Winnipeg horsecar circa 1880s, located in Calgary Heritage Park, Calgary, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Brian Darragh.
His rail line began at Assiniboine and Main, just a couple of hundred feet from "The Fort", the historic spot where the Red River from the Dakotas met the Assiniboine River from Saskatchewan.  History tells us 6,000 years ago First Nations tribes from these areas met from time to time at the Forks to trade furs, as there were different types in the two areas.  Then, in 1737 Pierre La Verendrye (the first white man to visit our area) came out from France.  He was so impressed with the furs he built a small trading post and arranged to have the furs shipped over to Europe, where they were made into fur hats and fur coats. They were in great demand.  

Three-car combo interurban on Lake Winnipeg-Selkirk line. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Transit Photo Archive Collection.
Up to the 1860’s, the Forks was the Portage and Main of Winnipeg, and Austin’s rail track was a great benefit to the city.  It was built with long timbers parallel to the street, the cross ties over top and the rail was bolted to the ties.  The rails were far enough apart to allow one horse or a team to walk on the ties between the rails.  The cars were between 16 to 18 feet long and about twelve passengers could sit across from each other down the sides. The men that drove these horses stood on an open platform outside the car, in the winter blizzards, the summer thunderstorms and the eighty degrees Fahrenheit of the summer sun.  They worked a 10½ hour shift 6 days a week and received 12-14 cents an hour. 

By the late 1880s, men in West Virginia had produced an electric streetcar running on rails that was deemed reliable.  Austin went down to check them out. Quite impressed, he came back to Winnipeg and ordered one. It was manufactured in St. Catherine’s, Ontario by  the Patterson and Corbin Company.  It was the first electric car manufactured in Canada.  It arrived here by rail on a flat car November 25, 1890.  

Austin's early streetcar #6 built in 1890. Photo courtesy of the Archives of Manitoba Transportation Collection Streetcar 16 N7595.

City council was afraid to run an electric car on Main Street and told him he could try it out in the bush where River Avenue is now.  Austin hired a crew of men to clear out the mile of bush, lay the track bed and the rails, and to install the poles and brackets to carry the 600 volt electric wire that the trolley wheel delivered to the streetcar motor.  This all took place on the mile between Main Street and the street that would become Osborne.  He was ready to run his car, but the city wouldn’t sell him the power.  He brought in an engineer from New York and in a short time they had built a small sub station on the north bank of the Assiniboine River. 

Opening of Winnipeg Electric Street Railway on Main Street across from City Hall September 5, 1892. Photo courtesy of the Archives of Manitoba Transportation Streetcar 19 ON 152 N 7600.
On January 27th, 1891, he tried out his new streetcar.  Dozens of people came down to see this new venture.  He ran the car one mile back and forth several times until everyone had a free ride.  That summer his four streetcars took thousands of people to River Park and property was bought and houses built in what is now the Osborne and Pembina Highway area.  However, he never did get to run his cars on Portage Avenue or Main Street.  McKenzie and Ross were the successful bidders there and they started regular day service on these streets September 5, 1892.  A year and a half later, Austin stopped running his cars on Main Street and Portage Avenue and sold them and his park property for  $175, 000.  

Headingley Interurban Car #154 built by Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company in 1904. Photo courtesy of the Archives of Manitoba Transportation Collection Streetcar 18 N 7597.
Winnipeg had over 400 streetcars over their 64 years of electric service. Nearly ¾ of them were built here in Winnipeg. They also built the 12 Interurban cars that served Selkirk, Stonewall, and Headingley.  Austin ‘s first electric car ran here January 27th, 1891. Winnipeg had the only electric streetcar service between Windsor and Vancouver and a short time before Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.  Winnipeg even had its electric streetcars four years before New York City in 1895.  By 1912 the streetcars had built Winnipeg up to Canada’s third largest city, in 2015 it is the eighth. 

First Mac Trolley Bus 1938. Photo courtesy of the J.E. Baker Collection.
In the early years of electric streetcar operation, the company owned an electric station east of Winnipeg and it only cost 3 cents of electricity to move a streetcar one mile down the track.  The original horse car track built on Main Street was a great benefit to the citizens of Winnipeg.  After heavy rain or snow melting in the spring, the muddy clay street became quagmire of slippery mud.  Teams of oxen or farm horses pulling loaded down possessions in two wheeled heavy ox carts made deep ruts in the street.  

Citizens soon realized that if they drove their horses on the ties of the rail track it was a lot easier on the horses and they didn’t make ruts in the mud.  As there were few boardwalk sidewalks, the streetcar tracks gave pedestrians a cleaner, firmer place to walk.  Needless to say the men that drove the horse cars weren’t impressed with this interference.  According to research in John Baker’s Winnipeg’s Electric Transit – The Story of Winnipeg’s Streetcars and Trolley Buses, this is why Portage and Main Streets are among the widest city streets - 132 feet curb to curb. Because of all the ruts, carts and wagons just kept moving over.  

Two-man streetcar #636 with advertising circa 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Transit Photo Archive Collection.
My parents moved to Winnipeg from Northern Ireland, the summer of 1927.  I was born November 1928 at the start of the depression.  Mom, Dad and I moved to a farm in 1933 as there was no work for my father in the city.  The area was called Keyes just off the highway of the future Yellowhead route, seven miles west of Gladstone.  My parents were city slickers and had never been on a farm, but when you have to have something to eat, its amazing how fast you learn! 

Streetcar #692, the last wooden streetcar fully built in the city of Winnipeg in 1914. It operated until end of service in 1955. Photo courtesy of Steven Stothers Collection; Stan Styles Photo WEC 692-1, taken in 1947.
I went to a one-room school where one teacher taught all the subjects from grade one to eight.  We took grade 9 and 10 by correspondence. Our schoolwork was sent to us each week and it was posted back to the city to be marked.  There were 20 – 25 kids in the whole school.  I rode a pony to school from grade 5 on.  After living with my parents the first 25 years of my life, I moved to Winnipeg, found room and board and was hired on to Winnipeg Transit for the next 38 years of my life.  After taking my streetcar training, I operated strictly streetcars for the last 17 months of their operation  - April 1954- September 1955, sixty-one years ago as this is written in 2015.

I had only met my future wife Carol 3 weeks before she moved with her parents to Winnipeg.  We got married in August 1955 and have two married daughters, 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild.   Hopefully we will be celebrating our 60th wedding anniversary with our family this August.    

Ottawa-built 700 series, #702 purchased by the City of Winnipeg in 1919. It operated until end of service in 1955. Photo courtesy of Steven Stothers Collection.
The first automobile such as it was, arrived here in 1901, 19 years after streetcar service began in October 1882 and before the first Transit buses here in1918.  By that time, Winnipeg’s population was approaching 170,000.   Again according to Baker’s research, a few examples of the volume of citizens that  the streetcars carried:

1901 – population 52,000  - 42 streetcars provide 3.5 million rides. 
1928 – population 200,000 - 300 streetcars provide 60 million rides.
1946  - population 307,000 - 320 streetcars and 105 million rides.

The urban cars that ran to Selkirk and Stonewall made 8-11 round trips per day from McAdam and Main Street in their busiest years from 1915 – 1925. In 1923, the 60-foot interurban cars provided 1,195,000 rides.  You could board a Selkirk Interurban car in Selkirk at 9 am travel to McAdam Avenue, transfer to a city car to go to the T. Eaton Company, shop there for two hours then take the city car back to McAdam and transfer back to the Interurban and be back in Selkirk by 1pm.  This travel all done in just 4 hours later and for only 98 cents round trip!  

Last streetcars going through Portage and Main Street, September 19, 1955. Winnipeg Transit Photo Archive Collection.

Some of the streetcars running here in September 1955 were built here in 1909, over 45 years of service.  The two newest cars we had in the fleet # 796 and 798 were built in Winnipeg in 1928 and 1929.  Streetcar #734 operated by Leonard Kolley, pulled into the north car house at 2:45a.m Sunday morning September 18th, the last car in service after 64 ½  years of electric streetcar operations.   

Gathering and ceremony to acknowledge the end of the streetcar era in Winnipeg, September 19, 1955. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Transit Photo Archive Collection.

Sunday afternoon one wooden car # 374 built in 1909, a sweeper built in 1918, and our two newest cars # 796 and 798 built in 1928 and 29 , dead headed to Polo Park and were the last four cars through Portage and Main on Monday, September 19, 1955.   The streetcars left 60 years ago in September 2015.  I thought at 86 years of age and being one of the last streetcar operators left, I should write about it so I have published my book The Streetcars of Winnipeg – Our Forgotten Heritage for the three generations that have never seen one.  

Click here to purchase Brian Darragh's full book online, on the Friesen Press website

The Streetcar 356 Restoration Project is an effort by Heritage Winnipeg to preserve and restore a relic of Winnipeg's streetcar legacy. For more information about this project, visit the website here. A history of the streetcar may also be found here on the blog

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