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Our First and Last Streetcars

It's been 61 years since a streetcar drove on Winnipeg's roads. Streetcars were once one of the primary methods of transportation in Winnipeg. Albert W. Austin was the president and founder of the Winnipeg Street Railway Company. Austin came from Toronto to Winnipeg in 1880 and founded the company that same year, at the age of 23. His father was the president of the Dominion Bank of Toronto and provided significant investment for Austin's new company.

Albert Austin
The very first streetcars were pulled by horses. Albert fought a battle with City Hall to introduce electric streetcars, but city council didn't like his idea. They were nervous of the electricity that would be required on Main Street and they saw it as a potential hazard to public safety. They told Austin he could run his new electric streetcars on River Avenue, which at that time, was mostly bush, with no street at all.

Although likely meant to deter Austin and get him to leave the issue of electric streetcars alone, Austin didn't give up. He hired men to clear the land, and lay tracks. He went back to City Council, and declared that he was ready to run his streetcar. City council turned him away once again, and said the City of Winnipeg would not sell him the electric power he needed. Determined to persevere once more, Austin hired engineers and built his own electric power generating station.

Soon, his streetcars were up and running. They ran from River Avenue near Main Street and down what is now Osborne Street. On the first day he gave passengers free rides so everyone who wanted to could experience riding in an electric streetcar.

People boarding one of the original Park Line Streetcars
He built a theme park called River Park where Osborne and Jubilee is today. River Park had a ferris wheel and other attractions for families. The "Park Line" streetcar took people from River Avenue all the down to River Park.

The ferris wheel at River Park
A streetcar visible in the background, taking patrons from River Park back toward downtown

People enjoying a day at River Park

Soon, people were building homes on Osborne Street near River Avenue because there was reliable transportation back to Main Street. For the first time, people didn't have to live in the crowded downtown centre if they wanted to be connected to what was going on in Winnipeg. They could begin to branch out, but still be a part of life in the city. Once people started building homes in the area, businesses opened up to serve the community. Osborne Street was able to be developed because of streetcars.
A poem praising the streetcar.
This limerick was part of a larger collection of poems promoting the streetcar service.
A streetcar runs down Osborne in the area that is now Osborne Village.
Winnipeg quickly realized the potential of electric streetcars, and the city put out a request for a proposal for a company to provide streetcar services for downtown. Albert Austin thought he had the job in the bag, but council rejected his proposal on a technicality, and instead accepted a proposal from a rival company, the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway. Austin continued to run the Park Line and his horse drawn street cars for a short time, so there were horse drawn streetcars and electric streetcars running through downtown.

Albert Austin eventually left the streetcar business and returned to Toronto. He later became the president of the Dominion Bank. Albert Austin may have been out of the picture, but streetcars would continue to be a huge influence on the development of our city.

Just as Osborne Street's early development can be attributed to the streetcar, so can many of Winnipeg's landmarks. Many buildings were built in their specific locations because there was a streetcar service. Streetcars didn't form around the city, the city formed because of the streetcars. Even though it's been 61 years since they made their last trip, Winnipeg's streetcars are still remembered as one of the biggest influences on our city's urban landscape.

An old advertisement for the streetcar
A busy day on Portage Avenue
In 1904, the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway merged with the Winnipeg General Power Company and became the Winnipeg Electric Company. This ushered in a new era of expansion and prosperity for the streetcars. There were over 120 miles of rail lines laid in Winnipeg.

But the streetcars weren't perfect. Winnipeg streetcars faced a number of problems, especially with our harsh winter weather.

A Winnipeg Streetcar stuck in the snow.

In 1938, The Winnipeg Electric Company introduced the first trolley buses in Western Canada. Trolley buses and streetcars operated side-by-side for a number of years, just as horse-drawn street cars had once ran alongside electric streetcars. In 1955, the electric streetcars stopped running for good.

Some of Winnipeg's roads still have streetcar tracks underneath them and sometimes the tracks make an appearance. In 2012 roadwork on Osborne Street uncovered old pieces of streetcar railing.

Workers remove railing from the road.

Streetcar 356

Streetcar 356 was one of four unique streetcars and it was built in Winnipeg at the Fort Rouge Garage, and began serving passengers in 1909. Streetcar 356’s service ended in September 1955, and in October 1955 it was sold for scrap, along with the rest of the streetcars. The body of the Streetcar 356 was sold privately for $100. 

A derelict streetcar sits in a field
In 1980, Heritage Winnipeg acquired Winnipeg Streetcar 356 from the Old Market Square Association and accepted both ownership and responsibility for continuing its rehabilitation. Streetcar 356 is the last remaining wooden streetcar.

For many years Streetcar 356 was housed at the Winnipeg Transit Garage.  In the late nineties Heritage Winnipeg came to an agreement with the Midwestern Rail Association for the streetcar to be moved into the Winnipeg Railway Museum, within the train shed of the VIA Rail Winnipeg Station (former Union Station) located at 123 Main Street for storage. 

The Streetcar inside the Railway Museum
Interior of Streetcar 356
On Saturday, September 17th and Sunday, September 18th, 2016, Midwestern Rail Association will be hosting Rail Days 2016 at the Winnipeg Rail Museum, located on the second floor. Rail Days will run from 11 am - 5 pm, and will have numerous exhibits, booths, and activities set up. Admission will be by donation so come participate in this fun and educational event.  Come see Streetcar 356 up close and personal. With the support of the community our goal is to have Streetcar 356 fully restored by 2019, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. 

For a detailed timeline of the history of the lifespan of Streetcar 356, visit our past blog post!

Written by Laura Wiens, Heritage Winnipeg Marketing and Communications. On Behalf of Heritage Winnipeg



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