Sunday streetcar service — opponents claimed the moral fibre of the community was at stake


by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Hundreds of Winnipeggers woke up Sunday morning on July 8, 1906, excitedly anticipating the opportunity to take advantage of a service available to them for the first time in the city’s history. 

After the heavens opened up to drench the city in a heavy downpour, the morning became moderately cool to the disappointment of the many wanting to participate in the new adventure. Yet as the summer day progressed, the sun emerged and its intense rays caused the temperature to rise to an extreme level. Then, as if to herald the new service in a more benevolent manner, a mid-day breeze arose to temper the searing heat.

“Old Sol was in his glory,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on July 9, “gratified at seeing for the first time in Winnipeg numbers of its citizens who had hitherto regarded themselves as ‘cribbed, cabined and confined’ on Sundays, betaking themselves to the outskirts of the city, or to other portions of it than that in which they reside to visit acquaintances for the first time on the day of rest.”

Streetcar No. 180 of the Portage Avenue line was scheduled to be the first to roll out of the WERC car barn at Assiniboine and Main, with motorman Campbell at the controls and conductor Stewart ready to accept tickets from passengers.  

“Car No. 180 thrilled under Campbell’s touch and shivered a little,” reported the Morning Telegram on July 9. “For an instant it balked at the horror of what it was about to do then blindly it took the plunge. It jumped forward and hesitated, then dashed round the curve out of the barns.”

With the roll-out of No. 180, Winnipeggers could set aside years of bitter debate and finally enjoy the convenience provided by Sunday streetcar service.

Frank Holmes, who lived on Elgin Avenue, and Charles Webb, who lived on William Avenue, had been sitting up all night at the bedside of a sick friend. Although exhausted by their vigil and soaked by the steady rainfall, they walked to the Main Street Bridge, crossed over and then proceeded down the street where they passed “file upon file of idle cars.” Standing in the middle of Main Street, they flagged down No. 180 at 7 a.m. and became the first paying passengers for the first Sunday streetcar in Winnipeg’s history.

At Portage Avenue, a “drenched passenger” signalled for No. 180. It slowed, stopped and the man climbed aboard. Holmes recognized the man and excitedly told a Telegram reporter: “That fellow voted against Sunday cars. He was talking about it at the polling booth the day of the election.” But a contrary vote didn’t prevent the man from taking refuge from the heavy rain in the only possible shelter then available to him.

At McDermot Avenue, conductor Campbell stopped for Abraham Guenther, a visitor to the city from Edna, Manitoba. Apparently, Guenther didn’t know he was boarding the very first Sunday streetcar in Winnipeg’s history, and when told of this fact, he greeted the information with a shrug of indifference. 

Next to board were a young man and lady, followed by a man and boy.

“No. 180 was doing proudly. It swung around two corners and down to the Canadian Pacific depot (at Higgins), where it halted breathless. No. 180 had finished its trip (Telegram).”

When No. 180 left the car barns, it was followed by a steady stream of streetcars scheduled to ply the Fort Rouge, Broadway, Belt and Park lines.

The cool and damp morning had initially discouraged many from riding the streetcars, but as the day wore on the rush began.

“The crowds who patronized the cars were representatives of all classes,” reported the Free Press. “Prosperous looking business men, neatly attired artisans, women young and old, mostly in filmy summer dresses, children of all ages, in fact all sort and conditions of people were out in their glad clothes enjoying a ride.”

According to the Telegram, among the “thousands of people utilizing the cars,” could be found several clergymen “who had lent their moral support toward securing what they believed to be a necessity to the growing interests of the city.”

The destination of many passengers was River Park, located along the Red in South Fort Rouge at the foot of Osborne Street, where residents went to picnic on the grass, having brought with them packed lunch boxes, containing food, beverages and other outdoor dining paraphernalia. River Park, which had no entrance fee — it was owned by the WERC and used as a theme-park destination for a company streetcar line  — boasted a roller coaster, a roller skating rink, an “Electric Riding Gallery” (a carousel with 28 galloping horses, two six-seat chariots, 16 

Vienna chairs and a beautiful picture centre, from the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893), a small children’s zoo, a harness-racing track and a baseball stadium. 

The Telegram said 7,000 people had visited River Park during the afternoon, while many others took the St. Charles car to the city limits, walking from there to Silver Heights.

“The officials of the Street Railway company reported an almost unprecedented traffic after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the receipts till late in the evening being unusually heavy.”

The Free Press mentioned that streetcar service to city parks was inadequate in the afternoon and evening, as only half the usual complement of cars available on regular schedules during weekdays were on hand for the opening of Sunday service. Those cars in service were crowded to capacity, and at all stops  throngs of people were left behind to wait for another car to carry them to their destinations.

The passengers wanting to head for St. James or St. John’s for an outing were said to have only made it to the city limits where they had to battle hordes of mosquitoes while waiting for a return ride, which was a “disappointment to many who had hoped the suburban lines would be in operation ...”

The WERC had no legal obligation to run the suburban lines, as it was up to the individual municipalities to pass their own bylaws governing Sunday streetcar service.

“It is understood, however, that the question will be brought to the attention of the Assiniboia council” at their next meeting in order to add Sunday service to the St. Charles line, reported the Free Press. 

For the first time, sons and daughters were able to take streetcars to  visit their parents living in other areas of the city. Others simply jumped aboard one streetcar after another, thrilled at the chance to simply tour the city on a Sunday.

Many a young man, accustomed to spending “well-earned dollars” to hire a horse-drawn hack on Sunday in order to enjoy the company of a young lady, “found he could serve his purpose in a cheaper way” by taking a streetcar.

The group complaining most vigourously about this new-found freedom were the cab companies, which experienced a precipitous decline in Sunday customers.

The only major accident of the day involved an automobile driver who had apparently not heard the news of Sunday streetcar service, and collided with Streetcar No. 118 while crossing Notre Dame from Edmonton to Gertie.

“The auto (licence No. 30) was picked up by the fender, and the autoist had the novel experience of having his first Sunday (street) car ride along with the vehicle gratis,” according to the Free Press. “No damage was done and the (street) car driver stopped the (street) car and allowed the motorist to betake himself and machine on to the roadway.”

There were the usual mishaps involving streetcars that Sunday. A Park Line streetcar jumped the switch at River Park, delaying service for about half an hour. Another Park Line streetcar left the track at the corner of Rupert Avenue and Main Street, although little time was lost returning it to the track.

In order for the cars to run on Sunday, the Street Railway Employees’ union held a special meeting the night before to go through a committee report resulting from negotiations with the WERC, which included a shift for motormen and conductors being 8.5 hours, as opposed to the typical 10-hour day on weekdays and Saturday. Any run over nine hours was to be paid at time and a half. The men had requested payment for 10 hours for an 8.5 hour shift on Sundays, but this was refused by the company.

After a lengthy debate on the terms for Sunday streetcar service offered by the company, which were deemed inadequate, the union decided to revoke the July 5 resolution: “That they refused to operate Sunday cars until satisfactory work conditions were agreed upon.” The union reasoned that refusing to run the streetcars on Sunday would be too great a disappointment to the public. 

Sunday service came just weeks after a nine-day streetcar strike that ended on April 7, during which the striking employees received widespread public support. “We walk” buttons had been distributed to thousands of Winnipeggers siding with the motormen and conductors. Despite rioting on the first two days of the strike between demonstrators supporting the strikers and strikebreakers, the labour dispute ended with favourable terms awarded to the WERC employees, including a wage increase.

If the union men had voted against the terms offered by the company for Sunday service, it would have meant another strike, which probably wouldn’t have received the same level of public support.

Above all, it was the public that wanted Sunday streetcar service and had pressed city councillors for years to pass the necessary bylaw. 

A letter writer to the editor of the Telegram, said he was disgusted by the union’s original position on Sunday streetcar service. “Only just a few weeks ago,” his letter dated July 9 continued, “during their strike which caused great inconvenience to the people, all of which gave them their entire sympathy and help, walking long distances, some of them the poorest of the poor, weary with toil and from their labors, plodding along walking miles without a murmur in order that those street car men might gain their point ...”

The letter writer, who signed only as a “subscriber” (common practice for the period, as few included their actual names in letters to newspapers), said refusing to go along with Sunday streetcar service would “remove the friendship and sympathy of a people who favored them.”

Opposition to opening the lines on the Lord’s Day had arisen shortly after the first electric streetcars started operating in 1892, and among the most vocal opponents was the Ministerial Association. One of the first Sunday service debates was reported by the Daily Nor’Wester on June 25, 1895. During a law amendment committee hearing at the legislature, a deputation of clergymen strongly objected to a city motion calling for the establishment of Sunday streetcar service.

City Alderman William Forsythe McCreary said he had moved the motion in council for Sunday streetcar service, “as being distinctly a scheme for the amelioration of working men.” 

McCreary told the provincial committee that city clergymen had viciously attacked his position from their pulpits. 

“He was not aware that clergymen had any more right to denounce from the pulpit with immunity from criticism or reply than he had,” reported the Free Press on June 26.

To hisses from the delegation of clergymen, McCreary said his opponents were paid speakers, paid to preach.

One voice was heard to then shout, “Turn him out!”

McCreary defended himself by saying poor people were denied Sunday recreation (due to the high cost of hiring alternative transportation), “but ... (they were)  ... at the beck and call of the rich.”

“Why not be consistent?” he asked. “Why, if you wish to preserve the day of rest, why don’t you stop the trains, the carriages, the boats, the canoes, the bicycles, the steamboats, the mails, the press, the milkmen? Don’t the milkmen work on Sundays? Why should they?” 

The clergymen told the committee that the province should introduce its own Lord’s Day Act, which would govern the observance of Sunday as a province-wide day of rest (such an act was later passed).

Rev. Frederic B. Du Val, noted for opposing prostitution then rampant in Winnipeg, made an appeal not to permit Sunday streetcar service by quoting Roman law-maker Justianian, who said “Salus populi suprema lex (For the good of the people, the law is supreme).”

He said the Christian Sabbath observation was intended for the moral good of the people. 

Sunday streetcar service was not included in the subsequent amendments made to the city charter. But in 1902, city council again passed a motion seeking provincial approval for a change to the bylaw governing the operation of streetcars on Sunday.

The motion read: “That the legislative committee be instructed to apply to the legislature of Manitoba for the repeal of (the section in the city charter) ... which prohibits the running of street cars on Sunday and for power to submit a by-law to the electors to learn whether or not the majority is in favor of operating the street cars on Sunday: such permission to run cars on Sunday being conditional on a majority vote of the electors in favor thereof.”

The motion passed without debate by a 9-3 vote, and the province gave the city permission to hold a referendum on the question. 

The city charter, section 738, was explicit in stating “council shall not grant the right to the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company to operate the cars on Sunday unless an affirmative reply or vote shall be given by a majority of the electors ... at the time of the annual general municipal elections.”

The agreement embodying this prohibition was ratified by the provincial legislature in 1892, allowing the city to grant a licence for the WERC to provide electric streetcar service in Winnipeg.

Actually, the Sunday clause had not been part of the 1891 negotiated agreement between the city and the WERC, but was inserted by the provincial government a year later at the instigation “of some supporters of a strict Sabbath observance,” according to the Free Press, and without city approval.

At the time, company officials had strongly objected to the inclusion of the clause, and argued they should not be compelled to come back to council if the company wanted to run streetcars on Sunday. They claimed the clause infringed upon their original contract with the city.

Despite their objections, the clause was included in the provincial legislation granting the electric streetcar charter.

The municipal elections in 1902 were to be held on December 9. In the meantime, sides were drawn as to the merits of the coming referendum on the Sunday streetcar bylaw.

An anti-Sunday streetcar platform complete with petition was adopted by opponents of the bylaw. Essentially, the petition circulated by the group centred around an alleged failure by council to consult the people of Winnipeg prior to introducing the motion; the fear it would increase the influence of the WERC (the petition also called for public ownership of streetcar service); streetcar service was unnecessary on Sunday as parks and churches were well-distributed and easily accessible by foot; there was no guarantee in the bylaw that employees would not be compelled to work seven days a week; the bylaw would not promote the peace, order and welfare of the community; Sunday was a day of rest and worship; and there was the potential once a precedent was set that other businesses would need to follow suit. 

The latter was not associated with the streetcar section of the city charter, but a provincial act which prohibited the conducting of business on the Lord’s Day as did the city’s own Sabbath Day Bylaw of 1889. 

Manitoba’s Lord’s Day Act of 1898 made it “unlawful for any merchant, tradesman, artificer, mechanic, barber, workman, labourer or other such person to sell or offer for sale or to purchase on Sunday any goods chattels or other personal property or any real estate whatsoever or to do or exercise any worldly labor, business or work of his ordinary calling ...” on Sunday.

(Next week: part 2)