“We’ve had it!” — the story of the last streetcars to ride the rails in Winnipeg

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

By the end of 1946, when the city had a population of just 229,045 people, 105-million passengers had travelled that year on the Winnipeg Electric Company’s (WEC) streetcars, trolleys and buses. In comparison, Winnipeg Transit’s present fleet of nearly 600 buses carries approximately 41-million passengers annually out of a population approaching 700,000.

But the increase in passengers during the Second World War didn’t quite bring a stop to the tearing up of tracks and the replacement of streetcars with buses and trolleys. In fact, the Tribune on September 9, 1940, reported the WEC had been removing rails “on routes on which the street car has given way to bus operations,” such as on Notre Dame Avenue, from Princess Street to  the end of the line at Wood Street; on Logan Avenue, from Arlington Street to Keewatin Street; and on Arlington Street, from Notre Dame to Logan Avenue.

“Most of the scrap metal will be made into munitions of war to drive further nails in Hitler’s coffin.”

Some of the rails, however, met a less glamorous end, as they were used to make steel balls to grind up ore extracted from Manitoba mines. “By an ingenious piece of machinery the flanges at the top and bottom of the rail are bent together and turned into balls one by one until the rail is used up ...,” explained the Tribune. “The older rails turn out a ball about two inches in diameter, while the heavier rails produce balls three inches in diameter.”

Throughout the 1940s, buses replaced streetcars on some routes, while trolleys either replaced streetcars or buses on other routes.

The financial woes of the 1930s and the war effort subsequently played a part in ensuring an aging streetcar stock rode the rails throughout the city.

Even in the 1950s, Gerry Stevenson, a former St. James resident who at the time worked downtown as a telegraph operator, remembered the streetcars as “very old and very cold.” 

Leonard Kolley, now 83, who was the motorman (operator) on the city’s last regularly scheduled streetcar, No. 734, from St. James to North Main on Sunday, September 18, 1955, said the streetcars were bitterly cold in the winter. 

Prior to starting out on a run during the winter months, Kolley added, the coal stoves in the wood-frame streetcars were lit using paper and chips of wood for kindling. But after being lit, the burning coal was never enough to keep the passengers, operators or conductors warm.

“The streetcars were terrible,” Kolley explained. “They were drafty and the windows only had one pane of glass. You were freezing, especially when the snow was blowing. We had to wear our coats whenever we were driving during the winter.”

In fact, many of the streetcars then in use were built in the early 1900s. Streetcar No. 356, which is now undergoing restoration by Heritage Winnipeg, was a wood-frame car built in the WEC’s Fort Rouge shop in 1909 and was in use until 1955. The last all-wood-frame electric streetcar was built in August 1914, but the cars did undergo periodic upgrades until they were taken out of service.

Stevenson, now 72, whose brother Jim was a navy veteran who became a streetcar operator after the war, said all of the streetcars he boarded, regardless of the time of year, had a wooden frame, which was an indication of the aging stock travelling Winnipeg’s streets.

“People visiting from Toronto used to laugh at them because they were so old,” said Stevenson.

Toronto, Philadelphia and New Orleans are the only North American cities to have maintained parts of their original streetcar systems powered by overhead lines carrying electricity, and today operate a mix of new and historic equipment. When the streetcar era ended in Winnipeg, Toronto purchased some of its more modern cars. The famous streetcars of San Francisco do not use electricity, but are pulled along their routes using a cable system. As such, they are more commonly referred to as cable cars. Other cities, such as Calgary and Portland, operate light rail transit (LRT) systems, which do use overhead lines, but travel at greater speeds than traditional streetcars.

On the other hand, youthful exuberance portrays the streetcar era in a more glowing nostalgic light. Don Aiken remembers the streetcars from the perspective of a youngster, when he was between five and 10 years old.

“Every time I was in a streetcar,” said Aiken, who at the time lived in Charleswood and took a ride on the Portage line to St. James whenever possible, “I thought it was marvelous, partly because of the motion since they rocked very gently. To a kid, they were an adventure. They were pretty neat to a seven-year-old.”

The rocking motion had a lot to do with uneven rails, said Peter Thompson, 81, a retired city worker, who during the streetcar era lived on Beresford Avenue.

“Because the rails were uneven, the streetcars would go back and forth, back and forth, one side up and one side down — it certainly wasn’t a comfortable ride,” he said.

“All the rails were bad,” commented Kolley. “They were all rusty.”

Kolley said the streetcars “were noisy as hell” as they travelled over the rails, “especially on the Selkirk line.”

In order to keep switches open during the winter, Kolley said, they were dosed with alcohol. 

“If they didn’t open the switch, you would be going the wrong way,” added Kolley, who retired from Winnipeg Transit in 1980.

Dramatic changes to the structure of transit and the electrical distribution system propelling streetcars got underway in the late 1940s.  “The postwar industrial expansion of Winnipeg and Manitoba has by the late 1940s resulted in an acute power shortage,” wrote Alan Artibise in his book, Winnipeg: An Illustrated History, 1977. “The problem was a common one in North America but in Manitoba there was no obvious solution.”

Dr. Thomas H. Hogg, an engineer and the chairman of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission, was appointed by the province to investigate future power development in Manitoba. The resulting Hogg Report, released on March 24, 1948, discussed a number of options for electrical power in Manitoba and Winnipeg, all of which had a direct bearing on the city’s transit system. Subsequently, electrical power generation and distribution and transit became intertwined in a very contentious debate that dragged on for years.

A year after the report was released, the provincial government enacted legislation that created the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board, which was designed to oversee the development of the board’s Pine Falls generating station and to carry out the government’s power policy.

In 1951, the province passed legislation that would allow it to expropriate the property and assets of the Winnipeg Electric Company. A year later, Premier Douglas Campbell specifically said that he was not in favour of the Manitoba government buying the WEC’s transit system. In fact, the premier told the legislature, transit would not be part of any government plan to buy WEC assets.

Under Plan C from the Hogg Report, the province would establish a single agency to own and operate all electricity production throughout Manitoba. In addition, an appropriate inter-municipal agency would take over the distribution of electricity in Greater Winnipeg (then comprised of Winnipeg and the surrounding independent municipal governments, such as the city of St. Boniface and RM of St. James, which co-operated on a number of public services until the creation of Unicity in 1972), and the operation of the city’s transit system. The system called for high- and low-cost power to be averaged out to arrive at a rate for customers, as well as the integration and interconnection of hydro plants for the production and distribution of electrical power.

A takeover of the city’s Winnipeg City Hydro was not welcomed in most quarters, as the public utility had successfully been delivering low-cost power to the city for years. A single agency with averaged power costs would result in city residents paying higher fees for electricity, as the development of a rural power network was extremely expensive, necessitating higher rates.

In a next day Free Press report of a town hall meeting about Plan C on April 9, 1952, which was attended by between 4,000 and 5,000 citizens from Winnipeg and St. Boniface,  Mayor Coulter said the growth of the city and increasing use of electricity in homes would bring about a power shortage within three years “if a reorganization of the power industry does not take place now.”

Mayor Coulter assured Winnipeggers Plan C would not mean an end to city hydro “as a distributing and selling operationt.” The province would only take over the “the buildings and machinery and transmission lines,” he added.

“Experts retained and paid to develop the (provincial) government’s and arguments have advocated Plan C,” said D.M. Stephens, the chairman of the hydro-electric board, “but there are many more experts who could be retained to prove that Plan C was absolutely against the interests of this community.”

Negotiations between the city and province were kept secret, but local newspapers were vocal in their support or opposition to the plan. The Free Press succeeded in arousing criticism of the plan, especially among the business community which in principle opposed all public-ownership. As the self-described “Defender of Free Enterprise,” the newspaper claimed the expropriation of WEC by the province was too costly because of its price tag of $60 million.

The Free Press’ editors favoured a three-way compulsory pool involving the Manitoba Power Commission, Winnipeg Hydro and the WEC. But the WEC opposed this arrangement, as it would allow the power commission to regulate the electricity rates it charged to its customers.

For three years, the electricity ownership debate raged on, although in the interim, the city held a Plan C referendum on April 16, 1952, The result of the referendum was its defeat by more than 16,000 votes, despite the strong support given to the plan by the Winnipeg Tribune.

“Naturally, I am disappointed that the electors of Winnipeg have not seen fit to endorse the judgement of the City Council, the Government, and their advisors (such as H.L. Briggs, manager of city hydro) as to the most desirable plan of recognizing the hydro-electric industry in Manitoba,” said Premier Campbell. “However, it is proper that these electors should render their own independent judgement on this important issue.”

The Free Press gloated over what it called  “a resounding defeat” of power referendum. “They did not say ‘No’ in a whisper or a half-voice. They shouted it ...,” enthused an April 24, 1952, editorial.

In the end, a version of Plan C was adopted. Under the revised plan, the province expropriated WEC’s properties for $55 million, the Manitoba Power Commission obtained Winnipeg City Hydro customers outside the city’s boundaries, and city hydro received former WEC properties worth $7 million as well as nearly 18,000 new customers, mainly in Transcona, Brooklands, and East and West Kildonan.

When the government passed legislation for the purchase of WEC assets, it left the transit system in the hands of former WEC  shareholders. The newly-incorporated entity became known as the Greater Winnipeg Transit Company. But a provision in the bill stated the transit company could not sell shares to anyone other than a municipality or an inter-municipal corporation up until May 31, 1953. If the municipalities failed to make an offer to purchase, the shares could then be sold privately.

The Tribune referred to the Plan C debate and outcome as “the story of a mess.”

For Winnipeg, the “mess” was actually a win, since retention of Winnipeg City Hydro allowed the continuation of rates that were cheaper than in the rest of the province. In addition, the city utility paid all municipal taxes while making contributions in the form of profits to the city’s general revenues. The Free Press reported (June 11, 1953) that in 1952, $800,000 of city hydro’s profit of $916,219 went into the Winnipeg treasury.

“Up to the end of 1952 $10,559,321 had been taken from the system and spent by City Council. Most of it — $9,720,321 — has been taken since 1941.”

The Free Press referred to the channeling of the profits to the city’s treasury as a “raid” on city hydro and a tax against Winnipeg customers, and a “means of side-stepping reality in city financing.” This is a common refrain used today against the Manitoba government when it uses Manitoba Hydro revenues in its annual budgets.

With the province’s rejection of transit ownership, city council decided to ask voters to approve a takeover of the new company’s transit system. The question in the referendum was: “Are you in favour of the City of Winnipeg joining with the suburban municipalities in forming a metropolitan transit commission with the object of operating the transit system now operated by the Greater Winnipeg Transit company?”

During the Plan C debate, Mayor Coulter said there was only four groups with the potential to operate the transit system: the city, the province, the WEC or another private corporation.

The provincial government took itself out of the running when it insisted that it would “not operate a municipal utility,” he added.

He said the Campbell governments decision to purchase the assets of the WEC — with the exception of its transit system and the WEC’s  gas company — meant no “private corporation could be induced to become interested in such an operation ...

“If, therefore, the mass transportation system is to be operated, the City of Winnipeg must undertake that responsibility in the interests of its citizens.”

At the polls, a “landslide” victory in favour of the establishment of publicly-owned transit was the outcome, although less than 23 per cent of eligible voters showed up — the smallest voter turn-out in 33 years, according to the Free Press. When the ballots were counted, the transit option was approved by 83 per cent of the voters. 

“There has been a good deal of uncertainty,” said Mayor Garnet Coulter after the vote. “None of us (on city council) were in a position to say what was best (for the transit system). Now that the people of Winnipeg have given their decision we are in a better position to plan for an efficient mass transportation system.”

Alderman John “Jack” Blumberg. a former streetcar motorman, said he was delighted with the vote, and believed the voters had “seen their folly in voting against plan C last year.”

Blumberg claimed the year-earlier rejection of Plan C was really a “protest against the Campbell government.”

Three publically-owned utilities emerged as a result of provincial legislation: the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission (GWTC) was created in April 15, 1953, and the Manitoba Power Commission and Winnipeg City Hydro were placed under the supervision of the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board. 

The GWTC’s first chairman was W.H. Carter, who was the president of the WEC until the province purchased its electrical assets. It was Carter who promoted and oversaw the transition from streetcars to bus and trolley service, while the transition was implemented by GWTC manager Donald L. Macdonald. According to McDonald, streetcars no longer served Winnipeg’s needs and could not match diesel buses for comfort, convenience, economy and flexibility. Buses were a quarter of the cost of a streetcar and could travel to the new suburbs rapidly springing up after the war unfettered by tracks.

When his appointment was announced on March 31, 1953, following a special meeting  of city council’s transit committee, Carter said he was “not anxious to be tied up with the streetcar system for an indefinite period.”

A five-man commission headed the GWTC, which was made up of the cities of Winnipeg and St. Boniface, the town of Tuxedo, and the rural municipalities of St. James, St. Vital, East Kildonan, West Kildonan, North Kildonan, Fort Garry, Charleswood, Assiniboia and East St. Paul.

While the city and surrounding municipalities sought the means to take over the transit system, a co-operative syndicate of transit’s 1,000 employees was formed with the goal of purchasing the private company’s shares in the event that the municipalities failed to exercise their option. Each employee was called upon to pledge $1,000, which would have created a $1-million pool of capital, while an undisclosed bank had agreed to provide a $1-million loan. The amount available was still short of the nearly $2.5 million asking price mandated by the province. 

It was also reported that two other undisclosed private groups had expressed interest in purchasing the transit company.

(Next week: part 3)