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

by Bruce Cherney (Part 3)

William “W.H.” Carter, the first chairman of the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission (GWTC), said that no private concern could profitably run the transit system as long as the city continued to charge the gross-earning tax, which was a five-per-cent levy on fare earnings imposed under the terms of the WEC’s operating licence with the city that was entrenched in an 1892 provincial amendment to the city charter.

Since he had earlier been the president of the Winnipeg Electric Company (WEC), which had previously owned the transit system, Carter had first-hand knowledge about how difficult it was to make a privately-owned passenger service a viable enterprise.

In the autumn of 1951, city council hired Norman D. Wilson, a nationally-renowned consulting engineer, to advise the city on the proposed public ownership of  the transit system (Winnipeg Tribune, February 16, 1953).

It was Wilson who recommended that the provincial government initiate the process to establish “an intermunicipal commission to take over and operate the transit system.”

According to the Wilson report, a publicly-run transit could pay its way, “given reasonable stabilization of traffic and of costs.” The report contained a number of “big ifs.” It assumed ridership would not fall below 72 million a year by 1954, although it would in subsequent years. Ridership had dropped in 1952 to 78 million from peaks of over 100 million during the war years. Wilson incorrectly assumed declining ridership would  level out and maintain a sustainable level.

Wilson outlined a program of “modernization” that would eliminate streetcars from the city’s streets and do away with a number of the smaller buses. The report found it cost 75.5-cents a mile to operate a streetcar, 36.6-cents to operate a trolley bus and 43-cents to operate a motor bus. Wilson reasoned that the high cost of operating streetcars made them a liability to a publicly-owned transit system, and cutting costs by eliminating streetcars and their infrastructure would make city-run transit successful. Buying larger buses to seat more passengers would also be a cost-saving measure, according to the Wilson report.

As early as 1948, C.H. Dahl, the WEC’s transportation manager, said transit was losing money due to the five-per-cent tax and on suburban routes such as Charleswood and St, Norbert.

“Despite all the savings for the first five months of this year,” Dahl told a Municipal and Public Utility Board inquiry into a proposed transit fare increase on July 8, 1948, “we are in the red to the amount of $26,000.”

G.S. Thorvaldson, the city’s attorney at the hearing, said a report showed an operating loss of $321,920 on motor bus routes.

Both Thorvaldson and Dahl agreed that downtown city routes paid for themselves, while the suburban routes were money-losers.

Today, taxpayers subsidize Winnipeg Transit to the tune of about $42 million annually (2010 Pre-budget Consultation, prepared by Councillor Scott Fielding, finance committee).

Just a day after the incorporation of the GWTC by the provincial government under Bill 52, Winnipeg aldermen toyed with a proposal for the  city to control the transit system and exclude the suburbs from becoming involved. The reasoning behind the proposal was that the city was “largely responsible” for transit financing and should run the utility on its own. 

This was a strange turn of events, since the transit bill was actually drafted by the city of Winnipeg with suburban municipality input, approved by city council and forwarded to the provincial government for passage. That the city wanted after-the-fact changes to the provincial bill is perhaps an indication that some aldermen had second thoughts about its contents; specifically, the powers awarded to suburban municipalities.

Alderman Slew Rebchuk, who was described at the time as “the mayor of the North End,” wanted the provincial government to amend Bill 52 to exclude the municipalities. Rebchuk and other alderman hoped it wasn’t too late for the provincial government to amend “the controversial transit bill 52.”

Many Winnipeg aldermen said the GWTC commissioners appointed by other municipalities would invariably be in conflict with city interests.

“Under the present set-up,” said Alderman Jack St. John, “the commission would not be independent. The three commissioners appointed by the city and the two appointed by the municipalities would continually be at loggerheads, representing their own group’s point of view.”

Mayor E.A. Hansford of St. Boniface said he was “not seriously disturbed” that Winnipeg might seek to exclude the other municipalities from transit ownership. He wanted to take a “wait and see attitude” toward the city’s proposal (Free Press, April 16, 1953). 

Councillor Alvin Winslow of St. Vital said he was “somewhat disturbed at the latest statement from city hall, considering the smoothness of earlier negotiations.”

The councillor said it was premature to comment on the issue until suburban officials met with the city to discuss the transit issue.

The city proposal of sole transit ownership came to nothing as negotiations continued to revolve around a combined offer to purchase.

In addition, employee and private interest in buying the transit system fell by the wayside when it became evident the Greater Winnipeg municipal governments were going to exercise their option to purchase the company’s shares.

Following the successful referendum and the other municipalities’ joining in to purchase the transit company, the Manitoba government passed legislation allowing the GWTC to float loans to cover the provincially-mandated asking price of just under $2.5 million. Transit experts told the GWTC it would cost a further $6 million over the next few years to modernize the transit system.

It was another win for the city as it removed the WEC transit system from civic politics, leading to an easing of

tensions on city council between business and labour interests. During its heyday, the WEC exerted tremendous influence on council — so much so that some councillors were felt to be representatives of the WEC rather than the Winnipeg voters who had elected them to office.

Tom Green, the editor of the Tribune, said that during the 1940s he “had the impression that some of the city aldermen were more the candidates of the Street Railway Company then the Citizens’ Election Committee (Lloyd Stinson, Political Warriors: Recollections of a Social Democrat, 1975).

In 1953, the tracks on Broadway and south Main Street were removed. The following year, the removal of the unused Selkirk Avenue tracks was announced by Carter. The removal of the tracks on these well-travelled streets was a harbinger of what was in store for the rails on the Portage and Main streetcar routes, which by 1955 were the only streets served by streetcars.

According to a June 2, 1954, Tribune article, “the first step ... to further modernize and improve Winnipeg’s transit system was taken ... when civic public works committee approved construction of trolley bus overheard distribution systems along existing street car routes.”

A major part of the GWTC plan was to replace streetcar service in Elmwood and East Kildonan with a combined trolley and motor bus service.

Following the purchase of the transit system, the commission spent over $5.5 million to buy 158 large-capacity diesel buses, to extend transit routes, to construct a 400-by-246-foot bus storage garage at the foot of Main Street and Carruthers Avenue capable of holding 162 buses as well as offices,  and to move the main offices of the commission from the WEC chambers to 10 Fort St. 

The “modernization” of the transit system resulted in only 85 streetcars plying routes that had shrunk to cover just Main Street and Portage Avenue, which reflected the recommendations made in a June 21, 1947 Metropolitan Planning Committee and Winnipeg Town Planning Commission transit report. 

“The report indicates that the chief transit problems are: (1) to relieve congestion in the downtown area and other heavily-travelled thoroughfares, (2) to get the right type of transit vehicles on the right transit routes, and (3) to balance over-all transit service so that all parts of the metropolitan area  will get good service. (Free Press, June 24, 1947).”

The goal of recommendations was to get streetcars with their trackage and centre islands “off narrow streets as soon as possible to permit freer traffic flow and speed up service.” The report called for trolley buses to operate on secondary routes and motor buses on feeder lines. The main route of Portage and Main would be the only portion of Winnipeg where streetcar service remained in place. 

Not surprisingly, the committee making the recommendations was made up of automobile association members who resented city streets interrupted by rails — car tires periodically became stuck in the streetcar tracks, which also made for a bumpy ride — and traffic engineers intent on making the city safe for cars by constructing more expressways and thoroughfares. The traffic engineers were planning for the day when the streetcar system and its infrastructure disappeared and two more lanes for motor vehicles were made available on Portage Avenue and Main Street. 

The WEC wasted little time in announcing a new downtown loop trolley bus service operating on Ellice and Graham avenues and Vaughan and Smith streets, which was referred to as the Ellice Trolley Coach Route. In fact, the changeover was announced by the WEC in anticipation  of the report’s findings.

“These changes will advance by another stage the Winnipeg Electric company’s over-all plans for modernization of its transit system, which will include the McGregor street trolley bus service and later Academy road trolley buses,” reported the Free Press on June 16, 1955.

There were few champions for the cause of streetcars in the city and suburbs. In the minds of those who had the authority to plan the future of  transit, streetcars were a relic of the past and it was time for the aging people movers to be retired from service — the sooner, the better. What had  been a marvel of technology when first introduced to Winnipeg’s streets in 1892, as well as considered extremely essential during the streetcar heyday of the early 1920s, by the mid 1940s was generally understood to be an outmoded liability.

To replace the last of the streetcars, the GWTC had 134 trolley buses and 191 motor buses with another 100 diesels on order.

“A whip cracked in the crisp morning air, a creaking horse car jolted down Main Street from Fort Garry to the city hall and Winnipeg’s first transit system was born Oct. 21, 1882,” wrote Gordon Sinclair in collaboration with W.E. Bailey of the GWTC, in a Saturday, September 17, 1955, Free Press article entitled, Last Street Car Rolls into History Monday. “Next Monday, 73 years less one month later, the last street car will vanish from the city’s streets, sacrificed to the same progress that saw horse cars replaced by electric trams and they in turn lose their predominance to gasoline buses, then trolley buses and now diesels.”

Sinclair wrote: “Quieter buses will replace them but the clang of the gong, the rattle of the wheels, the swoosh of released air, the flashing of the trolleys will be long remembered.”

Another article in the same issue by Ted Byfield claimed city traffic engineers won’t shed a tear over the demise of the streetcars. “The experts look to removal of the streetcars to open up two new vitally-needed traffic lanes in the centre of Portage Avenue and Main Street and make it possible for both streets to move four lanes of traffic in either direction.”

In fact, the transition was eagerly anticipated by city operations managers. For example, city engineer W.D. Hurst ordered his crews to be on standby for the removal of the Portage and Main islands immediately after the last streetcar was retired.

Byfield said the islands had been a haven for pedestrians when crossing the busy streets.

“I guess people will just have to learn to make it to the other side or take a chance on waiting out in the middle of the street,” Winnipeg traffic engineer Harry F. Burns told Byfield. “After all, we have to do it on all the other streets.”

In anticipation of the removal of tracks, the province announced it would be aiding St. James to pave the south-side section of Portage Avenue between Sharpe Boulevard and Ferry Road. St. James Mayor Findlay said it was likely two more traffic lanes would be added to each side of the avenue once streetcar service ended.

In an a September 17 Free Press editorial, author G.S.R. wrote it would be “absurd” to be sentimental about the demise of the city’s streetcars.

“A street car, as is well known today, is merely loosely put together bits of ironmongery, in which panes of rattling window glass and slats of creaking hardwood are embedded, and it has a motor that utilizes sudden spurts of electricity. Street cars are transportation without frills: noisy, necessary interludes between the heres and theres of life.”

The writer said streetcars had seen their day and “can be consigned without remorse or tears or pity to the junk heap.”

On September 17, 1955, the Free Press carried a GWTC half-page advertisement announcing, “ Buses replace last street cars on the Portage-North Main route.” The ad contained the scheduled bus routes for Portage Avenue and Main Street that signalled “the completion of Greater Winnipeg’s transit system from street cars to rubber-tired vehicles.” The ad said a souvernir pictorial issue, Tracks to Tires, would be inserted in the city’s regular publication, Public Service News,  and handled out to all transit patrons on September 19.

Before the official end of streetcar service on Monday, September 19, the very last regularly-scheduled car, running from St. James to the North Main, left the garage in the late evening of Sunday, September 18. Streetcar No. 734 — according to transit records, built in 1919 by the Ottawa Car Co. — with Leonard Kolley at the controls, “was greeted by a small, enthusiastic group of people waiting to get aboard the last ride,” reported Royce Richardson in a front-page Free Press article.

“Can I shake hands with the last conductor,” asked one woman. “I’ve lived half my life on these old things.”

Kolley was so popular that day that the driver of the last passenger streetcar was obliged to sign 30 transfers. But, the operator was not happy to see the era of streetcars end. “They're so much easier to handle than buses,” he told Richardson.

Today, 83-year-old Leonard Kolley still fondly remembers the day he drove the last regularly-scheduled streetcar. “It was beautiful that night,” he recalled. “All the people (aboard) were enjoying themselves. They were dancing and singing. It was a big thing for them.”

He said the passengers were so happy to be riding the last streetcar on the St. James route that “they were giving me tips of a quarter or 50-cents when I signed their transfers.”

Kolley said he wasn’t overly comfortable accepting the tips, although he did because the enthusiastic passengers were so insistent. Kolley also remembers that before he went on his route, a supervisor may have mentioned the possibility of passengers giving him tips, which he was told would be okay to keep since he was embarking upon a history-making journey.

“Even when I was coming back (and there wouldn’t be a return streetcar) some people still got on. It was really late, about 1:38 in the morning. I asked them how they were going to get back, and they told me they’d take a taxi.” 

The passengers of the last scheduled streetcar sang Auld Lang Syne as it pulled away from the St. James terminal, reported Richardson.

“Every passing car (one of the reasons for the demise of the streetcars) was greeted by shouts, and many people in the streets must have wondered what all the fuss was about. Operator Kolley clanged his bell whenever he had an excuse — and quite often when he didn’t have an excuse.”

Every new passenger boarding the streetcar was greeted by cheers by those already aboard.

Two blocks from the Carruthers Street car barn, Jack Morrice became the last person in Winnipeg to pay a fare when he boarded No. 734.

Another cheer went up when the streetcar pulled into the yard. “Operator Kolley climbed out of the street car for the last time. Several of the passengers took with them a cardboard advertisement as a souvenir ...

“The last streetcar had run, and not a tear had been shed,” ended Richardson.


(Next week: part 4 of 4)