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

by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)

The official end of the streetcar era in Winnipeg was scheduled for September 19, 1955. On the appointed day, hundreds of people jammed the corner of Portage and Main to witness the funeral procession of the last four streetcars to travel the rails in Winnipeg. The streetcars left the St. James Loop at Polo Park at approximately 2:30 p.m.  Leading the forlorn parade was a car bearing the sign, “We’ve had it!” To emphasis the end had arrived, the car was painted with two eyes on the front windows shedding tears.

No. 374, the first car in the procession, was driven by Frances Daly, one of 53 women operators hired during the Second World War, although by 1955 she was just one of three women still employed as drivers.

A poster on the sweeper car, which was a streetcar equipped with rotating brooms to clear tracks of snow and debris, proclaimed, “We are making our last run. Clean Sweep!” The sweeper was the second car in the procession.

“Busses take over,” said another poster, intentionally misspelling buses, the implication being that buses had given streetcars “the kiss of death.”

A banner on the last car, “old No. 798,” driven by superintendent of transportation W.J. Jones and bearing the mayors and reeves of the 12 municipalities served by the GWTC (Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission), as well as press and radio representatives, warned the crowd to: “Take your last look. I won’t be back. Modernization has forced us to retire. I’m the last of my kind.”

A following day report in the Free Press about the ride into history claimed that no one would miss the streetcars. “For once probably not a person on the streets frowned and cursed the old cars as they clattered by, drowning all conversation. Public tolerance came with their fall. People even stopped talking voluntarily as they looked and waved at the evocative procession After all, there’ll be plenty of time for conversation.”

Before the last journey commenced, St. Boniface Mayor Joseph van Belleghem presented GWTC chairman W.H. Carter with the No. 1 cap and badge of the commission, which he happily donned.

Some children along Portage Avenue put coins on th track so that they could be flattened and kept as mementoes. City traffic inspector R.G. Montgomery thought it was such a good idea that he did the same thing on North Main.

“Sometimes we resist change,” said Mayor George Sharpe during the brief ceremony at the corner of Portage and Main, “but I am happy today to see the dream of (GWTC chairman) W.H. Carter’s fulfilled as the last street car makes way for what I am sure will prove to be a more efficient method of moving large numbers of riders more speedily.”

Before the last streetcar reached the car barn, the students from Norquay school waved it a last goodbye. “This school has had a history which closely parallels that of the street car service,” according to a front-page article in the Free Press on September 20, announcing the end of an era. “The first horse cars and the first Norquay school bother began in 1882. The horse car barn and the Norquay school were burned in the early 1890s.”

The mayors and reeves then gathered to initiate the process of removing the streetcar infrastructure. A photo taken on September 19 shows mayors Sharpe and van Belleghem pulling up a Portage and Main section of track using tools specifically designed for the purpose. In the background are the other municipal leaders performing the same task. Removing the section of rail to be cut up into scrap metal was seen as the symbolic entry of transit into the modern age of urban passenger transportation.

As the reeves and mayors tore up the track, the RCHA (Royal Canadian Horse Artillery) band fittingly played The Old Gray Mare to commemorate the last day of the old tired streetcars that “ain't what (they) used to be/Many long years ago.” 

Earlier, the RCHA had been riding aboard the first streetcar of the procession, providing marching music as the four-car parade travelled toward oblivion.

Another photo, taken mere minutes after the last streetcar passed, shows city crews beginning to rip up the islands at the corner of  Portage and Main. The caption said the tracks would be removed the following spring.

As a further insult to the retired streetcars, dignitaries riding the last car were returned from the end of the line to the GWTC’s office on Fort Street in a “shiny new diesel bus which will take over the Portage and Main run Sunday morning (Free Press).” 

Carter told reporters that “no change made by the city transit system had ever meant so much to the comfort and convenience of riders.”

Other casualties of the conversion were at least 30 GWTC track workers and mechanical staff. But R.W. Slocombe, the business agent of the Transit Trainmen’s Union, said there was little loss of employment as 17 workers had retired, four men and two operators were given alternative employment and a number, including Kolley, switched over to driving buses. However, others, some of whom had been in continual employee since 1929, were laid off.

Slocombe applauded the commission's efforts to find alternative work for the workers. But, “with the going of the streetcars also goes the means of livlihood of some employees of the Winnipeg transit commission,” he added. 

In the same Free  Press edition on September outlining the agenda for the ceremonial changeover from streetcars, advertisements appeared congratulating the GWTC. Of course, the ads were from companies with a vested interested in supporting the conversion. For example, Goodyear proclaimed, “Now all Winnipeg rolls on rubber ,,, We are proud of the fact that all of Winnipeg’s bus passengers will travel safely and comfortably on Goodyear tires.” 

Can-Car, the Canadian Car & Foundry Co. Ltd., a manufacturer of motor buses and trolley buses, announced in a half-page ad that it was “proud to have been the major contributor to Winnipeg’s modern transit system.” Prior to the conversion, the GWTC had received 50 Can-Car buses designed to carry either 25 to 44 passengers or 25 to 52 passengers.

As well, Twin Coach of Canada Ltd., another bus manufacturer, although its head office was based in Ohio, was equally proud to “have played a part in your modernization program.” 

As for the retired streetcars, advertisements appeared in newspapers saying their gutted bodies could be purchased for just $100 to $150 from Percy Mostow Enterprise, which had bought the streetcar inventory from the GWTC. The ads said the streetcars could be used for shooting lodges, cabins, granaries or garages. A wooden-bodied streetcar complete  with windows was $100, while one with a rare steel body and windows was valued at $150. Extras such as storm windows could be obtained for a dollar each, while seats were selling for $5 a piece.

The Winkler Times’ Ashleigh Viveiros wrote on August 28, 2009, about P.D. Penner of Penner’s Meats and Groceries, purchasing 40 of the streetcars. A September 28, 1955, advertisement in the Winkler Progress encouraged residents to place an order for their own streetcar, which could be used a greenhouse, chicken house, work shop and store. Apparently, these streetcars were eventually bought by farmers across southern Manitoba.

The same day of its report on the procession of the four last streetcars in Winnipeg, the Free Press said John Cahllis of St. Vital purchased a streetcar body which he planned to use as a greenhouse. He intended to paint it blue and white to match the colours of his house. This created quite a stir among St. Vital councillors, who didn’t share Cahllis’ view that a derelict streetcar was a good addition to the community. 

One councillor suggested that neighbours living within 400 feet of the streetcar be permitted to vote on whether or not they wanted to live next door to it. The council debated this suggestion and came to the conclusion that it would be asking too much of Challis to consider a 400 feet as the viewing limit.

The same councillor revised his suggestion, calling for Challis to place the streetcar at the back of his lot, and neighbours living within 200 feet be allowed to vote — the assumption was that a streetcar viewed from 400 feet was not as much of an eyesore as one seen from 200 feet. A motion containing these provisions was unanimously passed by the St. Vital council. 

The odd abandoned streetcar can still be seen rotting away in rural Manitoba, where they were originally intended to serve as cottages or granaries, but were found to be ill-suited for these purposes. Streetcar No. 384 is found south of  Winnipeg in the Pembina Hills, three others are connected in a row on a farm south of Winnipeg, No. 740 is on another farm, while a streetcar in a poor state of disrepair is located in a forest north of the city. Stories have emerged of old streetcars in Killarney, Grand Beach, Gimli and Tuelon as well as other areas of the province.

After the Viveiros article was published in the Winkler Times asking people to help locate Winnipeg streetcars, area farmer Peter Heide called Steven Strothers, who is heading the project to restore Streetcar No. 356. Heide said he had a rare steel-framed streetcar nestled behind his equipment shed, which is the first of its kind found in the province, as all others have wood frames. Heide said the streetcar was one of two his uncle purchased from Winkler businessman P.D. Penner in the late 1950s. The pair cost his uncle $350 with delivery included.

“The were for storing grain, but they were really a nuisance,” Heide told Viveiros, as the design was impractical for such a purpose. “The upkeep was way too high and very labour intensive ... I think that anybody that bought them felt it was a pretty poor investment, for grain storage, anyway.”

Despite being impractical for farm purposes, Heide told the Times reporter there is “prestige in owning one of those streetcars.”

The other streetcar was dismantled and removed in the 1980s.

The last streetcar in any semblance of good shape is No. 356 housed in the Winnipeg Railway Museum, and is now undergoing restoration by Heritage Winnipeg.

“It’s a pretty safe bet that in the next 75 years or so,” wrote Royce Richardson in a September 24, 1955, Free Press amusingly-styled commentary entitled, The Last Tram — A Stirring Tale to Tell in 1995, “this past week’s historic events will be talked about and handed down from father to son until they become part of Manitoba folklore.”

Richardson wanted to set the record straight by telling readers he was the only individual to take “both those historic last street car rides through Winnipeg’s thoroughfares,” which were the St. James run and the official procession the following day. 

Actually, Richardson’s story is humorously filled with great exaggerations which he implied would mark the future commemoration of the city’s last streetcar rides, including a remark that the last car carrying officials “to everyone’s surprise ... ran twice as well off the rails as on.”  

According to Richardson’s account, a burly man, who had been sitting in the back of the last streetcar from St. James, on a dare, single-handedly “tore up the track like it was a matchstick and laid it across the front of dear old 734 so that the last last ride almost caught up with the first last ride.”

When he accepted the transit commission’s recommendation to end streetcar service, Sharpe delivered an address on September 15, 1955, recorded by CBC Radio: “I know I speak for all citizens when we wave goodbye to this final streetcar that we know another big step has been taken in the progress of our city.”

Unfortunately for streetcars, there had been little technological advancement since the 1920s, while motor buses underwent massive changes, such as improvements to the chassis, tires and engine, and greater speed, handling and comfort. As well, buses were safer since customers were discharged at curbside rather than in the middle of a busy street. 

Before the modern era and the use of locally-manufactured New Flyer buses, transit buses from 1918 to 1955 were from a variety of manufacturers such as Studebaker, Ford, Mack, Twin Coach, Canadian Car,  General Motors, White and Motor Coach, another local company now devoted to long-haul buses.

GM, North America’s major bus manufacturer in the 1930s, introduced the monocoque body construction in 1931, the first automatic transmission in 1936, the first diesel engine bus in 1936, and the first bus capable of handling 50-plus passengers in 1948.

While some conspiracy theorists have claimed GM intentionally sought the destruction of streetcars in favour of its buses. But, it should be noted that even without GM’s influence, buses were favoured over electric streetcars by city planners and transit organizers in terms of cost and efficiency. The potential future benefits of streetcars — for example, less pollution —were never considered.

All the above was a factor in the decision made by the GWTC and the support from Sharpe. But, it was know long before that buses would soon rule North America’s urban environment.

“Let me say emphatically that the trolley can be relegated to the limbo of discarded things,” said Grover A. Whalen, New York’s commissioner of plants and structures (Bus Transportation magazine, 1922), “along with the stage coach, the horsecar and the cable car; that the motor bus is the vehicle best adapted to the requirements of the surface transportation in cities, that the motor bus is superior in speed adaptability, safety and comfort ...”

What is remarkable about the joy felt when the “clang, clang, clang” of the streetcar ended in 1955 is that city planners across North America are now trying to resurrect the bygone streetcar era, although in the form of rapid light rail transit. 

Towards the end of his political career, Mayor Steve Juba envisioned a monorail for Winnipeg, while today Mayor Sam Katz continually brings up the subject of a light rail system running from the downtown to the University of Manitoba. But, the city has already begun work on a $327-million rapid transit corridor for buses to the university.

A September 3, 1982, Free Press article by Fred Youngs, reported a civic committee concluded Winnipeg Transit could cut its diesel fuel bill by 3.8 million litres a year by putting 120 trolley cars back on city streets. With diesel then costing 31.9-cents a litre, the saving to the city would have been $1.2 million, a tidy sum at the time. 

Transit director Rick Borland, who presented the report to the city’s Executive Policy Committee, said within a decade diesel would cost 45-cents a litre and in time the price would jump to $1 a litre. Borland should be regarded as somewhat of a seer as diesel prices have now soared to over $1 per litre. 

In a commentary for the Tribune on February 2, 1980, Vince Leah mused about interurban electric trolleys making a comeback to serve points outside of Winnipeg, such as Stonewall and Selkirk. “With a great to-do about the energy crisis and pollution there are many people, especially in the United States who have the feeling the big electric were phased out with too much haste ... 

“It is felt that a new day may be dawning for the trolleys because the land is overpopulated with automobiles and government aid for public transit could be forthcoming and the lobbies that helped kill the electrics have disappeared ... The price of combustion engine fuel and its contemplated shortage may have us rushing to laying track and pulling up trolley wires all over again.”

In hindsight, it is arguably unfortunate that electric streetcars vanished from Winnipeg’s streets in 1955 and electric trolleys in 1970. Imagine the savings — environmental and otherwise — such a service would provide today. Manitoba is blessed with cheap, pollution-free and renewable hydro-electric power, so much so that it is able to export a good deal of it to other provinces and states south of the border. 

Some councillors have in the past also suggested a return to trolley buses using overhead power lines. Such a service would have no need for rails, but still have the benefit of using electricity generated in Manitoba. 

The last run of a trolley bus in the city was on October 30, 1970. When the trolley entered the Carruthers Avenue transit garage at about 7:35 p.m., the switch was opened at Winnipeg Hydro’s Mill Street substation, permanently shutting off power to the trolley wire system. After that, the overhead electrical lines were removed. Amazingly, some of the trolley buses met the same fate as streetcars; that is, they were sold in rural Manitoba. such as 10 that went to an unnamed country store owner to be used for storage.

“They should have left them on the streets,” said Leonard Kolley, the motorman for the last regularly-scheduled passenger streetcar. “They’re still using streetcars and trolleys in Toronto.”

“I miss them,” added Bernie Wolfe, a long-time councillor who was deputy-mayor of Winnipeg from 1974 to 1977. “It was a sad error in judgement to take them off the streets.”

The so-called “modernization,” proclaimed as the reason behind the replacement of streetcars by buses 55 years ago, was probably not so modern an idea after all.