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

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

It was a mere one-paragraph article in the Manitoba Free Press, but the small size of the item, tucked away inconspicuously near the bottom of page 5, was in stark contrast to the massive future repercussions of the event being reported. The announcement on May 2, 1918, was a very humble beginning to a change that would subsequently expand to encompass the entire city. In fact, the consequences of what transpired would eventually be felt well beyond Winnipeg’s borders.

Motor Buses in Operation was the small-print headline for the brief news story, which related that, for the first time in the city’s history, a gas-powered bus, carrying 16 passengers and driven by J. Allen, had left the terminus at Westminster and Sherbrook on May 1. Three other buses then followed at scheduled intervals. The route for the new passenger bus service was along Westminster Avenue, turning onto Lipton Street and then onto Portage Avenue, with the buses returning by the same route in reverse order.

The article also reported that the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (WERC) was being petitioned by area residents to add Elgin Avenue as a bus route. “The decision rests with the city council, as they can obtain the same by ordering the company to place them on that route.”

The initial change in the city’s transit system arose when the city agreed with the WERC to remove jitneys from the city’s streets. Jitneys, a name derived from a token called a jeton originally used in the French Quarter of New Orleans,  were privately-owned automobiles that picked up passengers for a fee. The route taken was up to the car owner as were the hours of operation, but the cost of five-cents a ride was inexpensive by the standards of the day. 

The May 2 edition of the Free Press also carried an article on the same page as the announcement of the first bus service that proclaimed an end to jitneys in the city. According to the article found below the story about the buses, the lawyer for the Jitney Owners’ and Drivers’ Association was instructed not to oppose the new city bylaw putting the privately-operated vehicles out of business. 

The price the WERC paid to the city for passage of the bylaw was the expansion and improvement of its streetcar rolling stock, as well as the implementation of a motor bus service. The agreement called for the transit company to spend $900,000 over a three-year period, but the WERC actually doubled that amount to $1.8 million. Another $500,000 was spent by the company for new sub-stations and upgrades to its power system.

The arrival of the first buses on Winnipeg’s streets undoubtedly convinced the jitney operators that their days were numbered, so they conceded the inevitable and decided not to fight city hall.

Initially, buses were only meant to supplement streetcars by providing service on routes where the cost of installing steel rails and electrical lines could not be justified. By the end of 1918, just four buses operated on the Westminster line. The next buses purchased by the company served on routes to the St. Boniface Stockyards and along Notre Dame. 

Buses soon began to replace streetcars in other areas of the city, as the WERC realized the economic advantages of gasoline-powered vehicles. In order to operate streetcars, significant investments had to be made in steel rails, switches, a power supply, and, of course, the streetcars themselves, the majority of which were built at the company’s Fort Rouge shop. 

The power supply was updated, when at precisely 4:15 p.m. on November 12, 1895, Mrs. Gilroy (no first name was provided), the wife of Winnipeg Mayor Thomas Gilroy, turned a small wheel in the WERC’s new Assiniboine electricity plant, adjacent to the company’s car barns (now the site of Bonnycastle Park) at Assiniboine Avenue and Main Street. Once the wheel was turned, steam from four boilers entered turbines capable of generating 550-kilowatts of electricity. In reserve was a smaller generating system originally used in 1891 for propelling the three electric streetcars of Albert Austin, whose company was purchased by the WERC in 1894.

On a temporary platform erected for the occasion, Mayor Gilroy said he was often in conflict with the WERC, but admitted “the vast boon” the company was to the city. The mayor was not alone in criticizing the WERC for its city-wide monopoly in providing electricity and streetcar service. Residents, especially businessmen, claimed the monopoly resulted in exorbitant rates charged to WERC customers. The original rate for electricity from the Assiniboine plant was 20 cents per kilowatt hour.

The power plant was dismantled in 1916, when it became redundant after the WERC built a $3-million hydro-electric generating station on the Winnipeg River at Pinawa, which opened in May 1906. Not only did the generating station provide power for the company’s streetcars, it was also Winnipeg’s sole source of electrical power until 1911 when the city-owned hydro-electric generating station at Pointe du Bois opened. 

When city-owned electricity came on-line, the WERC was forced to lower its rate to 10-cents per kilowatt hour, which was still well above the city’s rate of 3.5 cents. 

Winnipeg City Hydro was in direct competition with the WERC until the company’s assets were purchased by the provincial government in the 1950s and then sold to the city. (In 2002, the process was reversed, as Manitoba Hydro purchased Winnipeg Hydro from the city.)

The competition intensified to the point that the city and WERC fought in the courts over who had the right to establish poles and lines on Winnipeg’s thoroughfares. Before the couts became involved, it was a mad scramble in pursuit of customers with the WERC erecting one set of lines along a street and the city another on the opposite side.

The scramble ended in 1912, when the WERC received a favourable ruling from the Privy Council in London, England (at the time, the final arbitrator of justice in Canada), specifying that the company had the right to bring power to the city, that it had the right to use city thoroughfares, and that the city had to pay the costs of the litigation. The outcome of the ruling was that the city and the WERC had to share the same electrical transmission lines in Winnipeg.

The River Avenue route, on which the company’s very first electric streetcars had run, was abandoned on May 19, 1920. It became apparent that the abandonment of this line, which had for decades carried passengers to highly-popular River and Elm parks, was a sign that the era of streetcars would eventually come to an end. The same year, the company suffered a crushing blow when its Main and Assiniboine car barns burned down, destroying 21 costly streetcars. With the fire, buses soon afterward began to take over short “feeder” lines and lightly used suburban routes (A History of Transportation in Winnipeg, by Walter F. Bradley, MHS Transactions, 1958-59 season).

By 1922, Transcona was linked by bus to Winnipeg. The route was initially privately-run under the name the Transcona Transportation Co. (1924), but the Winnipeg Electric Company (the new name for the WERC), or WEC, bought out the service on August 5, 1926.

By the 1930s, and with the financial hardships of the Great Depression, less-expensive bus service was supplanting the development of more streetcar routes.

Another challenge the company faced was the proliferation of automobiles on Winnipeg’s streets. To met the competition, the WEC purchased six trolley buses, and on November 21, 1938, commenced service on the Sargent Avenue line, which was the first service of its kind in Western Canada. 

While trolleys were still powered by electricity fed by the same overhead lines as streetcars, they were not dependent upon rails as they rode on rubber tires. Although less expensive than streetcars, trolleys were still more expensive to run than buses, due to the need to maintain existing and construct additional overhead electric lines as the service expanded.

Another significant factor in the demise of streetcars was the decision by St. Boniface council to approach the WEC to convert its transit service in the city to buses.

The Winnipeg Tribune reported on October 13, 1939, that the city of St. Boniface and the WEC had reached an agreement to replace streetcars with buses within a three-month period.

“Under the agreement St. Boniface is promised a modernized transportation system and other concessions in return for an extension of the franchises on light and power and transportation in St. Boniface until Dec. 31, 1960.”

The WEC’s franchise for transportation was slated to end in 1942, while its franchise for power and light with the city was to end in 1944, which undoubtedly motivated the company to comply with the council’s request.

The concessions St. Boniface received included a reduction in the rate for street lights from 15-cents a night to 14-cents, which was projected to save the city $800 annually, 32 street lights on Provencher Boulevard at a special rate to replace eight other lights, extra bus service to St. Boniface hospital during visiting hours, and a 15-minute transit service throughout the city instead of a 20-minute service.

The Second World War provided a brief hiatus for the removal of streetcars from service, due to increased demand for city transit and manufacturers focusing on war production, which limited the availability of alternative transportation to Canadian cities. Transit ridership also increased as a result of gasoline rationing imposed on privately-owned automobiles by the federal government as of April 1, 1942. Each car owner received coupons that permitted only 120 gallons of gasoline to be bought annually. Besides creating the increase in public transit ridership, the rationing of gas caused a significant upswing in car-pooling. The gasoline rationing continued for the duration of the Second World War. 

In 1944, W.H. Carter, the president of the WEC, reported that transit ridership had increased by 10 per cent over the previous year and 99 per cent over 1939. The WEC was then operating a fleet of 215 streetcars, 22 trolley buses and 108 buses in Winnipeg and the surrounding municipalities, with streetcars carrying 62 per cent of the passengers.

Carter told a sub-committee of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council  in 1943 that a shortage of men necessitated hiring women as streetcar operators. During the war, 53 women were employed as streetcar operators and maintenance workers.

He said a lack of equipment and manpower had severely handicapped the company during peak hours. For its part, the sub-committee told Carter the streetcars were over-crowded even during off-hours.

Carter urged the trades council to press for staggered work hours, with workers at the CPR shops at Weston quitting at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. which was then the practice. He said the change would alleviate a serious transportation problem, as the existing quitting time required a line of 15 buses that could not be used on other routes, Carter added.

In 1944, Carter said the WEC spent nearly $1.3 million to purchase 95 buses and 16 trolley buses, while another $300,000 was used to build a new bus garage.

“Ten new buses were made available to the company this year (1944) of the 100 permitted to be sold in Canada,” according to the Tribune. With the war still being bitterly fought in Europe, the priority of Canadian manufacturers was to build tanks and aircraft rather than buses, which explains the small number of buses available to the WEC. In addition, rubber was earmarked for the war industry, which limited the supply of tires for the public and private sector.

The strain of increased ridership and the inability to expand routes, due to the wholesale transfer of materials and labour to the war effort, resulted in the federal government appealing to Canadian shoppers not to visit stores during peak hours of operation in the morning and afternoon.

By the end of 1946, when the city had a population of just 229,045 people, 105-million passengers travelled on the city’s streetcars, trolleys and buses. In comparison, Winnipeg’s present fleet of over 500 buses carries approximately 41- million passengers annually out of a population approaching 700,000.

But the increase in passengers during the war didn’t quite bring an end to the tearing up of streetcar tracks. 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.

(Next week: part 2)