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1955: Winnipeg's last streetcar rolls into history

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They're the last of their kind. With the rumbling procession of four streetcars, 64 years of electric railway service comes to an end in Winnipeg. A crowd has gathered at Portage and Main to say goodbye to the era of the streetcar. But Mayor George Sharpe looks forward, not back: "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."

The streetcar is giving way to what Sharpe describes as a "more efficient method of moving large numbers of riders more speedily" -- trolley coaches and diesel buses. Don McDonald of the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission tells the CBC program Canadian Scene that the transit system desperately needed modernizing. Streetcars simply couldn't continue to serve Winnipeg's needs. Diesel buses, he says, are more comfortable, convenient, economical and flexible.
• The Winnipeg Street Railway Company (WSRC), which had been operating horse-drawn streetcars in the city since 1882, demonstrated electric streetcar service in January 1891. The enterprise used just one electric streetcar. The company's owner was trying to win a franchise from the city for exclusive rights to run electric streetcars in Winnipeg.
• The streetcar was powered by a steam plant on the Assiniboine River near Main Street.

• In late 1891 a city bylaw granted the rival Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company (WESR.Co.) exclusive rights to operate electric streetcars. Its first streetcar ran in July 1892, and regular service began in September. The Manitoba Electric & Gas Light Company powered the service.
• Until 1952 the WESR.Co. (with numerous name changes) was a privately held business with two functions: offering transit services and selling gas and electric power to Manitobans.

• In 1952 the provincially owned Manitoba Hydro Electric Board purchased the company (then known as the Winnipeg Electric Company) on two conditions: gas, electric and transit functions all had to be separated, and the City of Winnipeg would have the option of buying the transit service.
• In March 1953 the city held a referendum, and the citizens of Winnipeg voted to purchase the transit company.

• The new transit commission immediately launched its modernization plan, purchasing 85 new diesel buses by September 1955. About 100 streetcars were still in the system, and the commission planned to remove them from service in mid-September 1955.
• The system also had trolley buses. Trolleys, which were powered by overhead hydro lines but didn't run on tracks, first came into service in 1938. Winnipeg's trolley buses were retired in 1970.

• The last day of regular streetcar service was Sunday, Sept. 18. About 30 transit enthusiasts boarded the last regularly scheduled car at 2 a.m. and asked the operator to sign their transfers as souvenirs.

• After revenue service ended, four streetcars -- including No. 798, then the longest city streetcar in Canada -- were shuttled to a station west of downtown Winnipeg for decorating.
• The first car in the procession was decorated with crying eyes and a frown. The others were affixed with banners and messages on their sides and backs.
• The procession began at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 19.

• The lead car in the procession, No. 374, was driven by Frances Daly, who had been hired as one of 53 women drivers during the Second World War. In 1955 she was one of three women still employed by the commission.
• Inside No. 374 was a military band to provide music for the ceremony.
• The other cars in the procession were full of special guests, civic politicians and members of the media.

• The procession route was lined with well-wishers. Children positioned coins on the rails so the last streetcar would flatten them as mementos.
• When the streetcars stopped at Portage and Main, the mayor and W.H. Carter, chairman of the transit system, made speeches to mark the event. The 12 mayors and reeves of Winnipeg-area municipalities served by the streetcar then gathered to ceremonially sever a piece of rail from the track.

• Car No. 356, a 10-window car built in Winnipeg in 1909, is the only known surviving Winnipeg streetcar. As of 2005 it was owned by a preservation group called Heritage Winnipeg and housed at the Winnipeg Railway Museum, where it was awaiting restoration.
• The Winnipeg streetcar system was the last in Western Canada. As of 2005 the only Canadian transit authority still using streetcars was the Toronto Transit Commission, with 197 cars.

• Trolley buses still operate in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Edmonton. As of 2005 the Edmonton transit system was considering phasing out its trolley buses.
Medium: Radio
Program: Canadian Scene
Broadcast Date: Sept. 25, 1955
Guest(s): Don McDonald, George Sharpe
Host: Liston McIlhagga
Duration: 5:07

Last updated: February 6, 2012

Page consulted on September 17, 2014

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