Manitoba

End of an era as Winnipeg's last known streetcar operator dies

Winnipeg lost a connection to a bygone era when Brian Darragh, the city's last known streetcar operator, died in December at age 93.

Brian Darragh was a living link to Winnipeg Transit's evolution from streetcars to diesel buses

Brian Darragh in 2015, signing a copy of his book The Streetcars of Winnipeg: Our Forgotten Heritage. Darragh, the city's last known streetcar operator, died on Dec. 20 at age 93. (streetcarsofwinnipegbook.com)

Winnipeg lost a connection to a bygone era in December, when the city's last known streetcar operator died at age 93.

Brian Darragh started working for the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission in April 1954, a little over a year before streetcar service came to a halt.

By the time he retired in August 1992, Darragh had worked his way up from badge No. 825 to badge No. 1, as the city's most senior driver. In that time he witnessed, and participated in, the progression of public transit in Winnipeg. 

Darragh, who died Dec. 20, was a living link to the evolution from electric streetcars on rails to electric trolley buses on wheels with overhead lines, and on to diesel buses, said his friend Steven Stothers.

"He actually drove everything that Transit had, which is remarkable. He just had a great memory and stories," said Stothers, who owns the Winnipeg Trolley Company — a charter bus resembling the old ones — and is co-chair of the restoration committee for Streetcar 356, the last remaining Winnipeg-built wooden streetcar.

Streetcar 380 being operated by Brian Darragh, southbound along Main Street near Higgins Avenue. (Submitted by Steven Stothers/public domain)

Most of Winnipeg's streetcars clattered across their steel routes for the final time on Sept. 18, 1955, including the one steered by Darragh.

The very last one, No. 734, finished its run in the early hours of the next day, arriving at the north Main Street garage just before 3 a.m.

Trolleys that used overhead lines, but had rubber wheels, briefly took over. Diesel buses started replacing them in 1965, and the city's last electric trolley ran on Oct. 30, 1970.

A crowd gathers at Portage and Main in September 1955 to bid adieu to Winnipeg's last streetcars. (University of Manitoba/Winnipeg Transit Archives)
Brian Darragh, right, and Leonard Kolley, left, in front of Streetcar 356 in 2010. Kolley was the operator on the last streetcar, No. 734, on Sept. 19, 1955. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)

The only thing Darragh didn't drive, which would would have brought his career full circle, are the modern electric buses, which the city has previously pilot tested. Winnipeg Transit aims to introduce 16 into regular service in 2022 to 2023

During 64 years of electric service, the city had over 400 streetcars and trolleys but there are few traces of those systems now.

Many of the vehicles were sold to be used on farms as granaries or chicken coops, or even remodelled into cottages.

Wear and tear on street pavement occasionally turns up long-buried tracks, while riverbank erosion sometimes belches out rusted remnants.

Streetcars lined up length-wise, covered in a metal roof and turned into barn. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)
Streetcar tracks were revealed during road work at the corner of Broadway and Osborne Street in 2012. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)

'Front seat' to city's history: daughter

Darragh was the last direct connection to an era that that helped shape the city, which is why he was passionate about helping with the restoration of Streetcar 356.

"It was a project dear to his heart," said daughter Char Shatsky, adding her father loved to talk at length about the streetcars to anyone who would listen.

"He always felt there wasn't enough of an understanding of the impact they had on the city — the movement of people and the growth of the city."

Streetcar 356 as it looked when found in a farm yard. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)

Fascinated by them as a boy, when it came time for a career Darragh knew his calling was on those cars, she said. He also adored meeting people, and Darragh's riders came to know him and call him by his first name.

"Brian was a such a humble, amazing, kind man," said Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell, who, like Stothers, was enchanted by Darragh's stories.

"It's a testament to listen to somebody that was actually there — eyes on the street — tell you what the city was like. I'm awestruck by that."

Whenever she sees photos of Winnipeg's streetcar days, Shatsky says she smiles, thinking about her dad's involvement.

"It's neat to see that he was part of that history, watching it unfold as the times changed. He had a front seat for it."

Osborne Street looking south to River Avenue and beyond with Roslyn Court at left, circa 1909. (Past Forward/Winnipeg Public Library digital archives)

Darragh's stories remain thanks to his foresight in writing a self-published 2015 book, The Streetcars of Winnipeg: Our Forgotten Heritage.

"In five to seven years' time, none of us will be around to pass on verbal information such as you will find in this book," he foreshadowed in the book's preface.

Evolution of transit in Winnipeg

The city's first public transit system began Oct. 21, 1882, with a coach pulled by horses along a track that ran on Main Street, between Assiniboine Avenue and city hall. It later expanded further north on Main, as well as down Portage Avenue to Kennedy Street then south to Broadway.

In the late 1880s, Winnipeg businessman Albert Austin went to West Virginia to check on rumours of an electric streetcar.

He was so impressed that he ordered one when he returned to Winnipeg. Manufactured in St. Catharines, Ont., it was the first electric car manufactured in Canada and arrived in November 1890.

A horsecar for the Winnipeg Street Railway is seen at Portage and Main, circa 1890. (University of Manitoba/Winnipeg Tribune Archives)

But city council was afraid of the idea of electric streetcars on a busy street, worried someone could be electrocuted if the overhead wire fell. Austin was only allowed to operate it in the sparsely inhabited scrubland of Fort Rouge.

He hired a crew to clear the bush for a line running west from Main, along what is now River Avenue, then south to the Red River along what would become Osborne Street.

The first run happened Jan. 27, 1891, giving Winnipeg electric streetcar service before Toronto, Montreal and even New York City.

An undated and uncredited postcard photo of the Park Line streetcar. (Public domain)

To entice people to use the service, Austin began development that same year of two parks at the end of the line, which became known as the Park Line.

An amusement park and zoo, called River Park, was on one side of the river while a picnic ground called Elm Park was on the other, linked by a pontoon foot bridge.

Austin's streetcar is credited with spurring the development of homes and the businesses that soon followed. 

Hunting for streetcars

A streetcar hunter with the same verve as Darragh to see the era celebrated, Stothers has found rare images and about a dozen old streetcars over the course of the past decade.

"There's more out there than you would think," said Stothers, who took Darragh on some of those excursions to find the old cars.

Streetcar 692 as it was in service, running along the North Main route. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)
Brian Darragh in front of Streetcar 692 in July 2011. The streetcar had been turned into a cottage in the Belair area, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. (Submitted by Steven Stothers)

"You could tell he was pretty happy and was like, 'I may have driven this thing, I don't know,'" Stothers said. "He just was in his element and his memories. I was happy to share that with him."

Stothers and Tugwell say that once the Streetcar 356 restoration is complete there will be a dedication to Darragh and other late operators who helped with it.

"We're doing this in their honour," Tugwell said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

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