Streetcars shaped much of Winnipeg's growth, says young historian

Winnipeg's now-defunct streetcars shaped much of how the city grew and should be remembered for that contribution, says young historian Cole Osiowy.

Now-defunct streetcars should be remembered for contribution to Winnipeg's growth, says Grant Park student

Cole Osiowy said Winnipeg's streetcars shaped the city's development. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

Winnipeg's now-defunct streetcars shaped much of how the city grew and should be remembered for that contribution, says a young historian.

Cole Osiowy's recent heritage fair project led the 15-year-old Grant Park High School student to discover just how big a part of the city's history the streetcars were.

"They came about only a few years after Winnipeg first was incorporated as a city," said Osiowy. "They were the catalyst for a lot of development that happened in the city."

The first streetcars appeared in 1882 thanks to an entrepreneur named Albert Austin, says Osiowy. The first cars were drawn by horses and the line was down Main Street.

About a decade later, electric cars were available, but city council wouldn't let Austin run the electric cars down Main, fearing the overhead wires and the possibility of electrocution.

Since the city wouldn't let him build the cars downtown, he ran the lines "in the bush that he cleared and he built a theme park at the end, and eventually that actually made the development that caused what would be today's Osborne Avenue."

The city also would not supply the lines with electricity, so Austin built his own power plant.

Eventually, city council would allow the expansion of the lines, but it wasn't Austin who built them. 

The last street cars bid a tearful goodbye to Winnipeggers on their final run along Portage Avenue in September 1955, while crowds look on. (Archives of Manitoba/Manitoba Historical Society)

"They gave the grant to these big railway businessmen that had made other railways in Canada, [James Ross and William Mackenzie].… It's speculated that they bribed city council."

Austin eventually sold his streetcars and lines to the Winnipeg Electric Streetcar company, owned by Ross and Mackenzie, for $175,000, and streetcar lines grew throughout the city, said Osiowy.

However, as automobiles and personal taxis came in, and then buses, the streetcar went by the wayside. In 1955, the last car stopped running.

Winnipeggers boarded the city's streetcars for the last time on Sept. 19, 1955, as the service was replaced by transit buses. 1:21

A single streetcar still remains, in the Winnipeg Railway Museum, said Osiowy. 

Development sprung up next to wherever streetcar lines ran, said Osiowy, and even ran to rural communities, helping development there.

Recently, a large trove of old streetcar tracks were unearthed at the intersection of Ellice Avenue and Garry Street.

Streetcar rails have been discovered in other places in city before and periodically, pieces of the rails would pop up out of the asphalt at the Garry and Ellice intersection.

Those tracks were last used in 1939. 

Osiowy used his new knowledge to put together a short documentary about streetcars in the city, and it received a Heritage Winnipeg Award at the Red River Heritage Fair. 

Feedback has been positive, he said.

"Actually, a lot of the people I've talked to, especially some of the older people, my grandparents, all can recount one time that they were on a streetcar as a child, and I think that's really cool as a connection."

About the Author

Elisha Dacey

Journalist

Elisha Dacey is a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast. Reach her at elisha.dacey@cbc.ca.

With files from Cameron MacLean and Nadia Kidwai

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