Manitoba

Streetcar sculpture brings 1919 Winnipeg General Strike to life

One of the most iconic images from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike has been resurrected.

Streetcar installed just steps from where violent and climactic event in general strike erupted

Noam Gonick watches the streetcar get lowered into place. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

One of the most iconic images from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike has been resurrected.

A streetcar sculpture, framed in stadium-grade steel and designed to appear half-tilted over, was hauled Monday from a steel fabrication shop in the city's Transcona neighbourhood, through the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street — a location that holds many of its own ghosts from 1919 — and set in place across from city hall.

The streetcar is lowered into place. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Seeing it touch down on a concrete plaza in front of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre, artist Noam Gonick said it "was like a weight off the shoulders — six tonnes of steel off my shoulders.

"It's been built to last forever."

The moment of touchdown for the streetcar at Main Street and Market Avenue. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

On June 21, 1919, steps from where the sculpture now stands, a violent and climactic event in the general strike erupted. Strikers and supporters gathered in front of city hall to protest the arrests of several strike leaders when a streetcar approached.

The car was being run by replacement workers, which the crowd took as an inflammatory attempt to break the strike.

The streetcar will get some finishing touches, including lighting and windows, over the next three weeks before it is unveiled. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
Strikers attempt to tip the streetcar in front of city hall on Bloody Saturday, June 21, 1919. (L.B. Foote collection/Archives of Manitoba)

They surrounded it, rocked it from side to side, and pushed it off the tracks but were unable to tip it over entirely. They then smashed the windows, climbed inside, slashed the seats and set it on fire.

As smoke billowed from it, the North West Mounted Police, along with special constables hired by the city, moved in on foot and horseback. A violent clash ensued with two people killed by police bullets and many others beaten.

The day became known as Bloody Saturday, which is the title Gonick gave to the sculpture.

Firefighters extinguish flames in a burning streetcar after the Winnipeg General Strike's Bloody Saturday riot on June 21, 1919. (L.B. Foote collection/Archives of Manitoba)

"Lots of people will see this thing tipped over and they'll say, 'What is that? Why is that there?' and people will answer [about] why a bunch of people got together and tipped over a streetcar, what made them unhappy, what they were trying to correct," he said.

"And in that, the people will explain to one another the story of the strike."

Club-wielding special constables line up across Main Street as the streetcar smokes behind them on June 21, 1919. The 'specials' and North-West Mounted Police battled with strikers and their supporters then took back the streets on what became known as Bloody Saturday. (Eva Stewart collection/Archives of Manitoba)

Gonick, who is primarily a filmmaker, began the streetcar sculpture as a collaborative project with sculptor Bernie Miller. In the fall of 2017, shortly after they completed the design and were ready to work with the steel fabricators, Miller died suddenly at the age of 69.

"I know that his spirit is very much with us today. This is a very, very heavy piece, it's heavy emotionally and it's heavy physically," said Gonick, who devoted the completion of the project to Miller.

We’ve Had It! The last street cars bid a tearful goodbye to Winnipeggers on their final run along Portage Avenue, September 1955, while crowds look on. Electric trolley buses continued to operate in the city until diesel buses took over in 1965. (Archives of Manitoba/Manitoba Historical Society)

Looking at it in place on Monday afternoon, Miller's widow Jeanne Randolph, nodded and smiled.

"I am overwhelmed. I think it is stupendous and it reflects the perfection that was always in his soul," she said. "Bernie was a man of few words but I am sure he would be very, very satisfied."

There is still work to complete before the streetcar will be unveiled to the public on June 21, 2019 — exactly 100 years after Bloody Saturday.

Some finishing work needs to be done on the steel, then wiring and windows need to be installed. The car will be illuminated from the inside and there will also be a beam from a headlight.

"In about three weeks' time, we're going to launch it and reveal it for the world," Gonick said.

The streetcar sculpture gets hosed down before leaving the Transcona yards of DMS Industrial Constructors, where it was built. The weathering steel reacts immediately to water to create a patina of rust. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
The streetcar sculpture waits to be unloaded and moved into place behind a fenced and tarped location, where it will be completed and unveiled on June 21. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Although Gonick's and Miller's sculpture made its way through the city on Monday, it didn't run on any tracks. In fact, it's been 64 years since any streetcars ran in Winnipeg.

They were pulled out of service in September 1955, as trolleys and diesel buses began to replace them.

The sculpture's design was based on photos from Bloody Saturday as well as a streetcar that was salvaged and restored at the railway museum at Winnipeg's Union Station.

"It was pretty rough but at least it still had the bones," Peter Sims, the project engineer, said about the model in the museum.

Noam Gonick gives his approval to the sculpture after it was set in place. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

For further reference, he and Gonick were able to track down remnants of other rotting streetcars at rural properties around the province. They gathered details here and there, piecing it together to create their sculpture.

What they built is 9.75 metres long (32 feet), 2.4 metres wide (eight feet), and 3.7 metres (12 feet) at the tallest point. The sculpture is set at a 20-degree angle to give it a tipped appearance.

"This was a totally off-the-grid kind of build," said Stan Hrncic, the project manager, whose brother Chris did a lot of the building at DMS Industrial Constructors in Transcona.

The angle made it challenging, but it's also what makes it compelling.

"It kind of hangs in the air. That's what I like about it, the way this slope just hangs in the air — like time just suspended," said Gonick.

Noam Gonick and Jeanne Randolph embrace after the streetcar was set in place. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

He and Sims couldn't say enough about the team of workers — between five and 12 at various times — who built the sculpture at DMS, and everyone else involved over the past five years since the idea's inception.

That teamwork, as well as the emotional connection with Miller and the project's symbolism of 1919's struggles for the working class, has made many people feel a bond with the sculpture.

"It's nice to see the baby in the cradle," Sims said, as he looked at it strapped on a flatbed truck, moments after it arrived at its final resting place at the corner of Main and Market Avenue.

As the crane straps were removed and the streetcar was put permanently in place, Gonick exhaled and turned to Randolph.

"Mission accomplished, Jeanne," he said as the friends smiled and shook hands.

"You did it, Noam. You did it," Randolph replied.

"We did it," Gonick said, then wrapped Randolph in an embrace.

Streetcar sculpture brings 1919 Winnipeg General Strike to life

CBC News Manitoba

2 years ago
1:52
One of the most iconic images from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike has been resurrected. 1:52

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 and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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