Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's was once on par with San Francisco for streetcars, says author of new book

St. John's had its very own streetcars from 1900 until 1948, well before the hustle and bustle of the city's public buses. 

Robert Reid main reason behind the 48 year run of public transportation system

The author of a new book on the history of streetcars in St. John's says the city's system once rivalled much bigger cities' networks. (NLP Archives)

San Francisco's streetcars are iconic, a part of the identity and heritage of that city and others around the globe, including Toronto and New Orleans.

Even St. John's had its very own streetcars from 1900 until 1948, well before the hustle and bustle of the city's public buses.

But while the streetcars of St. John's remain a long and distant memory, Kenneth Pieroway is determined to keep their history alive with his latest book about Newfoundland and Labrador's transportation industry, complete with before-and-after photographs from around the city where the lines once ran.

In the winter streetcar crews would clear the snow from the rails to allow the cars to continue to operate. (MUN Digital Archives)
Water Street looks a little different today without the cobblestone. (Kenneth Pieroway/Flanker Press)

"Gathering the photographs wasn't too bad. I had a lot of great help I must say. The City of St. John's archives, The Rooms, Larry Dohey," Pieroway told CBC Radio's On The Go, referring to the late archivist.

"Larry Dohey was absolutely amazing in his work and I can honestly say that without Larry's input, this book would not be."

Own photography

Pieroway shot all of the modern photographs. Waiting for the perfect day and the perfect lighting was the most difficult challenge for him, he said. 

And it wasn't just the struggle with Newfoundland's ever unpredictable weather, or hoping for the perfect sunny day; Pieroway would often wait patiently near his subject, watching for the natural light to shift perfectly to unveil a particular column or window ledge in a building before hitting the shutter on his camera.

There was no overpass, or even a highway, here in the early 1900s. (City of St. John's Archives)
Kenneth Pieroway shot all of his own images to present the city as it is today compared with what it looked like while streetcars were in use. (Kenneth Pieroway/Flanker Press)

One example is in his image of former Prime Minister Walter Monroe's house where Pieroway studied the exact moments in which the sunlight would fall perfectly on two columns which stand on the front of the property. 

"But the sun only came around late in the evening for about three days in June between 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.," he said.

"So I missed the first year. I had to keep note of this knowing that those three days I had literally a couple of minutes' window just for the sun to come around just right, and then of course I had to have the clear, sunny skies. So it took a while to get that shot."

Little St. John's

Pieroway has two other books under his belt about Newfoundland's railway history. Rails Across the Rock and Rails Around the Rock ultimately led him to Streetcars of St. John's

He says not many locals knew the province's capital city even had a streetcar system, which was gone before Confederation. 

The brick building on the left was where it all began for St. John's streetcars. (Kenneth Pieroway/Flanker Press)
No convention centre here, just businesses and train rails. (City of St. John's Archives)

The streetcar system was so well-oiled, he said, that wait times for passengers was only about 10 minutes between stops.

He also attributes the whole project to Robert Reid, who built the Newfoundland Railway and was offered $140,000 to build a street railway in St. John's, pave Water Street with cobblestone and build an electric plant in Petty Harbour to operate the cars. The plant in Petty Harbour still exists today.   

Eight cars would run from the crossroads where Water Street splits into Topsail Road today, all the way down Water Street, double-tracked, to the King George V institute at 93 Water Street. The fare was two cents per passenger. 

Today the St. John's Convention Centre is situated where businesses once stood in downtown St. John's. (Kenneth Pieroway/Flanker Press)

"We have to look at in a historical perspective. We did ours at the same time as San Francisco, Boston, New York, Vancouver, Chicago, Toronto — all these great cities in North America. Essentially, little St. John's was on par with the greatest cities in North America at the time," he said.

"Without Robert G. Reid we would probably not have our streetcar system.… In some ways our system was actually better."   

Streetcars of St. John's is published by Flanker Press. Pieroway is holding a book launch Sept. 17 at Chapters on Kenmount Road. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go