THE LAST RUN OF STREETCARS IN WINNIPEG
by George Siamandas
The day of Winnipeg’s love affair with streetcars came to an end on Monday Sept 19, 1955, the last day streetcars operated in Winnipeg. The last car, car no 374 which had ben decorated with tearful eyes, began its last trip east along Portage Ave from Polo Park to its final stop at Portage and Main. It was piloted by Mrs Francis Daly one of three women still working on streetcars. The streets were jammed by spectators. Mayor Sharpe and 82 year old Transit Commission Chairman W H Carter lifted a section of the rail, forever severing a link to the past.
The man who introduced streetcars to Winnipeg was Albert Austin. Austin had come to Winnipeg in 1880 at age 23 from Toronto. He wanted to give citizens paved streets and sidewalks and an inexpensive way of getting around town. It was a struggle for Austin who initially could not get the city to let him do it until he got some local prominent citizens involved in his streetcar company. On October 20 1882 was able to initiate a local streetcar service.
For the first ten years streetcars which could carry up to 24 people were horse drawn. In winter, because the rails would freeze, they replaced the metal wheels with sleighs. In 1888 Austin travelled to Virginia to see the operation of an electric system. Electric was of course the buzz word. By September of 1892 streetcars had been electrified. But after feuding with city council Austin lost his exclusive franchise and saw competition from other streetcar operators. By 1894 all the horse drawn cars were gone. And Albert Austin sold out his business and instead concentrated on developing Elm Park.
In the early 1900s streetcars helped open up the city. In 1901 they carried 3.5 million passengers in a city of 52,443 people. Fares were 5 cents and the cars would run through all but the worst blizzards of 1902 and 1904. In 1905 they ran as far west as Headingley. And in 1906 they also began to operate on Sundays. And by the same year all new streetcars were being built right here in Winnipeg. By 1925 there were 340 cars in the fleet and they carried 60 million riders annually.
During the depression years and later World War 2, the cars and tracks had not been adequately maintained and the fleet was in bad shape. Little by little they added trolley buses in the 1930s and 1940s. All across North America communities were switching to diesel buses. So it was that the first major policy decisions that new Transit Commission made in 1953 was to purchase new diesel buses and to discontinue the streetcar system. September 19, 1955 was the last day they would run in Winnipeg.