1 May 1959
At 3.25am on the morning of Friday, 1 May 1959, the last of Ottawa’s red electric streetcars, #837 driven by operator Gordon Anderson, pulled into the Cobourg Barn after having completed its final run from Britannia. Despite the early hour, on board as witnesses to history were management and union officials of the Ottawa Transit Commission (OTC). The following day, the OTC organized a parade in honour of the streetcars. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined the parade route from George Street to Holland Junction to bid adieu. The old streetcars, decorated with “Goodbye” signs, were accompanied by the 40-piece O’Keefe marching band, 30 majorettes, and a host of city officials, retired employees, and members of railway organizations.
The festivities marked the end of an era dating back seventy years. During the late 1880s, Ottawa had advertised in major papers for offers to build and operate an electric streetcar system. Negotiations were initially opened with a firm headed by Mr. Henry N. Bate, a prominent Ottawa merchant, but went nowhere. In 1890, a Toronto syndicate led by Mr. William H. Howland, a businessman and former mayor of Toronto, entered into talks with Ottawa officials. After months of negotiations, a detailed proposal was finally hammered out. However, Howland’s solicitor was unable or unwilling to provide a required $5,000 performance bond in a form acceptable to the City. When a deadline extension ran out during the afternoon of 20 November 1890, it looked like Ottawa’s efforts to obtain an electric transit system had failed again. But that evening, as discussions at City Council continued, an alderman announced that the city clerk had just received a letter from two local men, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, indicating their willingness to build and operate an electric streetcar system on the same terms as negotiated by Howland. The duo had brought electricity to the city some years earlier and had an excellent reputation. Unlike their competitor, they enclosed a $5,000 cheque made out to the City as security for the proper completion of the contract. A heated debate followed over the legalities of accepting the Ahearn-Soper offer. Howland’s solicitor, under protest, offered to provide a similar cheque. But it was too late. Council awarded the Ottawa electric streetcar franchise to the home-town boys on a close 12-10 vote.
The Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company, with capital of $500,000, was quickly up and running. Just two and a half months after breaking ground in early April 1890, the tracks and overhead electrical lines were installed, with a test run made on 24 June. The following day, the streetcars were opened to the public, with hundreds turning out to enjoy free rides. Four routes were promised: Main Line which ran down Rideau and Sparks Streets, Bank Street Branch, Elgin Street Branch, and the New Edinburgh Branch. A ticket on the new transit system cost five cents, a price that remained unchanged until 1928. The official launch of the service took place on Monday, 29 June, 1891. Four closed cars, festooned with bunting and carrying 140 invited guests including Mayor Thomas Birkett, made the inaugural trip from the Albert Street Barn (garage) to the exhibition grounds at Landsdowne Park. It’s said that Thomas Ahearn’s five-year old son, Frank, threw the switch which started the flow of electricity.
Thomas Keefer, the combative president and majority shareholder of the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), which had a charter to provide a horse-drawn railway service in the city, objected to the new electric streetcars. However, his complaints were silenced when Ahearn and Soper bought his company in October 1891. With the merger, the new company was called the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER). The horse service ceased operations by 1893.
As Ottawa was the first city in Canada to have an electric traction public transit system, other cities were watching closely, especially how the service would operate during the winter months. Under their contract with the City, Ahearn and Soper were permitted to run sleighs during the winter season. But, undaunted by the snow, the pioneering duo invented an electric rotary brush to clear the rails. Streetcar service ran unimpeded that first winter. Ottawa’s mayor had been so certain that winter service was impossible that he had offered to host a banquet in their honour should they succeed. In late February 1892, Ahearn, Soper and the directors of the OESR were feted at a special dinner; streetcars bore the guests home after the event.
The rotary snow brushes proved to be a sensation among Ottawa citizens. While store merchants objected to snow being sprayed all over freshly cleared entrance ways, as did pedestrians caught on the street as the sweepers went by, there was no doubt of their effectiveness. During that first winter, the stretch of Bank Street between Slater and Cooper Streets became the site of an impromptu contest between brawn and technology. As crowds cheered and jeered, men shovelled snow on the track in front of the streetcar sweepers. As fast as they could shovel, the sweepers brushed the snow aside. As dusk fell, victory was accorded to the newfangled machines.
The electric streetcars were part of what economists today would call a vertically integrated system. Ahearn and Soper also owned the company that provided the electricity that ran the streetcars, having built a powerhouse at the Chaudière Falls. They also purchased the Ottawa Car Company which built the streetcars. Conveniently, the rear entrance of Ottawa Car was right across the street from the Albert Street garage of the Ottawa Electric Railway. Ottawa Car made streetcars for the OER, as well as other urban transit systems, until it went out of business in1948.
Early OER streetcars were luxurious for the time. Called “Toonervilles,” they were electrically heated for the comfort of their passengers, and were equipped with clocks. Coco mats were laid down on their floors in winter to absorb melting snow. The exterior of the cars were painted red and green and sported gold scrollwork. Distinctive insignia on their roofs allowed customers to tell the route of the car from a distance. Cars were staffed by a driver and conductor, both of whom wore blue uniforms with silver buttons. Later, larger, roomier vehicles were introduced. In 1924, “pay-as-you-enter streetcars,” manned by only a driver, were brought into service.
Things began to sour for the streetcars in the late 1920s. Ridership slumped during the Depression, reducing revenues despite a ticket price increase to seven cents. Employees’ pay was cut by 10 per cent in 1931. Although ridership improved markedly during World War II, net income remained weak owing to rising costs and the wartime “Excess Profits Tax” levied by the Federal Government. Necessary infrastructure investment was deferred, and second-hand cars purchased from the Toronto Transit Commission were put into service. After the war, following a dispute over ticket prices, public sentiment began to favour public ownership of the company. A plebiscite in November 1947 overwhelming supported a government buy-out. On 12 August 1948, at a cost of $6.2 million, the OER passed out of private hands, and the Ottawa Transit Commission was born.
But the future continued to darken for Ottawa’s streetcars. With private ownership of cars rapidly rising as wartime austerity faded, transit ridership declined by a third by 1955 from its 1946 peak. In an effort to halt the rot, the OTC introduced trolleybuses, i.e., wheeled vehicles powered by overhead electrical lines, in 1951. While far cheaper than streetcars to purchase, trolleybuses could not compete with buses which were also competitively priced and didn’t require the costly electrical infrastructure. Buses were seen as modern and flexible, and already serviced Ottawa’s outlying areas following the annexation of portions of Nepean and Gloucester Townships. Internal and external reports commissioned by the OTC on the future of the transit system all called for the streetcars to be retired. To sustain an electric traction transit system would have required major capital investments to replace aging streetcars and to upgrade antiquated track and electrical systems, money the OTC did not have. Streetcars seemed to have few fans in official circles either. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, disliked them. A conversion to bus transit would allow for the elimination of unsightly electrical wires that marred views of Parliament Hill. Amidst Cold War fears, Mayor Charlotte Whitton claimed in 1955 that electric streetcars and trolleys were vulnerable to a sneak attack on the power grid; one blow could knock out Ottawa’s transport system. The coup de grace came on 5 August 1958 when Ottawa City Council under Mayor George Nelms voted to phase out the 96 streetcars and 10 trolleybuses and to replace them with 107 buses. By early 1959, streetcar lines were disappearing in rapid succession, until only the Britannia line remained when the last streetcar clattered into history that early May morning.
Angus, F. 1983. “Seven Hundred Days, The Story of Ahearn & Soper and the Beginning of Electric Traction in Ottawa,” Canadian Rail, November/December.
Burghardt, E., 2013. “Horses, streetcars, and light rail: A look at Ottawa’s transit systems,” Gazette, University of Ottawa, http://www.gazette.uottawa.ca/en/2013/05/horses-streetcars-and-light-rail-a-look-at-ottawas-transit-systems/.
Langlois, R. 2009. Ottawa Streetcars Removed Fifty Years Ago, Youtube Video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbqoBnhiak4.
McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.
The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.
————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.
The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tracks of Time—From Toonervilles to Trolley Buses,” 28 April.
Image: Streetcar with rotary sweeper, circa 1900, Library and Archives Canada
Image: Streetcars in front of Union Station, circa 1950, http://www.reddit.com/r/ottawa/comments/1105c8/old_ottawa_streetcars_at_elgin_and_rideau/.