End of the Line

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.

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

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.

Ottawa Streetcar

Ottawa Streetcar in front of Union Station, Corner of Elgin and Rideau Streets, circa 1950

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/.





Mass Transit

15 August 1866

Mass transit began in Ottawa almost a year before Confederation. On 15 August 1866, the legislature of the Province of Canada, granted a charter to the Ottawa Street Passenger Railway, also known as the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), to provide a public transportation system for the city. As the name of the company suggests, the system was rail based. But, unlike trains, it was horse powered.  Horse-drawn carriages with wheels that fitted on steel tracks were an efficient, low-cost means of moving people in the days before electricity, or the invention of the car. They could pull a bigger load than non-railed vehicles, such as omnibuses, and provided a smoother ride owing to less rolling resistance, i.e., friction. Friction was something roads in the 19th century had lots of.  In those days before asphalt, Ottawa’s byways and highways were dusty and rutted in summer.  In winter, when they weren’t dangerously slippery, they were snow-bound, and rutted. In spring and fall, they were quagmires, thick with glutinous mud.  Crossing a street, let alone walking any distance, was fraught with perils to both body and clothing. But a railed, horse-drawn carriage was largely immune to these risks. The horses didn’t seem to mind the uneven or muddy terrain. Their hooves unerringly found sold ground, pulling their passengers in relative, though Spartan, comfort along the smooth rails. Mind you, it was hardly rapid transit. But this was a slower, more measured age than today.

In 1866, the government was keen to have a transit system in Ottawa. Already the capital of the Province of Canada, it was about to become the capital of the much larger Dominion of Canada. With all those politicians and civil servants having to get to work, it wouldn’t do for their daily commute to become bogged down in mud; a convenient, mass transit system was important for civic mobility as well as civic pride. But while Ottawa had great prospects, it was still a small town. At a stretch, it might have had 20,000 inhabitants at the time of Confederation. Montreal had a horse-drawn rail system, but its population was at least five times bigger. Even so, the Montreal service wasn’t profitable. Consequently, to have a similar service in Ottawa, the government was willing to offer major concessions. The charter it awarded to the OCPR was in perpetuity—a unique feature. As well, unlike in Montreal, the OCPR was neither required to maintain the roads on which the railway ran, nor to build anything but the main line, though the company could build branch lines if it desired. Furthermore, the OCPR did not have to provide a minimum number of hours of service per day, and its rates were unregulated. In 1867, The Ottawa Citizen commented that even if the company’s immediate prospects were limited, the charter would likely to prove very valuable in the long run. It noted that similar railways in American cities were “the most profitable of all investments,” and that “their value is yearly increasing, they are subject to no fluctuations, can have no competition, no risks of fire, and must endure as long as the population.” The newspaper also noted that the Ottawa service would run from one burgeoning suburb through the heart of the city to another flourishing suburb, unlike passenger railways in other cities which ran from city centres to sparsely populated outskirts.

The Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company, Circa 1871

The Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company, Circa 1871

Under the company’s charter, the OCPR could begin operations once $30,000 of its capital had been subscribed by shareholders and twenty per cent paid up. But despite the Citizen’s endorsement, it was a hard task to persuade people to invest in the venture. It didn’t help that the company’s first president was G.B. Lyon-Fellowes, a dodgy lawyer who had been jailed for vote-stuffing after winning a seat in the Province of Canada’s legislature in 1857. He would later briefly become mayor of Ottawa in 1876 in another tainted election but died in office before an investigation into election fraud was completed. Matters improved once Thomas C. Keefer, one of Canada’s foremost engineers, became a director of the company in 1867 and later its president. In early 1868, Thomas Reynolds, managing director of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, provided the needed additional funds to get the OCPR “on track.” The government also waived its requirement that the Ottawa portion of the railway be completed by 15 August 1868, giving the company an additional year. The OCPR began operations on 20 July 1870. Horse cars ran every 15 to 20 minutes; the fare was six cents.

The line started on what was then known as Ottawa Street (now Sussex Drive) in the Village of New Edinburgh, roughly at the corner of John Street. Leaving the Village, it made its way down the length of Sussex Drive to Rideau Street. Turning onto Sappers’ Bridge, the railway went down Sparks Street to Bank Street. It then headed north for a block, turning left onto Wellington Street, to Duke Street in LeBreton Flats and, finally, to the Union Suspension Bridge, the location of the Chaudière Bridge today. When it commenced operations, the company had six carriages, drawn by a stable of thirty-six horses. In winter, the horses pulled sleighs. The rail service proved to be instant success, carrying 273,000 people during its first year of operation.

Although Ottawa residents welcomed the new transit system, there were problems. Merchants complained about the loss of street parking along the line, and the extent the railway would be double tracked. Others worried about the impact of the line on property values, and the safety of pedestrians. The latter was a real worry; the railway’s first fatality occurred in 1871 when an eight-year old boy was hit near New Edinburgh. City officials, resentful of the special privileges of the company, complained that railway workers were not grading the streets properly after laying the railway, and that the OCPR was using a different gauge from that used by other passenger railways which meant that vehicles couldn’t run inside its tracks. It later squabbled over the maintenance and cleaning of roads.

In August 1889, the railway added a Rockcliffe extension to its route to increase ridership on the New Edinburgh to Centre Town route. The extension, which cost $4,500, linked the railway to an existing ferry service to Pointe-Gatineau in Quebec, thereby providing a convenient method of transportation into Ottawa for people living along the Gatineau River. The new route also gave Ottawa’s citizens easy access to Rockcliffe Park. At the time, this was a remote area which many city residents had never visited. It quickly became a favourite picnicking area; more than 200 people visited on the second day the extension was open and “were charmed with the locality,” said the Ottawa Free Press.  The service ran from May through to December.

There was one hitch that marred early jaunts to the Park. The sometimes fraught relationship between the OCPR and the City of Ottawa had led to a four hundred foot gap in the line between the end of the main line and the new extension that started close to Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General. Unbeknownst to railway officials when they started construction on the extension, the City of Ottawa owned a small stretch of roadway which the company wanted to use. Unwilling to pay what President Keefer though to be excessive fees for the use of the road, a gap was left in the line.  Passengers heading for Rockcliffe Park were met at John Street by a wheeled carriage which took them to the start of the extension at no extra charge. The “missing link” was not closed until May 1891.

Notwithstanding The Citizen’s contention that the horse-drawn railway would endure as long as Ottawa had a population, the OCPR didn’t last long. The horse-drawn service was eclipsed by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company that, starting in 1891, offered a faster and more comfortable electric streetcar service. Later that same year, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company bought a controlling interest in the OCPR. By 1893, horse-drawn, public transit in Ottawa was no more.


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/.

Churcher, C., 2014. “Local Railway Items from Ottawa Papers, 1889,” Ottawa Free Press, 1889. “Ottawa City Passenger, Rockcliffe,” 2014, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1889.pdf.

—————, 2014. “Local “Railway Items from Ottawa Papers, 1889,” Ottawa Journal, 1889. “Ottawa City Passenger, Rockcliffe,” 5 August, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1889.pdf.

McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.

Mullington, D., 2005. Chain of Office: Biographical Sketches of the Early Mayors of Ottawa (1847-1948), General Store Publishing House, Renfrew.

The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.

——————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.

The Evening Citizen, 1933. “Horse Vehicles Couldn’t Run In Rails Of The Street Cars,” 7 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1867. “Ottawa Street Passenger Railway,” 27 February.

Trout, J. M & Trout, E. 1871. The Railways of Canada, 1870-71, The Montreal Times, Toronto.

Wyatt, D. 2014. All-Time List of Canadian Transit Systems, http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~wyatt/alltime/ottawa-on.html.

Wikipedia, 2014. Ottawa Electric Railway, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Electric_Railway#CITEREFWetering1997.

Image: Library and Archives Canada