Photo: The Robert Excavating crew dug up wooden streetcar sleepers this fall on Wilton Crescent – remnants of the old Holmwood/Monk streetcar loop.
By Phil von Finckenstein
Excavators working on the southern Glebe renewal project made a surprise discovery this fall when they unearthed a section of the old Ottawa electric streetcar. Digging 12 feet down to remove old sewers, they happened on large wooden railway sleepers and steel spikes. A streetcar track began to emerge.
No archaeologists were on hand to chronicle the discovery. Long-time Glebe resident and Ottawa real estate expert Scott Parkes acknowledged the historical significance.
“This is not exactly discovering Rameses II, but unearthing the railway sleepers does remind us of the role the streetcar played in developing the Glebe we know today. The electric streetcar laid the foundations of our community.”
What excavators had specifically uncovered was the Holmwood/Monk loop, which was designed for easy access to the Lansdowne exhibition grounds.
Southern Glebe rehabilitation
The City is undertaking a $14 million rehabilitation of Monk Street, Oakland Avenue, Wilton Crescent, Woodlawn Avenue, Wilton Lane, Tackaberry Lane and Ernie Brady Lane. Started in late 2023, it is scheduled to be completed in 2025.
Robert Excavating of Ottawa has been contracted to reconstruct sewers, watermains, curbs, sidewalks and roads.
The project will also add new “traffic calming elements” to the neighbourhood, such as a raised intersection, a pedestrian crossing, speed humps and road narrowings.
Ottawa–Glebe streetcar history
The Ottawa streetcar era ended on May 2, 1959. It had run for 68 years and included 90 kilometres of track. By comparison, today’s O-Train has about 20 km of track and is expanding to more than 50 km.
The original Ottawa Electric Railway Company and then the Ottawa Transportation Commission (OTC) connected Ottawa to Gatineau and New Edinburgh to Britannia. An “Observatory Loop” gave residents access to the Civic Hospital via a track down Holland Avenue. A Buena Vista loop connected the well-healed in Rockcliffe to downtown. A Rideau Line ran to Springfield and Maple Lane and around the Beechwood Cemetery.
Two north-south tracks served the Glebe. The main line ran the length of Bank Street through downtown and the Glebe into Ottawa South. A shorter Bronson line ran from Dow’s Lake to Powell and Gladstone. Tracks made travel to the Glebe reliable, cost effective and efficient.
“The streetcar did, in fact, play a very significant role in opening the Glebe to visitors and residential buildings, albeit with some delay,” wrote Clyde Sanger and Ron Greene in a 2014 profile in the Glebe Report. In the early 1890s, when the streetcar started running, the entire Glebe included just 44 homes.
The streetcar ran rain or shine, with the exception of the Big Storm of December 29, 1942, when 9 inches of ice and hard-packed snow entombed streetcars for days. The Canadian Army was called in to get the trains back on track.
Ivan Mlikan, who immigrated to Ottawa in 1957, still remembers the streetcar. “The cars had ploughs attached to the front of them and would clear the tracks as they drove along their route. Some cars had a sweeper on the front of them that would clear lighter amounts of snow. It was quite a thing to see. I don’t remember the old electric cars shutting down as much as the current LRT.”
In the end, the OTC fell victim to changing demographics, work routines and a lack of new investment. In 1957, the OTC reported that due to “more autos, more women drivers, and the extended adoption of the five-day work week, one million passengers had been lost over the preceding six months.” The streetcars in Ottawa would last another two years.
Glebe residents Phil von Finckenstein and Phil Jr. came across a pile of old wooden railway sleepers on Wilton Crescent in the fall of 2023 while walking their dog Blanco. Staff from Robert Excavating confirmed they were old railway sleepers. For more information, please read Ottawa Streetcars by Bill McKeown, which provided many of the facts for this article.