Reflections on Ottawa’s streetcars

by Clyde Sanger with Ron Greene

What started as a review of Ottawa’s Streetcars, a unique reference book on Ottawa history, has rather quickly morphed into a conversation about life in early Ottawa and the role of streetcars in the development of the city, more specifically in the development of the Glebe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Emerging from under the CNR bridge going south on Bank Street    Photo: Paul Mcgee
Emerging from under the CNR bridge going south on Bank Street Photo: Paul Mcgee
Starting in 1891, streetcars ruled the streets of Ottawa for some 68 years, pushing aside the valiant horses that had pulled the first effort at a street railway system since Confederation. Were the streetcars just a footnote in this city’s history? A newcomer arriving here a full decade after their demise in 1959 could easily come to that conclusion. And as just such a newcomer, I wondered whether they really played a significant part in the Glebe being developed and in houses being built there east of Bank Street. My Ottawa-born colleague and streetcar aficionado, Ron Greene, was keen to convince me of their importance as we perused Ottawa Streetcars together.
1942 - Car 832 on the Bronson Rte (E) in the storm     Photo: T.F. McIlwraith Jr.
1942 – Car 832 on the Bronson Rte (E) in the storm Photo: T.F. McIlwraith Jr.

Reading another Glebe history classic, John Leaning’s The Story of the Glebe, it becomes quite clear that the streetcar did, in fact, play a very significant role in opening up the Glebe to visitors and residential building, albeit with some delay. Despite Ottawa becoming the capital of Canada in 1867, economic recession in the 1870s and 1880s effectively restrained demand for land and by 1888, there were still only 43 homes in the Glebe. According to Leaning, the Glebe, located at the very edge of Ottawa, attracted attention and expansion in the 1870s and 1880s primarily for sports and entertainment. In fact, it was not until the more prosperous years of the 1890s that any substantial steps were taken to divide land into residential lots. However, by 1891, the founders of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER), Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, embracing all things modern and electric, managed to open a track along Bank Street. That meant that electric streetcar passengers, like those able to afford a private automobile, could travel easily to just beyond the main gate of the Lansdowne fairgrounds. This expanded access to the park as well as to the Glebe and facilitated a period of intense development in and around Lansdowne Park as former “glebe” lands became available.
1929 - Glebe sections of Bank Street and Bronson Avenue routes
1929 – Glebe sections of Bank Street and Bronson Avenue routes

The rudimentary streetcar network continued to be extended for several decades, serving populations as far east as Rockcliffe, residents and visitors in Britannia to the west and the inhabitants of Old Ottawa South and beyond, until the streetcars were finally replaced by buses. Initially, the route ran the length of Rideau Street and down Bank as far as the Rideau Canal. Ahearn later added a loop from Holmwood around Monk Street to the exhibition grounds. No traffic problems then around Lansdowne.
1958 - Car 819 going south on Bank Street Bridge at Lansdowne    Photo: T.F. McIlwraith Jr.
1958 – Car 819 going south on Bank Street Bridge at Lansdowne Photo: T.F. McIlwraith Jr.

The streetcar helped the process of the Glebe being surveyed and settled. Another arm eventually reached as far as the Bronson swing-bridge over the Canal. The OER extended special lines to the Experimental Farm, the Civic Hospital… a loop past Beechwood cemetery… and for Ottawa’s version of “seaside” outings, to Britannia-on-the-Bay as early as 1900. It is thus that the OER and its successor, the Ottawa Transportation Commission, provided not only public transportation but a shared history over generations and a wellspring of personal stories associated with the streetcar.

So it is, then, that my colleague and contributor to this article, Ron Greene, was thrilled to have a chance to read in depth, Ottawa’s Streetcars, a handsomely illustrated and detailed history. Reminiscing, Greene recounts living on Springfield Road at age eight in the early 1950s, wearing a motorman’s cap and make-believe “driving” a streetcar – using his mother’s bread-making pail as a handy substitute for the speed controller and a pair of saucepans, one set inside the other, for the air-brake and door-opener.

1950 - Car 650 near the east end of gantlet* track on Powell Avenue/Bronson Avenue. Photo: Ron Ritchie.
1950 – Car 650 near the east end of gantlet* track on Powell Avenue/Bronson Avenue. Photo: Ron Ritchie.

Outside, he’d wait patiently for the Lindenlea-line car to come racing down the hill from the woods up near Maple Lane. In wintertime, he’d scavenge the bamboo broomsticks shed by the snow-sweeper cars. A year later, all grown up at age nine, he was tasked with the mission of manhandling a large burlap bag carrying the family’s ailing – and loudly complaining – cat onto the tram, and delivering it uptown to the vet’s Rideau Street clinic. He gained his youthful passion (and the cap!) from his immigrant grandfather, George Page, who found work as a motorman (as many immigrants drive taxis today.) The passion endures; to Greene, such a book is a treasure.

Certainly, Ottawa’s Streetcars author Bill McKeown kept his own passion aflame through 40 years as a teacher in Japan. Amazingly he compiled this book at such a distance, and crammed every conceivable detail into its 258 pages and copious photographs. A frightful recounting of the Great Ottawa Blizzard of 1942-43 and how it stranded streetcars all over the city – along with some striking photos –make our current winter seem almost lightweight by comparison! He devotes almost half the book to a dozen appendices, the largest being a roster of every single streetcar. You can learn when steel-sided cars began to replace wooden ones (in 1924), and note how the Depression marked the end of the two-man (motorman and conductor) car. And the common question: why no series or individual streetcars had ‘7’ in their numbering? The legend persists that long ago a child was killed on the corner of Albert and Kent by car number 27, and the stricken mother persuaded Thomas Ahearn, who ran the OER, to leave out that unlucky digit on future cars.

Bronson “E” Route - Bronson Avenue loop just west of Bronson Avenue one block north of the Rideau Canal  Photo: J.D. Knowles
Bronson “E” Route – Bronson Avenue loop just west of Bronson Avenue one block north of the Rideau Canal Photo: J.D. Knowles

The book is full of human stories. The best are told over a dozen pages by Bruce Dudley, whose two grandparents and father were operators before him. Tales of gung-ho apprentices… devilish pranksters… a frightening accident… and near misses! Also in the appendices is another delightful personal story. “A Recollection….” tells a heart-warming, (if slightly embarrassing!) tale of the author and her older sister, when the younger was all of seven years old. The two girls were struggling against the frightful winter elements in the deep snow along the Britannia right-of-way, near the McKellar loop (past Westboro), desperately trying to get home in the storm in time for dinner. In an act of unexpected kindness, a keen-eyed motorman stopped his streetcar mid-block, insisted they board and sped them on their way to deliver them home and out of their misery.

For 17 years the OER used three rebuilt, light horse-cars to deliver the mail on contract with the Post Office, and gave free rides to letter-carriers. But the service ended after complaints that the cars (which had right-of-way) were being driven at reckless speeds, and after Ahearn wanted $15,000 a year to continue the service.

Not long afterward, automobiles were everywhere, and OER tracks were being removed even before the City and the Ottawa Transportation Commission (OTC) took over in 1949 and made short work of abandoning the rest.

Drawing on streetcar history, Ron Greene has many personal memories as well. “In my childhood I was obsessed first with streetcars, then the entire rolling stock of the OTC. I could rhyme off the class numbers of electric rail vehicles and of buses, and recite the details of when and where each was made. So, while Ottawa’s Streetcars presents a meticulous history from civic politics down to the machine-shop floor, one appendix enthralled me more than others – the one by Bruce Dudley entitled Remembering the OTC.

“Dudley tells how he (and his other callow apprentice-drivers) grappled with learning to manoeuver these 20-ton steel behemoths, slowly advancing the controller this way, the air-brake that… and not least, learning to cope with the practical jokers (usually adolescents) who, after disembarking and out of the driver’s sight, would tug the trolley-pole tension rope just enough to pull the roller wheel off the overhead wire, thus rendering the car completely dead. That is, until the irate motorman would be forced to leave his warm perch in the car, clamber to the rear outside and gingerly stickhandle the pole (via the rope) back to its sacred spot on the high-voltage wire above.

“Dudley also recalls one night on the Britannia run, when the high speed and side-to-side motion of the old 600-series car lulled him into slumber – yet unwittingly, maintaining his hand on the “dead-man’s” control! – only to awaken in a panic after careening through several stops and level-crossings along the Byron Avenue right-of-way. Just in the nick of time, too, as the McKellar loop switch was only a stop or two away!”

Says Greene of his own lifelong fascination with streetcars, “Well, I now suspect this enduring fascination with the workings of these lowly beasts of transport was a seed planted, quite literally, in my head at the age of five, when my grandfather, about to retire after years of OTC service, bestowed upon my head – to my great delight! – his motorman’s braided visor cap. The old man knew exactly what he was up to! ”

*gantlet – double streetcar tracks that fold into one another

Ottawa’s Streetcars: An Illustrated History of Electric Railway Transit
in Canada’s Capital City
by Bill McKeown
(Railfare DC Books, 2006)
(Available at the Glebe Report office.)

See “Ottawa Streetcars Removed Fifty Years Ago” by Carlington Enews on YouTube:

Glebe resident Clyde Sanger is a longtime contributor to the Glebe Report. Ron Greene is an Ottawa-born transit aficionado with a sharp memory.

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