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Streetcar Backtracks update

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On Sept. 19 more than a few people showed up for a special screening of Backtracks at Cinematheque.

The showing of Backtracks: The Story of Winnipeg's Streetcars coincided with the 55th anniversary of the last running of streetcars in the city.

More people showed up than organizers expected and they almost doubled what they expected to collect in donations. The money will go towards the restoration of Streetcar 356, the only known last remaining streetcar.

Backtracks was produced by Winnipeg’s Edgeland Films and will be aired on MTS TV Winnipeg on Demand starting next month.

The response says a couple of things: One, the organization behind the restoration of Streetcar 356 are passionate about what they’re doing and two, Winnipeggers are more curious about the city’s history than many appreciate.

For more than half a century streetcars were the main way of public transportation in Winnipeg.

They were unceremoniously taken off the streets in the 1950s to be replaced by trackless electric trolley buses and diesel buses.

They ended up being sold for scrap or being converted into cottages, bunkhouses, grain bins and in at least one case, a school house near McGregor.

There were hundreds of wood and metal streetcars at one time. Now there’s only one left that resembles an original streetcar, No. 356.

There are a few reasons why streetcars were yanked; the city’s suburbs were growing and streetcars couldn’t keep up with the movement of people in and out the downtown, more people were buying cars and didn’t use public transportation, they were at times inefficient in operating during the winter and they increasingly got in the way of motorists.

Then there’s this theory: Bus manufacturers and tire companies banded together to pressure Winnipeg and other cities across North America (except Toronto and San Francisco) to get rid of electric streetcars in favour of the combustion engine.

In a perfect world, it’d be great to hop in an old streetcar and roll down the middle of Portage Avenue or Broadway again, but that’s unlikely. The closest we’ll come is Fort Edmonton Park which uses old streetcars (perhaps restored with parts from Winnipeg) as part of its historic exhibits.

Then there’s Mayor Sam Katz’s plan to use light rail as part of Winnipeg’s new rapid transit strategy. Right now it’s just a plan.

If you’re hankering for the bygone streetcar era there’s one place you can go to see, in a small way, what it once looked like. Visit the south-west corner of Broadway and Osborne Street. There’s streetcar track still poking up from below the pavement. (I took a photo of it today.)

No matter how often the city asphalts it over, it won’t go away.

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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