Eighty-five years ago today, the City of Brandon shut down its short-lived street railway system.
At the time of its creation, many believed it was a sign of progress and the key to future prosperity, but it collapsed under mounting debt and helped push the city into third-party administration during the Great Depression.
The City of Brandon was incorporated on May 30, 1882 with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Its initial population was 700, but the city grew rapidly. By 1891, Brandon boasted nearly 4,000 citizens, and by 1906 it had surpassed 10,000.
The city entered the 1910s on a high. It was in the midst of an unprecedented private and public sector building boom, and its population growth, then at 13,000, showed no signs of slowing.
There was one big-city amenity not offered at the time: public transportation. Citizens looked west to other railway cities such as Regina, Moose Jaw and Calgary, which were in various stages of launching street railway systems. Many decided it was time Brandon did the same.
In November 1910, alderman John W. Fleming presented a petition of 2,000 signatures to his council colleagues requesting a street railway system be established. It led to a referendum in the next month’s civic election, where 1,102 of the 1,574 voters agreed. In that same election, Fleming was elected mayor.
A crucial issue to be addressed in a later vote was whether the street railway should be publicly or privately owned.
Newspaper coverage of council meetings and the election campaign indicates most favoured a public system. The Brandon Sun went so far as to state, "There should be absolutely no consideration whatever of any other plan than municipal ownership."
Public ownership meant the city would have to put up the initial capital to get the system started, estimated at around $300,000, but the resulting revenues would flow directly into its coffers.
It would also give city officials control over the creation of routes and frequency of service. They only had to look to the City of Winnipeg, which was constantly butting heads with its private streetcar company on such matters, to see the advantages.
'Today we ought to feel proud because this is the dawn of a new era in Brandon, an era of prosperity as we have not enjoyed before, and one in which every citizen will partake' -- mayor John W. Fleming at the inauguration of the Brandon Street Railway
The big question was whether the city could afford to build it. The population and building boom came at a steep cost to taxpayers. The city was issuing annual debentures to pay for public works at a rate of about $150,000 per year. By 1910, it was believed to have a debt of around $1.5 million.
After the referendum, members of city council and the board of trade who had concerns about the city’s debt level became more vocal. The Sun at times sounded skeptical about whether municipal ownership was the best option.
It’s not as if there weren’t private options available. The city had rebuffed numerous suitors over the decades looking to build a street railway for them, most recently a consortium from Vancouver in 1909.In April 1911, another private investor named James D. McGregor came calling.
A future lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, McGregor was a well-known businessman from the western Manitoba area. In the early 1900s he created Glencarnock Stock Farms, which for many years was believed to be the largest ranching operation in Western Canada.
McGregor said he had the backing of investors in England wanting to construct a street railway system to service Brandon and, eventually, an inter-urban system linking it with surrounding communities.
Council received his request, and a long, slow negotiation began.
In the meantime, the city hired a street railway engineer to advise them on possible streetcar routes. Based on his recommendations, they began buying land and track. On Oct. 11, 1911, Fleming drove the ceremonial "first spike" at the intersection of Rosser Avenue and 10th Street. The Sun reported, "Brandon is being watched as a coming commercial centre by more outsiders today than ever before, and it is felt that nothing will help on the present growth more than the installation of the street railway system."
For McGregor, the delays in dealing with the city were frustrating. He demanded an answer as to whether or not the city was seriously going to consider his private offer or if they were, in fact, building a municipal street railway.
Council met to discuss the issue and after some heated debate decided it was time for the second part of the 1910 referendum asking citizens which method of ownership they preferred.
In the civic election of Nov. 9, 1911, just 30 per cent of those who voted cast a street railway ballot. In the end, private ownership won out by nearly 300 votes. One explanation for the lack of interest offered up by the Sun was people wanted a street railway and didn’t care much about who offered it.
The two parties spent the winter negotiating, and in April 1912, the city and McGregor signed a memorandum of agreement. The offer, in a nutshell, provided McGregor with a 30-year franchise for a street railway system. In return, he was required to have at least eight kilometres of track in service within 15 months of the deal being finalized. A sliding scale of between three to five per cent of operating profits would be paid to the city over the term of the contract.
The Sun declared in an editorial, "The long drawn-out controversy over the street car question has at last drawn to a conclusion and now all should be plain straight sailing."
It would be anything but.
That month, the province passed the Public Utilities Act. It created a commission that would have oversight of all public utilities in the province, be they publicly or privately owned. Copies of the act reached Brandon in the third week of May, and McGregor found he would now have to get the commission’s approval to set up the system and then regularly open up his accounts for scrutiny.
McGregor balked. Claiming his investors would never agree to these terms, he handed the street railway franchise, still awaiting final approval in a public referendum, back to the city. Council asked him to reconsider, but he refused.
In a period of two days, a deal two years in the making fell to pieces.
The June 13, 1912 vote intended to ratify the McGregor deal ended up asking for authorization for the city to borrow $300,000 to complete construction and run the street railway system. On June 13, 1912, there was a strong turnout at the polls and an even stronger vote, 93 per cent, in favour of a municipal street railway system.
The city wasted little time getting the project completed. It hired a new engineer and a street car commissioner. By summer, there were 75 men laying the remainder of the nearly 13 kilometres of track and installing overhead polls. Over the winter, the city signed a power deal with its private electrical supplier and ordered 10 street cars from the Niles Car and Manufacturing Co. of Ohio. In late spring, the last of the 40 staff members required to keep the system running were hired.
On Monday morning, June 2, 1913, Fleming, city officials and hundreds of citizens showed up at the exhibition grounds to witness the launch of the street railway system. The mayor gushed: "Today we ought to feel proud because this is the dawn of a new era in Brandon, an era of prosperity as we have not enjoyed before, and one in which every citizen will partake."
As might be expected, the first months of service showed cheery financial results as people lined up to try out the streetcars at the very reasonable price of six tickets for 25 cents.
Between 1914 and 1917, the city made a small operating profit of a few thousand dollars each year, though during that period had to cut operating costs, such as doing away with conductors, to make this possible.
There was a hidden issue, though: when the figures for paying back the capital investment were factored in, the system showed a deficit of nearly $40,000 per year.
In 1918, the system struggled when the city’s privately owned electricity supplier doubled the rate it was charging the city for power. Council went so far as to have an emergency meeting to see if they should cut the street railway service, even temporarily, to make up for the additional costs. They decided not to.
The biggest issue confronting the street railway was something council had little control over: the city’s lack of population growth.
Conceived at a time when Brandon was growing by thousands of people per year, its post-war reality was much different. Between 1916 and 1926, for example, the city’s population grew by just over 1,000 to a total of 16,500. It would take tens of thousands more to make the capital investment in the street railway pay off.
In 1925, the city had a chance to sell the railway when the Canada Gas and Electric Company came calling. The city laid out a number of conditions, such as wanting control over the frequency of service, making the company responsible for certain street maintenance issues and requiring a $35,000 deposit to ensure they would run the service for 30 years.
The company responded with a terse, single-sentence letter declining the city’s terms and, like McGregor, walked away from the deal.
The system’s annual deficits continued to hover around $40,000 per year, and the Depression brought about a decline in passenger revenue.
In August 1930, alderman Hughes, chairman of the finance committee, presented a report to council showing the desperate situation the street railway was in. He concluded, "No commercial organization would or could afford to allow such a condition to continue for any length of time and if, by providing some cheaper method of transportation the city can improve the situation, it should do so."
That fall, the question: "Are you in favour of the continuance of the present street railway system?" was put to the voters in another referendum. Surprisingly, a large majority voted yes. A likely factor in the outcome was that the city was silent on whether or not it would allow another public transportation system, such as public or private bus service, to take its place.
By the spring of 1931, the city had to go cap-in-hand to the province to request a $200,000 bailout to pay off its main creditor, the Imperial Bank. As part of the deal, the city asked if the province’s hydro commission would buy out the street railway, but it refused.
Service on the system was cut back and fares raised in an attempt to keep the street railway running long enough to find an interested buyer, but there weren’t any.
On the night of Saturday, Aug. 15, 1931, the last streetcar rolled into the barn on First Street at College Avenue with no fanfare. A three-sentence story in the Sun noted, "The Street railway service will be discontinued late tonight after 18 years of continuous service" and stated where people could get refunds on unused tickets.
There was one more shot at life for the street railway. A group of employees offered to take over the service starting in September. They were given a six-month trial, but there was little they could do to make the system profitable. Council pulled the plug on the contract, and on April 30, 1932, streetcar service in Brandon came to an end for good. That summer, the city began tearing up track, and the materials were stored away.
In 1936, the city’s finances became so bad it requested to be put under third-party administration, whereby a provincially appointed supervisor would be placed in charge of major spending decisions and sorting out its debt, including the debentures issued for the street railway the citizens of Brandon would continue paying off until 1952.
The supervisor ordered all of the assets of the street railway system, once a symbol of the city’s future prosperity, be sold off as scrap. The only major remnant left is a single, derelict streetcar that since 1994 has been in storage at the Edmonton Radial Railway Society awaiting restoration.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.