"Traffic engineers are dry-eyed over the streetcars' farewell" read the Free Press headline the day the last streetcar ran in Winnipeg. A city traffic engineer quoted in the Sept. 17, 1955, article cited removing the streetcars as a part of the solution to clearing up Main Street congestion.
This week, construction crews discovered parts of that piece of Winnipeg's past when they found rusted streetcar rails while doing road work on Notre Dame Avenue, between Portage Avenue and Princess Street.
The city decomissioned the Notre Dame streetcar line in December 1939, when the city began using electric trolley buses for the route, a City of Winnipeg spokesperson said. (Electric trolley buses also draw power from overhead wires, but roll on rubber tires instead of metal tracks.)
However, the Notre Dame tracks remained in place as a short-turn loop for the remaining streetcar lines, until the last day of service in 1955. The city then paved over the streetcar lines to make way for both private cars and public buses.
Horse-drawn city streetcars date to 1882, when the Winnipeg Street Railway Company laid 1.6 kilometres of track on Main Street, according to Manitoba Historical Society research. The first electric streetcar came to Winnipeg in 1891.
In 1934, at its peak, the city had about 215 km of streetcar tracks. By the end of the 1930s, the city and its transit companies were more focused on electric trolley buses and motorized buses.
Most streetcar routes were converted to either electric trolley routes or bus routes throughout the late 1930s, '40s and '50s.
In the 1950s, streetcars were seen as archaic, says Brent Bellamy, a Winnipeg-based architect (and occasional columnist for the Free Press).
"Cars were seen as the future, and transit wasn't," Bellamy said Wednesday. "There was no backlash" to the city shutting down the streetcar network.
Bellamy, however, now sees streetcars as a way to incentivize development, especially in older neighbourhoods.
"Rails in the ground are seen as an investment in transit in a permanent way," he said, adding private developers then have more reason to invest in the neighbourhoods the lines run in. "Our city was designed around the streetcar — it's how it was designed to run."
Most Canadian cities that once had streetcars removed them around the mid-20th century, with the exception of Toronto.
"They're reaping the benefits today," said Bellamy, noting Toronto has expanded its streetcar operations in recent years.
"We've designed our transit system for getting people downtown to work and back, but it's not an efficient system for getting between neighbourhoods or getting around your own neighbourhood," he said.
"The streetcar system allowed people to use it as day-to-day transportation within their neighbourhood."
The city expects the current roadwork in the area to be complete by Oct. 15.
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