By Jan Olson
While horse-pulled streetcars had operated in other cities and countries for many years, it was not until the electric motor appeared on the scene that Edmonton and Strathcona considered streetcars. Streetcars were much cleaner and faster than other modes of transportation and fairly inexpensive to run and maintain, satisfying both users and owners. The transit streetcar contributed to the growth of many cities around the world, and Edmonton and Strathcona both wanted to experience that growth.
Strathcona residents voted for a streetcar transit system of their own and started work on the rails. In 1908, the City of Edmonton bought the Strathcona Radial Tramway Co. Later, Edmonton began to lay tracks. Rail was laid across the Low Level Bridge and up Cameron Street (99th St). In October 1908 a celebration was held as residents gathered on Scona Hill to watch the first car crossing over the North Saskatchewan River. This rail connection between Edmonton and Strathcona acted as a catalyst in connecting the two river cities into one larger community early in the 20th century. Reporters from the Strathcona Chronicle were concerned, however, about the increased traffic by the Cameron Hotel, on Cameron Street, down Scona Hill, at the south entrance to the Low Level Bridge. They thought it was extremely dangerous and warned people about inevitable accidents.
Only a few streetcar manufacturers operated in North America. The Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company built the first six cars for Edmonton. The current for the electric motors ran through overhead wires and flowed though a long pole fixed a to the roof of each car. Each car was double ended. This meant that the driver could operate the car from either end. Each of these cars had 40 seats and was 36.5 feet long with wood bodies reinforced by a steel frame. Edmonton also placed orders with the St. Louis Car Company and the Preston Car Manufacturing Company.
Fort Edmonton Park has preserved the clang of the streetcar’s bell and what it feels like to ride a historic streetcar. The original electric car, Edmonton #1, was converted by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society to operate as a single ended car, like the ones from 1912 when they introduced one-man operational cars.
The community of Edmonton first obtained an ordinance to construct and operate a tramway in 1893. It was not until 1907 that council agreed to raise $224,000 to complete a street railway system. Within a few years, grading and laying of track was completed down First (101) St and Ninth (109) St. By the end of 1908, the city crews had laid 11 miles of track, with plans to increase the system.
The amalgamation of Edmonton and Strathcona in 1912 had a significant effect on the streetcar system. New fares were put in place. It cost 5 cents to ride the streetcar and 5 cents more if one crossed the Low Level Bridge to enter either city. Also, a late night fee of 10 cents after 11 pm was established. In 1913, car #35 was the first streetcar to travel across the new High Level Bridge offering easy transit routes between Edmonton and Strathcona.
Initially regular streetcar service in Edmonton ran only Monday through Saturday. The conductor collected fare as he passed through the car with a hand-held fare box. Eventually Sunday service was added as well as the pay-as-you-enter (PAYE) fare collection system, which was attended to by the conductor.
In the 1930s five steel bodied cars were added to the fleet of more than 80 cars servicing 56 route miles. By the 1940s, streetcar service was slowly being replaced by buses: first at the Low Level Bridge on Scona Road and then on Bonnie Doon’s line. In 1943, women were hired to collect the fares on busy routes, sell tickets and give transfer tickets, since many men were overseas fighting. In fact because of the Great Depression and World War II many of the cars began to look well used and even abused. In 1951 the last streetcar crossed the High Level Bridge with many dignitaries aboard. Many of the drivers were happy to get rid of the streetcars and move to the much warmer buses.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with one of the last trolley driver’s in Edmonton, Gordon Oleschuk. He drove streetcars, trolley buses, motorized buses and even the LRT. His experiences cross an entire range of technological changes in public transportation. His joy is obvious when he speaks of sharing the vintage streetcars that run from May to October with tourists. Gordon had many stories about driving and about the types of cars that existed. Here are some of his memories:
A few non-passenger cars were in operation. There was the library car (#14) which served as a mobile extension of the Edmonton Public Library that would loan you a book for two weeks. You could get library cards right on the streetcar.
Another car called the snow-sweeper would take the frost and sand build-up off of the tracks. The sweeper went out daily at 3 am to clear the tracks. Some times the frost was so bad that climbing up small hills was nearly impossible. Once just off of the High Level Bridge a streetcar flipped because of the frosty tracks. There were only two passengers on the train. No one was badly hurt. The snow sweeper’s job was tough, not only because of the hours (3am to 5:30am). Gordon Oleschuk remembers getting up early and heading to Cromdale yards to build a heat source in the coal stove. He would make a fire and then put coal on top to keep the passengers warm. The motormen had woolen suits and hats to keep warm in the winter, yet they had to wear the same suits in the summer.
In 1951, the last streetcar went down Jasper Ave to the turn around at 109 St. and 84th Ave. The electric trolleys were more then simply transportation. In the days when Edmonton was much smaller and fewer people had cars, the public transit system was a friendly place, where most everyone new each other and the motorman. If you were running a little late, the motorman new you would be coming and wait for you. Gordon reminisced about his warm 9:oo am coffee he would get as his streetcar passed by his house. Another service was that if you wanted to get off the tram before a stop, the streetcar would stop. Of course, the motorman would not open the door until he saw that it was safe in the street for the passenger to cross.
Gordon reminisced about driving the streetcar, the electric buses, motorized buses and the LRT (light rail transit). At the beginning of his career Gordon mentioned that he almost did not become a driver. Apparently, Edmonton transportation management did not like his last name and he was overlooked many times. There was much discrimination, particularly in situations and times when the economy was poor and getting hired was in general difficult. Yet, finally he found someone who was in his corner and he started driving right away. That was in 1948. He has been retired for 25 years and has good memories of the passengers and other drivers.
He has some adventures to recount as well. One day as he was crossing the bridge north bound, a man with a .22 rifle shot out one of the windows and nearly missed two elderly women. Gordon ducked down and his only thought was to cross the bridge, even if it meant going faster than the official speed of about 5 miles/hour.
When he started he earned $1.05/hour. With a 6-hour shift he and his wife Nan were able to raise 5 boys. Raises were far and few between, but he ended his career as an inspector earning $18/hour.
The red and white route on 99th Street was already gone by the time that Gordon joined the streetcar division of the ETS, because the route was taken over by buses. When the city ripped up the road on 99th Street in 2011 many neighbours found old wooden cross tracks and metal train nails. You can see one of the wooden tracks at the Strathcona community league hall.
Streetcar routes were not numbered, but had coloured sign markers in the front and back windows. The streetcar that went down 99th Street and Scona hill is fondly remembered as the Red and White. The Red and White streetcar went from 115th Ave. and 82nd St. via 101st St., Jasper Ave, over the High Level Bridge, east on Whyte Ave, north on 99th St and back by the Low Level Bridge and 97th Ave. The Old Bateman grocery store (later an IGA and now Wild Earth Foods) was originally called the Red and White, after the line that went down 99th St. in front of the store. This grocery store continues to be a family owned business for 4 generations of Batemans.
The Red and White Streetcar Sign
In 1997, the Radial Tram Society began to run streetcars across the High Level Bridge. The cars run May through October and are used as a tourist attraction. The streetcars go by the Strathcona Railway Community Garden where passengers can watch people picking vegetables. There’s always a ceremonial wave between the riders and the gardeners. Gordon mentioned that he stops whenever raspberries are brought to the streetcar!
1) Interview with Gordon Oleschuk, last of the streetcar drivers still around in Edmonton, July 18, 2013
2) The Edmonton Radial Railway Society. www.edmonton-radial-railway.ab.ca
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