By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, June 2018)
Ottawa’s first electric streetcars were launched in 1891 and were soon to replace the system of horse drawn cars and sleighs which had served Ottawa’s transportation needs since 1870. The electric streetcar lines started quite modestly – on the system’s inception in 1891, there were just four main routes:
- The main east-west line across Rideau, Wellington and Albert;
- Bank St to the exhibition grounds at Lansdowne;
- Elgin down to Catherine; and,
- The main line to New Edinburgh.
While the original routes were largely focused on the downtown core, in 1892 the system’s first expansion expanded train service westward along Ann and Emily streets (now Gladstone Avenue) to Bell Street – an intersection slightly north of what is now the Glebe Annex neighbourhood, in a community then referred to as Mount Sherwood. Mount Sherwood had recently been annexed from the Township of Nepean to Ottawa – with one of the benefits of this annexation being the increased access to transit for the small community.
The trial run of the new line to Bell St occurred on August 6th, 1892, at 7:35 in the morning, to great community excitement. Neighbours festively gathered around the line in what was described as a gala type of atmosphere – with young children crowding around the car, asking for rides, and even standing on the tracks in their excitement. The Ottawa Journal celebrated that the trip from Bell St to Bank St could now be accomplished in 3 ½ to 4 minutes, describing Ann street (Gladstone) as a “pretty little thoroughfare,” noting that “with the presence of the cars the neighbourhood should grow like a green bay tree.” (Ottawa Journal, August 6th 1892)
Streetcars reach the Glebe Annex
This single-track line to Bell Street was extended in 1900 south to the Canadian Atlantic Railway tracks at Raymond Street. (The railway line itself was later pulled out and replaced by the 417 highway in the early 1960s.) Although the route was not in heavy use, the city was keen to see the track extend further south to reach the two-room Mount Sherwood school at Bell Street and Powell Avenue (then called Ernest Street). This extension was not easy, however, as track would have to cross a narrow bridge over the railway.
While the city authorized the line to be doubled, and to run as far south as Carling Avenue, the track never made it that far south. After crossing the bridge, the line only went a few blocks before it ended at Ernest Street (now Powell Avenue), with a wye at the bottom of the line to allow the train to turn around.
In 1909 the city approved a further loop to replace the wye at Ernest – across Ernest, Turner (now Cambridge Street South) and Mclean Street, before the track joined back up at Bell Street.
By 1924 the loop was abandoned as the line moved east across Powell Avenue to connect the Bell Street line to the double track at Bronson Avenue. This addition was referred to as the Bronson extension. Due to the narrowness of Powell Avenue, a gauntlet track had to be used, which means that the tracks had to be overlapped or interlaced, only allowing one set of rails to be used at a time.
The Decline of Rail Transit in Ottawa
After years of growth, the streetcar system was soon to suffer a decline, however. While peak ridership of more than 68, 800,000 passengers was achieved in 1946, Ottawa’s streetcar system began to be dismantled in years soon after.
In 1948, after the city of Ottawa’s fare price dispute with the Ottawa Electric Railway company, the private company which owned and operated the streetcar system, Ottawa residents voted to take over the system in a referendum. Later that year, for a price of $6 million, the city of Ottawa took over the system, creating the Ottawa Transportation Commission. It was the beginning of the end of rail transit in Ottawa.
Two years later, Ottawa annexed much of Nepean, increasing the size of the city by more than five-fold, making it costlier to provide transit and other services to the expanded city. Ottawa watched the trend in national transportation move from rail to roadways, including buses and trolleys. The city also followed the advice of French town-planner Jacques Gréber, who felt that having railways cross the centre of the city was not aesthetically pleasing, also. In line with the advice provided, Ottawa began to dismantle its passenger rail system in line with the advice provided.
Some of the first streetcars to be abandoned were those on the Elgin-Bronson line, those trains serving Gladstone, Powell, Bell and Bronson. On Christmas Eve, 1951, those streetcars were replaced by a trolley bus system, marking the first concrete step in the dismantling Ottawa’s streetcar system. (Ironically, however, the new, “modern” system of trolley busses was itself short-lived, as both the new trolley buses and the venerable streetcars ceased service in 1959.) Rail lines and streetcars began to be replaced by streets and highways, cars and busses.
Now, nearly 60 years later, the efficiencies of rail service have a renewed appreciation in the nation’s capital. Coming full circle, but this time at a much dearer price tag, this year we will once again see railways carrying Ottawa passengers – although sadly, no longer to the Glebe Annex neighbourhood.