• Lawrence Herzog

From streetcars to trolleys

Originally published September 18, 2008

The beginning of the end for Edmonton’s beloved streetcars came in the 1930s, when Edmonton’s transit system, then called the Edmonton Radial Railway, began to purchase gasoline, diesel and electrically powered motor buses. The story is told in fascinating detail in Ken Tingley’s book Journey of the Century, a history of the first 100 years of the Edmonton Transit System, published in 2008.

Jasper Avenue, 1934. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-160-711.

From the system’s beginnings in 1908, public mobility was provided by the electrically-powered streetcars that ran on rails down the centre of the street. But in the depths of the Great Depression, the Edmonton Radial Railway was overwhelmed with the demands of track and car maintenance.

In 1931, city engineer A.W. Haddow reported that the trestle bridge over Penitentiary Ravine (later named Latta Ravine) was unsafe for streetcars. So two gasoline motor buses – No. 10 and No. 14 – were pressed into service.

“Depression budgets did not allow for replacement, so Haddow devised a temporary solution in the form of a diversion that started near both ends of the existing bridge and ran around the head of the ravine,” Tingley wrote. “This strange little diversion went into service in 1932 and remained until 1945 even after a new bridge was built in 1936.”

ETS Leyland trolley #107 on McDougall Hill, circa 1939. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-75-877.

The first electric trolley buses entered service in 1939, but then the Second World War intervened, halting any more purchases of motor buses. With Britain effectively cut off by the war, the Edmonton Transportation System looked to American manufacturers. Three US-built Mack trolley coaches also went into service in 1943 and then eight Pullman trolleys arrived in the summer of 1944.

The city acquired its first six diesel-powered buses between 1939 and 1941. But the British Leyland models proved quickly unpopular with the public, who complained about the sooty smoke they belched from exhaust pipes venting below the body near the rear wheels. In protest, some annoyed Edmontonians even sent bills to the city for cleaning their sooty clothing.

The buses were welcomed by a street railway system that was frequently overloaded and overworked. Even so, there just weren’t enough buses and, to maintain service, some construction of open streetcar lines was done following the war.

Equipment preparing 107 Avenue for paving and conversion from streetcars to trolley buses, May 26, 1947. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-120B

While the new trolley coaches did not require tracks, they did need adequate streets and new power lines in order to operate. Work paving and improving sections on 99th Street from Whyte Avenue to 93rd Avenue, and on 95th Street from Jasper Avenue to 111th Avenue was undertaken in 1939, and rebuilding the Low Level Bridge deck and Scona Road soon followed.

In August 1945, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company (C.C. & F.) launched a new line of urban transit buses to be built at Fort William, Ontario (today part of Thunder Bay), under licence from American Car and Foundry-Brill Motors. Early in 1946, two Brill-designed trolley coaches, built by ACF of Philadelphia, arrived in Edmonton.

The buses were purchased mainly because they had identical electrical equipment to a trolley coach that was to come on the market later in 1946. And the Edmonton Transportation System (as it was then called) intended to purchase a great number of them.

Brill trolleybus, westbound on Jasper Avenue at 97th Street, 1968. Photo by Douglas Cowan.

The C-36 built by Brill Motors was available in either gasoline-powered or electric trolley models with a new lightweight aluminum alloy unitized chassis developed from wartime aircraft design and construction techniques.

“With its motor mounted midway in the chassis to allow more usable passenger space, the C-36's streamlined, modern look may not have driven off the pages of Buck Rogers," Tingley wrote. "But it represented a leap forward as revolutionary as the replacement of the horse-drawn stage coach with the electric streetcar.”

Forty-seven Brill coaches manufactured by C.C. & F. in Fort William went into service in Edmonton in 1947. “The Edmonton Transit System's conversion to electric trolleys and gasoline buses and the resulting abandoning of the street railway track system transformed the character of the city's streets,” Tingley wrote.

In 1948, the city planned to remove existing streetcar tracks on 124th Street from 107th Avenue to 118th Avenue, and then pave 124th Street in preparation for trolley service. But the work isolated the section of track north of 118th Avenue to Calder, and so the city constructed four spur tracks, one of which doubled as a wye turnaround point, on the east side of 124th Street just north of 118th Avenue.

Calder streetcars, June 15, 1949.

Edmonton’s streetcar era officially ended in the early morning of September 2, 1951, when Streetcar Number 1 made its final run and 98th Avenue to 109th Street loop finally closed. “A month later, when Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the city, they encountered a bustling resource-driven city bursting with wealth, energy and confidence,” Tingley wrote.

“From this point onward, the automobile would dominate the growth and cultural fabric of Edmonton, a seemingly irresistible trend that would shape the progress of ETS in the coming decades.”

The trolley then became Edmonton's preferred transit vehicle of choice, accounting for more than three quarters of miles travelled. The C.C. & F. Brill trolley coaches proved to be easy to maintain and durable.

In fact, no new trolleys were purchased for 20 years beginning in 1954, when C.C. & F. stopped making trolley coaches. The Brill trolleys were the workhorses until then and were gradually replaced by Flyers that powered the trolley fleet through the remainder of the 20th century.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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