The Streetcars of Old St. John’s
From 1900 to 1948, the citizens of St. John’s enjoyed an efficient, well-loved streetcar system. It was powered entirely by hydroelectricity generated in Petty Harbour, located just 13 kilometres away.1 The line began at the Railway Crossroads on the west end of Water Street, ran eastward to Holloway Street, continued along Duckworth Street, looped past the Newfoundland Hotel and turned onto Military Road, where it eventually descended along Queen’s Road and made its way back to the Railway Crossroads.
Numerous residents were apprehensive about the startling new system. Dire prophecies were made, and many worried about how their horses would take to the machinery. On the first day of operations, hundreds of people rode their horses alongside the trams. Though dozens of horses “reared and bucked and finally bolted like wild things,” it was eventually determined that horses and streetcars could peaceably co-exist. Everyone enjoyed free rides on the first day of operations, and as became customary, the conductors insisted on filling their cars to the brim, “even if it meant getting up from their seats and pushing the customers down the aisles themselves. … By cajoling and good-natured threats, the conductors got them all in. The car would then creak along the street with its springs sagging against its axles.”
Though the streetcars did emit a rather piercing sound, it became a very popular system. On the St. John’s streetcar, you could mingle (in sardine-like quarters) with people you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. Some people ran out to the conductors to ask for favours along the line. They asked the conductors to deliver packages, mail letters, and even pick up a scattered item from the hardware store. By all accounts, the good-natured conductors did exactly this.
Initially, the street car system depended on a snow shovelling crew to keep the line running, but by the 1930s, a snow sweeper car was brought in to clear the line of snow. Reportedly, this marvelous machine “did an excellent job of keeping the lines open during the worst winter storms.”
The streetcar system was dismantled in 1948. Geoff Stirling bought the streetcars themselves, and sold them off as summer cabins and work sheds.
The Street Cars of Old St. John’s: A Photo History (1989) by William Connors
Remarkable Stories of Newfoundland (2009) by Jack Fitzgerald
1. In fact, most of St. John’s was powered by this highly localized source, and shortages of rain could cause power outages. In the summer of 1908, The Evening Herald remarked particularly on the effects this had on downtown operations. Silent film showings were disrupted, the streetcars came to a rest, and shopkeepers contended with the power outage by “locating customer’s desires by candlelight.” When the rains came (it can’t have been long), light was restored once again.
Photos are of a streetcar at Rawlins Cross and a streetcar shelter, both from the Geography Collection on MUN’s DAI.
Contributed by Andrea McGuire