October 30, 2019
Edmonton Radial Railway Society Preserves City’s Streetcar Heritage
On a bright summer Saturday, it is standing room only in the Edmonton Radial Railway Society’s car No. 247 for the trip from downtown to Strathcona. The conductor pulls up the wooden step, closes the door and signals the driver. As the green-and-white streetcar pulls away from the Jasper Plaza stop heading south, the initial ‘bang-bang, thump-thump’ rhythm smooths out into an even ‘bumpbump’ as it picks up speed.
Passengers take in the Legislature, the banks of the North Saskatchewan River then spectacular views of the lush valley. Near the front, a father and son are entranced by the single track stretching over the top of the High Level Bridge. The only ones not looking out the windows are a bride in a white gown — she gets to sit — and bridesmaids in floral dresses gathered around her, talking earnestly. They have something other than streetcars on their minds. The rest of the passengers are engrossed in the sights and sounds of an experience that recalls the Edmonton of a century ago.
The Edmonton Radial Railway (ERR) began running in 1908, bringing the newly minted capital of Alberta into the age of public transit. The first cars travelled a 21-kilometre track, giving Edmontonians an alternative to walking or horse-powered transport. Regular service began on Nov. 9, when the ERR brought in $150 on the strength of 3,000 rides at a nickel per trip. The initial route connected Alberta (118th) Avenue to Jasper Avenue and west to 121st Street. Within weeks, a second route crossed the river to Strathcona via the Low Level Bridge.
Critics weren’t convinced that the ERR would be profitable or efficient, and route planning was contentious. The vagaries of the day’s electrical systems could leave passengers stranded. Snow could also be a problem; eventually, a special sweeper car was purchased to clear the tracks after heavy snowfalls.
However, as the population of Edmonton continued to expand, the ERR grew with it. By 1911, ridership averaged 4,784 per day. Routes expanded to meet increased demand, and areas such as City Park (now Borden Park), Highlands, the packing plant on Norton Street (now 66th Street) and Glenora all gained streetcar service.
The heyday of Edmonton’s streetcars was to be relatively short. Even though the ERR was transporting more than 13 million people per year by 1935, its days were numbered. Issues with track deterioration and an aging fleet of cars provided an opening for alternates. In 1939 the first trolley buses started operation and in the mid-1940s streetcars began to be phased out.
On Sept. 1, 1951, Edmonton’s streetcars passed into history with a final trip across the High Level Bridge. Today, that history is kept alive by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society (ERRS). Founded in 1980, the society is made up of volunteers — including those involved in streetcar restoration and operations, museum guides and administration — and supported with funding from private donors and organizations including Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF).
According to Craig Stumpf-Allen, director of grants and community engagement, ECF supports the ERRS through two designated funds — which support the same charity or charities every year — one established by an individual donor and the other by the ERRS itself.
“This is a good way for an organization to help build its own sustainability by creating a fund which can support their future activities,” Stumpf-Allen says. “So many smaller specialty museums are struggling these days. I’ve always been impressed when organizations can take history and keep it relevant. (The) ERRS doesn’t just tell people about history; it provides transportation and a unique venue for experiences like wine tastings and small concerts.”
“The Edmonton Radial Railway Society represents a joyful side of philanthropy,” adds Kathy Hawkesworth, director of donor services for ECF. “It represents tying us to our history. Donors’ eyes have lit up when they have said, ‘I’d like to include the Edmonton Radial Railway Society in my plans.’”
Along with restoring and operating streetcars on the High Level Bridge line and the Fort Edmonton Park line, the ERRS maintains archival holdings and operates the Strathcona Streetcar Barn and Museum, where visitors can get an up-close look at Edmonton’s streetcar history.
On this Saturday, volunteers Ian Scott and Dennis Nowicki are in the Streetcar Barn and Museum, explaining features of car No. 33 to interested visitors: the grooved floors to disperse snowmelt, the Peter Smith heater to keep passengers comfortable in winter weather, and the importance of safety bars on the outside of the windows.
“The bars keep you from leaning out and losing your head,” Scott says. He refers to a video that shows a streetcar meeting a Canadian Pacific train on the High Level Bridge, where they pass breathtakingly close to each other on parallel tracks.
“It’s the kind of mistake you’d only make once,” Nowicki affirms.
A NEW ERA
Edmonton’s dreams of public transit on rails didn’t fade out permanently with the end of streetcars.
A new era of light rail transit (LRT) in Edmonton began in 1978, coinciding with the city hosting the Commonwealth Games. The initial line ran from Belvedere Station in the northeast to Coliseum, Stadium, Churchill and finally Central Station. It was a start, but by no means a comprehensive network.
Derided by some critics as a “train to nowhere,” the LRT grew slowly over the next two decades. In 1981 the Clareview Station opened, followed in 1983 by the Bay and Corona stations. These were followed in turn by Grandin (1989) and University (1992).
But in the following two decades budget issues in all levels of government affected funding for transit. It wasn’t until 2006 that the Health Sciences Station opened and LRT development moved forward again. In 2010, the Century Park Station opened in the south at 111th Street and 23rd Avenue. In 2015, the Metro Line extending northwest to NAIT opened amid delays and disputes over signalling problems.
In 2019, construction continues on the Valley Line, an urban, low-floor LRT stretching south from downtown to Mill Woods and west to Lewis Farms.
The southeast portion of the Valley Line is due to open in late 2020 and expansion of the Metro Line is also in the works.
The development of transit in 2019 is often as fraught as it was in 1908, with its share of skeptics and believers. As ever, issues of funding, functionality and routes are contentious and the arguments are passionate.
But aboard streetcar No. 247 for the return trip from Strathcona to downtown, controversy is nowhere to be found. The conductor gives a lively history of Edmonton’s earliest public transit and a running commentary on the trip. At the north side of the High Level Bridge, the car pauses so that, he announces with mock gravity, “the driver can work up his courage.”
Below and west of No. 247 trundling along the top of the High Level Bridge, an LRT train emerges from the north riverbank tunnel on its way to Grandin Station, the sun glinting off white metal as it travels from the university. The venerable streetcar and its sleek descendant pass each other at the midpoint of the valley, moving in opposite directions. For a moment the two draw level.
Then one continues on its leisurely excursion into the city’s past, while the other rushes onward into its future.