A Look Into Thunder Bay’s Transportation Past
by Brian G. Spare
Things can change a lot over a century including our public transportation system. In the 1880s the silver boom ended leaving Port Arthur without its economic power house. Things got worse when the Canadian Pacific Railway chose Fort William for it terminus and its grain elevators were being built there too. People employed by the CPR who chose to remain living in Port Arthur would need a means of getting to work. Seeing the business and population of their town vanishing, the citizens of Port Arthur decided to build an urban street railway line that would link the Port Arthur business district to the CPR yards in Fort William six miles away.
Fort William wanted nothing to do with this and adamantly voiced their opposition. Never the less, the railway went ahead. Disputes between competing interests within Port Arthur broke out as to who should own the railway until it was decided it would be municipally owned. On March 2, 1892 The Port Arthur Electric Street Railway was launched. It ran from the intersection of Cumberland Street and Red River Road to the CPR’s passenger station on Syndicate Avenue. The fare was five cents per trip. This was Canada’s first municipally owned electric street railway. It was truly an inter-urban railway linking the twin towns of the Lakehead totally built and paid for by the town of Port Arthur costing upwards of $85,000. The street railway was conceived and constructed just as electric power was sweeping the transit system. Electric public transit played a big role in convincing the public that this new fang-dangled invention called electricity was a good thing. Until 1922 when Fort William decided to buy the parts of the railway within its boundaries, it had virtually free street car service. The street cars carried more than people. Goods such as food stuffs and building materials rode the rails too.
The first street car route proved so successful and profitable that an extension, the North Belt was quickly constructed up Clavet Street past Port Arthur General Hospital (what is part of today’s Hudson bus route). Then the South Belt was built along Oliver Road opening another part of Port Arthur for development. With the two belts and a mainline, riders were offered a 20 minute service. Expansion continued, and lines out to Neebing, Mission and Chippewa Parks, along Victoria Avenue and other parts of the Lakehead were made. Largely fueling expansion of the street railway was the unprecedented growth in population. Between 1901 and 1910, Port Arthur’s population tripled and Fort William’s quadrupled greatly increasing demand for public transport. In the 1920s a municipality was not deemed to truly have come of age unless it had a street railway system. Port Arthur and Fort William could rightfully claim this status.
Although the street cars were widely used in the early 1900s, not everybody was in agreement as to when they should run. On Sunday May 6, 1906 a street car was boarded and the driver along with the passengers told to get off by a group of Sabbatarians which included the Mayor and Chief of Police. Running the street cars on a Sunday was a desecration of the Sabbath in their view. They would not stand to see the Lord’s Day secularized. Practicality won out eventually. People had to get to work, friends and family wanted to visit each other, and street cars continued to roll down the rails.
As the 20th century progressed, private transport was becoming more affordable and its growing popularity came at the expense of public transportation. Street car ridership declined. The cars themselves were becoming more expensive to fix, and parts harder to find. October 16, 1948 saw the last street car roll down the rails. The municipalities had begun replacing the rail cars with electric trolley busses on December 15, 1947. The trollies ran until July 16, 1972 when the City of Thunder Bay decided to go solely with diesel busses. Thus came the end of the era of electric public transportation in Thunder Bay.
Anyone I’ve spoken to who remembers the street cars speaks of them wearing a smile and a look in their eyes of romantic fondness. “I remember the street cars” they’d say. Even though street cars don’t rumble down the roads of our city anymore, they have not been forgotten. It might be that they haven’t left us altogether either. I’m told some of the rails lay buried just beneath the asphalt. When we stroll down Cumberland St. or Victoria Avenue, remember that that we may be walking on part of our storied past.
Thank you to the following for their assistance with this article:
Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Thunder Bay Public Library
City of Thunder Bay
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*