For those familiar with the narrow, often steep streets of downtown Halifax, it may come as a surprise to know that Nova Scotia's historic capital was once home to an extensive electric streetcar network that carried passengers to and from downtown Halifax in one form or another for more than a century. This edition of Once Upon a Tram will explore the rich history of the Halifax Street Railway, which has become all the more relevant with the ongoing round of studies now underway about returning some form of light rail to Halifax streets nearly 70 years after the last streetcar rolled down Barrington Street in 1949.
The origins of the Halifax Street Railway date back to 1866, when a short run of track was installed in the city centre with a small fleet of horse-cars, carrying travellers along an early street rail innovation similar to that found in Hamilton and Toronto a few years later. Not only did it open several years before those other Canadian examples, Halifax's experience with horse-cars lasted significantly longer than elsewhere: the clip clop of horse-drawn trolleys was a familiar sound on Halifax streets for 30 years from its debut in 1866 — one year before Confederation — to the start of electric streetcar service in 1896.
Operating under a slew of different names throughout its history, the Halifax Street Railway changed hands no less than seven times throughout its first hundred years of service, as the system evolved from horse-cars, to streetcars, and onto electric trolley buses, followed by an additional three operational shifts dating from the current diesel-bus era which began in 1970. For the purpose of simplicity, unless referring to the modern era (1970-onwards), the historic streetcar system will be referred to as the "Halifax Street Railway," a convention used by other writers including Don Cunningham and Don Artz, whose 2009 publication, The Halifax Street Railway, remains a treasure trove of information.
The above 1927 map, produced during the heyday of electric streetcar service in Halifax, highlights the system's reach at its peak. It ran along eight distinct routes, the most popular of which were the twin Belt Line routes which carried passengers in either direction in a circuit in and around central Halifax. The network was more than sufficient to carry Haligonians to and fro, with electric service operating within the Nova Scotia capital for 55 years. Compared with the 1910 street map below, a clear understanding of the urban context and scope of the Halifax Street Railway can be pieced together.
Radiating outward from downtown Halifax, travelling through the heart of the city along Barrington, Hollis, Sackville, and Quinpool/Cogswell Streets, and running as far north as The Hydrostone (as featured in our most recent Cityscape feature), the Halifax Street Railway was able to carry commuters and day-trippers in and out of central Halifax with terminal stations cast far outside of the historic city centre and Halifax Harbour.
Seen above, the 1933 downtown street scene was captured during the heyday of electric streetcar service, when the entirety of the Halifax Street Railway's second-generation fleet included 86 "Birney" cars (a first-generation car can be seen in the c.1900 postcard at the start of the story). While 24 Birney cars were purchased new to order in 1923 from the American Car Co., the remaining 62 cars were sourced from cities across North America, including Toronto, Boston, and Detroit. Built upon a single truck configuration, the Birneys were perfect for Halifax's narrow streets and steep inclines, where they operated from 1923 to the end of streetcar service in 1949.
Following a sustained period of overuse by the swell of soldiers, navy men, army support staff, and visiting family members who flooded Halifax during the course of the Second World War, the aging fleet of Birneys were in need of replacement. Now in the peak of the automobile age, the fate of the Halifax Street Railway's streetcars was dictated in large part by the changing times in which they existed, and the decision to replace them with electric trolley buses was on trend with the sensibilities of the day. On March 26, 1949, Birney 157, decorated with an elaborate oversized sad cartoon face on its front, and a humorous collection of wistful farewell verses painted on its sides and back, made its final trip down Barrington Street. The occasion drew a large crowd of onlookers, along with several members of the press.
Following the departure of streetcars from Halifax streets throughout the Spring of 1949, the process of replacing them with electric trolley buses began across the city route by route. Before long, passengers were able to traverse the city in the comfort of a fleet of modern trolley buses. The changeover was celebrated via the efforts of a massive marketing campaign by then Halifax Street Railway owners and operators, the Nova Scotia Light and Power Company, which trumpeted the arrival of trolley buses (and the retirement of the old streetcars) as a fundamental step towards the future.
Seen in the promotional materials from 1949 (above and below), the arrival of the Nova Scotia Light and Power Company's newly acquired fleet of 65 electric trolley buses was hailed as a monumental step forward for Halifax and its citizens.
In service from 1949 to 1970, Halifax's trolley buses endured for just over 20 years, less than half of the combined tenancy of the previous two generations of streetcar fleets which operated for 55 years from 1896 to 1949. Following their retirement, the entire system was switched over to diesel buses, which remain in place to this day.
The City of Halifax is now in the midst of studying the various possibilities for returning some form of light rail transit (LRT) to city streets, either in the form of a modern streetcar network that would serve the downtown and surrounding inner suburbs, or as an alternate commuter rail project that would operate in much the same vein as other commuter or RER systems.
For bonus points, readers are encouraged to take a look at this rare surviving film from the 1940s, which was restored by the Nova Scotia Archives. The first several minutes depict the Halifax Street Railway in action during the last years of electric streetcar service. While not as extensive as the professionally shot vintage 1907 footage featured in our recent coverage of the British Columbia Electric Railway, the above clip depicts central Halifax as seen on foot, along with various city scenes and surrounding sites. Shot in colour, the archival footage offers a fascinating glimpse into Halifax's past.
SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you.
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