In light of Hamilton's ongoing transit debate — recently covered by SkyriseCities — in which City Council must decide the fate of the proposed $1 billion CAD, 11-kilometre LRT network through the heart of the city, this week's edition of Once Upon a Tram will examine the history of the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) company, and look at its historic streetcar network which is effectively a blueprint for the current LRT proposal. In continuous operation (albeit under different ownership over the years) from 1873 to today, the Hamilton Street Railway has been a fixture of daily life in that city from just a few years after Canadian Confederation to the present. 

James Street looking north, postcard c. 1920s, image via the Hamilton Public Library Local History Archives

Following a decade of hydroelectric development in the Niagara Region prior to the 1890s, the Dominion Power and Transmission Company successfully brought hydroelectric power to Hamilton in 1896 from DeCew Falls in nearby St. Catherines. Flooded with a cheap and reliable source of locally available electricity, Hamilton's industrial and thus urban development was able to flourish, kickstarting a city-building boom that lasted well into the twentieth century. Tied to this boom, the need for an effective means of public transportation necessitated the construction of Hamilton's first light rail network, which operated in various forms from 1873 to 1951. 

Hamilton Street Railway, 1930 Routes, archival map by Stuart Westland

Seen in the above map, created at the height of the Hamilton Street Railway's streetcar heyday, the delineation between the more central streetcar routes, and the more suburban bus routes —  especially atop the Niagara Escarpment, which is known locally as the mountain — highlights the success of Hamilton's already varied transit ecosystem which had reached its peak by 1930, following the system's last major rail expansion in 1927. 

HSR horse-car in operation along King Street West, 1880s, image via the Hamilton Public Library Local History Archives

Beginning in 1873, the city created a horse-car service to be named the Hamilton Street Railway, which laid five kilometres of track from the Grand Trunk Railway Station, east along Stuart Street West to James Street, then south to Gore Park, and east on King Street to Wellington Street. The popular service was an immediate hit, and the original fleet of six 16-passenger horse-cars quickly expanded with an additional four cars, and the network itself expanded west to Locke Street and east to Wentworth at the city limits. 

HSR streetcar #525, James Street North, 1947, image via TTC Collection

Following a well-received demonstration of electric train service by inventor Charles Van Depoele at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition in 1884, the Hamilton Street Railway became convinced that this was the way forward for their own service, which would not be overshadowed by nearby Toronto. In 1892, the HSR began the process of converting its nearly 20 kilometres of track to electric service. This involved replacing horse-cars with electric trolleys, along with a rush order for the production of a fleet of modern electric streetcars. On June 29, 1892, a proud day for Hamiltonians, the first electric streetcar rolled along King Street, beginning Hamilton's electric streetcar era a full six weeks before rival Toronto's. 

HSR streetcar #546, at the Sanford Carhouse, 1949, image via the Al Chione Collection

After a series of consolidations between approximately 1899 and 1907, the HSR had effectively swallowed up the entirety of Hamilton's various privately run transit operations, including the related interurban systems, which carried passengers as far as Dundas, Hamilton Beach, Burlington, Oakville, Grimsby, and Beamsville. By 1940, with the system at its full size, the HSR boasted 45 kilometres of electrified track across seven lines, including the Belt Line, the Burlington-James South Line, the Westdale-James North Line, the Aberdeen-King West Line, the Wentworth Line, the Crosstown (Sandford) Line, and the Incline Line (which ran as a funicular service up and down the mountain). 

Wentworth Incline, looking up, postcard c. 1890s, image via the Hamilton Public Library Local History Archives

Following the Second World War, the HSR found itself at a crossroads, with an aging fleet of original and second-generation streetcars, the latter of which had been built by the National Steel Car company in 1927 at the time of the system's final major expansion. With the older cars hopelessly out of date and the 1927-era cars in need of either replacement or an extensive overhaul, the HSR — which was operated by Canada Coach Lines (CCL) from 1946 to 1977 — made the ostensibly mutually beneficial decision to convert the entire fleet to electric trolley buses, a system which extended the operation of electric-powered transit in the city for another 40 years. 

Ripping up streetcar tracks at King and James, 1951, image via the Hamilton Public Library Local History Archives

From late 1949 to the last day of streetcar service on April 6, 1951, the HSR began the process of converting the entire system to trolley buses under the directorship of CCL, which had begun in Hamilton in 1923. While city work crews were busy tearing up Hamilton's 45 kilometres of track, the HSR followed behind, hanging a series of new overhead wires wherever the new trolley buses were set to run.

HSR Trolley Bus in action, 1968, image by Flickr user David Wilson via Creative Commons

Largely following the old streetcar routes, and set as a replacement for the former diesel-operated bus routes, Hamilton soon became a city known for its extensive trolley bus network. The various generations of trolley buses were a staple on local streets until December 29, 1992. In the 25 years since the end of trolley bus service, the HSR has maintained a fleet of modern gas- and diesel-powered buses. 

Modern-day HSR bus in operation in downtown Hamilton, image by Adam E. Moreira via Wikimedia Commons

Fast-forwarding to today, the City of Hamilton is in the midst of making a landmark decision on the fate of a proposed light rail network for Hamilton's downtown. To run east-west within its own dedicated right-of-way along a route that would vary between King Street and Main Street from McMaster University to the Queenston Road Traffic Circle, Line B would be joined by Line A, which would run north-south in both mixed-traffic and in a right-of-way, along James Street North from downtown to the waterfront. To be fully funded by the Province of Ontario, the $1 billion, 11-kilometre LRT network would largely mimic the original streetcar routes first laid down in Hamilton more than 140 years ago. 

Hamilton's proposed LRT system map, image via the City of Hamilton

With the final decision from Hamilton City Council still up in the air as to whether or not the City will accept the Province's offer of $1 billion for the proposed LRT network, the future of light rail in Hamilton remains uncertain. While it appears that the majority of Hamiltonians and city officials are behind the plan, recent squabbling among councillors has thrown a level of uncertainty upon the project, which until recently appeared to be all but ready to proceed. Whatever the outcome, there remains much to be learned by studying the story of light rail in Hamilton, especially one which enjoyed such a long, and varied history.

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.

Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Got an idea for our new series? Let us know!