Streetcars: A Brief History and a Bright Future

What an idea - take advantage of Hamilton's skilled labour, its industrial heritage and resilience to design and build a new fleet of radials right here.

By Brian Quinn
Published March 23, 2009

"Clang clang clang went the trolley..." 1 A jaunt by electric rail car, with its air of 1900s nostalgia, looks to be making a modern comeback, and soon. With news of economic woes, plant shutdowns, soaring petroleum prices, and environmental concerns making folks search for new answers to big problems, electrically powered transit is often touted as the latest in innovations.

Yet this "novel" idea already has a rich history in the Hamilton region, going back to conversion from horse and steam to early hydro-powered systems at the turn of the last century. What was Hamilton's electric rail like, and where did it all go?

As a kid, like so many others, I wanted above all to keep up with the latest fad. Accepting without question the status quo of the car culture, I became an enthusiastic driver and took pride in my ability to negotiate our crowded highways and byways. Like any good consumer I followed along, dazzled by the latest offering from Europe or Detroit. My attitude toward public transport were conventional, too. Like Homer Simpson, I thought it was for losers.

Common sense and injury finally made me change my thinking, but still there seemed to be no alternative to cars. That was pointed out to me several times - in no uncertain terms. I finally decided that defenders of the status-quo were likely right. What was I thinking?

Then one day in the early 1990s, my wife and I literally stumbled across the largely overlooked story of radials in Southern Ontario. We discovered a faded whistle stop marker in our neighbourhood and asked several people what it was all about. Not one of them knew. That set me on a search that led to the Hamilton Research Library where the fascinating story gradually emerged.

Since them I've never been able to forget radials and increasingly find myself mentioning electric street rail whenever transportation issues arise. Besides, the radial story is a pleasant change for a weary public long accustomed to endless transportation debates.

The radials were at their peak of popularity in this region around the turn of the twentieth century. Lines from Hamilton to Burlington and Oakville, Brantford, and Grimsby carried freight and thousands of people. Unfortunately they were never very profitable.

In his detailed and excellent book, Cataract Traction: The Railways of Hamilton, J.M. Mills speculates that since the majority of trips were very short and profits tiny, early radial companies were doomed. 2

Because of their frustrating inability to prove profitable, radial companies were continually forming and dissolving. When John Patterson, a tireless promoter of Hamilton's electrics, passed away, it seemed much of the energy and enthusiasm to promote radials died with him. 3

Not long afterward, the first mass produced automobile became available and was a huge success. Radials fell out of fashion and were replaced by trolley buses and then "motor buses - slow, cramped, foul-smelling vehicles." 4

The electric system gradually fell into neglect. The public hardly noticed. Winters took their toll on radial tracks, and upheavals were common. Some heaves in the pavement were so bad they derailed cars on occasion. This added to the public's increasing disenchantment with radials.

In spite of these difficulties, the HSR kept electrically powered buses until the 1990s. In fact, some of the routes were extremely popular. At one time, the Cannon route carried over 4 million passengers a year; but things have changed during this car-mad time. 5

The radials faded away, while cars were hyped as the only realistic way of dealing with transport questions.

It's not my intention to find fault. Crying over spilt milk won't do anyone any good. Let's just say electric powered transport faded away and was replaced by gas power.

Some say it was a conspiracy between greedy industrialists and the auto industry. Snidely Whiplash would have delighted in the machinations. Some even paint it as a struggle between light and darkness. 6 Perhaps it was, but the truth may lie somewhere in between. Maybe there were no villains, no heroes?

Fate and technology are conspiring to force all of us to have another look at electric power. Gasoline companies have been steadily raising prices for years, and supplies are known to be limited. Reports of people driving miles out of their way to save on gas are common, and many now say that we can expect prices many times higher in the near future. People have long complained about this, but very few actually have the luxury of doing anything about it.

Given past evidence and all the potential benefits, electric streetcars seem ideally suited for Hamilton. Especially because Hamilton faces severe winter storms every year that all but incapacitate gas-powered vehicles and tear up roads.

Radials may also prove a blessing for Hamilton industry, which has been hit with blow after blow as key industries close or move on to save money. It was while trying to absorb the latest closings that my wife and I found a site promoting the idea of manufacturing light rapid transit in Hamilton. 7

What an idea - take advantage of Hamilton's skilled labour, its industrial heritage and resilience to design and build a new fleet of radials right here.

Why not? The advantages of electric transport are as relevant today as they ever were, and the technology is even more efficient than in the past. No community can thrive for long in the toxic atmosphere of the car age.

The radials would bring more people, less grit and noxious fumes. It would make Hamilton a people-oriented community, not chained to a outdated way of thinking.

Dare we be so bold?


  1. Blane, Ralph and Hugh Martin. "The Trolley Song". Leo Feist, Inc: New York, 1944. (back)
  2. Mills, J.M. Cataract Traction: The Railways of Hamilton. Canadian Traction Series, Vol. 2. Upper Canada Railway Society and Ontario Electric Railway Historical Association: Toronto, 1971. Pg. 6. (back)
  3. Mills, pg. 5. (back)
  4. Snell, Bradford. "The Street Car Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit", (back)
  5. Web page: "The Hamilton Street Railway Company: Trolley Coach Operations". (back)
  6. Snell, Bradford. (back)
  7. Website: Hamilton Light Rail. (back)


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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2009 at 14:15:45

It doesn't make much sense to resurrect a dying industry (steel) just to keep Hamilton supplied with a street railway.

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By mj (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2009 at 17:04:29

Interesting article, but I find it curious the whole thing is written without mentioning the obvious - Toronto is one of the few cities in NA that still has a street railway and is looking to expand it significantly. Mesa, AZ is another. What lessons can be learned?

As for the suggestion that Hamilton could start producing cars... I suspect that it would be difficult to compete with the likes of Bombardier and Siemens, but it's worth a look at luring one of those companies to set up shop in the steel city.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2009 at 15:49:30

I don't really buy the "it'll help Hamilton steel" idea too much for several reasons already mentioned.

However I don't think it would be approrpiate to write off the whole article for that reason. Light rail is an opportunity for Hamilton. It is, if anything, unfortunate that Hamilton ripped out their rail lines in favour of buses. Certainly there are some bus routes that have not changed in the past 10, 15 years - there was no need to convert these to bus routes. But the HSR decided buses were the modern way, and I'm kind of loathe to second guess the city council at the time. It was a different economy and different city back then.

On a going forward basis light rail is being increasingly recognized as the way to go in dense urban environments, and is appropriate for Hamilton - especially if we are serious about meeting our downtown density targets.

Hamilton should also be smart about planning expansion to the suburbs. Much of Hamilton's expansion has been haphazard and done in a way that doesn't make transit very convenient for many people on the south mountain. We have to stop this. New developments have to consider the ease with which the HSR can deploy transit to the area during the development stage. These mazes of cul de sacs and crescents which amount to you being four houses over from a bus stop but having to walk 20 minutes around your subdivision to get there does not encourage public transit. It simply encourages more cars. Same with these roundabouts in Ancaster - can buses even use them?

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