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Historicist: Snowfight on the Streetcar Line

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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The Fight Between the Storekeepers and the Company’s Employees by W.N. Langton in the Canadian Illustrated News of February 12, 1881.

“Toronto has been considerably excited,” the Canadian Illustrated News reported on February 12, 1881, “by a battle royal between the employees of the Street Railway Company and the storekeepers on the line of the tramway.” A sudden snowstorm that month left Toronto blanketed in white and led to a spirited altercation between employees of the Toronto Street Railway Company clearing the streetcar tracks and Yonge Street shopkeepers who took exception to the zeal with which they performed their task. According to the legislation that incorporated the Toronto Street Railway Company (TSR) in 1861, “when the accumulation of snow or ice on the railway shall be such to impede traffic, every means shall be used to clear the track.” So whenever a deluge of snow disrupted transit service, streetcars were equipped with ploughs, and the company would even send out, in Adam Mayers’ words, a veritable “army of men with shovels, brooms and pickaxes to keep snow off the switches” and keep them from freezing.
On this occasion the TSR employees raised the ire of the public and storekeepers by ploughing all the excess snow onto the sidewalks along Yonge Street. Exasperated merchants took exception to having access to their shops blocked or their business disrupted because the street was all but impassable to any vehicles other than the streetcars themselves. They took shovels in hand to push the snow back onto the streetcar tracks. Insults would’ve been thrown—along with snowballs, one presumes—as one side cleared snow only to have it dumped right back where it had been. The Canadian Illustrated News report, reprinted in local historian Mike Filey’s Not A One Horse Town (1986), concluded: “A regular battle ensued in which the streetcars got the worst of it, and after defending themselves for a time, had to submit to being blocked up with the snow.” F.R. Berchem wrote in Opportunity Road: Yonge Street 1860 to 1939 (Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1996): “As a result, the cars were blockaded by the mounds of snow, about a dozen being completely put out of action. The public, generally, was delighted.”
From the day the streetcars went into operation, on September 11, 1861, Torontonians have had a love/hate relationship with privately owned public transit. At no time was it more evident than during the long, cold winter months. The battle over access to the roadways, which repeated each year, along with the other discomforts of winter travel were among the growing litany of complaints against the TSR that prompted the municipal government’s first foray into publicly owned transit.


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The Blockaded Cars After the Battle Toronto. Snowing up the Toronto Street Car Company by W.N. Langton in the Canadian Illustrated News of 12 February 1881.

On July 22, 1861, Toronto’s municipal council granted Alexander Easton—an English-born street railway promoter who arrived in Toronto by way of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston—a thirty year franchise to operate the first street railway line in Canada. With a stable of seventy horses and eleven horse-drawn streetcars, the TSR travelled over six miles of track on two routes. One traced the same route across King Street from St. Lawrence Hall and up Yonge to Yorkville that Burt Williams’ omnibus had been taking since 1849, while the other ran across Queen Street.
The terms of the TSR franchise detailed many issues that would’ve seemed important in 1861. The company was to operate the system for sixteen hours per day in the summer and fourteen per day in the winter. They could charge a maximum fare of five cents per adult. Cars had to limit their speed to six miles per hour. However, according to Arthur H. Sinclair’s article in the October 1891 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, the charter was silent “upon many important points regarding the relations of the company to city authorities,” particularly on issues that must’ve seemed of minor importance in 1861. One “prolific source of complaint” and serious contention between the railway operator and the municipality, Sinclair argues, was “the maintenance of the company’s part of the road-bed.” The terms of the contract required that the Toronto Street Railway, Sinclair notes, maintain “the road-bed between the rails and eighteen inches beyond on either side.” In winter, the company was to clear the tracks of snow.
But the city developed rapidly after 1870, which resulted in the corresponding growth and popularity of the streetcar system. From a ridership of two thousand per day in its first year of operation, the Toronto Street Railway was carrying fifty-five thousand per day in 1891, according to Filey. By this later date, the service—by now under different ownership but still operating as the Toronto Street Railway—had grown to include 264 horsecars, 99 buses, 100 sleighs, pulled by 1,372 horses over two dozen routes with 68 miles of track.

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Sleigh from C.W. Jefferys’ The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Volume 3 1830-1900 (Ryerson Press)

It’s romantic to imagine, as J. Edward Martin hints in On A Streak of Lightning: Electric Railways in Canada (Studio E, 1994), “horses at work, heads nodding, tails swishing, bells cheerily announcing the tram’s approach.” But in the Star, Adam Mayers disabused readers of any “Doctor Zhivago–like scene of pastoral winter tranquility.” The streetcars in winter were cramped, uncomfortable, and accompanied by a sub-zero wind chill to boot. Bundled in coats and mittens, passengers sat on frigid wooden benches. Hay or straw strewn on the floor provided some precious—though hardly satisfactory—insulation around their feet. Wood-burning stoves came later, but drivers—who had their own problems to contend with in wintry months—tended to the stoves infrequently.
Magnus Sinclair, a streetcar operator from the old days who’d help found the union, reminisced in Filey’s history of Toronto’s streetcars, painting a gloomy picture of life as a TSR driver. Through all kinds of weather—rain, sleet, snow, subzero wind, and ice—the driver stood exposed to the elements on the open platform at the front of the streetcar, directing it along its route while earning only fifteen cents an hour for a twelve- or fourteen-hour shift. The company steadfastly opposed windshields or other shelter based on the fear that they would obstruct the driver’s view with dust, grime, or ice and cause accidents. “Of course, many drivers became numb and unconscious from cold and exposure, and had to be carried into corner stores to be thawed back to life,” Magnus Sinclair recalled. “The provision of adequate shelter and warmth was one of the first major battles entered into by the Union.” Winter was not, strictly speaking, a profitable season for street railway companies in Canada either. Martin argues that in addition to the purchase and maintenance of sleighs and equipment, the company incurred costs to settle litigation over winter accidents and to replace horses injured in falls on icy roads.
Seasonal complaints against the street railway were common—although they seldom reached the comical pitch of the 1881 battle royale. “To suit its own convenience and profit,” the Globe grumbled on January 27, 1875, “that company has throughout all this season persistently kept to wheeled vehicles, and thereby made such deep ruts in the snow that there is no possibility of a sleigh or cutter crossing without a imminent danger of being overset.” The newspaper complained of a double standard in the city’s enforcement of snow clearing because, while the railway went unpunished, home owners on main thoroughfares who neglected to clear their sidewalks were frequently fined by the Police Magistrate.
The Globe also hinted that the core problem wasn’t lack of snow removal but the use of wheeled vehicles year-round. According to the terms of the 1861 agreement, when the tracks were impassable, “sufficient sleighs shall be provided [by the TSR] for the accommodation of the public.” Instead, Mayers adds, the TSR preferred to replace the regular, smooth streetcar wheels with ones with heavy-duty teeth that—with the weight of the vehicle—crushed the ice and allowed wheeled vehicles to continue to operate in inclement weather. Other cities were more successful in their dealings with streetcar companies. In London, city officials tired of fighting the London Street Railway over snow removal and putting salt on the tracks and banned snow removal of any kind to force the company to use sleighs. Montreal made no effort in the least to clear snow, so sleighs were common. The use of sleighs, however, had drawbacks. “[O]nce released from the constraints of rails,” Martin noted, “the public conveyances could be driven anywhere. Strict routing disappeared as drivers detoured around heavy drifts, dropped friends at their door and caused no end of disruption to schedules.”

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Illustration from Jack McLaren, Let’s All Hate Toronto (Kingswood House, 1956)

The company’s conduct in snowy weather and its treatment of its drivers—which had led to disruptive strikes—were among the causes of increased friction between the TSR and the public it served by the mid-1880s. The city even took the company to court in 1886 seeking legal damages for defective paving the company had refused to fix in their portion of the street. The matter was finally settled in 1889 by the resolution that the city assume responsibility for the upkeep of the entire roadway and the company pay rent for its usage. In his 1895 account, Arthur Sinclair looked back at this period: “The citizens were goaded first into interest, then anger, and finally a determination to put an end to the franchise in 1891, when…the first opportunity of doing so presented itself.”
It was well known prior to the expiration of the TSR’s thirty-year franchise on March 26, 1891, that the city intended to take over the streetcar system. In 1889, the provincial legislature passed an act enabling the municipal government to “borrow whatever sum may be required to enable the said corporation to acquire the ownership of the railways of the Toronto Street Railway Company at the expiration of the current term of the said company’s franchise.” Once it had acquired the TSR’s property, stables, vehicles, and track, the city was authorized to operate the railway or sell or lease these assets to another private contractor.
After some acrimonious negotiations over the purchase price—resolved through a six-month arbitration process that set the price at $1.4 million—the city finally took control on May 20, 1891. That the streetcar company had been so unpopular heightened the expectations Torontonians held for the public transit system. Expecting immediate improvements, such as the introduction of transfers and conductors on each train, the public was disappointed. So were employees who had hoped for better working conditions.
Almost immediately, civic officials came to understand the headaches the TSR had endured: lawsuits filed against the city for accidents; complaints from the public about the state of repair of cars and machinery; and allegations in the press about aldermanic interference and influence-peddling in the railway’s operation.
As high expectations proved impossible to meet, the public’s distrust of public ownership grew. On September 1, 1891, the city turned the streetcar system back over to a private company, railway magnate William Mackenzie’s Toronto Railway Company. The primary provision of the new contract called for the introduction of electric streetcars, the first of which went into operation on August 15, 1892, although horse-drawn streetcars remained in service until August 31, 1894. Other stipulations of the contract included the reliable heating of vehicles, a minimum wage of fifteen cents per hour for a ten-hour work day, reliable removal of snow and ice, conductors on each streetcar, and the acceptance of transfers—many of which dealt directly with the discomforts of using public transit in winter weather. These provisions ensured, as Arthur Sinclair put it, “that the painful experience of former years had borne fruit.”

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