Skip Navigation
 
City Government

The Electric Trolley

photo of trolleys at transit garage with driversIn 1949, in Port Arthur and Fort William, history made way for the modern trackless trolley coaches which employed two roof poles connected to the overhead wires. Trolley coaches were nothing new. The first primitive version was developed in Germany in 1882, and was being offered as an alternative to the streetcar as early as 1900. Great Britain had begun using them widely in the 1920s. At first there was no market for them in North America because most transit authorities, including those at the Lakehead, had streetcar systems.

Today we know that modern, user-friendly streetcars can play a major role in large urban centers, but they don’t pay for themselves in smaller areas. After the Second World War, even large cities in both Canada and the United States were discovering that they just didn’t have the money required to repair aging street car track, while at the same time replacing rolling stock that was often decades old. Coupled with the need for postwar employment, the introduction of trackless electric trolleys allowed companies like Canadian Car and Foundry to remain in the manufacturing field for decades to come.

After coming close to closing, as many manufacturing plants did in the postwar era, Can Car moved into the bus manufacturing business. The Lakehead region was the first to order ten gasoline buses and wanted to investigate the possibility of acquiring a fleet of trolley buses. After a study was undertaken to assess the benefits of gas versus trolley buses, the trolley system was deemed superior.

photo of the front of a Port Arthur streetcarTrolley buses or “Trackless trolleys,” as Can-Car at first called them, were immediately attractive to transit authorities across Canada. They were completely pollution-free, they required no tracks and unlike street cars, their flexible overhead poles enabled them to pull over to the side of the street to pick up passengers. Because they ran on electrical power, they were attractive to utilities with a streetcar system, who were often locked into long contracts with electric companies.  An electric trolley bus motor required less maintenance and had a far longer service life than gas-operated vehicles.

photo of the front of a Fort William Street Car

By 1947 there were three thousand trolleys in service in the United States and another four thousand on order. Canadian Car was quick to ride the same trend in Canada. By September 25 1946, Canadian Car engineers and workmen in the Fort William plant had completed a prototype trolley bus—which they used as a demonstrator model in city after city during the month of November

The buses themselves, which sold for $19,980 each, could accommodate forty-four seated passengers and another twenty-eight standees. They were extraordinarily effective on hills, and their electric heating made for a cozy ride during the Canadian winter. They were also capable of reaching 30km/h in 6.5s, a fact which the Company cleverly trumpeted to transit authorities in the February 1947 issue of the Canadian Car Journal, even as they struck a note of caution: “In cities where the new trolley coaches have been put in operation, it has been deemed advisable to warn the public and motorists that the ten-ton vehicles move silently and without apparent effort and possess an amazing rate of acceleration which might prove startling to motorists accustomed to beating streetcars through tight squeezes by an advantage in pickup.”

However, what impressed transit authorities the most was that the public loved the new buses. In June 1947, the Canadian Car Journal reported: “In the first three months Public Utilities Commission trolley coaches at Kitchener, Ont. carried 230,850 more passengers than were carried by the street cars in the corresponding period last year.” Along with Calgary and Winnipeg, they also discovered that high use and low maintenance was netting them greater monetary returns than they had imagined possible.

Photo of a trolley going down Cumberland

At the Lakehead, the experience was the same as in Kitchener: streetcars were totally abandoned, with the two city councils jointly developing a single interlocking trolley bus line. Residents were required to buy a second bus fare at the Loop beside the Exhibition Grounds as Port Arthur and Fort William remained separate cities at this time.  

In 1950, Can Car announced that diesel engines would become available on both its city and inter-city models. In Thunder Bay, by 1965, the mainline of the Fort William Transit system was a trolley bus route more than 5 miles in length running though the city and connecting with one of Port Arthur’s trolley routes at the intercity boundary. With the introduction of the diesel engines by Can Car in 1950, there were also four regular motor bus routes serving as feeders, and extra buses were operated to industries, schools, and other authorized destinations as required.

photo of a trolley

However, electrical technology had its drawbacks. In the Thunder Bay region, if a driver accidentally overshot a corner, the bus would jump the overhead tracks, the trolley system would disengage and the bus would lose power, causing a truck to be dispatched from the transit headquarters to push the bus back on the tracks. The poles that drew current from the overhead lines were sometimes referred to as “wigwags” while the buses ran through a limited service area on 500 volts of DC power that was provided through two overhead lines.

 The power was generated from the Walphoto of the Walsh St. hydro substationsh Street Hydro yard. It would take nearly all the power in a section of line to enable a bus to climb a hill while other buses waited below for their turn. In Thunder Bay, a central loop was introduced in 1955 and was located near the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition Grounds where buses would turn around to remain in their cities while passengers disembarked and transferred to continue their journey. During wet or icy conditions, the first bus out in the morning would be fitted with carbon shoes on the trolley connectors. This bus would travel the entire line systems and clean water and ice from the lines. The rest of the buses would then follow normal route.

Retired controller Jim Baker reminisces in a newspaper article: “Times were busy back then. Drivers would spend mornings using extra buses (motor coaches) to transport students, elevator, mill and plant workers to their schools and jobs. They would then pick up their regular shift through the afternoon and evening.”

photo of a trolley on route to industrial businessesDuring the trolley's run on Thunder Bay streets, the last of the wartime ‘Rosies’ in the workforce were finishing their shifts around the midnight hour. The controller who operated the old Can Car bus would meet these ladies every evening, and because this bus was on its last run of the day, he would venture off the scheduled route and drive each lady safely to their doorstep. “I had those girls riding on my bus,” he said. “They were riveters and painters and all on the verge of retirement. They actually built the bus I was driving them home in.”

 

Cities that have stuck with their trolley buses are glad of the decision; the electrical motors on these vehicles have few moving parts and last practically forever. Unfortunately, many cities, including the Lakehead, abandoned trolleys in the 1960s for the flexibility of gas and diesel buses. With amalgamation of Fort William and Port Arthur in 1970, diesel and gas-powered buses were on the horizon. By 1972, the last Brill trolley was retired.