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History of the Civic Railway

View Victoria Street in 1888

It is unlikely that the town of Port Arthur would have undertaken any form of public transit had it not been deemed essential to have a link to the rapidly developing community of east Fort William. In the 1880s, east Fort William was the newest settlement, and by 1890, the three main settlements in the region were Port Arthur, west Fort William (the Town Plot which, in 1888, the CPR dubbed Westfort) and the newly formed east Fort William.

East Fort William was created when the CPR determined that the lower Kaministiquia should be the focus of economic activities in Thunder Bay.  This decision meant that Westfort would no longer be the railway terminus as it had been when the CPR was under federal government control. 

Fort William had been gradually growing in importance. The obvious advantages of the old fur trading post’s location at the mouth of the Kam, coupled with the reluctance of ships’ captains to navigate up the river any farther than necessary, influenced CPR officials in their decision to construct major works there. Once the CPR secured land from the McVicar and McKellar families, the railway company began developing facilities. Grain elevators and a railway station were located near the foot of what is now Victoria Avenue.  Coal docks and the round house were destined for the Hudson’s Bay Company property in what came to be called the East End. 

Picture of Port Arthur Harbour in 1895When it became obvious that the CPR was establishing facilities in east Fort William, businessmen had an interest in linking Port Arthur to Fort William as early as 1884. In October of that year, a group of Port Arthur promoters advertised in the Daily Sentinel that they would be applying to the Ontario Legislature for an Act to Incorporate the Port Arthur street railway in Port Arthur and Neebing. There is no evidence that anything came of it until 1887, when the Daily Sentinel reported that a meeting of the Port Arthur street railway had been held in Toronto for the purpose of constructing a street railway from the CPR station on the McVicar property in Port Arthur to Fort William. Despite a report that work would be started that summer, there is no evidence any work actually began.

By 1890, Port Arthur was in economic decline. The silver mining boom was at a close. In 1889, Port Arthur council got into a tax dispute with the CPR, prompting CPR president William Van Horne and his Western lieutenant William Whyte to declare that they were, thereafter, unwilling to “waste any sweetness” on Port Arthur. In east Fort William, a joint subdivision of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the CPR properties was formed by 1890. At the same time, the McVicar and McKellar families subdivided their properties to the west of Port Arthur and succeeded in drawing Fort William’s business there, forming the centre of what would become the town of Fort William in 1892.  Aside from the loss of railway facilities, community leaders were worried that railway workers living in Port Arthur would, for the sake of convenience, follow their employer to Fort William.

A newspaper editorial compared the status of the two centres and, even allowing for the usual exaggerations, illustrated the grim conditions which prevailed in the Port Arthur at the time:

“Fort William a divisional point on the CPR with Round House, yard and extensive shops in prospect. Port Arthur abandoned. New buildings at every turn in Fort William – houses by the dozen under construction, and occupants waiting to go in them before the paint is dry – empty houses by the dozen in Port Arthur, and the ominous sign To Let on every hand. No new buildings in course of erection, but broken window panes and other evidences of abandonment, dilapidation and decay.”

Picture of Ray, Street and Co's private bank on Cumberland

In Port Arthur, in the wake of an economic crisis that came with the end of the silver mining boom, the town realized there were no alternatives to the CPR. Port Arthur needed to find a way to retain its commercial dominance and for that matter, its population. There had to be some means which could be found to draw people and money to Port Arthur’s urban core.  It was in this atmosphere that the idea of constructing an electric street railway took hold. To the budding community in the North, migration to Fort William represented an intolerable loss of needed taxpayers. Wisely, Port Arthur officials recognized that they had in the street railway system the effective means to halt this southward migration to Fort William which was already taking place. They concluded that if Port Arthur provided efficient and regular transport service to and from the new CPR installations now located in Fort William, the reason for workers to move there would be largely removed. Understandably, those residents in Fort William who recognized in the odd situation the means to increased population were opposed to the extension of Port Arthur’s street railway into their city.

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The electric street railway was an audacious project that was years ahead of its time and by its very audacity, attracted admirers and supporters. In Fort William, the Journal noted, ‘the investment will hardly be a paying one at the start and… it is likely to be a loss at the finish, unless Fort William grows to such dimensions that Port Arthur can be utilized as a suburb for residential purposes.”

Notice to Incorporate Port Arthur and Fort William Street RailwayOn August 15, 1890, Port Arthur town council formed a special committee to report on the feasibility of constructing an electric street railway.  On October 14th of that year, once council reported that an electric railway was desired, an Electric Railway Committee was established to consult technical experts and to make recommendations to council. The fall of 1890 to the summer of 1891 was a period of contention among influential businessmen and politicians in Port Arthur, as debates arose around how the street railway should be financed and which route it should take. While the Electric Street Railway Committee was consulting technical experts to determine a route and power supply, a group associated with the notable Port Arthur businessman, George Thomas Marks, gave notice of application to the Ontario Legislature for an Act to Incorporate the Port Arthur and Fort William Railway Company in December 1890. In January 1891, James Farrand Ruttan, a staunch supporter of the street railway’s public ownership, was elected mayor and on January 5, 1891, the citizens of Port Arthur voted on a railway by-law to empower the Council to raise sufficient money ($75,000) to build an electric street railway between Port Arthur and Fort William.

 A number of successful businessmen proposed private ventures to build the railway. The bombshell came in March of 1891 when Thomas Mark & Co. offered to build an electric street railway to Fort William in return for $75,000 of 4% bonds, but not along Fort William road as the various Electric Street Railway Committees had recommended. They proposed the abandoned roadbed of the Prince Arthur’s Landing and Kaministiquia railway, veering southerly to the Port Arthur boundary where they would construct a new street to connect up with Dease Street in Fort William. Since the normal Ontario pattern was for the municipality to grant a franchise to a street railway or to grant a bonus, the entrepreneurs believed that the $75,000 by-law did not preclude their proposals. Ruttan rejected Marks’ proposal using resentment of the Marks family’s commercial dominance for support. He was quoted declaring that, “The money was voted to build a street railway not colonization road.” The Marks family attempted to quash the by-law to raise $75,000 for a railway claiming it was illegal and an unnecessary expense.

J Ruttan Mayoral portrait

The street railway battle shifted to Toronto where the Ontario legislature was examining the many applications they received from the city of Port Arthur. The government objected on principle to passing a special act to enable Port Arthur to build a street railway into Neebing. A compromise was reached whereby the province-wide Municipal Act was amended to permit cities and towns to build and operate an extension of a street railway in any adjoining municipality with the consent of the adjoining municipality. The committee also agreed to confirm by-law 281 as having complied with all legislation respecting street railways. George Thomas Marks opposed this legislation but had to be happy with the approval to incorporate his rival charter the Port Arthur and Fort William Railway Company.

The Marks family with a new group, the Property Holder’s Association, whom Mayor Ruttan accused of being a combine organized by the supporters of  Marks, were opposed to the public ownership of the street railway. The Property Holder’s Association took up the Marks family’s legal challenge and initiated an action before the Ontario High Court of Justice to declare by-law 281 out of Port Arthur's legal authority and restrain the council from building the street railway. The town moved to legalize the by-law and a remedial by-law was drafted describing the proposed route of the railway through Port Arthur and giving details of the estimated cost, voting to take place on August 20, 1891. The vote again passed with only 59 ratepayers opposing the by-law.

It was smooth sailing for the street railway after that.

Picture of Crowd and two street cars on Opening Day 1892

In October 1891, council approved acceptance of the Edison Electric Light Company tender of $29,520 for furnishing all apparatus and equipment except for construction of the powerhouse. By December, the Current River powerhouse was under construction and wires had been strung to the Algoma Hotel by New Year’s Eve. Ruttan was re-elected mayor of Port Arthur in January 1892, then on Tuesday, March 1, shortly after 4 o’clock, Car no.2 made an experimental trip under the guidance of Edison engineer Peterson. Monday, March 7, 1892 was the official opening day. At nine o’clock, people gathered at the car barn to watch Edison engineer Barr make the final connections of electric currents. On Cumberland Street the two gleaming cars - Car no.2 in front driven by Mr. Barr - were photographed by J.F. Cooke.

When committees from the two settlements met to discuss the street railway, Fort William made it clear that Port Arthur “could bring their passengers to the border of the municipality if they chose and let them hoof it the rest of the way.” Throughout 1891 the Neebing Council, led by John Mckellar, fought Port Arthur’s plan for the street railway. A request to allow the line to be built through Neebing as far as Westfort was coldly rejected, while a counter request was sent to the Ontario Legislature asking that body “not to grant Port Arthur or any corporation power to construct and operate a street railway from Port Arthur through any part of the municipality of Neebing. Port Arthur politicians also temporarily prevented Fort William from franchising its own street railway. At a May 1892 meeting in Toronto, the Provincial Secretary, J.M. Gibson, representing Lieutenant Governor in Council, had given the two towns the summer to come up with some form of joint ownership, but, failing to do so, intimated that the road would proceed with or without Fort William’s consent. 

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The Ontario Legislature settled the matter and decided, in September 1892, that the extension into Fort William would proceed and Fort William would have the option within four years of acquiring an interest in the portion in their town, and after that no option until 1913. An historical precedent had been set: Never before in the history of Canada had a town been empowered to run street cars over another town’s streets.

Picture of Brown Street and Mount McKay in 1885

When rail ties were going to be laid, Neebing’s Road Commissioner, Mr. Tonkin, was instructed to have them removed and the street railway battle was renewed. Fort William argued that since incorporation in 1892, the town’s citizens had the right to grant or prohibit construction on their streets. Port Arthur then promised to extend the line through to Westfort at its own expense, which Westfort residents found quite attractive. Since relocation of the CPR’s principle works to the mouth of the Kam, business in Westfort had declined drastically. Hotels were half empty or abandoned, businessmen had either moved – or were considering a move – to the vicinity of Fort William. Therefore, when an election took place to consider the street railway by-law, Westfort citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of Port Arthur’s plan. Fort William, with no alternative, swallowed its humiliation (for the moment) and allowed Port Arthur to continue the street railway across the Neebing, through Fort William to Westfort.

In January 1893, George Marks was elected mayor of Port Arthur with the support of Fort William Mayor John McKellar. In his inaugural address, he proposed that the town’s franchises (railway, lighting and waterworks) be administered by a single commission, free of ward politics. By June 1, the street railway was open to Pruden Street. On Wednesday, September 27, 1893, with Supt. George Lowe as motorman, Car no.1 left the Algoma Hotel at three minutes to ten in the morning, decorated with a couple of Canadian Red Ensign flags, and made the trip to the West Fort terminus in 33 minutes. The Port Arthur Street Railway was complete. The Electric Street Railway Committee ran the street railway until 1895.

GT Marks Mayoral Portrait

J McKellar Mayoral Portrait 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The debate between public and private ownership created a divide among Port Arthur citizens in the 1890s but, essentially, Port Arthur opted for public ownership because private enterprise did not initially find the project attractive. Fort William would purchase the portion of the rail line within its boundaries for $52,000 on August 1, 1908. Until December 1, 1913, a joint commission established by the two communities controlled the line, after which Fort William assumed management of its own electric street railway.

The street railway system continued to flourish until the 1940s. A few gas Brill Buses, manufactured by Canadian Car and Foundry, were introduced in 1943. Just prior to the introduction of the new trackless electric trolley system, February 15, 1948 was the last run of the street cars and citizens were invited to ride free of charge.