The Interurbans of Winnipeg
by Brian Huzel
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1976, Volume 21, Number 2
The interurban electric railway was a hybrid form of transportation which flourished through much of North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using electric street railway technology, the interurbans provided the areas which they served with a superior service to the only alternative existing at that time: the conventional steam railways. From their appearance in 1887 to their disappearance in 1959, the interurbans applied streetcar technology, with certain modifications, to lines which provided service to rural areas and population centres along their lines.
The interurbans held certain important advantages over steam railways. The most important was that they provided more frequent service than steam railways at lower prices than steam railways. Because of their use of electricity rather than steam, the interurbans could be operated much more economically than could a steam railway. For instance, because the interurbans were electrically operated rather than steam operated, the absence of the pounding of the wheels against the rails on the interurban cars, a characteristic caused by the steam locomotive’s reciprocating steam engine, as well as the interurban’s lighter weight, an interurban line could be constructed to a lighter standard and, thus, more cheaply than could a comparable steam railway line. These qualities, as well as the interurbans’ rapid acceleration when compared to their steam counterparts, made them popular in many of the more densely populated parts of the United States and Canada, including Winnipeg.
Although the Winnipeg area was not as densely populated as certain parts of Canada and the United States where extensive interurban networks were constructed, no fewer than eight companies were chartered to construct interurban lines out of Winnipeg. Of these companies, only two, the Winnipeg, Selkirk, and Lake Winnipeg Railway Company (W.S.& L.W.R.) and the Suburban Rapid Transit Company (S.R.T.), ever constructed any lines. Although chartered as independent companies, both the W.S.&L.W.R. and the S.R.T. became subsidiaries of the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company, the company which operated the street railways in Winnipeg, early in their respective histories. The Winnipeg Electric Railway Company, in turn, was controlled by William Mackenzie and Donald Mann of the Canadian Northern Railway.
The W.S.&L.W.R., founded in 1900, acquired rights of way through the municipalities of Kildonan, St. Pauls, St. Andrews, and West Selkirk to its northern terminal at Selkirk, Manitoba. The line to Selkirk was completed in 1904 with a steam powered service being operated until the line was electrified in 1908. In the meantime, the W.S.&L.W.R. had been acquired by the Winnipeg Electric Railway in 1906. Although becoming a Winnipeg Electric property, the W.S.&L.W.R. retained its separate corporate identity and continued to own and operate its own equipment, although all its electric cars were built by the Winnipeg Electric Railway in its Fort Rouge shops. An addition to the W.S.&L.W.R. was made in 1914 when a line from Masters Junction, just north of Middlechurch on the W.S.&L.W.R.’s Selkirk line, to Stonewall, via Stoney Mountain, was completed.
The S.R.T. was chartered in 1902 to construct an interurban line west from the western boundary of Winnipeg to Headingley. Although it was chartered in 1902, the S.R.T.’s line to Headingley was not completed until 1905, the same year that it became a subsidiary of the Winnipeg Electric Railway. Although the S.R.T. did retain its own corporate identity, unlike the W.S.&L.W.R., the S.R.T.’s operations were closely integrated with those of the Winnipeg Electric Railway. Although this integration was most evident on suburban runs to St. James and later to Charleswood where the runs were simply extensions of city runs, even on the Headingley run, the S.R.T.’s only true interurban run, all men and equipment were rented from the Winnipeg Electric Railway.
In the Winnipeg area, the promise of an interurban brought hope. Hope that workers would be able to buy large lots near the interurban lines in the country and hope that towns served by the interurbans would grow rapidly as suburbs of Winnipeg. Neither hope proved to be well founded. Large scale development along the interurban lines never did materialize, and whatever development was planned was based primarily on city size lots. Furthermore, the towns along the lines never did grow as was hoped. Indeed, Stonewall and Selkirk grew more rapidly before the coming of the interurbans than after.
Although the Winnipeg area interurbans never met the expectations of the local boosters, they did provide a valuable service to the areas they served. The interurbans linked the communities they served to Winnipeg with a service which was much more frequent with more stops than the steam railroads provided and yet was still fast and reliable. Unfortunately for the interurbans, these were all advantages which the automobile possessed to an even greater degree. Thus, with the gradual rise of the automobile and the construction of good roads after World War I, as well as a more gradual increase in population along the lines than expected, the interurbans gradually declined.
The first fatality was the Headingley line which was replaced by a bus service for a short time in 1930 before the S.R.T. abandoned all service to the town. Next, in the spring of 1934, service to Stonewall was discontinued. However, owing to tax concessions on the part of the Rural Municipality of Rockwood, service was restored in the autumn of that year. The interurban service to Selkirk was discontinued in 1937. Finally, in May, 1939 the final interurban car operated to Stonewall. Both of these latter lines were replaced by buses.
Thus, an era had ended. The coming of the automobile and good roads had made the interurban redundant in the Winnipeg area as it was doing elsewhere. On the one hand, the population of the areas served by the interurbans had not grown as hoped. In itself, this would not have killed the interurbans. However, the coming of the automobile and good roads negated any advantage the interurbans ever possessed. Although not all people possessed automobiles, the proportion who did meant that the interurban railway, with its private roadbed and the costs associated with maintaining a roadbed solely for one user, was no longer an economically viable proposition.
Page revised: 20 July 2009