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Canada's Last Interurban
(A Brief History of the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway)

Text by James Bow

The Regional Municipality of Niagara was established in 1970 when the provincial government of the day amalgamated Lincoln and Welland Counties under a single regional council. The area encompasses the eastern half of the Niagara peninsula and contains some of the best fruit-growing rural lands, some of Canada’s oldest farms, and the cities of Niagara Falls, Welland and St. Catharines.

Before then, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland and each city had its own public transportation agency, and what little inter-city transit existed was primarily provided to the communities along the Queen Elizabeth Way. It was not until September 12, 2011 that regional council decided to launch subsidized inter-city public transportation. Since then, calls have increased for greater integration between the municipal transit agencies of St. Catharines, Niagara and Welland, possibly even full amalgamation.

It is ironic, then, that these efforts for regional integration come fifty-four years after the closure of a transit operation that provided electric passenger rail service between the communities of today’s Niagara Region. While this operation may have been ahead of its time, it saw decades of ferrying passengers and freight. Niagara Region Transit is working to recapture something that served thousands of local residents each year, but was then almost forgotten.

Canada’s Last Interurban

Interurban electric railways used to string across the cities of southern Ontario and the northeastern and midwestern United States. In Ontario, their heyday was in the 1920s, as the first chairman of Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, Sir Adam Beck encouraged the development of an interurban network radiating out of Toronto and serving southwestern Ontario and the Niagara peninsula.

Just as with their city streetcar cousins, North America’s interurbans fell victim to competition from the private automobile and the motor bus. The Great Depression did away with many interurban rail lines, but a number did survive into the 40s and the 1950s. The Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, which still operates today, has been called “the Last Interurban”, as it radiated out of the big city, ran through farmers’ fields and operated down the main street of small towns, some of which would eventually become Chicago’s suburbs.

Canada’s last interurban was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway (NS&T). Although NS&T railcars never reached Toronto, it served the cities of St. Catharines, Welland, Port Colborne and Niagara Falls in the Niagara peninsula until 1959, three years after the demise of the Montreal and Southern Counties railway.

Early Days in St. Catharines

What is today known as the Regional Municipality of Niagara began in 1792 as Lincoln County, managing the settlements along the shores of Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Lake Erie as it saw an influx of United Empire Loyalists looking to rebuild their lives after the American Revolution. In 1824, work began on the Welland Canal, connecting Lake Ontario with the Upper Niagara River, allowing ships to bypass the impassable Niagara Falls. Once opened in 1830 and upgraded and expanded several times since, the canal significantly improved shipping through the upper Great Lakes, and helped the area thrive. From this emerged the growing towns of St. Catharines, Thorold, Port Dalhousie and Welland. The seven townships at the south end of Lincoln County, including what would become the city of Niagara Falls, were hived off in 1851 to form Welland County.

The earliest roots of the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto railway date back to December 1874 when the St. Catharines Street Railway company was incorporated. Construction started slow, as it wasn’t until November 1, 1879 that horse-drawn streetcars started to operate down the four mile long line along Ontario Street, St. Paul Street and Queenston Road. However, the service was popular enough that an extension along Geneva Street soon followed, reaching the Welland Railway station in the city. Two years later, the line was extended six miles southeast through Merriton, where it climbed the escarpment and reached Thorold.

At this time the company was renamed the St. Catharines, Merritton & Thorold Street Railway. In 1887, electric cars began operation, powered by a hydro-electric generator at Merritton, taking advantage of water power provided by the Niagara Escarpment. This was almost six years before electric streetcars began to operate in Toronto.

In 1888, the Niagara and St. Catharines Street Railway was incorporated, and it soon built a line along Queenston Road from Thorold Road to the third Welland Canal near the Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Although it was established in competition to the other St. Catharines street railway, it wasn’t long before the St. Catharines, Merritton and Thorold took things over and added the line into its network. In 1893, the whole network was renamed the Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines and Thorold Electric Street Railway.

In the early days of electric operation, St. Catharines’ street railways used a distinctive system set up by Van Depoele, the same man who debuted electric railway operation at Toronto’s Canadian Industrial Exhibition in the summer of 1884. St. Catharines’ model used two overhead wires to conduct electricity. In 1896, this system was converted to the Sprague system of electrification, which used the single overhead wire system Toronto streetcar riders are familiar with.

The Niagara Falls, Wesley Park and Clifton Tramway Company

Another precursor of the NS&T was the Niagara Falls, Wesley Park and Clifton Tramway company, incorporated in August 1886. This company established a horsecar line between Culp Avenue and Main Street and Bridge Street and River Road in Niagara Falls, operating via Main, Ferry Street, Victoria Avenue, Simcoe Street, St. Lawrence Avenue, Morrison Street, Welland Avenue (today’s Ontario Avenue), Queen Street, Erie Avenue and Bridge. Horsecars started moving on this line on December 6, 1886.

Unlike the St. Catharines’ streetcar system, the Niagara Falls streetcars were late to electrify (ironic given the availability of hydro-electric power nearby). Electrification wouldn’t come until August 15, 1900, when the service was rerouted to operate via Main Street, Ferry Street, Victoria Avenue, Queen Street, Erie Street and Bridge Street. It would be the second-last streetcar system in Canada to be electrified (Sarnia holds the honour of being last).

The Niagara Central Railway

By 1890, the cities of St. Catharines and Niagara Falls each had street railway systems in operation. The interurban line connecting them began as a steam-powered railroad called the Niagara Central Railway, incorporated in 1881. On October 12, 1887, it opened a line between Niagara Falls and Thorold. A further extension to St. Catharines opened on July 11, 1888. Niagara Falls passengers boarded at the Michigan Central Railway station, and disembarked in St. Catharines at a new station near James and Raymond Streets.

In 1894, the railway company officially changed its name to the highly ambitious Niagara, Hamilton & Pacific, with plans to extend to Hamilton and Toronto, but these plans were never carried out.

Other Electric Passenger Railways in Niagara

Niagara Falls Park & River Railway
(International Railway Company)

Established in 1891, this electric railway operated along the Canadian side of the Niagara Gorge with plans to connect Fort Erie with Niagara on the Lake. Service began on May 24, 1893 connecting Chippewa to Niagara Falls and Queenston. On September 27, 1897, service was extended to Niagara Falls, New York, via the newly opened Fallsview Bridge. Tracks were laid down on the Queenston Bridge when it opened on July 21, 1899. By then, the railroad had merged with the Buffalo-based International Railway Company, which soon launched “Circle Tours” around both sides of the gorge, regardless of the border. Service declined through the 1920s, and the Niagara Parks Commission, dissatisfied with the state of the company’s equipment, refused to renew the company’s 1892 franchise within park lands. Service was replaced by buses on September 11, 1932.

Niagara, Welland & Lake Erie Railway

Established in 1911, with the first spike driven in by the mayor of Welland on October 4 of that year, the plan was for this electric railway to connect Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne and Fort Erie. Initially, 1.74 miles of track were laid along East Main Street and South Main Street (today King Street) through downtown Welland from the Grand Trunk station to the Michigan Central railway crossing. Three electric cars provided service. Additional track was laid down on West Main Street and North Main Street (today Niagara Street) in 1912 and 1913, but not operated until 1922 due to weight restrictions on local bridges, and wartime resource restrictions preventing the arrival of new streetcars. Despite making a profit throughout its operating period, the City of Welland was unwilling to expand the company’s franchise, and service ended on July 4, 1930.

Ontario Southern Railway

Established in 1894, this was a 1.5 mile battery-powered monorail on an elevated wooden guideway connecting a train station at Ridgeway, Ontario to an amusement park at Crystal Beach on the shores of Lake Erie. Operation began on July 15, 1896, but the operator soon discovered that the car’s batteries were incapable of handling the loads, and the line’s wooden structure warped during the spring thaw, producing an unfortunately exciting ride. The owner added trolley wire in 1898, but the crowds stayed away, so the line was shut down and dismantled.

Putting All the Pieces Together

What happened instead was that, on April 15, 1899, a group of American investors bought out the Niagara Central Railway and renamed it the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto. The new owners set about installing overhead wire, converting steam operation to electric on July 19, 1900. New interurban cars departed St. Catharines from a new terminal built at the corner of James Street and St. Paul while, in Niagara Falls, the company moved out of the Michigan Central railway station in Niagara Falls and set up shop at the corner of Bridge Street and River Road.

With the main line in place, the American owners set about buying the streetcar operations on either end of the line, starting with the Niagara Falls, Wesley Park and Clifton Tramway early in 1901. The Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines & Thorold Electric Street Railway followed on May 1st of that year. Minimal work was needed to connect the three systems together, as each one used the same track gauge (standard) and the same power system. A handful of track switches and a few new stretches of track were all that were needed to take a St. Catharines streetcar all the way to Niagara Falls.

The new owners weren’t done with their buying spree, purchasing the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Navigation Company in 1902, which operated a passenger ferry between Port Dalhousie and Toronto, thus connecting all the destinations in the company’s name. This was followed by Lakeside Park, an electric amusement park, in 1902.

The American Owners Sell to Canadian Northern

As ambitious as the American owners of the NS&T had been, it seems as though their ambitions didn’t match their financial reach. In 1904, these investors sold out to a consortium of Toronto-based owners. Four years after that, the owners of the Canadian Northern Railway (Mackenzie and Mann) bought out the railway.

Still, the NS&T had a good core of operations. It had a strong network of lines in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls and a line between them. In total, they had around 32 kilometres of tracks, with an extensive system of local lines between St. Catharines, Thorold and Port Dalhousie. The system was profitable enough for the company to build a new interurban terminal on the south side of St. Paul Street, near Chestnut Street (now Carlisle Street) in 1906. On June 1, 1907, a new line extended service south from Thorold to Fonthill. One year after that, the line to Fonthill reached the north side of the Welland River.

There were plans to go even farther, including extending the rail network around the lake to Hamilton and Toronto. This proposal was encouraged by Sir Adam Beck as part of his plan for a southern Ontario electric interurban railway network, but the NS&T plans could not be completed without subsidy. Requests for such subsidy were turned down by the province and local municipalities, so the owners had to content themselves with their modest Lincoln and Welland Counties network.

As the NS&T entered the 1910s, the company continued to expand operations. In 1911, a larger, more modern ferry called the Dalhousie City was built in Collingwood and shipped down to St. Catharines. In August 2 of that year, rails were extended south from Welland to Port Colborne on the shores of Lake Erie. A line northeast from St. Catharines to Niagara-on-the-Lake opened on December 1, 1913. In 1914, the company modernized its fleet with a purchase of new interurban cars from Preston Car & Coach company. Thus, it was well placed to provide passenger and freight service throughout Welland and Lincoln Counties through the First World War.

Canadian National Railways Takes Over.

While the NS&T was thriving, things weren’t going so well for its owners, the Canadian Northern Railway. Having run into financial difficulties by overreaching on a second Canadian transcontinental railroad, the CNR (along with many other railways) was bankrupt by 1918. When it looked like Canadian Pacific might end up with a monopoly on rail operations in Canada, the Canadian government intervened and took over CP’s failed competitors, including Canadian Northern, and amalgamated them into the Canadian National Railways.

Even though the NS&T was now part of a crown corporation, very little changed with the company. In 1923, CNR created a subsidiary called the Canadian National Electric Railways, which placed the NS&T, the Toronto Suburban Railway, the Toronto Eastern Railway and the Oshawa Railway under the same management group. These four railroads were separate, however, and miles apart from each other, so the NS&T continued to operate as it had before, maintaining its name, although the words “Canadian National” did start appearing on the sides of locomotives and railcars in the years to come.

In terms of operation, NS&T continued to grow. In 1920, the company acquired a ferry called the Northumberland from Prince Edward Island service, and shipped it to Port Dalhousie for its service to Toronto. The NS&T’s electric Lakeside Park was doubled in size to 12 acres in 1922 and, between 1924 and 1928, the company set about rehabilitating the rails throughout the system and purchasing new and quality used equipment. New tracks were laid on King Street in St. Catharines, while tracks on St. Paul Street were doubled to increase capacity. A new terminal and offices were opened in St. Catharines at Geneva and Welland Avenue. This was followed with an extension of its Lundy’s Lane line in Niagara Falls from Main Street to Winery Road (today known as Mouland Street). On March 1, 1926, the NS&T opened a new terminal in Port Colborne at the CNR station, and in July 1928, a new Tower Inn Terminal opened in Niagara Falls at the site of today’s Rainbow Bridge plaza.

At the same time, there were signs that rail operations at the NS&T had reached its peak. Once the company opened its line to Port Colborne, there were several announcements of planned extensions to Fort Erie, but these were never acted upon. Also, the mid-1920s spate of rail rehabilitation had not included the local line to Thorold and Merritton. On June 7, 1926, the NS&T converted all local streetcar service in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines from two-man operation to one-man operation. Costs were increasing, and profit margins were getting thinner. Finally, in February 1929, the NS&T launched a new local service on Geneva and York Streets in St. Catharines; this used buses instead of streetcars.

Catering to Tourists

By the late 1920s, however, Niagara Falls had become a renowned tourist draw. Catering to these tourists helped to drive traffic to the NS&T. Upon the opening of Tower Inn Terminal, the company made arrangements with another local electric interurban line called the International Railway Company to operate across the Falls View Bridge to the American company’s terminal in Niagara Falls, New York. Although potentially valuable, the service did not last long, as the Falls View Bridge was showing its age. The International Railway Company was also nearing the end of its forty-year franchise with the Niagara Parks Commission. On July 6, 1932, the Falls View Bridge was declared off-limits to interurbans due to safety concerns. The NS&T provided bus service instead until January 27, 1938, when the Falls View Bridge was swept away by an ice jam.

Lakeside Park was also key to the NS&T operations, providing a draw for Toronto residents looking for a daytime excursion and some beach time. The park was an anchor to the NS&T’s ferry operations and saw as many as 200,000 visitors per year at its height. The NS&T’s ferry and interurban operations provided an easy trip between Toronto and Niagara in under three hours, fifteen minutes. Even during the Great Depression, traffic remained profitable, offering a daytime escape to the harsh realities of the period.

A Renown Builder of Electric Locomotives

The NS&T’s headquarters and shops were located in st. Catharines, and when this facility came under control of first the Canadian Northern Railway and then Canadian National Electric Railways, it was responsible for building not only the equipment of the NS&T, but of many of its sisters’ fleets. The first car rolled out in 1904, a rebuild that spliced two single-truck bodies together into a double-truck under frame. Between 1910 and 1916, the shops produced five electric freight locomotives.

While some of the equipment produced was rudimentary, often consisting of little more than cabs placed on the decks of flat cars placed on motorized trucks, by 1920, the shops were building much larger equipment, such as double-truck steeple cab locomotives. All of this was overseen by the NS&T’s Master Mechanic, W.E. Massie.

By 1923, Canadian National was in charge, and experimenting with self-propelled electric cars that were powered by battery. A lot of this work was done in the NS&T’s shops, which produced CN storage battery car #15804. The following year, three more electric locomotives were built, equipped with motors and signal equipment built by the English Electric Company, a business located in St. Catharines. There was also a line car and box-cab-type electric locomotives for the Toronto Suburban Railway’s line between Toronto and Guelph. Three all-steel interurban cars were built by the shops in 1925, with two shipped to the Toronto Suburban, and the remaining kept by the NS&T. Another line car was built for CN’s Oshawa Railway.

Mr. Massie’s contemporaries praised the output of the St. Catharines’ shops for its quality and reliability. The electric locomotives had long and productive careers on their various railroads. The electric locomotive built in 1924 for the Toronto suburban railway even found it’s way to the Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway in Iowa where it was still doing daily runs as late as 1963.

Decline Through Depression

The stock market crash of October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression hurt the NS&T just as it did most other rail and interurban companies throughout North America. There were fewer jobs and fewer riders to pay the fares to go to those jobs. Profits turned to losses and the need to cut costs. Buses increasingly supplemented, and then outright replaced, some rail services in the 1930s. One of the first cuts came on January 15, 1931, when passenger rail service between St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake ended, replaced by buses. Freight service was cut back to Port Weller, and the rest of the tracks were ripped up. The NS&T followed this up by selling the bus service to another company in April 1932. Other “bustitutions” followed, including the Low Line service between St. Catharines, Merritton and Thorold in May 31, 1931 (this was the line that hadn’t been included in the mid-1920s rail rehabilitation).

Local streetcar service continued in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls through the 1930s, but its days were numbered as well. Streetcar service in St. Catharines ended outright on February 26, 1939, with buses taking over the next day; only the line to Port Dalhousie remained. The private automobile was making increasing inroads on the NS&T’s ridership. In order to make way for the Rainbow Bridge across the Niagara River, the company’s Tower Inn terminal was shut down and demolished starting September 27, 1940; the right-of-way down Newman Hill from Victoria Street given over to automobiles in what is today the westbound lane of Highway 420. Two months later, interurban service between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls was bussed, save for a single round trip that hung on until June 10, 1941.

War Respite

But unexpectedly, the NS&T’s path towards abandoning of its passenger rail operations reversed. On April 1, 1942, the Dominion government’s War Transit Controller asked the NS&T to restore streetcar service in St. Catharines. Fortunately, the tracks and the cars were still available for restoration, and streetcars began rolling again.

Canada had been participating in the Second World War for two-and-a-half years by this time, but shortages in rubber and gasoline were worsening, requiring more efficient use of public transportation. Buses were a luxury the nation couldn’t afford. Canada’s War Transit Controller also ordered that interurban bus services greater than 50 miles be suspended, so, on April 27, 1942, rush-hour interurban service between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls resumed, followed by a full restoration of service on November 15, 1942. Wartime traffic helped increase ridership dramatically through 1943, 1944 and 1945.

But while the war shortages may have saved the streetcars and interurbans from an early demise, it was a two-edged sword. Parts and labour for maintenance were in short supply, and high levels of service had to be operated in order to feed the war effort. As with many other streetcar and interurban companies, the NS&T emerged from the Second World War with run-down infrastructure. When wartime restrictions on rubber and gasoline eased, and ridership began dropping again due to competition from the private automobile, the push to replace railcars with buses resumed.

The Last Days

Bustitutions came fast and furious in the later part of the 1940s. Buses replaced streetcars on some runs in St. Catharines on Facer Street and Victora Lawn on March 30, 1946. Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls fell to buses on May 12, 1947. The last streetcars rolled from Victoria Lawn Cemetery to downtown and then along Ontario Street in St. Catharines on September 9, 1947, and interurban service between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls was bussed just four days later. November 26, 1947 would be the last day of streetcar operations in Niagara Falls, and May 7, 1948 would be see the last run of streetcars in St. Catharines.

It wasn’t just streetcars that were faring poorly. On June 2, 1949, the ferry Northumberland was one day away from starting that year’s summer service when it caught fire at the dock at Port Dalhousie and burned. This left only the ferry Dalhousie City to provide service, but that came to an end on April 21, 1950 when the ship left Port Dalhousie for the last time, sold to an operator in Montreal. In the midst of this, the NS&T’s Lakeside Park was also sold off.

By 1950, the NS&T was a shadow of itself, sustaining primarily on freight operations but providing passenger rail service between St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie and connecting Thorold with Fonthill, Welland and Port Colborne. It also maintained an inter-city bus service between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, as well as local bus operations in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines/Thorold. The St. Catharines-Port Dalhousie rail line was the first to go, replaced by buses on February 28, 1950. This left the line between Thorold, Fonthill, Welland and Port Colbourne as the last passenger rail line on the NS&T and, when the London & Port Stanley Railway ceased passenger operation on February 1, 1957, the last interurban in Canada.

How did this last remnant continue to operate for so long? Was there a last bit of profit that could be extracted? Did the surrounding roads give the line a lasting advantage against competing cars and buses? Was it laziness on the part of some official, or some desire to hold onto a bit of the past? Whatever the case, the interurban cars continued to operate until March 28, 1959 when service ended. Electric freight operations continued a few more months before falling to diesel locomotives in July 1960.

All that was left was buses, and these were being sold off too. Canada Coach Lines bought out the NS&T’s St. Catharines to Niagara Falls run on December 3, 1955. By then, the local bus operations had been renamed Canadian National Transportation Limited, and CN was not interested in operating these without subsidy. The Niagara Falls network was taken over by the Greater Niagara Transit Commission in October 15, 1960, while the St. Catharines Transit Commission had to wait until September 1, 1961 to work out a deal to take over all remaining service in St. Catharines and Thorold.

Towards a New NS&T

The Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto railroad is remarkable because, in spite of unrealized ambitions, it thrived as it linked the separated communities of Lincoln and Welland Counties together. When it vanished, leaving only freight railroads and abandoned rights of way in its wake, it left behind separated communities forced to go their own way. Now, over fifty years later, interurban service is returning thanks to subsidized buses operated by Niagara’s regional government.

Was the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto railway ahead of its time? Or are we now simply recovering from the mistakes of the recent past?

Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Image Archive

References and Further Reading

The definitive story of the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway was written by rail historian John M. Mills in 2007. His book, entitled Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway: A Canadian National Electric Railways Subsidiary was published by Railfare DC Books and features dozens of pictures, many of them in full colour, as well as maps and a full and detailed history of electric railway operations through the Niagara Region. This softcover book is reasonably priced and highly recommended. For more information on this book, consult the Railfare website.

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