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A Short History of the Hamilton Street Railway's Streetcar and Trolley Bus Operations

Text by James Bow
Thanks to Robert Mackenzie, Raymond Dartsch and Tom Luton for corrections to this article)

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Today, the City of Hamilton, Ontario is a sprawling region of half a million residents, located at the western end of Lake Ontario, served by buses operated by the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR). Residents and visitors may wonder where the rails are that the HSR operates, but as the name implies, Hamilton’s public transit network began with streetcar operation early in the city’s history.

The Founding of Hamilton

Hamilton began as a series of United Empire Loyalist settlements that were established after the American Revolution. Following the War of 1812, an entrepreneur named George Hamilton bought farm holdings from legislative assembly member James Durand. Together with Nathaniel Hughson, they worked to establish a county courthouse and jail on Hamilton’s property. Other buildings followed, and the area soon received a police board, and then was established as a town on February 13, 1833. Hamilton achieved city status on June 9, 1846.

Although Hamilton grew in the shadow of the City of Toronto, it was the home to a large industrial sector and saw many innovations. In 1877, Hamilton became the home to the first commercial telephone exchange in the British Empire, and the second such exchange in North America. By the 1870s, Hamilton’s population had reached 26,716 and was growing rapidly. The need for public transportation was clear.

Horsecars Arrive

In 1873, the city incorporated a horse-car service called the Hamilton Street Railway. In May 1874, the first horse-drawn streetcar travelled along three miles of track from the Grand Truck Railway’s passenger station east along Stuart Street West to James Street, then south to Gore Park, and then east on King to Wellington Street. Six cars were operated, each capable of carrying up to 16 passengers. The service was so popular, another four cars were added soon after. The line was then extended west along King Street to Locke Street, near the Crystal Palace Grounds (today’s Victoria Park) and east to Wentworth Street, which was the city limits at the time.

By 1880, the HSR had built a headquarters at Bay and Stuart Streets. There, 20 cars and 50 horses were housed and cared for. The horses worked four hours a day, and typically logged between 16 and 20 miles. They were “retired” after five years in service.


In August 1884, Toronto’s Canadian Industrial Exhibition (today’s CNE), debuted a new-fangled invention: a train service that used electricity to propel cars along a mile-long stretch of track running from the exhibition’s gates. The invention, by Charles Van Depoele, was an unqualified success, carrying more than 50,000 passengers during the Exhibition’s ten day run. It would bode the end of horse car operation as streetcar companies like the Toronto Railway Company and the Hamilton Street Railway considered electrification.

The initial franchise for the Hamilton Street Railway was set to expire after 20 years. With expiration due in 1893, the city and the franchise owners negotiated a new franchise well in advance. Following approval in March 1892, the deal called for electrification of the HSR’s 12 miles of track, replacing its 45 cars, 9 sleighs and 160 horses. New trackage was added. Fifteen horsecars (ten closed and five open) were remodeled as electric streetcars and new cars were ordered. on June 29, 1892, the first electric streetcar operated on Hamilton’s streets, six weeks before electric cars began operation in Toronto.

Continued Growth and Consolidation followed by Decline

In 1899, the HSR franchise was acquired by the Hamilton Cataract, Power, Light and Traction company. This company got its start generating hydro-electricity from the many waterfalls of the Niagara Escarpment, and it developed its market by acquiring electric street railways. The HSR was a good investment, as Hamilton’s population doubled between 1900 and 1914 (from 51,561 to 100,808) and the HSR needed to expand its network and added more cars, including second-hand models from other cities. The Cataract company also bought a number of interurban lines in the region, including the Hamilton & Dundas Street Railway (H&D) on September 17, 1899, the Hamilton Radial Electric Railway (HRER) in February 1901 — which stretched to Hamilton Beach, Burlington and Oakville — and the Hamilton, Grimsby, & Beamsville Electric Railway (HG&B) in 1905. In 1907, the Cataract company bought the Brantford & Hamilton Electric Railway, and then created the Hamilton Terminal Railway Company. The HTRC wasn’t really an operating railway, but Cataract used the company to manage the terminal for the four radial lines.

The next two decades were good ones for the Cataract company and the Hamilton Street Railway, but by the late 1920s, things were beginning to decline. Newly paved roads, competing motor bus services and the availability of private automobiles ate into ridership. To save money, the HSR placed buses in service on the Bartonville line on King Street East. The Great Depression further afflicted ridership, and the Hamilton Street Railway did not consider investing in the new Presidents Conference Committee cars that other streetcar companies hoped would answer the rise of the automobile. Ontario Hydro bought out Cataract, and was not interested in operating the radial network. One by one Ontario Hydro abandoned the electric radial lines. Canada Coach Lines moved in to replace them with buses.

The onset of the Second World War paused the ridership decline, as rubber and gasoline rationing reduced private automobile travel and brought many workers back to the streetcars. In 1940, the HSR had 27.97 miles of electric railway operating on seven routes: the Belt Line (7.82 miles), Burlington-James South (7.60), Westdale-James North (4.28), Aberdeen-King West (4.01), Wentworth (1.65), Crosstown (Sanford) (1.68) and Incline (0.93).

The City of Hamilton also boasted two privately operated “incline” railways or funiculars — short, vertical railroads that carried passengers up the face of the Niagara Escarpment to neighbourhoods on Hamilton Mountain. Though the HSR never owned or operated these lines, the Incline streetcar route linked downtown Hamilton with the lower terminal of one of the two funiculars.

After the War, Rails Up

Like many other streetcar networks, the Hamilton Street Railway had a hard time during the Second World War. Although ridership increased due to rationing and the need to transport workers to munition factories, maintenance was kept to a minimum as materials were in short supply. Thus, when the war ended and rationing restrictions lifted, the HSR found itself with a decrepit network of cars and rails, just when automobile ownership was about to take off again. It was not profitable to rehabilitate the network, and the owners of the HSR (by then the Ontario Hydro Electric Power Commission) sought to sell the property. Canada Coach Lines acquired the network for $1.4 million, and immediately announced plans to abandon streetcar service in favour of buses.

The first line to be abandoned was the Burlington-Westdale route. The last day of operation was Thursday, August 4, 1949, as the final cars operated on the Westdale portion of the line. The last run was handled by car 504, leaving King and James Streets at 1:15 a.m. Friday morning, reaching Westdale loop at 1:30 a.m. and returning to the carhouse. Crews moved in to remove the tracks as soon as the sun came up. On the morning of Sunday, December 10, 1950 HSR car 529 made a final round trip over the Burlington Street route, pulling into the carbarn at 1:55 a.m. Trolley bus service on Cannon Street launched the same day. Hamilton’s streetcar era formally ended in the early hours of April 6, 1951, when the mighty Belt Line route closed. Car 519 made the last revenue run.

Trolley Buses Arrive

Although the Hamilton Street Railway had been bought by Canada Coach Lines, they committed to maintaining electric transit operation by purchasing electric trolley buses rather than diesel coaches. Following its acquisition of the HSR, Canada Coach embarked on a five-year plan to replace the streetcars with trolley coaches. The first trolley bus route did not replace streetcar service directly but a motor bus route. The Cannon route was a busy bus route, carrying 4.5 million passengers annually.

Electric wires were strung over a 4.1 mile long route starting at King and Hughson and running north on Hughson to Gore, east on Gore to Wilson, east on Wilson to Wellington, north on Wellington to Cannon, east on Cannon to Kenilworth north on Kenilworth to Britannia, east on Britannia to Strathearn, south on Srathearn to loop at Roxborough and Strathearn, return travelling north on Strathearn to Britannia, west on Brittania to Kenilworth, south on Kenilworth to Cannon, west on Cannon to Wellington, south on Wellington to King William, west on King William to John, south on John to King, west on King to Hughson. A short turn loop was set up at Kenilworth and Cannon, operating north on Robbins to Britannia, east on Britannia to Kenilworth and south on Kenilworth to Cannon. This route was placed in operation December 10, 1950. In less than one year, ridership on the Cannon route rose 4.3%.

As other streetcar routes closed, rails were taken up and trolley bus wires strung up. Diesel buses were used during reconstruction. The second trolley bus route to open was King-Barton, in October 1951. By March 1952, ridership on the King-Barton route rose by 8.2%.

The King-Barton trolley bus route was an 8.6 mile line starting at Strathearne loop at Strathearn and Main. It ran west on Main to Sherman, north on Sherman to King, west on King to James, north on James to Barton, east on Barton to Walter, south on Walter to Melvin, east on Melvin to Parkdale, north on Parkdale to Barton, and west on Barton, following the reverse routing back to Strathearne and Main. There were two short turn loops — one at Kenilworth and Barton, operating north on Kenilworth to Harrison, east on Harrison to Harmony, south on Harmony to Barton, west on Barton to Kenilworth, and a second one at “The Delta”, where King and Main Streets cross, operating east on King to Rosslyn, north on Rosslyn to Main, west on Main to King.

In 1956, the City introduced one-way operation on most major streets in central Hamilton, and the HSR reorganized most routes that passed through downtown Hamilton to adjust to the new street configuration. As part of that process, it split the King - Barton route into two routes - routes that continue today, but not with trolley buses.

Later, the HSR extended the Barton route east beyond Parkdale to Osborne, then north on Osborne, west on Barton, south on Talbot to Melvin, west on Melvin to Parkdale, north on Parkdale to Barton, west on Barton to downtown Hamilton. It also extended the King route further east along Queenston Road to Reid Avenue, while short-turn buses continued to loop at Strathearne. A “King Stub” diesel service was added, which connected with the trolley buses at Reid loop and ran east on Queenston Road past Centennial Parkway/Highway 20, then north on Lake Avenue, west on Delawana and then south on Riverdale back to Queenston. This continued until trolley overhead was extended east to a loop at Donn Avenue in Stoney Creek.

The Decline and Fall of Electric Operations in Hamilton

After the initial set-up and expansion of trolley bus operations on the Hamilton Street Railway, the trolley bus network did not grow. In spite of the trolley buses’ ability to handle steep inclines, wires were never strung up Hamilton Mountain. The HSR suffered the same ridership declines and competition from the private automobile that other transit agencies faced in the 1950s. In 1960, the City of Hamilton purchased Canada Coach Lines and acquired direct responsibility for the Hamilton Street Railway. Subsidized service began in earnest.

The electric trolley buses continued to operate on some of Hamilton’s busiest routes. The original coaches were replaced by Western Flyer models in the 1970s, but the lines started to suffer from deferred maintenance in the 1980s. As the Western Flyer models reached the end of their natural lifespan, the City of Hamilton felt it was more cost-effective to replace trolley bus operation with diesel buses. They pursued this plan despite local opposition. The King trolley bus route was bussed on Sunday, June 28, 1987. Cannon followed in December 1989 when the city relocated some of its operations to a new bus garage in 330 Wentworth Street North and did not install trolley overhead in the new garage.

For the next three years, the Barton trolley bus route operated as the last vestige of the HSR’s electric operations. This was possible because the 7800 series of trolleys had the ability to operate off-wire using a four-cylinder diesel engine that allowed them to reach the new garage. The Barton route retained its trolley coaches until Tuesday, December 29, 1992. Following this final abandonment, trolley bus wires were removed from the streets of Hamilton, and the Street Railway has operated bus only ever since.

The Rails to Return?

The City of Hamilton continued to grow. In the late 1990s, it was merged with its surrounding municipalities in old Wentworth County and its population passed the half-million mark in 2006. Its downtown has been the focus of a number of revitalization plans. While the city has encountered significant economic challenges from industrial closures, new industries are taking root, and Hamilton finds itself as an important urban centre at the west end of the Greater Toronto Area. The Hamilton Street Railway has maintained much of its ridership through a number of initiatives, including an express bus service along the King-Main corridor, affectionately known as the “Bee Line”. In the late 1990s and at the start of the millennium, proposals to upgrade the Bee Line service to LRT operation surfaced. The plans renamed the east-west line as the B-Line, while a north-south line would be the A-Line.

In 2007, the province of Ontario announced its MoveOntario 2020 initiative. Among the projects was just such an LRT expansion. Metrolinx has proposed a network of five LRT lines to open over the next 15 to 25 years. These include the B-Line, running along the King-Main corridor from McMaster University to Eastgate Square, the L-Line running from Downtown to Waterdown, the A-Line running along the James/Upper James corridor from Downtown to John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport, the S-Line running from Centennial to the Ancaster Business Park, and the T-Line, running from Mohawk to the Meadowlands. Together, the lines are referred to as the BLAST Network.

Funding for these lines have not been announced, although the B-Line remains a top priority for Metrolinx. Therefore, it seems possible that in the next few years, the HSR will have a reason to call itself a railway once again.

Hamilton Street Railway Image Archive


Thanks to CZG and Robert Mackenzie for correcting some of the locations listed in this page.

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