Before cars were king

W.R. MacAskill / Nova Scotia Archives

A century ago, the tram system offered Haligonians unprecedented freedom and mobility 

Trams were once part of the hustle and bustle of downtown life, screeching across tracks and stopping at the clang of the bell. Now they’re gone, and pavement covers their tracks, leaving them to rust beneath the streets, briefly glimpsed during road-work season. 

“The tram car was pretty much the major source of transportation for the average working person,” says Don Cunningham, co-author of The Halifax Street Railway 1866–1949. “Most people travelled on them back and forth to work and (operators) knew everybody because they used the same tram car for pretty much their entire adult life.” 

Compared to the buses to today, the tram cars were much more efficient, he adds. 

According to a blog post on trams from the Halifax Public Libraries (“From the Birney to the Bus: A Brief and Not at All Definitive History of Halifax Public Transit”), originally the trams ran every 15 minutes. That’s a level of service users of most Halifax Transit routes today would envy. 

By the 1940s, Halifax had over 80 trams in its fleet, but in 1949, replaced them with electric trolley coaches. Gas-powered buses came in 1969. 

Even though they are long gone, Cunningham who was a child when the last trams rolled through, often thinks of what was. “When I was a kid, trams were just so much fun almost like a carnival,” he says. “They were noisy because they had the compressors and all that stuff running … but they were a real treat.” 

Despite switching over to buses in March 1949, several of the trams were used sporadically over the next month to cover small distances. For example Route 3 went from Richmond to Buckingham and Young streets. There were six routes in use until the end of April. 

On their last official day in March, one of the trams was decorated with a cartoonish, crying face and two messages. The first, to passengers, read: 

Nova Scotia Archives

Good-bye my friends, this is the end: I’ve travelled miles and miles. 

And watched your faces through the years, show anger, tears and smiles: 

Although you criticized my looks and said I was too slow, 

I got you there and brought you back through rain, sleet and snow. 

A passage on the back read: 

Farewell to all you motorists — today my 

journey ends! So let’s forget past arguments, 

shake hands and part as friends. You’ve followed me around the streets and many times you swore because I beat you to the stop and dared you to pass my door. 

See a timeline of Halifax’s transit service.

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