Monday, July 23, 2012

The last signs of urban rail in Centretown

[Sorry about the lack of posts. The Bluesfest Bike Park, while fun, is always a big interruption, and I'm just now starting to catch up on things. Hopefully I'll be back up to three posts again soon!]
Previous streetcar references on this blog have either been historical (such as the 50th anniversary of the last streetcar in Ottawa, or dealing with wooden streetcar rail ties dug up as part of major road reconstructions.

Streetcars were, of course, a part of daily life in Centretown from the 1890s up to April 20, 1959. this Canadian Encyclopedia article gives a concise overview of the history of streetcar technology.

Along with the streetcars are their less-celebrated accompanying infrastructure, including wires and the poles that held them up. These were all removed in the months and years after the streetcars stopped rolling. Here's a photo from the end of July, 1959, of workers removing the trolley poles at Confederation Square in the shadow of the Parliament buildings:

Over in the Glebe, just on the other side of the 417 from Centretown, a metal post outside the Works restaurant claims to be the last streetcar pole in Ottawa (such as in this 2010 Ron Corbett column in the Sun).

It was spotted by the Citizen's David Reevely on Twitter last month, after it was removed, restored, and reinstalled as part of the Bank Street reconstruction through the Glebe, as described in this PDF from the Glebe Community Association:
The northern-most (beside The Works restaurant) streetcar pole is being restored and will be reinstalled. This work has been directed by Sally Couts, one of the City’s Heritage Planners. The installation of the markers for the Streetcar Poles will likely take place in the spring. We will review the plans by the Heritage Department, and make appropriate alterations to the pavements around the poles to harmonize with the streetscape design.
The thing is, it's not the only one! Sitting quietly on Somerset Street West, just steps away from Booth Street, is another:

I'd supected it was a streetcar post in a post last December depicting a sign on the post. The acorn on the top gives it away; that was a common design element of many of Ottawa's streetcar posts.

But a more subtle—and functional—element is where the post tapers. There's a smooth taper at around waist height, and a sharp one around shoulder height, and this pattern repeats again further up the pole. The sharper tapers held collars that I believe were used for attaching the wires. You can see some of these decorated collars in this photo from the 1890s of Dominion Hall at Bank and Sparks (long since gone):

So from this curvature pattern, we can discern that there is in fact a third streetcar pole, right across from City Hall, on Elgin Street:

The post appears to be a couple feet lower than the Somerset one, which makes it unclear whether this one was used in situ as a streetcar pole, or if it was installed at some point after to support the hydro pole.

Adding to the uncertainty is the top of the pole. There's some sort of misshapen I-beam sticking out the top of it.

These I-beams, without the acorn-topped columnar pole surrounding them, were also used for suspending streetcar wires, such as the less ceremonial Preston-Sidney streetcar loop. The red and white bands around it indicate the location of a trolley stop.

I've found two of these I-beam poles in Centretown, both on Bronson Avenue (nowhere near where streetcars ran). This one is on the east side of Bronson and Christie...

It's being used to steady a tall wooden hydro pole on the opposite side of the street.

The second that I've found is right at the Nanny Goat Hill Community Garden (which, by the way, will have a Good Food Market on Saturday, July 28, 11am-2pm), at Laurier and Bronson. It's also being used to steady a hydro pole.

When you get close to one and have a good look at the shape of these posts, you discover that holding up streetcar wires isn't their only connection to Ottawa's rail history, but they are actually upended pieces of railway track! (There's another piece of rail cut off around waist height and painted yellow at a parking lot on Lisgar between Elgin and Metcalfe)

Even though no streetcars ran at Bronson/Christie or Bronson/Laurier, I sincerely hope that these posts can be left in place as a subtle acknowledgement of our lost railway heritage. This, unfortunately, seems unlikely. When I asked the Bronson project managers about leaving these poles where they are, I got a rather unhelpful reply suggesting that the landscape architect would have to find something to do with it, or some other way of acknowledging rail.

As for the actual streetcar poles on Somerset and Elgin, they aren't going anywhere anytime soon, but they are both cracked, which could mark their fate when the streets around them are eventually rebuilt. But until then, the one in the Glebe isn't the only one. Keep your eyes peeled for others!


  1. excellent spotting of our history. It would be easy to keep these poles as a memento of things past.

  2. An electric trolley bus powered by overhead wires ran down Bronson in the Glebe in the 50's.

    There's also an i-beam steadying a hydro pole east of the intersection of Craig and Ella in the Glebe and I'm pretty sure that was a trolley/streetcar-free zone.

    1. Yes, there were trolley buses on Bronson, but after coming up from the Glebe they turned east on Gladstone toward Kent (as captured and described by URBSite).

      Thanks for the tip about the Craig/Ella post! These aren't as rare as the streetcar poles, but they are practically 'invisible' because most people don't look for them.

    2. I counted 4 or 5 i-beam posts steadying hydro poles on the canal side of Echo Drive, between the Pretoria Bridge and Avenue Road.

      I wonder why it's called Avenue Road?

    3. Good question! I've asked on Twitter, we'll see if there's any response. As it's in Old Ottawa East and not in Centretown, I don't know! :)

    4. There are also I-beam posts at other locations: Main Street near St. Paul U., Riverside Drive southbound near Bank St., Bronson Avenue south of Carling near the new condos, St. Laurent Blvd at Cyrville Rd., Charlotte St near Rideau. Most of them are holding up Hydro poles.