August 03, 2011

Museum offers rides on antique streetcars

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was a bit spooky, wandering through the maze of antique streetcars, in the huge display barn at the Halton County Radial Railway Museum just south of Rockwood. The best of them have been protected and restored like works of art, while others remain outdoors to face the elements.

The museum is on Guelph Line in Milton, but it is just 25 minutes from Erin and makes for an interesting excursion. It is a non-profit education centre and tourist attraction, complete with gift shop and streetcar ice cream parlour, operated there since 1972.

There has been interest lately in LRT (Light Rail Transit) for urban areas – a new rail and rapid bus corridor was approved just a few weeks ago for Waterloo-Kitchener-Cambridge. But less well-known is that there was once a system of inter-city electric trains, radiating like spokes out of Toronto.

One of these radial lines, opened in 1917 by the Toronto Suburban Railway company, went to Guelph, via Meadowvale, Churchville (Eldorado Park), Georgetown, Limehouse, Acton and Rockwood. It was bought and subsidized by Canadian National Railways, but it never had commercial success and was discontinued on August 15, 1931. The Guelph Hiking Trail Club now maintains a 33 km route on the rail bed, as a link to the Bruce Trail in Limehouse.

The museum has rebuilt a section of line and overhead power supply, so they can test their collection of about 75 vehicles. They offer guests a 20 minute ride through the forest, with an attractive park at the east-end loop.

The collection includes streetcars, subway cars, trolley coaches, locomotives, box cars, cabooses, rail grinders and snow plows. There's even a bus from the Hamilton Street Railway, in the old rounded style that I used to take to high school.

Many cities used to have belt lines – rail loops through their busiest areas. The Niagara Gorge Belt Line operated from Niagara Falls to Queenston on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the river, from 1893 to 1935, carrying up to 17,000 passengers a day. Toronto's radial railways did not go into downtown Toronto, and ultimately could not compete with standard freight trains or the expanded highway system and the conveniences offered by bus transportation.

I took a ride on Car 327, a streetcar with open sides and running boards. It is a replica built by the TTC for Toronto's centennial in 1934, with components salvaged from the original #327, built in 1892. The conductor would walk along the running board with a tin cup to collect the fares, and people would often hop on and off while it was still moving. Such vehicles were taken out of service about 1915, because of the dangers posed by that other horseless invention, which remains popular today.

The most striking aspect of the interiors of the older cars are the wooden fixtures, varnished and glowing, with attention to detail that has become unfashionable or too expensive to maintain in more modern settings. There is also some impressive woodwork in the old Rockwood train station, purchased from the town in 1971 and moved to the museum.

The Ontario Electric Railway Historical Association was formed in 1953 by a group of men who wanted to save a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcar from being sent to the scrap yard. Eventually, they started the museum, which is now open on weekends from May to October, and daily in the summer. Go to for details, including school programs and special events. There is an archive of drawings, photographs, uniforms, maps and books, which are available for research.

For those with a general interest in trains, there are museums across Canada, the largest being the Canadian Railway Museum (Exporail) south of Montreal. I have visited a few, and can recommend the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, and the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, BC, particularly notable for its preservation of intricate inlaid woodwork in the luxury cars.

Here are some more photos from my visit: