Streetcar rails unearthed during Wilson Street reconstruction

Guelph, Ont., Thursday, October 13, 2016 – Earlier today, construction crews working on the Wilson Street reconstruction project uncovered another segment of a streetcar rail line constructed in the late 1890s by George Sleeman.

The discovery of 140 metres of relatively intact rails was made as crews removed asphalt in preparation for the City to replace storm sewers, sanitary sewers, and the water main between Gordon and Northumberland streets.

According to a Cultural Heritage Resource Assessment completed for the project, a 1906 map of the city of Guelph showed an electric street railway line running along Carden, Wilson and Gordon streets.

“We knew a streetcar line existed along Wilson Street and so we expected some remnant of it to be discovered during construction. We’re excited to find the steel rails mostly intact,” says Andrew Janes, project engineer supervisor.

As these remnants are cultural heritage resources, the rails will be moved off site to be documented before any decisions are made about their future.

“The City is developing a plan to determine how best to conserve these pieces of Guelph’s cultural heritage,” says Stephen Robinson, senior heritage planner.

Guelph Museums has a collection that includes track and bricks from other sections of the streetcar line.

Streetcar on Wilson Street, circa 1910 (Courtesy of Guelph Museums 1986.18.204)

Streetcar on Wilson Street, circa 1910 (Courtesy of Guelph Museums 1986.18.204)







Streetcar rails uncovered under Wilson Street

Streetcar rails uncovered under Wilson Street

About the Guelph Street Railway Company

In 1877, the Guelph Street Railway Company was formed to construct a railway operated by horsepower (as in other large urban centres). The scheme was eventually dropped because a charter couldn’t be obtained.

Finally in 1894, George Sleeman, owner of the Silvercreek Brewery and several times mayor of Guelph, approached the City and was granted a charter to run a city railway.

Sleeman wanted to run continuous shifts at the Silvercreek Brewery at the end of Waterloo Avenue, and move people back and forth from his company location.

On May 1, 1895, the first spike of the railway was driven by Sarah Sleeman, George’s wife, in front of the Sleeman mansion (now The Manor) opposite the brewery on Waterloo Avenue. On Sept. 17, 1895, the first car operated over the line.

In 1902, the banks took control of the company as a result of defaulted loans, and in 1903 it was purchased by the City. The City had wanted to gain possession of the franchise from Sleeman since it gave him almost exclusive control of all the streets in Guelph. The City also wanted to be in a position to consider any proposals that might come from any company or corporation desiring to build a line to connect Guelph with other municipalities. As such, the name was changed to the “Guelph Radial Railway Company.”

The idea of extending rail car lines out to surrounding municipalities was never realized. Eventually, most North American street railways came under public ownership when public service and private profit came to be seen as incompatible. The street railway was only marginally profitable in the best of years. It was felt that it, indirectly, the railway would be of value by helping to build up outlying sections of the city, an advantage to manufacturing establishments and their employees.

Between 1902 and 1906, passenger traffic doubled but the generators could not handle the increased traffic leading to power problems.

Rapidly rising costs and deferred maintenance created an unfavourable opinion of the railway in the minds of Guelphites in about 1918-1919. From then on, until streetcars were removed from service on September 30, 1937, they were as much a liability as an asset to the City.

In 1920, Ontario Hydro took over the street railway, but by 1926 had decided to drop railway operations. The biggest threat to streetcars came in 1926 when the first bus line opened in a part of Guelph not served by the streetcars; the experiment proved successful and more buses were bought until they eventually replaced passenger streetcars altogether on October 1, 1937. Two years later, freight service on the railway ceased.

Source: Guelph Museums