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Saturday, 10 April 2021

The history of the Wolseley bus

© 2021, Christian Cassidy

"Strangers to town could find (the Wolseley bus) in its easy meandering past quiet homes and gardens on warm summer afternoons perhaps the perfect picture of peaceful residential Canada. But they would be very wrong."
Winnipeg Free Press, June 11, 1957

Winnipeg Transit is making big changes to the western portion of the Number 10, (Wosleley - St. Boniface), bus route on April 18, 2021. Most notably, Westminster Avenue, the site of the city's very first bus service, will be busless for the first time in 103 years!

The Wolseley bus route was controversial from the very beginning. Its creation meant the end of the road for the city's 500 or so private jitney drivers and the expansion of the route within the neighbourhood set off a decades-long period of infighting between residents.

Here's a look back at the history of the Wolseley bus!

April 15, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The relationship between the city and the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company, the private enterprise that owned and operated the city's streetcar system, was always a tense one. Politicians constantly wanted more service while the company was mindful of the huge up-front capital costs required to extend an existing streetcar line a kilometre further down the road.

The establishment of new suburbs in the west and south ends of the city in the 1910s increased the pressure on the public transportation system and the streetcar company could not keep up with demand. The stop-gap measure allowed by the city in February 1915 were privately-run jitneys.

February 27, 1915, Winnipeg Tribune

Jitneys were multi-person vehicles that could pick up fares for a flat rate wherever they wanted, except along existing streetcar routes. It was up to vehicle operators if they kept a strict schedule or route.

As soon as regulations allowed, the Exchange Taxi Company pressed four of its larger cars into service as a trial. In one day, February 11, 1915, they picked up 660 passengers at five cents a head. It was a good sign for the company as it was putting the finishing coats of paint on what would be the city's first custom-built jitney.

A Winnipeg Tribute reporter got a sneak peak at that 14-passenger vehicle and wrote that when it makes its debut on March 1 to serve the Maryland Bridge area, "...it will not only represent to Winnipeg citizens an emancipation from street car monopoly, but will be a credit to the city from the standpoint of appearance."

Jitneys were a great success as a feeder service taking people from residential neighbourhoods to streetcar lines and back again. At night, it was believed a small network of "jitney pigs" took passengers to purchase alcohol from illegal bars or stills in contravention of prohibition laws.

In 1917, the city issued more than 500 annual jitney licences and they moved thousands of passengers per year with the Westminster / Wolseley area being one of their most profitable neighbourhoods. 

March 11, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

Aside from providing public transportation to more neighbourhoods, the licensing of private jitneys was a way for the city to issue a warning to WERCo that there were options to having a single streetcar monopoly operating in the city. The company, which took a big financial hit from the private carriers, got the message.

WERCO's multi-year licence to operate the streetcar system was up for renewal on March 31, 1918 and during the negotiation period it presented the city with what a strong proposal. In exchange for granting it the sole right to operate a bus service, WERCo promised to spend at least $25,000 per month for the next three years improving service, increase wages for its nearly 900 employees, plus a laundry list of specific upgrades to routes and pieces of electrical equipment.

Council voted in favour of the new streetcar deal and announced that when the 500 or so annual jitney licences expired on March 31, 1918 they would not be renewed.

March 23, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

Like the taxi / ride sharing debate of recent years, jitney licence owners packed city council meetings to oppose the deal and protested with their vehicles on the streets. Though they had support amongst the public and on council, they were caught up in a deal that was much bigger than they were.

The drivers got an extension to April 30 to give up their business. The local Jitney Owners and Drivers Association was still a fledgling organization and neither it nor its members had deep enough coffers to mount what would be a lengthy legal challenge.

Jitney drivers sold off their vehicles, some to cities as far away as Toronto. In fact, the Toronto's jitney association extended an invitation for up to 150 drivers and their cars to come to their city to fill their desperate need for more service. 

WERCo noted in its 1918 annual report, "Directors are glad to be able to report that 'jitney' competition, which this Company had to endure so long, and which was a source of much financial loss to it, has been eliminated."

Bus no. 100 to 104 (Source: Manitoba Transit Heritage Association)

In March 1918, WERCo purchased four Studebaker gasoline powered buses at a cost of about $2,000 per vehicle. This was a bargain as the estimate for laying track, erecting poles and supplying the streetcars and related electrical equipment for the approximately two-kilometre-long Westminster route was around $100,000.

The buses, numbered 100 - 104, each held sixteen passengers and were painted a dark colour - likely maroon. (In later years, the company just ordered the chassis and built the bus bodies themselves in the same shops where it built its streetcars. The orange and ivory livery that Winnipeggers were familiar with for decades did not come about until these locally built buses came into service in the 1920s).

On May 1, 1918, the city's era of motorized bus service began. The Westminster route ran down Westminster Avenue to Sherbrook Street, onto Portage Avenue, and back to Westminster via Lipton Street. This allowed passengers to transfer to either the Portage Avenue or Sherbrook Street streetcar lines. Two buses ran in each direction with service every four minutes. On weekdays, it operated from 6 am to midnight with a limited weekend and holiday schedule.

The Westminster route remained the city's only bus route until the early 1920s, though in 1921 the city's parks board purchased a similar bus to run visitors to and from Brookside Cemetery on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

In June 1927, C. H. Dahl, the assistant manager of WERCo, sought approval from the safety committee of city council, (which oversaw streetcar matters), to expand the eastern reach of the Westminster route. This was thanks to the recent connection of Balmoral Place, now Balmoral Street, to Westminster Avenue via a new intersection at Young Street. (The new service required the curve on Balmoral Street to be widened and parking eliminated.)

The extension would take the bus from Westminster Avenue east to Young Street, through the new intersection to Balmoral Street, and to the Broadway and Osborne Street intersection. From there, it looped around at Whitehall Street, (which has since disappeared into the Great West Life parking lot), and returned the same way it came to Westminster Avenue and Aubrey Street.

This new service began in July and let passengers transfer to one of four streetcar lines instead of two. Those wanting to go downtown were brought within a block's walk. 

October 20, 1937, Winnipeg Free Press

 The next major change to bus service came in December 1936 when the Winnipeg Electric Company, (it dropped 'Railway' from its name in 1924), expanded the Westminster route to include Wolseley Avenue. There had been calls in the neighbourhood to expand the service south and west, though the company said it could not go further west on Westminster Avenue as the street was still unpaved and in too poor a condition to run buses.

Little did the company know that this expansion would kick off two decades of bitter infighting amongst residents.

The new route would use Ruby Street to go south to Wolseley Avenue and Sherburn Street to loop back up to Westminster Avenue. Residents of both Ruby an Sherburn were angry that their streets were 'sacrificed' to provide bus service to the larger neighbourhood.

For almost a year, large delegations appeared every couple of months to demand that service be changed, usually followed by a competing delegation insisting that the expanded Wolseley Avenue service remain in place.

At a mid-October safety committee meeting meeting, Alderman Flye, its chairman, half-joked that he would take a holiday the next time delegations for the Westminster bus appeared on the agenda so that the local councillor cold deal with the matter himself. He added, "I think we have almost reached the point where we will have to abandon all forms of surface transportation and try something like captive balloons."

Tired of the delegations, the safety committee instructed WECo to remove the expanded service by the end of the month, which set up another big showdown between the two sides at the next safety committee meeting on October 27, 1937.

October 28, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune

Around 60 people showed up for the meeting and packed the room.

Those in favour of keeping the bus on Wolseley Avenue brought lawyer and a 695-person petition to support their cause. They argued that removing the bus would cause residents to again have to walk blocks to get to the nearest public transportation. (See the letters to the editor below.)

Most residents of Sherburn Street, who had organized into the "Sherbrurn Anti-Bus Association", also came armed with a lawyer and a petition. They argued that running buses down their street devalued their properties and, in some cases, caused cracks in their foundations and the porches to start falling off the fronts of their houses.

There were hybrid opinions mixed in with the two sides. Some within the Sherburn group favoured bus service on Wolslely Avenue - they just wanted it to run down someone else's street. Others favoured the Wolseley extension so that the WECo wouldn't consider running the bus further west on Westminster Avenue past their own homes.

Both newspapers agreed it was an tense evening as residents argued with councillors and amongst themselves. After the delegations were heard and finally removed from the room, an exasperated Alderman Flye remarked, "You can't reason with these people at all. I feel sorry for the Ward One alderman that has to deal with them."

The safety committee passed the buck to a special transportation committee of council which, it appears, kept the route as-is until another solution could be found.

July 7, 1938, Winnipeg Tribune

In what one reporter called "an attempt to end the Westminster Avenue bus war", the safety committee approved a new plan by WECo in July 1938 to restore the Westminster bus back to Westminster Avenue and create a separate bus route for Wolseley Avenue.

The Westminster bus would continue run along Westminster Avenue to Aubrey Street, north to Portage Avenue, and return to Westminster via Lipton Street. (It had run this loop at its western end in a previous configuration of the route.)

The new Wolseley bus would follow Wolseley Avenue from Sherbrook Street to Sherburn Street, turn south for a block on Sherburn, then head north on Garfield back to Wolseley. From Wolseley and Garfield, it returned to Sherbrook Street and went north to Westminster Avenue.

Most notable about the Wolseley bus is that this route would go further east than the Westminster bus which appears to have still looped at Broadway and Osborne Street. The Wolseley bus continued north from that point to Graham Avenue, onto Donald Street, and looped around at Cumberland Avenue.

The new bus routes went into service on Monday, July 18, 1938.

November 14, 1942, Winnipeg Tribune

Running two bus routes in such a small neighbourhood was expensive, so on Monday, November 16, 1942, the two were merged back into a single route called Wolseley. 

The route kept the downtown loop at one end and when it reached Westminster Avenue it travelled down Evanson Street to Wolseley Avenue. It then turned south on Garfield Street to Palmerston Avenue and back to Wolseley Avenue via Aubrey Street. (See the above notice carried by the Winnipeg Tribune for more details.)

The most controversial aspect of the route was the Garfield-Palmerston-Aubrey loop and it set off a new round of infighting as residents tried to get their part of the loop moved to other streets. Despite periodic delegations from these residents at city hall, as well as the odd petition from those living on Arlington and Evanson streets who were also unhappy, councillors and the streetcar company held firm in their route decision for almost two years.

Residents of the loop launched a new offensive in November 1944. A large delegation showed up with a lawyer to that month's safety committee meeting to demand that the routes be split again. Their lawyer claimed residents on Sherburn and Garfield streets south of Wolseley were upset with, "the danger, noise, dust, smoke, smell and vibrations from so many buses operating along the loop at the tail end of the present Wolseley route".

Two weeks later, another delegation with a petition of 500 signatures appeared to oppose the splitting of the route, claiming that "the dust and smoke are negligible and unavoidable" and that Sherburn and Garfield streets had no increase in traffic accidents since the merger of the two buses.

The committee agreed to look at both arguments, but in the end made no changes.

On a bright note, in November 1947 a new addition was made to the route as the Wolseley bus first ventured into St. Boniface. A story in the November 21, 1947 Winnipeg Tribune noted, "In order to give St. Boniface residents service through the downtown area, Wolselely buses are now routed east on Portage Avenue bearing route signs Tache or Provencher."

A 1955 General Motors bus marked for Wolseley route
Winnipeg Transit archive photo from D. Wyatt's Transit History of Winnipeg

Tensions in the neighbourhood continued to simmer until a change in ownership of the public transportation system gave residents new hope for change.

The Winnipeg Electric Company was bought out by the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board in 1953 and its transit assets became the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission, forerunner to Winnipeg Transit. Residents felt with the bus system now in public hands that councillors could no longer hide behind a private company's decision.

To try to appease residents, in 1955 the safety committee tasked the city administration with exploring the possibility of using some city-owned, undeveloped green space on Aubrey Street south of Wolseley Avenue as an off-street bus loop that would all but eliminate bus traffic on Wolseley's side streets. That solution was quickly dashed by area residents who protested the loss of green space.

Alderman Donald MacDonald, who was also council's appointed general manager of the transit system, decided to wade into the battle in June 1957 and suggested to the safety committee that the existing on-street loop be modified. He proposed bringing the Wolseley bus north on Garfield Street right to Portage Avenue and back to Wolseley Avenue via Sherburn Street.

The change was put on the agenda and only two people came out in opposition. The committee approved it and it went on to city council and was passed. That's when things got heated again.

July 11, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

More than seventy people showed up at the next safety committee meeting on July 10, 1957 and the venue had to be moved from a committee room to the council chambers to hold them all. The vast majority were from Sherburn and Garfield Streets.

In the face of such a large delegation, the committee folded and agreed that the new route might not be the best idea. There seemed to be some consensus amongst the crowd that rather than a bus on their streets, "two of the nicest in the city" according to one delegate, that residents of Aubrey Street should be told to do their part and host the off-street loop. The committee agreed to explore that option further.

An exasperated MacDonald said at the end of the meeting, "We've gotta turn it around somewhere. The only thing I can see is to send it straight up in the air."

The bus issue was put on hold as council paused for the summer break and an election. When councillors returned to business in October, the Free Press billed the coming showdown as the "Wolseley Bus Battle of the Century."

October 28, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

The Wolseley bus issue wasn't so much a showdown as a slow boil as the new council put the matter back to the new safety committee to further study the three options: leave the loop as it is, change the route to go to Portage Avenue, or create an off off-street loop on Aubrey Street.

Its first choice was a recommendation that the Garfield / Portage / Sherburn route be tried out for a 90-day basis, something that council passed. It then had to rescind its vote days later after the outcry.

On Saturday, October 26, members of the safety committee, some of them newly appointed since the election, agreed to take an hour-long ride of the western portion of the Wolseley route on a chartered bus with some members of the various delegations and traffic officials. According to a Free Press reporter who was along for the ride, the trip devolved into personal infighting between - and within - the delegations and not a lot was achieved.

Andrew Sharp, the city's deputy traffic engineer, gave all three sides something to think about when he informed them that from a traffic planning point of view, introducing a neighbourhood bus route into Portage Avenue traffic, (via the proposed Garfield / Sherburn loop), would likely not be supported by the administration. That left the current loop or the Aubrey off-street loop as the main options.

Interestingly, 1957 was a good year for Wolseley landmark battles as the campaign to save the Wolseley Elm spilled onto the streets, divided neighbours, and made headlines around North America. (It was eventually cut down in 1960 after being damaged numerous times by vandals.)

Transit bench, ca. 1957 (City of Winnipeg Archives)

That tortuous bus ride appears to have been the final straw for councillors on the safety committee. They had grown tired of the Wolseley bus matter as it became clear that any decision they made would be met with a large and vocal opposition. They were now being chided in the newspapers and letters to the editor for their inability to make a firm decision and move on to other issues.

In the end, it was the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission that came to their rescue. The commission's lawyer appeared at the zoning committee meeting of November 29, 1957 for a hearing to have the city-owned land on Aubrey Street rezoned for an off-street bus loop and toilet.

Earlier in the loop debate, a GWTC spokesman had said Aubrey Street would not be their favoured option. Their line now was that the space was adequate for its needs and, besides, "it would offend the least amount of people."

Though there were some delegates in appearance to oppose the plan, it was much smaller than at previous meetings. The majority of protesters got what they wanted, bus service with the bus on someone else's street, and stayed away.

Only one councillor on the committee voted against the rezoning. It was now out of the city's hair as any appeal would be heard by the Municipal and Public Utilities Board of the province.

Public Utility Board hearing notice for Aubrey Street loop
December 24, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

As expected, Aubrey residents and those who did not want to lose the green space hired a lawyer and appealed to the board at their meeting of January 8, 1958. Their lawyer argued about the safety of children, lower property values and the objectionable sight of a toilet on the street. (At least one exasperated Palmerston Avenue resident appeared to plead with the board to take if off her street and put it onto Aubrey instead.)

The board heard the delegations and at the end of the month issued its ruling in favour of the Aubrey Street loop with the conditions that the property be landscaped, including the screening of the toilet building, and that the loop be long enough to hold multiple buses in case of a backlog in service during rush hour. That's just what the city did.

By the end of 1957, the main components of the Wolselely bus route as we know it today were in place: the St. Boniface end of the route; the use of Arlington and Evanson streets to cross between Westminster and Wolselely avenues; and the Aubrey Street terminus.

If there were other attempts to fight the route or the new loop neither daily paper reported on it.

November 6 and 19, 1974, Winnipeg Tribune

The bus route survived the last major street fight in Wolseley: the Wolseley Wall.

Traffic volumes on Wolseley and Westminster avenues increased through the 1960s and early 1970s and some residents were suspicious that not all of it was from locals. They took their case to their community committee of city council, a new body since the creation of Unicity in 1972, which commissioned a traffic study in November 1973. In a two-day period, over 1,900 cars entered the neighbourhood and 35% of them were just passing through - essentially using the neighbourhood as a side street for Portage Avenue.

Residents demanded that something be done and a series of options were presented to the city's traffic department. It chose to do a 90-day trial of a "hard stop" of street barricades and forced turns that caused through traffic to loop around giving it no option but to go back to Portage Avenue. Barricades would be erected on Wolseley Avenue at both Canora and Aubrey streets, while Westminster Avenue would be closed off at Evanson. These intersections were chosen to save having to wade into the bus route debate again.

No sooner had the barricades gone up when petitions went around and delegates with lawyers began showing up at city hall calling for their removal. The barricades caused some traffic to go to Portage, but the remaining traffic snaked along through side streets with some residents using back lanes as alternative routes. Business owners also complained that their customers - many who came from outside the neighbourhood - were being driven away by the confusion.

November 26, 1974, Winnipeg Free Press

The barricades never made it to the end of the 90-day trail. It culminated in 300-person public meeting at Laura Secord School on November 18 that brought residents, community committee councillors and traffic officials together to try to hash out a new plan.

In newspaper articles leading up to the meeting, some who spearheaded the move to remove the barriers reported receiving numerous threatening phone calls. Residents were warned by councillors and fellow residents that if they wanted the barriers gone they had to work together and come up with a plan that was agreed to by almost everyone, even though there likely would be winners and losers in the final plan.

The nearly three-hour meeting was tense and confusing at times with various motions and amendments to vote on, but residents in the end almost unanimously supported replacing the barricades with a network of four-way stop signs.

Within a few days of the meeting the barricades were removed and four-way stops were erected on Wolseley Avenue at Clifton, Sherburn, Ruby, Arlington and Canora streets. On Westminster Avenue, the stops were at Sherbrun and Canora streets. (A four-way stop already existed at Westminster and Arlington Street.)

It was a close call for the Wolseley bus route. If people still wanted barricades but at other locations, or a one-way street system as some wanted, the route may have had to be changed after nearly twenty years of relatively peaceful existence within the neighbourhood.

January 28, 1959, Winnipeg Tribune

The April 2021 changes are the biggest adjustments to the Wolseley bus route in in almost forty years. It will take the bus off Westminster after 103 years of service and the Balmoral curve, which has had a bus since 1927, will get a lot quieter.

Have these changes reignited a new round in the "Wolseley bus war" after more than sixty years of relative peace between neighbours? It's hard to say as the media doesn't report on things like community committee meetings anymore. We'll likely find out later this spring if it was a success or not.

Winnipeg Public Transit History Manitoba Transit Heritage Association
Celebrating 100 years of motor buses The Switch Iron
Winnipeg Transit History David A. Wyatt
Winnipeg Cab History Norman Beattie
The Curve in Balmoral Street Divided Prairie Neighbourhood (p 23)

Letters to the Editor, October 1937

Letter to the Editor, November 4, 1957

Posted on a Wolseley  hydro pole, April 2021

1 comment:

Brent said...

I'm looking forward to some street hockey on Evanson St.