High Level Bridge Streetcar
Edmonton Streetcar #33 crosses the High Level Bridge © Hans Ryffel, ERRS
Strathcona and the High Level Bridge have a long association with streetcars. In the early hours of the morning of September 2, 1951 Edmonton streetcar #52 made its final trip along 109th Street from 83rd Avenue across the top deck of the High Level Bridge bringing to an end an era that had started with the first streetcar ride on November 8, 1908. The Edmonton Radial Railway (as the system was known) had become famous throughout the continent because of this unique streetcar ride over the North Saskatchewan River, one of the highest river crossings by streetcar in the world. The top deck of the bridge had three sets of tracks, the centre one for the Canadian Pacific Railways (C.P.R.) steam trains, while the outer ones served the E.R.R. streetcars. The passengers' view was both spectacular and exhilarating.
Edmonton Streetcar #33 restored to original 1912 condition has entered service on the High Level Bridge in spring 2011 © Hans Ryffel, ERRS
The bridge (755 m long and 49 m high) opened in 1913. As a concession to passenger nerves, crossovers were introduced a few years later at both approaches to the bridge so that the cars actually adopted left hand running while on the top deck. In the event of a car becoming disabled, this meant that passengers could alight on to the centre of the bridge rather than stepping out into space! In actual fact there were few problems and the High Level Bridge tram service ran accident-free until abandonment in 1951.
That could well have been the end of the matter as far as streetcars on the High Level Bridge were concerned. However, in early 1979 a group of volunteers began to restore Edmonton streetcar #1 (the only one to have survived in the city) to full operating condition. As a contribution to the City's 75th anniversary celebrations, the old streetcar saw service across the High Level Bridge during the Thanksgiving Weekend 1979 albeit on the surviving railway track and towing a generator car.
Melbourne (Australia) Tram #930 on the High Level Bridge
© H. Ryffel, ERRS
Thus, after an absence of 28 years, a streetcar made a brief but triumphant return to the High Level Bridge. Five cent fares were charged and that weekend scores of passengers young and old took in the magnificence of the fall colours in the river valley. Based on this success, the same volunteers formed in 1980 the Edmonton Radial Railway Society (ERRS). Starting with nothing, they built the streetcar line at Fort Edmonton Park, restored a number of additional streetcars and acquired several other Edmonton streetcar bodies for eventual restoration. However, for many ERRS members the ultimate dream was to have once again a streetcar service across the High Level Bridge as a heritage line. The path was cleared when the Canadian Pacific Railway formally abandoned its track west of 103 Street and across the bridge. A first small step was made during the Fringe Festival 1995, when a double ended Japanese streetcar (which had originally been purchased for spare parts) shuttled visitors from 104 Street to Fringe Productions taking place in the former railway tunnel and the Granite Curling Club. Same as in 1979, a generator mounted on a small truck towed by the streetcar had to provide the required electric power (600 volts DC). The generator was noisy and smelly, but the streetcar performed well and thousands of delighted passengers enjoyed a leisurely ride on a seventy year old streetcar as part of their Fringe activities.
An agreement was eventually reached with the City to inaugurate a seasonal service across the bridge and as far as Grandin. The quote received from a contractor to span overhead wire and electrify the line was far beyond the means of the society. Undaunted, in a giant leap of faith it was decided that the electrification could be tackled by the members themselves. And indeed, the dedicated crew came through with flying colours! Poles were set, cantilevers built and overhead wires installed. Through a piece of luck, the original poles across the bridge had never been removed and could be brought back into service after a span of close to 50 years. In the fall of 1996 ex Osaka car #247 operated for the first time under its own power. Service over the entire line from Strathcona to Grandin commenced in August 1997.
Japanese (Osaka) Streetcar crosses the High Level Bridge
© W. Burris
For eight full years Osaka #247 was the only available car for operation across the High Level Bridge. At first being stored outside and hidden under tarps during the winter months, the car served the society extremely well and carried between 30,000 and 50,000 passengers per year. Finally, a streetcar barn with three tracks could be established at the north side of the farmers market in Old Strathcona and provide shelter for our faithful Japanese tram.
Further highlights included the construction of the "Ribbon of Steel", a multi-use corridor north of Grandin, enabling an extension of the streetcar service to a new terminus in between 100 Avenue and Jasper Avenue. The line now measures 3 km in length. The addition of a second car (prototype LRT car #601 from Hannover, Germany) and the construction of a passing loop at the south end of the bridge enabled as from 2005 the occasional operation of 2 cars when required. The year 2006 saw the inauguration of ex Melbourne (Australia) tram #930, completing the fleet to three operational streetcars.
Finally, in spring 2011 Edmonton Streetcar #33, fully restored to orginal 1912 condition, has entered service on the High Level Bridge. Osaka Tram #247 has been temporarily withdrawn for necessary repairs.
Hannover #601 loading passengers at Grandin (July 1, 2009) © W. Burris
On the occasion of the Centennial of Edmonton's Public Transportation a small but fine streetcar museum was established in the Streetcar Barn at Strathcona. The displays include many pictures, the history of Edmonton's long gone streetcars, uniforms, tickets, streetcar parts and models.
In the near future the society hopes to extend the tracks across 103 Street (Gateway Blvd) and serve a new terminus north of Whyte Avenue in the heart of Old Strathcona.