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Debating electric transit during a pandemic

For a few weeks the controversy over a light rail system from Stoney Creek to McMaster University has bumped COVID-19 off the lead pages of The Hamilton Spectator. It turns out such a transit debate during a pandemic is nothing new.

If we look, at history, politicians and ratepayers were arguing over an electric  transportation system in the middle of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1919.

Just after the turn of the last century, a group of Hamilton businessmen pioneered long distance transmission of electricity from a hydraulic power plant at De Cew falls near St.Catharines. As the conversion of residences and industry to the new electric power was still in its infancy, the company strove to commercialize the power by constructing a network of three electric radial rail passenger rail lines radiating from Hamilton to  Brantford, to Beamsville and to Oakville via Burlington. The three railways converged at Hamilton’s Terminal Building, now Effort Square at the corner of King and Catharine Streets.

At its peak the Hamilton-based Dominion Power and Transmission Co. operated four radial rail lines serving several communities
Hamilton’s Terminal Building at King and Catharine Sts, was the terminus of four raidial lines. Train shed is on the left

Facing financial losses, the Hamilton Electric Railway had cut off service on its radial line between Hamilton and Oakville in the fall of 1918. It had petitioned the communities it served to allow a fare increase.

A Burlington-bound radial coach in Oakville

In Burlington, Mayor, Dr. T.W. Peart and a brand new council were elected in Burlington on Jan. 6, 1919. The new council was in favor of allowing the radial company to increase its rates for one year, although Reeve Hughes Cleaver was opposed.

Peart’s platform had called for negotiations with the company for renewal of service. A headline on a page 2 story in the Toronto Star read ‘Burlington Elections Win for Radial Co.’

Cleaver then temporarily threw a monkey wrench into proceedings when he invited Sir Adam Beck, founder of Ontario Hydro, to a council meeting without informing his colleagues.

A radial coach from Burlington crossing the Beach Canal at Hamilton

Beck was promoting a future all-new 62-mile electric line from Toronto to the Niagara River that would run through Burlington and Hamilton.  

Peart and most of the councilors were so upset that they resigned on Jan. 18, just 12 days after the election.

Burlingtonians were impressed by Beck’s offer to take over the whole line from Hamilton to Oakville. But folks in Hamilton were not because it required the City to issue debentures for $6 million.

There also was the prospect of the CNR building a line from Toronto to Niagara through Hamilton. Many felt there would not be enough business for two lines..

In the aftermath of the electric rail fiasco, Cleaver and George Blair, the only councillor who didn’t resign, were left to run the town by themselves for about two weeks until another election was set for Feb. 3. Even 101 years ago there were nine members of council for a population of 2,500. Today the City of Burlington has just seven members for a population of 185,000.

While Peart set the record of 12 days for the shortest time as mayor of Burlington, it took another 72 years for Roly Bird to establish the record for longest service at 12 years. Bird was mayor from 1979 to 1991.

In February of 1919 Mac Smith, who had been mayor of Burlington when it became a town in 1915, was voted in again. Smith said he was a supporter of Beck’s hydro radial scheme, but warned that the town needed a railway service immediately.

So service on the old radial line resumed. The Beck plan was never approved, and all electric railways were out of business by 1930 as the automobile became the favoured mode of transportation.

Denis Gibbons

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