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A horse drawn tram on St. Denis Street - Circa 1877 Photographer uknown - STM.
26 November 2017
Montreal's Crowded First Trams
Set Off in 1861


Montreal Quebec - At 07:00 the cars proceeded for the first time to ply along the road for traffic and ran the whole day up to 10 o'clock last night - The Gazette, Thursday, 28 Nov 1861.
 
The debut of public transit in Montreal 150 years ago tomorrow went off without a hitch (note, this is a 2011 story, so it was 156 years ago).
 
Montrealers filled the trams to bursting, probably as much to experience the novelty that first day as to get from one place to another, and from all reports there were no accidents or even delays.
 
The trams, ancestors of today's buses and metro cars of the Societe de transport de Montreal (STM), were horse-drawn.
 
They ran from Place d'Armes along Notre Dame Street east to the tollgate in the Faubourg Quebec, near where the Jacques Cartier Bridge now comes ashore.
 
The City Passenger Railway Co. charged anywhere from five cents to 10 cents for a single fare, depending on distance travelled.
 
For several years already, there had been talk of building tramways in Montreal.
 
Several proposals were put forward to city council.
 
In the end it was a group of investors, most with links to the Montreal and Champlain Railroad, who won the franchise.
 
They hired a man named Alexander Easton to build the system and get it running.
 
The Philadelphia native had launched several such projects already, including Toronto's first tram line just a few months before.
 
In an odd placing of things back to front, Easton laid Montreal's tracks before council granted the necessary final certification.
 
That came at a heated council meeting just two days before the opening.
 
The dissenters on council fretted that street surfaces where the tracks ran would deteriorate, but they could not prevail.
 
The day before the line opened to the public, the shareholders and a few guests enjoyed a trial run.
 
Their host was Thomas Morland, the company's president.
 
At 14:00 that afternoon, four trams set off from Place d'Armes, and though Notre Dame Street was jammed with carts and other traffic, they had little trouble making headway.
 
"At the corner of St. Lambert Street, it is true, a few un-wieldy hay carts had to verge a little upon the side walk, but they were abreast, took each side of the road, and from their great bulk, almost filled up the whole street," The Gazette reported.
 
"But this point was soon passed, and the cars speeded merrily along their way."
 
Speeded?
 
That was something of an exaggeration, for the trams, that day and for many years to follow, moved at little more than a walking pace.
 
At the end of the line, Morland showed off new stables the company had erected.
 
They accommodated 40 horses, complete with "barns to hold the equine provender."
 
When the official party finally got back to Place d'Armes, Easton invited them to "sprinkle the track," which The Gazette described, a little cryptically, as "a ceremony which is much like that attendant upon the launching of a ship, but which is generally partaken of more largely."
 
Later, there was a celebratory dinner at the nearby St. Lawrence Hall, Montreal's finest hotel.
 
Several weeks later a second line was opened along Craig Street and its westward extension, St. Antoine Street, from Papineau Street in the east to Canning Square in the west.
 
Winter was coming, and the wheeled trams were soon out of service, to be replaced for the season by specially built sleighs.
 
Straw spread on the floor of each sleigh helped keep passengers' feet warm, and sometimes extra horses would have to be used if the snow was especially deep.
 
There were no schedules and no formal stops.
 
A tram would stop anywhere when someone wanted on or off, and might even pause for a couple of minutes to let a favoured passenger make a quick purchase in a shop along the way.
 
North-south lines were slower in coming, and as late as 1892 there still were only three that tackled the lower flanks of Mount Royal.
 
Even with no snow on the ground, extra horses had to be used on the steepest inclines.
 
The company was renamed the Montreal Street Railway Co. in 1882.
 
Though trams and even subway trains might elsewhere be powered by electricity or steam, as in New York or London, Montreal continued to stick with horses.
 
A change in the company's charter in 1870 allowed electricity as a source of traction, but that leap wasn't made until September of 1892.
 
Over the next two years, however, the entire system was electrified.
 
Then, on 27 Oct 1894, Montreal's last tramways horse was finally retired from service.
 
John Kalbfleisch.

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