Long after streetcars no longer operated in Winnipeg, my grandmother, whom we called, Baba, still called buses streetcars, and bus tickets car fare. She was born in 1909, so she had always known public transportation in Winnipeg as the streetcar. I never really understood that until this week, when I stumbled across this 1953 film by Roman Kroiter, called Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman. Not only is this a compelling story about a hard-working, dignified man, but it shows us some amazing scenes of daily life in Winnipeg in the post World War II years of prosperity.
Click here to see this film.
I never rode a streetcar in Winnipeg, but I have ridden on plenty of trolley buses, and Kroiter’s lovely film prompted some reminiscing.
When I was little, we lived on Gallagher Avenue in Winnipeg, near Weston School. When I was nine years old and in grade four, I was transferred to Principal Sparling School on Sherburn near Notre Dame, a school I attended for the next three years.
This meant I would be taking the bus to school. It was tremendously exciting, because this wasn’t a school bus, it was the regular city bus that grown-ups took to work, and mini-skirted teenagers took to Tec Voc School. Looking back, I have many fond memories of that ride on the trolley bus that went down Logan, then left at Keewatin and headed east on Notre Dame.
I was a short kid. I stood third in line in those curious school lineups that compelled administrators to assemble children from shortest to tallest. The divide between the sexes at Principal Sparling was prominent. The school had one door for boys and another for girls, despite the mixed classes. The school had strict rules in other areas, too. Under Miss Wasserman’s watchful eye, the girls learned to curtsey, dance the Schottische, and to serve tea, should we be asked to help out at an official function: the kind where you would wear white cotton gloves and a puffy crinoline under your skirt.
I don’t know what the boys learned, but I seem to remember they also got roped into that Schottische business along with the girls. At least the boys could wear pants. The girls were required to wear skirts at that time, even in the coldest weather. So, to deal with this dress code in the days before snowsuits, we had to wear heavy snow pants over our tights and under our bulky winter coats. Our mothers were mostly in their twenties and early thirties then, and apparently lived in fear of whooping cough. From October to May, in addition to the coats and pants, our winter protection included hats with ear flaps, mittens on strings, and scarves wrapped double to cover our faces and protect us from the weather or perhaps germs.
The bus, at that time, was a trolley bus, riding on big tires and powered by electricity fed through long antennae-like poles that reached up to the power lines. The trolley poles would spark and crackle on the wires in snowy weather, and sometimes a pole would drop and the bus would stop. The bus driver would hustle outside and guide the pole back into place and we’d soon be on our way.
The doors of the bus folded back, exposing steep steps up into the car. The ribbed rubber mats were wet and gritty. Costumed as I was, against the wrath of winter, and carrying my school bag on my shoulder, along with my lunch pail and violin case, the very act of climbing up into the bus and getting settled was very cumbersome. But, I loved the bus ride. Here, for twenty minutes, I was immersed in the world of strangers and came to appreciate the many benefits of eavesdropping on the other passengers. I learned that people who took the bus to work in offices downtown didn’t talk much. They read books and newspapers. The teenage girls on their way to Tec Voc wanted nothing to do with me, but had lively conversations that bubbled over each other. These girls left me envious for both the things they had to giggle about, as well as the length of their legs, planted firmly on the floor while mine dangled in the air as I sat back on the seat buried beneath my heap of belongings.
The people I almost always found to be the most interesting were older. They often had much to say about the price of groceries, their neighbourhood gossip, and sometimes the city issues they had heard discussed on the radio or in the newspaper. While they spoke in English, they invariably had accents. Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish, among many others. I had never heard a person with gray hair speak clean English. Naturally I assumed that I, too, would have an accent one day, and it made me wonder what that accent would be and when my speech would change.
But that is another story, for another day.
If you would like to learn more about early public transportation in Winnipeg, you will enjoy John E. Baker’s book, Winnipeg’s Electric Transit.
If you can’t find it, check with Burton Lysecki at his book store.