Book Review: Streetcars of St. John’s

The book “Streetcars of St. John’s” is the third “before and after” book from author Kenneth G. Pieroway. Following on his excellent Rails Across the Rock and Rails Around the Rock books, this book features the streetcars that once ran in Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s.

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A Brief History

The first streetcar ran in St. John’s on May 1, 1900. The first set of cars were built by the A. C. Larivière company of Montreal. These eight double-ended streetcars could carry 50 passengers and the conductor and had a top speed of a whopping eight miles per hour. Like Newfoundland’s railway, the streetcars operated on a 3′ narrow gauge track.

These eight cars were replaced by eight Birney Safety Cars, built by the well known Birney Car Company of Ottawa. These red cars ran at a considerably higher top speed of 20 miles per hour.

Like most street car systems, they were supplanted by buses and private automobiles. By 1948 the Birneys were severely worn and banged up, and the city wanted to pave the cobblestoned Water Street in downtown St. John’s. The decision was made to terminate the service, and the last streetcar ran on September 15, 1948.

Very little evidence of the streetcars remain in St. John’s. All eight Birneys were sold, and most ended up as sheds or other buildings. It’s not clear that any remain today. The overhead wires are long gone, and the rails were either removed or paved over.

The Book

This 130 page book starts with a foreword by Patrick Kennedy, whose grandfather Patrick Parrell worked on the streetcars from the start to the end. After an author’s foreword and a map of the system, there is a brief history of the system.

The majority of the book has “then and now” photos. The author has carefully composed the “now” photos to be as close in composition to the “then” photos as possible, and he did a really good job on the vast majority of them.

St. John’s has changed over the 70+ years since the streetcars left, but the streets are still in the same place (mostly) and many buildings still remain. Some of the buildings have been modified, but they are still recognizable.

The book was especially interesting to me, since we stayed in St. John’s for a few days as part of a family visit to Newfoundland in the summer of 2016.

Once there were streetcars here
Once there were streetcars here

The above photo shows Duckworth Street. The War Memorial was off my left shoulder. The streetcar line used to run along here, then just past that yellow building, it turned left down Holloway Street to run down Water Street west past the Newfoundland Railway station.

This is a great book for transit fans, street car fans and people interested in the history of St. John’s and of Newfoundland as a whole.

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