History (Looking Back)

In the last 100 years we have seen a tremendous leap in technology from coal oil lamps to electricity, outdoor toilets to inside plumbing, the horse and buggy to a glut of cars, and from streetcars that were pulled by horses to the modern, air-conditioned, red and white buses that join our fleet today.

The first transit company in Ottawa was created on August 15, 1866, when the Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company was awarded "perpetual" running rights in the Capital by the Province of Canada. On June 29, 1891, two Ottawa entrepreneurs, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, made the first run of the Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company.

Innovation

Ahearn and Soper - Innovative Thinkers who shaped Transit in Ottawa


Opposite: OER Streetcar #10 opened electric car service in Ottawa, June 29, 1891.


Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were two Ottawa entrepreneurs who introduced the first all-electric streetcar system to Ottawa.

Ahearn and Soper's early involvement with transportation in Ottawa was innovative and 'electrifying'. This information has been culled from a number of sources, including an address to members of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association in Montreal, on March 1, 1960, by A. Seymour Rathbone, who then at 82, was Chairman of the Board, of the Ahearn and Soper Company Limited, Ottawa and who as a young man had started working for the company in the late nineteenth century.

Thomas Ahearn was one of Ottawa's true local heroes. As a boy, he went from his Lebreton Flats home to the J. R. Booth company to offer his services free in exchange for a chance to learn the exciting new technology of telegraphy.

Warren Y. Soper was born in Maine but came to Ottawa as a small child. They were both expert telegraph operators in Ottawa while still in their teens. Ahearn spent some time with the Western Union Telegraph Company in New York City, then while still very young, was appointed local manager of the Bell Telephone Company in Ottawa. Soper became manager of the Ottawa office of the Dominion Telegraph Company.

Their occupations brought them together and in 1881 they resigned their positions and formed a partnership as Ahearn and Soper, Electrical Contractors. They continued to form one innovative company after another in the field of heat, light, power (they became representatives of the Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing company) and, close to their hearts, the electric street railway.

Prior to 1891, the Ottawa transportation system consisted of ten small horse-drawn streetcars, 15 sleighs and 12 omnibuses. While the company was established a year before Confederation in 1866,  the cars officially took to the streets in 1870. In the winter the floors of the sleighs were covered with straw and a tiny coal stove in the centre of the car provided heat.

In 1890, a group of American interests negotiated with the Corporation of Ottawa to build an electric railroad. The offer fell through and on October 20, 1890, Ahearn and Soper sent a letter to the city offering to form a local company to construct and operate the railway. They included a cheque for $5,000.

After considerable hesitation the offer was accepted. The company was formed with Thomas Ahearn as President and Warren Y. Soper, Vice-President. Eight months later, on June 29, 1891, the first small electric cars appeared on Ottawa's streets. Ahearn's son Frank, then a boy of five, closed the switch to start the service. He was later to become the President of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company on the passing of his father in 1938.

Thousands of spectators gathered along a route that led from the car barns in the Albert Street industrial district near the base of Parliament Hill, along Bank Street in central Ottawa, to the exhibition grounds at Lansdowne Park. Four single-truck open cars - numbers 10, 11, 12 and 13 - heavily laden with guests, made their way at a leisurely pace to the enthusiastic cheers of onlookers. At the terminus, a luncheon was served amid lavish decorations.

The first streetcars were purchased in St. Catharines, Ontario but within a few years Ahearn and Soper started to design, build and repair streetcars and associated equipment at their small company plant called the Ottawa Car Company.

The existing horse-drawn cars operated by the Ottawa City Passenger Railway competed for two years with the Ottawa Electric Railway, then the company was absorbed by OER.

The problem of snow threatened to prevent the winter use of streetcars,  but the company solved the dilemma by manufacturing a specially-designed electric sweeper in the form of an enormous cylindrical broom which rotated at a high speed. It created a cloud of snow and ice as it cleared the track. The company was obliged to remove the snow from any street on which there were car lines. This was done by loading and drawing the snow away on the company's horse-drawn snow boxes.

On June 22, 1895, two days after the company's fourth anniversary, the Ottawa Journal wrote: "...the street railway serves the district in all the 29 miles of track in Ottawa. If your friends who will come to the growing Capital this summer want to know how many cars are in service here, tell them there are 68 cars and that nowhere are cars kept in better repair and cleaned and dusted for the comfort of the public."

In 1894, the Ottawa Electric Railway contracted with the Federal Government to carry the mail from the Post Office to the Broad Street CPR Railway station and the old Canada Atlantic Railway Station on Catherine Street.

In 1897, when Canada's Capital city was celebrating the 60th jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria, Ahearn and Soper were entrusted by the federal government to illuminate the entire face of the Parliament Buildings with thousands of electric lights. During this same celebration, Thomas Ahearn was instrumental in organizing the first coast-to-coast communication network, which, through the medium of the recently completed telegraph circuits, was able to carry news of the Capital's participation in the celebration to all the major centres in Canada.

In 1901, the company built a handsome specially equipped car to convey the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (Later King George V and Queen Mary) for a tour of the car lines.

The operations of the company were largely directed from the offices of Ahearn and Soper on Sparks Street by means of notes and phone calls by Messrs. Ahearn and Soper to Mr. James E. Hutchison, the first superintendent of the company who worked at the Ottawa Electric Railway office on Albert Street. Soper would hear a car pass the Sparks Street office with a flat wheel. He would call "Seymour, get the number of that car". Rathbone would run and come back with "No. 26, sir". An immediate call to Hutchison would follow... "Jim, car 26 just passed here with a flat wheel - take it off".

The electric cars Ahearn and Soper made were highly regarded and orders came from many outside sources including: Quebec Electric Railway, Three Rivers Traction Company, Oshawa Electric Railway, Port Arthur and Fort William, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Halifax, and St. Johns, Newfoundland (narrow gauge).

In the early days before motor cars came into being, the company built a summer playhouse in the west end of the city "which at that time was very suburban and necessitated transportation by streetcar". Ottawa people flocked out in large numbers in the old open cars to be entertained by an interesting theatre company.

Another popular venture of the Ottawa Electric Railway was the opening of a pavilion at Britannia Bay where band concerts on summer evenings brought very large crowds of passengers in the cars.

The electric heaters installed in the first electric cars in Ottawa were invented and patented by Thomas Ahearn and manufactured in the Ahearn and Soper Albert Street factory. Ahearn also invented and patented cooking heaters which were hailed in an early menu at the old Ottawa Windsor Hotel as the appliances that had cooked an "electric dinner".

In 1924, the Ottawa Electric Railway introduced buses on one of its routes. They ran for a short period, and then the streetcars again took over. In 1939, buses were again introduced and continued to spread over new routes.

The company was privately run for 58 years, then in 1947 heated objection by some city councillors to a fare increase proposed by the OER led to a proposal that the city should purchase the company. After negotiations established an acceptable purchase price, the citizens of Ottawa were asked in a referendum to approve or reject the deal.

On February 16, 1948, the vote was taken. The result: resounding approval for the takeover. This led to the creation of the Ottawa Transportation Commission with an initial fleet of 130 streetcars and 61 buses purchased from the OER. The long and colourful association with Ahearn and Soper had ended.

Ahearn and Soper Incorporated are still in business today, selling computer hardware and peripheral devices. 

Early Letters


A look back to the way things were through two separate letters to Ottawa Electric Railway.

Opposite: Confederation Square, August, 1955

OER Bulletin - November 1923


A Compliment

Dear Major Burpee:

I desire to report the conductor on Car No. 512 going up Elgin Street at a quarter to ten this morning for his kindness and prompt civility in dealing with a small boy passenger who had by mistake put into the fare box the twenty-five cents which was to take himself and his friend to a show.

The conductor, acting apparently under rule, took his name and address and gave him twenty-five cents from his pocket, but what impressed me was the promptness and businesslike courtesy with which the conductor relieved the distress of the boy, who was on the verge of tears.

I would much sooner make this sort of report to you than any other, and as a matter of fact the occasion on the Ottawa Electric Railway for reports of any other character are happily few and far between.

J. E. Macpherson

(The conductor was J. Dale)

A Royal Streetcar "The Duchess of Cornwall and york"

Public Transit Milestones in Ottawa


OER Bulletin - January 1924


A Justifiable Complaint

General Manager, O.E.R.

Dear Sir,

Being a regular user of the electric cars, four times daily, I should like to enquire whether any endeavour has ever been made by your Management to stop the objectionable habit practiced by some of the motormen in opening the door of the vestibule while the cars are in motion and spitting there from into the street. I say "into the street" advisedly, since no doubt those who make a practice of this, honestly intend the street to be the landing place for what they void from their mouths, but the trouble is that more often than not the mark is missed and it finds its destination on the steps of the car or even in the vestibule.

But even that is not the most objectionable part of the matter. At noon today I was travelling on a westbound car from Bank St. to Holland Ave. and during this run, on at least four occasions, the motorman opened the vestibule door and emptied his mouth on each occasion of a volume sufficient to derail the car had it landed on the track, and the lighter part of the volume, being caught by the breeze, generously distributed itself over my face and clothes as I sat in the seat second from the front.

I therefore think, Sir, that something should be done to obviate unpleasantness experienced by passengers on the street cars under these conditions. In your weekly bulletin you invite criticism of the street car service and this is a criticism which I believe would be upheld by a large majority of your patrons.

Personally, I do not object to the straight five cent fare about to be brought into operation, but I do not desire any service beyond the ordinary car ride for my five cents, particularly when an involuntary bath from the mouth of the motorman is entailed.

Yours very truly,

George Partridge

Streetcar

A Special Streetcar - "the Duchess of Cornwall and York"


Opposite: The Duchess of Cornwall and York was built for Royalty, The one-of-a-kind streetcar gave a crowning touch to the OER. Ottawa, 1901


When streetcars were in their heyday, there were many unusual types of vehicles running on tracks, including mail cars, milk cars and even an electric funeral coach. Among these vehicles, Ottawa had a novel one herself.

The 'Duchess of Cornwall and York' was built specially in 1901 for the visit of Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.

The vehicle conveyed the couple from Government House Gate, via Sussex, Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Wellington, the Queen (now Booth) Bridge to the corner of Oregon and then along a specially laid track on Oregon to the Ottawa River where Their Highnesses embarked on a crib of square timber on which they ran the "slides" on the river.

The vehicle had the Royal Arms on the front, and the name "Duchess of Cornwall and York" on the side.

The interior was similar to a steam railway's parlour car but featured particularly lavish antique polished oak, a three-ply bird's eye maple veneer ceiling, four large British plate glass mirrors, and was illuminated by five clusters of incandescent lamps. All hardware such as hat racks were made of solid brass.

The floor was covered by rich royal blue velvet carpeting. There were 14 large easy chairs upholstered in olive green plush. The original cost of the car was $5,470. The design was approved by the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The Duchess of Cornwall and York was destroyed by fire at the Rockcliffe car barn on June 22, 1937.

Then and Now

Special Years


Citizens of today and yesterday recounted the service during some special years in OC Transpo history.


1870

  • We have public horse cars now! They go between New Edinburgh and the Chaudière; anywhere else, you walk…
  • the rails are fashioned to allow horse cars to take passengers by day and sawn lumber by night
  • with the rails about three inches above the street, farmers' wagons suffer great damage…
  • though sleighs are brought into service in the winter, we can be without streetcars for days when the snow begins, and again when it melts in the spring…
  • our streetcars cannot run when spring ice jams flood Rideau Street.

1900

  • Many of us think Sunday streetcars would be a flagrant wickedness, others think it would be a good thing for workers and their families to visit Lansdowne Park, or Beechwood, for a breath of air…
  • over in Quebec, we foresee the riff-raff of Ottawa being dumped into Aylmer if Sunday cars are allowed…
  • snow removal is a big concern; box sleighs take it away and dump it in the canal or in the river at the Chaudière…
  • sometimes the streetcars are stranded in drifts for days…
  • we riders keep the box stove stoked with wood to keep us all warm ...
  • there are no windshield wipers ...we are much concerned about this dangerous new 10 mph speed limit…
  • children love the cars; they sail round the semi-circular back seat when the streetcar goes round a corner…
  • bad boys sometimes pull the electric cable connection off and stop the car…
  • for all the problems, we are happy to take the cars because they save walking time, and take us to far-away places like Britannia, where the streetcar company has made a pleasure park.

1959

  • Electric railways that have served us well for so many years are being replaced by a bus system that promises to offer even better service…
  • on May 1, we watch rather sadly as the last streetcar - Britannia 831 - turns into the Cobourg Car Barn for the final time. The streetcar era has come to an end.

1991

  • We can get a bus virtually anywhere we live in the Ottawa-Carleton region and many of us can get an express bus to work…
  • we don't get dusty or rained on or windblown in open coaches…
  • we can often wait in a shelter for the bus to arrive…
  • we can telephone for personalized information about how long we'll have to wait for a bus…
  • we and the bus people get together on food drives for the needy…
  • we can use the buses on our streets as an aid in any emergency, just by flagging one down so the driver can use the radio…
  • disabled persons are not confined to their homes; many of them can use special buses which pick them up at the door…
  • life was very different before the automobile; today the 80 million bus rides we take each year are a major factor in lessening traffic congestion and improving the quality of Ottawa's air…

Milestones

Ottawa Public Transit Milestones



opposite: Sweeper #1 in doorway of Albert
Street Car Barn, 1891

1866 The charter is signed to form the first transit company in Ottawa,the Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company (OCPR).
1870 The OCPR begins operation with 36 horses, six horse-drawn cars and five bobsleds.
1891 Streetcar service makes its debut. The Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company is incorporated, carrying 1.5 million passengers in its first year of operation.
1891-1895 The horse-drawn railway merges with the new trolley company to form the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER). Annual ridership increases to 4.1 million.
1924 The OER experiments with buses for the first time.
1948 The City of Ottawa buys the OER for $6.3 million and forms the Ottawa Transportation Commission. Trackless trolley service starts and runs for approx 8 year using CCL Brill coached T48 made in Fort William Ontario.
1959 The last streetcar makes its run on May 1.
1972 The OTC becomes the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Transit Commission (OC Transpo), extending service into neighbouring municipalities. Buses get distinctive red and white lo ok a year later.
1973 Eleven km of exclusive bus lanes are introduced to Ottawa streets. Dial-A-Bus demand service is launched.
1974 Exact-fare policy is introduced in the evenings. A parallel transit system, offering door-to-door service for persons with disabilities, begins operation (named Para Transpo in 1982).
1976 Monthly bus passes are introduced. The exact fare system is expanded to all time periods.
1982 The first articulated GM buses are delivered.
1983 First sections of the Transitway (exclusive busway) open between Algonquin College and Carling Avenue in the west, and across the Rideau River in the east. Stations open at Baseline, Iris, Queensway, Lincoln Fields, LeBreton, Lees and Hurdman.
1993 Ten years of Transitway operation and the 500 millionth Transitway rider are celebrated.
1996 The 31 km Transitway system, approved in 1978, is completed.
1998 Bus paint scheme gets updated. First low floor buses are launched. Transit funding switches from provincial to local government. The 750 millionth Transitway rider is greeted. Annual student passes are introduced.
1999 DayPass and automated transfers introduced. Para Transpo celebrates 25 years. 140 low-floor buses arrive. Dominion Station opens November 29.
2000 ECOPASS Program (transit passes through payroll deduction) launched in January at the University of Ottawa. Bus stop flags redesigned with maple leaf. Mackenzie King Station opens June 28. Construction commences October 26 for Light Rail Pilot Project. Fallowfield Station opens October 29 with 140 Park & Ride spaces. Bayshore Station opens December 14. New Sales and Information Centre opens in the Rideau Centre. Ridership is up 7.2% over previous year.
2001 On January 1, OC Transpo becomes part of the newly amalgamated City of Ottawa. The O-Train launched October 15 and five new light rail station open. Diesel-powered Talent Bombardier trains run along an eight km track from Bayview to Greenboro. The first New Flyer low-floor articulated buses are delivered.
2002 One millionth O-Train rider is celebrated on May 29, while the one billionth passenger Transitway rider is greeted on September 10. The Transit service expanded to rural areas in the fall.
2003 Gold permit limited reserve parking for $35 a month introduced at five Park & Ride lots in March. Bait Car pilot project introduced March 6 at Place d'Orléans Park & Ride lot. Two new Park & Ride lots opened - Telesat on September 1 and Eagleson West on November 3.
2004 Taxi Link introduced in the spring to help transit customers get home late at night. New Flyer delivers 73 new Invero low-floor buses. Automated Travel Planner at octranspo.com launched in the fall. Terry Fox Park & Ride opens September 5. One cent per litre of the provincial gas tax is dedicated to support transit commencing in October.
2005 Five millionth O-Train rider celebrated on January 21. Terry Fox Transitway Station and Park & Ride opened February 22. All-day service to Trim Station commenced September 6. Two new passes went on sale in December - the Student Semester pass and the Adult Annual pass.
2006 Strandherd Station completed in December with 336 parking spaces. Ridership peaked at 91.5 million trips - the highest ever. The Community pass was introduced in March.
2007 Biodiesel fuel introduced May 1, reducing dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels. Transit Law Enforcement Officers sworn in as Special Constables on March 29. All transit station properties and bus stops went smoke-free in 2007. Riverview temporary Park & Ride opened in Riverside South in September.
2008 Mobile Travel Planning introduced in May on octranspo.mobi. First hybrid diesel-electric Orion VII buses introduced in November. The Transitway celebrated 25 years and its 1.5 billionth rider was announced on October 30.
2009 Double-decker bus trial; new section of Transitway opened between Bayshore Station and new Pinecrest Station; Riverview Park & Ride opened; 24-hour service on the Transitway introduced; Family DayPass expanded to Saturday
2010 U-Pass Pilot Project and Next Stop Announcement system started in September; Industrial Garage opened in September; Leitrim Park & Ride opened in December. Launch of OC Transpo and and STO joint online travel planner in November.
2011 Three kilometre extension of the Southwest Transitway south of Fallowfield, along with two new stations - Longfields and Marketplace - opened on April 17.
STO Bus and PRESTO card. Image text: PRESTO user tip 7

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OC Transpo bus driving quickly on the Transitway

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People getting on a bus with a suspicious person lurking in the background

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