A Niagara Note: Public Transit

Horse Drawn Car on Main Street Niagara Falls
By: Sherman Zavitz

The first public transit service in what is now Niagara Falls was, by today’s standards, very primitive. It was a horse car street railway with the ponderous name of The Niagara Falls, Wesley Park and Clifton Tramway Company.

Opened in 1887, this street railway connected the Village of Niagara Falls (the community around the Main, Ferry and Lundy’s Lane intersection) with the Town of Niagara Falls. Formerly known as Clifton, the town’s business district was in the Erie Ave., lower Bridge St., Park St. area. (The town and the village amalgamated in 1904 to create the City of Niagara Falls.)

The south end of the line was at the corner of Main and Culp. From there it travelled along Main, Ferry, Victoria, Simcoe, St. Lawrence, Morrison, Chrysler, Queen, Erie and then down Bridge St. to River Rd. where the northern terminal was located.

The horse and car barns were on the northwest corner of Simcoe St. and Buckley Ave. Massive manure piles were outside the barns.  As a result, the air around this corner always had a definite fragrance, much to the annoyance of the nearby residents – and, no doubt, the teachers and students at Simcoe St. School just across the street. (This is a list of some street names and their geneses.)

During the early years of the line’s operation a busy summertime stop was along Victoria Ave. opposite the Epworth Circle area where there was a popular religious campground known as Wesley Park.

The rolling stock consisted of ten cars – two open ones for summer use and eight closed. They were not all the same size; the larger cars could seat up to 12, the smaller ones only eight.  Each car was pulled by a team of horses.

The fare was five cents whether you rode the whole line or only a part of it.

As a boy living in Niagara Falls during the 1890s, Ernest Green was very familiar with the horsecar line. Writing in the Niagara Falls Review many years later, Green, by then a prominent local historian and author, recalled that when the service was introduced, it was considered by most residents to be “the most sensational local innovation up to that time.”

Riding the cars was, however, not usually a pleasant experience. Green noted: “Few passengers placed their nickel in the fare box immediately on entering the car.  A seat was the first consideration, for to stand or move about in the rolling, heaving, jumping, old rattle-box was enough to test a sailor’s sea legs – and his stomach, too. When the car stopped for another passenger, the previous arrival made a dash to place his fare in the box and get back to his seat while the car was standing still.”

An effort was made to provide some amenities for the passengers. The cars were lighted at night, although dimly, by smoky oil lamps in glass boxes at the front and rear of the car.  Heat in the winter was provided by a little coal stove. Green recalled, “Only in extremely cold weather was there any fire. Next to the stove, one was in danger of roasting, away from it, one froze.”

Along with an attempt to keep passengers warm, winter presented other challenges to the line’s operation. As Green remembered, “A foot of loose snow and a westerly wind would bury the tracks along Victoria Avenue.” If digging out the tracks was too big a job, open sleighs were put on the route. This could be uncomfortable for the passengers who, on a very stormy day, would have to cower down in the straw between the seats for shelter.

Green also noted: “It was a terrible ordeal for a woman to have to make the trip standing up. No sober man would occupy a seat and have a woman stand, but all the passengers were not sober, especially on Saturday evenings, and often a woman would prefer to stand rather than sit next to a drunk who would lurch against her, or into her lap, as the car rode the wavy steel.”

Such was life on Niagara Falls’ first public transit system.

As the years went by, the company’s financial situation grew worse and worse. As a result, the tracks, cars, horses and the service all deteriorated as well. Finally, in 1900, the system was converted to electric streetcars. An important phase in the development of the city had passed.

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