Halton County Radial Railway Museum is an open-air museum near Milton with the best collection of antique streetcars and trains in Ontario. Come ride the rails of yesteryear.
Wood trim, stained-glass windows, brass fittings, leather seats … this isn't your usual train! The design details are exquisite and unknown in today's mass transit. The price is unique too. Would you believe that I paid only ten dollars to ride this 96-year-old beauty?
The London-Port Stanley No. 8, as she's known, belongs to the Halton County Radial Railway Museum, near Milton, Ontario, along with more than 75 other vehicles. According to the museum's Vice President and Chief Mechanic Gord McOuat, the high level of craftsmanship displayed on board was “just the manner of the day.” In a recent conversation, he described this model to me as “state-of-the-art for 1915.” Some train cars in the early 1900s were quite Spartan, and the smaller cars made for light city duty had wooden seats and bare bones fixtures. “But when you were going intercity," McOuat said, "they tended to be a little higher class. Over a certain distance they had to have washrooms and they tended to make the whole car more elaborate. It depends what system was involved. The Ontario Hydro cars were built to much higher standards than some of the commercial ones. If you look at a car like London-Port Stanley No. 8, it's far ahead of its time because Hydro had the resources and the engineering staff to design the very best car possible at that time."
The No. 8 is just one of many lovingly-restored heritage trains at the Halton County Radial Railway. The oldest vehicle is a London streetcar from 1901. Some of the trains have starred in movies such as Cinderella Man and Anne of Green Gables. Visitor favourites include the open-bench streetcars; just imagine what those cool breezes would have meant to riders in an age before air-conditioning!
Although the Halton County Radial Railway owns streetcars and buses, their specialty is electric "radial railways" (so called because they "radiated out" from cities into suburbs and other towns). These vehicles were also known as “intercity trains”, "interurban trains", or just “interurbans”. They were lighter than the heavy steam railways and operated with electric power.
Radials were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. The first radial in North America was the St. Catharines and Niagara Central Railway, built in 1887. Soon every city was clamouring for them. Some trains ran only a few miles. One carried vacationers from the outskirts of Toronto right up to Lake Simcoe. Hydro Electric Power Corporation of Ontario, now Ontario Power Generation, was at one point planning a network that would cover the entire province. It never materialized. The radials remained a hodge-podge system run by different companies. Nevertheless, back then, towns in Ontario were better connected by mass transit than they are today.
Electric radials offered important advantages over their predecessors, the steam trains. "Radials were easier to stop," McOuat said. "It took a long time to stop a steam train, but radials had rapid acceleration, so you could have stops close together, and you could stop efficiently and quickly. You could also use smaller equipment and smaller crews, so it was cheaper and performance was better." The technology meant radials were more convenient, especially in rural areas where passengers could board between stations at remote flag stops.
Interurbans brought other positive changes as well, Robert Stamp explains in “Riding the Radials” (Boston Mills Press, 1999). Farmers could travel without their horses; while one family member went to town, another could use the animals for plowing. Students in rural areas could attend city schools. The trains took farmers’ milk and produce into cities for sale (hence the term “milk run”), and carried parcels and newspapers along with regular freight.
Urban dwellers profited too. Train companies created "electric parks" around lakes in the countryside, giving city folks the chance to enjoy an affordable excursion and some fresh air – a rare opportunity in this pre-automobile era. They had another, more lasting, impact as well. “Radials created the suburbs,” said McOuat. “They allowed people to move out of the city core. Before most people had cars, they were the way to get around.”
When cars did become more popular, though, radials went into decline. Despite their initial popularity and the huge investments of both private and public money in tracks and trains, the radials began going downhill in the late teens and 20s as automobiles, buses and trucks picked up speed. Most of the routes didn’t survive the Depression. A few lines lingered into the 1950s, subsidized by their freight business. “People wanted to have personal transportation,” McOuat said. “This radial network only just got off the ground when it was killed both by the love affair with the automobile and public money going into roads. A lot of the early systems were privately run. They couldn't possibly compete with publicly-paid-for road systems.”
Ironically, after spending decades ripping up old railway lines, people in Ontario are starting to talk about laying tracks again. The “light rail transit” (or LRT) movement is gaining ground. When I asked McOuat about the future of railways in Ontario, he said that higher gas prices would ensure that there will be better rail transportation in coming years.
Wouldn’t it be great if the craftsmanship of the past returned too?
Halton County Radial Railway Museum
13629 Guelph Line, Milton
Admission to the Halton County Radial Railway includes unlimited rides on several different vehicles and access to the display barns, railway station museum (with great memorabilia), Gift Shop, Ice Cream Shop and picnic areas. Rides last about 20 minutes and loop through a lovely wooded area.
For more information: http://www.hcry.org
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