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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

From the Vaults: Halifax Transportation

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The Nova Scotia Archives is pleased to share photos showcasing the changing faces of urban centers in Nova Scotia. You can learn more about the archives and explore thousands of photos, textual records, maps, art, and more on their website.

HALIFAX – In July 1750, the early settlers of Halifax were ordered to clear the streets in front of their respective lots. However, as T.B. Akins noted in his History of Halifax City, as late as 1780 the main thoroughfares were still in rough condition, while less-travelled streets were impassable to carriages, due to protruding tree stumps and rocks. Between 1820 and 1824, street commissioners were appointed for the city and they began gradually to macadamize (‘pave’) the streets.

“Manager James Adams and most of conductors, drivers, etc., with two open (summer) Horse Cars, Halifax Street Railway Co., in front of the Company’s Car Barn, Halifax, NS”, ca. 1894

William D. O’Brien’s horse-car railway commenced operations along Water Street, from Richmond in the north to the site of the present-day Ocean Terminals in the south, in 1866. Over the following thirty years horse-car service improved, with larger vehicles and extended routes. Improvements came again in 1896, when the Halifax Electric Tramway Company introduced the first electric tram-cars over one-and-a-half miles of track on Barrington Street. This service soon extended to all parts of the city.

Laying Double Track for Halifax Electric Tramway, possibly Quinpool Road, Halifax, between 1906 and 1912

The ‘keep-to-the-right’ rule of the road was introduced to Nova Scotia in 1923 — and necessitated an immediate change in the location of the door and the driver in all Birney tram-cars then operating in the city. The army nicknamed this particular and distinctive vehicle model the ‘Mustard Can’, while the navy referred to them as the ‘Banana Fleet’.

Birney Street car on its run between Halifax and Armdale, ca. 1945

Prior to World War II, some 58 Birney tram-cars carried an average of nine million passengers per year in Halifax. However, this number skyrocketed to more than 31 million passengers annually during the war. Twenty-three additional trams were purchased from all over North America, but during the bicentenary year, 1949, a new electric trolley-coach service was commenced, resulting in the nostalgic ‘retirement’ of the old and familiar Birney cars.

Barrington Street near Blower, looking north, Halifax, ca. 1960

Ferry service has been continuous across Halifax Harbour since 1752. After at least three earlier attempts to span the water with some sort of structure, two permanent bridges now link the two largest communities within the Halifax Regional Municipality — the Angus L. Macdonald (1955) and the A. Murray MacKay (1970).

“Dartmouth Ferry Steamer Mic-Mac at wharf of Mt. Hope Insane Asylum, Dartmouth, NS, with a picnic party, about 1885. The Mic-Mac was the third steamer of the Dartmouth Ferry & was built by Alex. Lyle at Dartmouth in 1844. Photo by Dr. Geo. L. Sinclair, view looking NW.”

Until this century, travel through Halifax County was primarily by stagecoach over rough roads, or by sailing vessel or coastal steamer. By the turn of the century, the Halifax and South-Western Railway (the ‘Hellish Slow and Wobbly’) linked the city with South Shore communities, and in 1916 another rail-line officially opened between Dartmouth and Upper Musquodoboit. The opening of an airport on Chebucto Road in 1931 signalled that the city was ready to encourage commercial aviation, and the present-day Halifax International Airport officially opened in 1960.