The Origins of the Radial Railway

In the 1870s, the population in Guelph was steadily increasing, leading to a want by the citizens for a public transport system. The first proposal came from the Guelph Street Railway Co. in 1877. The proposal was for a street car network system pulled by horses. Unfortunately for the company, this proposal was not convincing enough for the city and it was rejected.

It would take until 1894 for a new proposal to come. This time by one of the most prominent people in Guelph, George Sleeman. Sleeman owned the Silver Creek brewery on Waterloo Ave. and wanted a street car system to help bring his employees to his factory. He approached the city council and the proposal was accepted easily. Sleeman’s new company was the Guelph Railway Company, originally built with a line from the Silver Creek Brewery on Waterloo Ave. to the Grand Trunk Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway stations. Another line went along Woolwhich and Dundas Road ( Now Gordon Street). The total length of the line was 4-1/2 to 5 miles long.

In addition a power station supplying 600V electricity to the street cars and a ‘carbarn’ to house the equipment was built. The carbarn still exists and is located at 373 Waterloo Ave. Sleeman bought 5 streetcars from the Canadian General Electric Company, 3 fully enclosed cars and 2 ‘open air’ cars.

The Guelph Railway Company Begins Operating

The Guelph Railway Co opened on September 17, 1895. Service started with every 20 minutes from morning to night, every day except Sunday. The construction costs were high, but the railway was an immediate success. Many were happy to finally see a public transit system in Guelph. An extension along Suffolk street quickly followed in 1896. The Suffolk Street extension went from Woolwhich down Suffolk, turning south onto Arnold Street, and turning to the west on Paisley ending at the railway tracks.

The main hub for the different lines was at St. Geroge’s Square, which remains the modern hub for Guelph Transit, although back then there was an island in the middle of the Square.

Guelph Railway Co. Streetcars at St. George’s Square cira 1902. Guelph Museums

In 1900, freight service began along the line. It was started with a small locomotive with only 2 axles. This also allowed Sleeman to deliver his beer along the line to various businesses. Freight was interchanged with the Grand Trunk Railway at the yard near Paisley.

Changes in 1902

1902 was an important year for the growing network. A new extension, this time to the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) grounds south of downtown. The new line extended down Gordon Street to the OAC, where it made a large loop through the grounds and returned back on Gordon.

Ridership was growing, but the enormous cost of the railways construction proved too much, even for Sleeman. Financial debt was mounting and the Sleeman’s were forced to sell both the railway and the brewery to the Bank of Montreal and Traders Bank.

In 1903, the name of the railway was changed to the Guelph Radial Railway.

The Guelph Radial Railway

The new owners quickly moved to make the line more profitable. One of the new aspects was the creation of a large 80 acre park at the northern terminus of the line along Woolwhich St. and Elora Road (now just Woolwhich St.). In 1905 a contest was held to determine the new name of this park and Riverside Park won the contest. Riverside is well known and still a major park in Guelph today.

By 1906, the rolling stock of the railway was now up to 8 closed cars, and 3 open air. The railway covered 8 miles in Guelph and ridership had doubled since 1902. Having done what they set out to do, the banks sold the railway to the city of Guelph for $78,000 dollars (approximately 1.8 million today).

In 1911, the line was once again extended down York Road. This new line started from the intersection of Carden St. and Wyndham St., the line turned left onto Surrey street, and then onto Neeve. It crossed the Speed river on Neeve before moving onto Ontario Street, all the way to York Road. The line ended at the Ontario Reformatory entrance. 

In 1915 a connection was made to the CPR at Suffolk Street, connecting to the Guelph city spur. This was used for freight interchange. 1917 brought a new ‘Interurban’ electric railway to Guelph, the Toronto Suburban Railway (TSR). Connecting to the OAC branch at the Gordon street bridge, the TSR shared trackage with the GRR up to the Guelph Grand Trunk Railway station.

A Guelph Radial Railway “open air’ car on the Suffolk Line, circa 1910. Guelph Museums

A New Operator

The City of Guelph wanted out of ownership of the GRR in the 1920s as the GRR had started to decline. Two bidders wanted to take it over, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPCO). In the end HEPCO won the bid and took control of the GRR. It was considered the Hydro Electric Railway Guelph Division, although operated as the GRR still. The province would not take financial responsibility for the railway, so HEPCO issued $150,000 in bonds in order to finance rehabilitation of the lines. A revamp of the rolling stock also took place in 1922.

1922 Map of the Guelph Radial Railway. Guelph Museums

Although much work was done, the GRR never became profitable like hoped. HEPCO attempted to sell the line back to the city, although the city turned them down.

The End of the Line For the GRR

1927 saw major deficits for the line, indicating the decline of the GRR. The Suffolk line was removed in 1929, citing poor condition. It was replaced with a bus service. The saving from the closure did help keep the GRR alive for a while.

8 years later Guelph City council recommended the closure of street car operations in 1937. The final street cars ran on September 30th, 1937. They were replaced with buses the following day. Freight service continued on the line until 1939. In 1939, the transit in Guelph was transferred to a new organization, called the Guelph Transit Commission, Now known as Guelph Transit. The final trains of the Guelph Radial Railway operated on May 26, 1939.