Historic white elephant trolley remains unearthed

By Allan Benner, The Tribune

It wasn't a mastodon or any other prehistoric creature, but the remains of an old white elephant were unearthed this summer by workers adding new water and sewer lines to Niagara Street.

Dozens of railway ties have been dug up during the ongoing construction project in Welland – the remnants of a century-old trolley track that was only in service for about six months before it was abandoned long ago.


Local historian Terry Hughes said the railway ties were part of the Niagara, Welland and Lake Erie Railroad, installed in about 1913 to extend a trolley service along Niagara Street.


However, after the tracks were installed, the railway company soon learned that the trolley cars in use at the time were too heavy to be supported the old Alexandra Swing Bridge, which used to cross the canal where the Main Street Bridge now stands.


“So the line sat there for years, not doing much of anything,” Hughes said.


It wasn't until 1922 that a trolley car was developed that was light enough for the bridge, and the tracks were finally pressed into service carrying passengers who paid five cents per trip.


But it didn't last long.


“The problem was the car would take a half an hour to do its scheduled run up and down Niagara Street,” Hughes said. “Well, people felt they could walk faster to get downtown then wait for the trolley.”


After about six months, the little-used trolley service on Niagara Street was discontinued and the tracks again sat unused.


Hughes said he still remembers from his childhood when new pavement was being added to Niagara Street. Although the steel rails were removed at the time, he said workers just poured concrete over the wooden railway ties that supported the rails.


“And now, with the them doing a total reconstruction of the street, they're finding these ties encased in concrete,” he said.


The work currently underway by Provincial Construction is part of a $5-million city and Niagara Region project to add new water mains and sewer lines to the busy thoroughfare, as well as new pavement from the intersection of Riverbank Street to Thorold Road.


Although plans originally called for one lane to remain open while the work was underway, the south end of Niagara Street was closed to traffic entirely earlier this week.


In an e-mail, Welland’s manager of engineering services Erik Nickel said the closure was done at the request of the Ministry of Labour.


He said the ministry reviewed plans for the construction of underground infrastructure services between Riverbank and Merritt streets, and determined that allowing any traffic to through the area “poses a significant risk to both passing motorists and construction workers.”


Vehicles are instead being detoured to Prince Charles Drive.


Workers at the construction site said they were aware of the history behind the the railway ties they were unearthing, after a Niagara Street resident explained it to them.


The workers said they suspected the trolley track remnants might still be hidden below the pavement when the project first began, but they didn't know for certain until the first of the old wooden ties emerged from the excavation.


Hundreds of the railway ties are now piled up on the land that was once home to Welland Iron and Brass, along the banks of the Welland River.

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