Academic journal article Urban History Review

Politics of Transportation Services in Suburban Montreal: Sorting out the "Mile End Muddle," 1893-1909

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Politics of Transportation Services in Suburban Montreal: Sorting out the "Mile End Muddle," 1893-1909

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The rapid spread of electric streetcar technology in the 1890s brought not only passengers to the suburbs but streetcar politics too. Beyond Montreal's city limits in the Village of Mile End, the politics of streetcar services was particularly virulent and indeed often comical. The contest between competing streetcar firms, and divisions within the council, culminated in early March 1893 when the Mayor of Mile End tore up a half-mile of the Montreal Street Railway Company's track. Though residents had long clamoured for streetcar service, most applauded the Mayor's heroics. This paper is an attempt to make sense of the `Mile End Muddle,' as the newspapers dubbed the strange sequence of events, and to explain the relative weakness of the council and residents in the contest for streetcar service. I aim to show that the council and residents of Mile End, though vociferous and often violent, were unable to secure any significant degree of control of the actions of the MSRC and the Park & Island Railway Company. Although Mile End had the legal right, as a municipal corporation, to regulate streetcar services in its domain, in practice it and its venal councillors were small players in the battle for a streetcar franchise. Without the tax base to threaten public ownership of streetcar services, the town of Mile End was unable to defy the interests of heavily capitalized streetcar companies. By dividing the territory of greater Montreal between them, the MSRC and Park & Island effectively undermined the negotiating power of suburban councils to regulate a critical urban service.

Early in the morning of 23 March 1893, the mayor and municipal workers of St. Louis du Mile End, (1) a suburban village outside Montreal, pushed aside workers of the Montreal Street Railway Company (MSRC) and tore up streetcar track the company had laid within this municipality. For more than half a year, the village council, merchants and residents had demanded streetcar service, but most applauded the demolition efforts of the mayor, who landed in jail the following day for his actions. Why did the mayor of Mile End tear up the tracks on that early March morning?

The mayor's actions are explained in this detailed story of the contest among two streetcar enterprises to win control over the provision of transportation in Mile End. (2) Armstrong and Nelles have written elsewhere on the strategies of streetcar companies in Montreal as well as Toronto and Vancouver. (3) They demonstrate the heavy economic risks of streetcar line expansion and the failure of most suburban streetcar companies to establish networks in cities already served by streetcar firms dominating the core. This paper introduces a third player in the story of urban and suburban streetcar competition: a small suburban town council. I aim to show that the council and residents of Mile End, though vociferous and often violent, were unable to effect any significant degree of control on the actions of the MSRC and the Park & Island Railway Company. Although Mile End had the legal right, as a municipal corporation, to regulate streetcar services in its domain, in practice it and its venal councillors were small players in the battle for a streetcar franchise. Without the tax base to threaten public ownership of streetcar services, the town of Mile End was unable to defy the interests of heavily capitalized streetcar companies. Rather than beating them, councillors joined one of two streetcar enterprises competing for the franchise. The mayor tore up the MSRC's tracks not because of his pledge to defend the sovereignty of Mile End, but because he supported the Park & Island Railway Company. Despite the theatrics, the mayor and councillors were bit players in the contest for control of streetcar services in Mile End.

The paper is divided into two broad sections. It begins with a summary of the advent of electric streetcars in Montreal and a brief sketch of the social geography of Mile End at this time. …

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