Since 1921, the Toronto Transit Commission has been serving the city with vehicles ranging from horse-drawn carriages to the Toronto Rocket subway trains. Almost 100 years later, transit historian Trevor Parkins-Sciberras is trying to bring some of those lost relics home.
In 1861, the privately owned Toronto Street Railway Company was awarded a 30-year franchise to operate transit in Toronto. Horse-drawn streetcars ran during the summer months and horse-drawn sleighs operated during the winter months.
After their contract was up, the City briefly handled transit before handing over a 30-year franchise to the Toronto Railway Company, also privately owned. They would introduce the first electric streetcar and begin the conversion of the entire system to electric.
Just two years after that, the last horse-drawn streetcar was removed from service. In 1920, the TTC was established, taking over transit operations a year later and never looking back. They would immediately introduce 575 new Peter Witt streetcars and motor buses, the first of their kind in Toronto.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Parkins-Sciberras is looking through old photos in the Toronto Archives when one of a horse-drawn streetcar catches his eye. He didn’t even know it existed. After doing some research, he found that one remained and it was owned by the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
He contacted the museum with hopes of taking pictures of the streetcar but was told it was buried deep inside their warehouse while they were closed for renovations and to try again in two years.
“It frustrated me because I thought, ‘What the hell, this thing is amazing and should be in Toronto where it came from,'” Parkins-Sciberras said during a recent phone interview with the Observer. The streetcar has since been pulled out of storage for the museum’s Moving Stories exhibit. It will be on display until March.
This sparked an interest in the history of the city he grew up in and what else he didn’t know about it, but it also motivated him to start a museum initiative to bring this streetcar back to Toronto. He would later find that there were eight more old TTC vehicles in the same museum.
With that newfound motivation, he formed the Toronto Transit Museum initiative to bring those old vehicles back to the city. Former Toronto mayor David Miller even threw his support behind it.
A temporary museum for the TTC’s 100th anniversary is planned for 2021 to display some of them with the hope of something more long-lasting down the road. Unfortunately, a permanent exhibit is still just an idea.
“A temporary exhibit will totally happen,” he said. “A permanent museum is an expensive dream that I still hope will happen one day.”
In the meantime, Parkins-Sciberras travels around the city as a Toronto District School Board Educational Partner, teaching children and adults alike about the history of Toronto transit using an unconventional tool: Lego versions of TTC vehicles.
Building Lego was something he has been interested in since childhood, but it’s only been since 2015 that he has been building TTC versions. It’s something he hopes to display at the temporary exhibit in two years and also something he would display in the permanent museum, should that dream ever become a reality.
With other retired vehicles spread across the continent, some in Connecticut, Edmonton and possibly even Idaho, there’s still more work to be done to have these once essential vehicles brought back to where they belong.