Children near the back of a tramway on St. James Street, Montreal, during the summer of 1907.

Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 22, 2011.

In a brief editorial that appeared in the Montreal Star on June 4, 1906, the newspaper lamented the loss of so many children under the wheels of the city’s tramways. “When chasing a ball or a companion, the little folks   become oblivious to ordinary sounds”.  Indeed.

In fact, only a few weeks earlier, Raoul Lacoste, “a pretty little blue-eyed, flaxen-haired boy”, was struck and killed by a city trolley while he played with his friends at the intersection of Ontario and Frontenac Streets. City papers reported that at the time of the accident, the mother of the three year old was indoors having her breakfast while the father had previously departed for work. The child had been left alone in the streets and was run down when he tried to cross the tramway track.

In effect, in Edwardian times, the city’s electric streetcars killed at least a dozen individuals (habitually children) every year. The deaths were usually of an extremely horrific nature with decapitations frequently occurring as a consequence.

There were several reasons for the high number of casualties. Firstly, numerous children were often left totally unsupervised in potentially dangerous settings. It was not uncommon in the Edwardian era to find tiny tots roaming on the roads of the city. Similarly, many were often left unattended in the family kitchen, a fact that led to many   fire-related fatalities.

Aggravating the high number of street railway deaths was the undeniable truth that many tramway drivers often exceeded the speed limit when rolling along the town’s thoroughfares. In fact, there were frequent newspaper stories during the same period of motormen actually accelerating their vehicle when they spotted a stray dog or cat on the track in front of them.

The requisite coroner’s enquiry held after each dreadful death inevitably exonerated the motorman of all responsibility in the gory business. However, many Montrealers were not so sure. In a July 12, 1907 “Letter to the Editor” which appeared in the Montreal Star, one anxious parent suggested the need for a ‘register’ in each streetcar to record the speed of a trolley at any given moment. Presumably, the ‘register’ would have had the capacity to preserve the data- a kind of Edwardian black box that today one would normally associate with airplanes.

In actual point of fact, as one daily opined, there was a general consensus amongst the population at large that excessive velocity   was just one of three causes for the relatively high number of streetcar-related fatalities in Montreal. The other two reasons being ‘incompetent employees’ and ‘lack of proper safety appliances’. (Star editorial, June 17, 1910)

Perhaps illustrating all three factors, one of the most gruesome incidents from this period occurred on April 9, 1909 at the intersection of Mount Royal and Papineau Avenues. Two young neighbourhood boys were dragged fully forty feet before finally passing beneath the carriage of an Amherst street trolley. Joseph Linner, 14, and his companion Joseph Macdonald, age nine, were both instantly killed, the younger of the two, in effect, beheaded. The two youngsters lived with their respective families on Marquette Street – only a block away from the scene of the appalling tragedy.

A witness, Mrs. Lacoste, declared “that she saw the car back up and she heard one little scream. So awful was the site that she staggered away, and later was assisted home by the police of the Delorimier Station”.

After each incident, a flood of ideas came forth from the general public on how to prevent future fatalities. Nevertheless, the carnage continued well into the first half of 1910 by which point in that half year alone there had been seventeen deaths under the wheels of the Montreal Street Railway Company.

On June 16, 1910, a disenchanted Montreal Star editorialized: “It is a matter of record that in no other large city of this continent does the average of killings approach the record which we are allowing to be made here. What is Montreal going to do about it and how many more must we allow to be killed before the proper time arrives for making a start.”