160 Years of Change at the Corner of King and Erb
As the City prepares for a new light rail transit system, it seems appropriate to take a walk down memory lane to remember how King Street has changed and evolved over time. Here’s a retrospective look at the corner of King and Erb, one of the City’s most photographed intersections. Our journey starts in the 1850s when King Street was known as “the Great Road”, Erb Street was called “Erb’s Road”, and both were little more than dirt tracks carved out of the landscape.
Images are courtesy of the Ellis Little Local History Room of the Waterloo Public Library unless otherwise noted.
A sketch of the village of Waterloo from an 1853 map depicts King Street as it crosses Laurel Creek just south of Erb Street. Early accounts suggest that local roads were few and of very poor condition, making travel difficult in all but the winter months. The quality of the roads was so poor, in fact, that they were considered a primary obstacle to early settlement and growth of the region. In winter, townsfolk would have travelled by foot for short trips and horse drawn sleigh for longer ones. For the remainder of the year, they would have walked, rode horseback, or driven a horse and buggy.
Source: Waterloo Historical Society Collection, Kitchener Public Library, Grace Schmidt Room of Local History
The corner of King and Erb takes on the appearance of a growing industrial town by the 1890s. Grand, two and three storey, brick, commercial buildings line King Street, replacing the earlier, more modest stores and residences.
Although still unpaved, King Street has been much improved as a result of “statute labour” —private citizens summoned by a town-appointed “pathmaster” to repair or improve roads. Labourers would work to install gravel, or drain and grade the road as required to correct flooding, potholes, and obstructions. The street was widened to its current dimensions by the mid 1800s to accommodate a growing volume of travelers. Wooden sidewalks were built to keep pedestrians out of the muddy streets. Water troughs and hitching posts served people traveling by horseback or buggy. Awnings served as passive cooling systems for the businesses and as protection for pedestrians against inclement weather.
New transportation options, such as the bicycle and the electric streetcar, emerged in the latter half of the 1800s. An electric streetcar stretched between Waterloo and Kitchener, powered by electricity produced by the Berlin Gas Company of downtown Kitchener. This 1896 streetcar replaced an earlier horse drawn trolley system. The telephone poles present on the east side of the street did not carry hydroelectricity yet, since hydropower did not reach Waterloo until 1910. Gas street lights (photo left) would have been the primary source of light after dark.
King Street was paved in 1912 which made travel significantly easier in the wetter months. Sidewalks were paved around this time as well, with a steep bank on the west side of King, likely to accommodate a change in grade. Cars were still an infrequent sight on King Street with only 27 cars registered to Waterloo residents in 1913. Horse troughs (Photo, bottom left) would have continued to serve travelers coming to town by horse and buggy. After the introduction of hydroelectric power in 1910, Waterloo was quick to install electric, globe light standards that significantly improved the ease of getting around after dark. As was typical of colourized postcards, the overhead streetcar wires have been coloured out of the picture.
By 1940, motorized vehicles are a more prominent component of the streetscape. Pictured in this photo are soldiers on the back of a truck, possibly leaving for or returning from the second World War. The streetcar, although still in operation at the time of this photo, ceased operations in 1946 and the tracks were removed to accommodate a trolley bus system. The horse trough in front of the mill appears to be full of water (Photo, bottom right), but serves a declining number of horse and buggy drivers.
A thoroughly modern streetscape at the corner of King and Erb emerges by the 1960s, characterized by a proliferation of illuminated, projecting business signs, trolley coach wires, and parked cars that help create visual clutter. The electric trolley coach system in this photo operated until 1973 at which time it was replaced by diesel buses and the overhead wires were removed. Traffic signals have become commonplace to manage growing traffic volumes. The original electric globe light standards are gone, replaced with taller, utilitarian street lights.
Source: Richard C. DeArmond
Almost 200 years since its origins as a rough trail or path, the King Street streetscape continues to serve a conduit for all types of travelers coming to the Uptown. Many of the buildings flanking the corner of the King and Erb intersection are now more 100 years old, constructed at a time when detail and ornamentation were an important component of architectural design. This current streetscape reflects the techniques and styles of its 1980s reconstruction.
Concrete planters with trees and interlocking paving sidewalks were installed to improve King Street’s visual appeal. On street parking on the west side of King Street was removed and replaced with a wider sidewalk to accommodate more pedestrian traffic. The street lights have been replaced once again, this time with lights reminiscent of the shorter gas lamps of the 1890s.
Source: Google ©2016
A proposed streetscaping project for King Street from Erb Street to Central Street is anticipated to start in 2017. Changes will include the widening of some sidewalks, installation of new street lights and new landscaping, as well as segregated bike lanes. Tracks for a new light rail system will be laid just south of the King and Erb intersection. Together, these changes are intended to support a wider range of transportation options for people travelling in the Uptown.