Of Town Halls & Tram Cars in the 50’s

Of Town Halls & Tram Cars in the 50’s

An Electric Tram Car near Gas Paha Handiya, Colombo in 1950’s with the old Town Hall in the background.

Once known as Gasworks Street, Gas Paha Handiya was a hive of activity even in the 50’s as it is today. The building on left is Old Town Hall. Built in 1873, the mastermind behind the Old Town Hall was British architect J. G. Smither who himself designed the furniture to match the woodwork of the building.  The unique feature of this painstakingly designed furniture is the back rest of the chairs which resembled the design of wooden arches in each window. Town hall was the first civic building at the time to be opened in Colombo. Its architecture has the overall features of a Neo-gothic building with its predominance of pointed arches and cast iron columns. The building was used as the municipal headquarters from 1873-1924 until in 1925 it was moved to a new premises. With the shifting of the Town Hall to its present location next to the Viharamahadevi Park (then called the Victoria Park) in 1925, this complex felt into disuse.

On 11th January 1900 the Ceylon Electric Tramways opened the country’s first tramway for public service with the ‘Grand Pass Route’ being the first section to open, followed by the ‘Borella (Maradana) Route’

The tramways were eventually brought under Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Ltd after its formation in 1902, the same company that built the Pettah Power Station. The Pettah Power Station was the second power station established in the country and was used to power the tram network, mercantile offices, government buildings and street lights. The whole of the track on both routes was relaid with 43 kg (95 lb) rails between December 1905 and August 1907, with all joints being welded by thermite process.

The tram network consisted of a single 12 km (7 mi) line which utilised a 42 in (107 cm) rail gauge. A total of 52 cars were in service, shuttling thousands of passengers between ten stops on the route from Maradana Station to Borella. The trams used trolley poles and consisted of open “toast-rack” type, and closed centre-entry type.

The original two tramway routes were ‘Grand Pass Route’, from Fort Terminus (opposite Grand Oriental Hotel) to River Kelani. The ‘Borella Tramway’route ran from Fort Terminus (opposite Grand Oriental Hotel) to Borella. The average number of passengers carried on both routes in 1900 was 14,529 daily, in 1904 the number of passengers carried was 6,5559,059 and in 1905 was 6,555,338.

After a tram car strike in 1929, the Colombo Municipal Council took over operations of the electric tram system on 31 August 1944. The Colombo Municipal Council closed the service on 30 June 1960.

Nishan is a raconteur and a lover of art, history and architecture. His journey began more than 30 years ago when he started collecting and saving copies of publications which captured significant moments in Sri Lankan history. He intends to digitize the contemporary Sri Lankan history even in a smaller way through The Archives.

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