BC Electric car #77 was built at the railway’s New Westminster shops in 1906.  Largely unmodified throughout its career, it was a member of the largest class of streetcar in the fleet, the “Narragansett” type.  104 of this design were built between 1905 and 1911.  By the mid 1940s, these had been modified into a number of sub-classes.  In this scene, #77 waits on East Broadway to turn around at Commercial and head back to Chilco Loop on the #5 Robson Line.

[courtesy GTC collectibles, Stan Styles collection]

The Narragansett — THE STREETCAR THAT STARTED A REVOLUTION

In the early 1900s, Vancouver’s population was increasing rapidly, and B.C. Electric was scrambling to meet the challenge.

The railway had already started building its own 4-wheeled streetcars, and had accumulated some larger cars, but for the most part, it was a fleet of samples.

The company embraced a steep learning curve, and by 1904 it appears that half a dozen small cars (identical to #53 inside the Spaghetti Factory on Water St.) were cancelled in favour of building vehicles twice the size. The shops turned their attention to a much greater challenge–to build a prototype of a large fleet streetcar.

In 1905, car #69 rolled out of the New Westminster shops, and a few modifications later, was joined by cars #72,74, and 75.

All of these cars were very likely captured in action in the famous 1907 Harbeck film.

From 1906 to 1911, the New Westminster shops turned out 104 of these “Narragansett” type cars. They were built in various configurations, single-ended and double ended, and subsequent modernizations kept these robust vehicles running nearly to the end of the streetcar era in Vancouver.

Sadly, no one thought to preserve a sample of this superb local craftsmanship: all of the Vancouver streetcar fleet of the 1905 – 1950 era was destroyed.

We propose building a replica of the iconic “Narragansett” type to acknowledge our local labour history, the craftsmen who built and maintained the cars, and also the women who made a significant contribution to the war effort as “Conductorettes” –a history fast-fading that should be talked about while there are still people alive who remember it.

WOMEN’S HISTORY

No reference to the significance of streetcars to Vancouver’s history would be complete without mentioning the “Conductorettes.”

BC Electric Railway was a bit unusual in that the popular trend of the 1920s and 30s, from two-man operation to one-man, was not embraced as quickly as most streetcar operations in North America. The company did introduce one-man operation on routes using double-ended cars (streetcars with a set of controls at both ends), and even two-man / one-man Peter Witt cars in 1929, but for the most part there was always a motorman and a conductor on board. Many people were of the mind that this was a safe way to operate, and by the 1930s, replacement of the streetcars by buses was considered inevitable. Therefore, the cost of converting streetcars from two-man to pay-as-you-enter was considered to be unjustifiable, considering that most of the conventional streetcars dated from just before World War I.

When the Second World War broke out, there was a scarcity of men to operate the streetcar fleet, and “Conductorettes” were introduced to supply that need. Rather than taking that opportunity to dispose of older equipment, as happened in many cities, BC Electric joined the Post Office, the shipyards, and some other industries in making labour history by hiring women.

These women kept Vancouver’s streetcar system running.

This is another reason that makes replica streetcars an obvious choice. These stories should be told, and with every passing year that becomes less likely. There is some chance that the woman in the photo is still alive. She looks rather fun–does anyone recognize her? Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell her stories for future generations?

If you recognize this Conductorette, or have stories to share about them, please contact us.

WHERE DID ALL THE TRAMS GO?

BC Electric Railway bought or built over 600 electric trams, including city streetcars and heavy interurbans.

The first streetcar lines to be closed were those that served New Westminster. On December 4, 1938, BC Electric car #98 made its way westbound to Highland Park Station on the Central Park interurban line. Instead of meeting an interurban and heading back into New Westminster, it continued onto the interurban line without passengers, and headed into Vancouver for rebuilding at the Kitsilano Shops, and a few more years service on Vancouver streets.

Car #98’s duties would be picked up by the fleet of 25 gas buses that had joined the fleet in recent years.

As the Second World War broke out, BC Electric’s streetcars and interurbans were carrying over 140 million passengers annually. The small but growing bus fleet was carrying almost 3 million.*

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Successful as they were, the streetcars and interurbans were an endangered species. In 1921, GM initiated its “Rails to Rubber” strategy in the United States. By 1939, the conspiracy (as it was later proven to be) was well underway, and streetcar systems large and small were being bought out and scrapped across the country.

According to a 1974 Senate anti-trust hearing, it was determined that between 1932 and 1956, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, and General Motors “had jointly formed a holding company, National City Lines, to buy street-railway companies and turn them into bus companies that operated only General Motors buses.”** National City Lines in effect brought about the death of streetcar systems all over North America.

General Motors insisted (and continues to promote the notion) that the popularity of automobiles was a natural effect of supply and demand. In reality it was a marketing tactic that promoted urban sprawl, which in turn created increased demand for automobiles.

It did not take a conspiracy to eliminate the streetcar in Canada. It was largely the work of a single man.

From the mid-1920s until the late 1950s, Norman Wilson made it his life’s work to shut down nearly every streetcar line
in Canada.

In the 1920s, there were 55 streetcar and interurban lines. The demands of the First World War had taken a heavy toll, but despite this, few of the systems failed when post-war loans for infrastructure rebuilding were unavailable. While electric railroads that chose unusual equipment or operating systems did in fact fail, the chief problem facing Canadian street railways in the 1920s was not that they failed to turn a profit–it was that they didn’t make enough money for capital replacement. Several smaller lines closed up quietly toward the end of the 1920s for this reason.

[Photo:  Brantford Street Railway #133.  Peter Finch collection.]

Of the roughly 50 electric railways still oerating, Norman Wilson recommended only one–a tiny outfit in Brantford Ontario that ran a small fleet of second-hand Toronto 4-wheelers. Somehow, Wilson managed to lobby every municipality that used streetcars and wrote reports showing why they should be scrapped and replaced with buses. Only the City of Toronto rejected Norman’s findings, in large part because they undertook their own studies.

As the Second World War loomed on the horizon, streetcar companies, knowing what strains wartime demands would bring, again sought financing. Wilson had been busily lobbying all levels of government to put infrastructure money into roads, so again the electric railways generally came up short-handed. Some even closed down rather than try to operate with worn-out equipment, and ironically the little system in Brantford as one of them.

While there is no clear evidence linking Wilson with the GM / Firestone / Esso conspiracy in the United States, it is not unreasonable to suggest that such a connection may have existed.

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By 1946, BC Electric’s streetcars were carrying 156 million* passengers, while the growing bus fleet managed just over 3 million.  The tipping point came when the decision was made to order 82 Brill trolley coaches.

The city streetcar lines were closed in the post-war years, ending with the Hastings line in 1955.

The interurban system, the most extensive in Canada, and the longest in North America, was shut down piece by piece.  In 1950, the Chilliwack to New Westminster section was closed, followed by the Burnaby Lake Line, the Central Park Line, and finally service from downtown Vancouver to Marpole was cut. Service from Marpole to Steveston hung on until February 28, 1958.

Streetcars and intururbans started to collect in great numbers at the Kitsilano yards after 1950, and one by one, they were
burned under the Burrard Street Bridge.

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While all the city streetcars were scrapped, there were a few survivors of Vancouver’s streetcar age.***

  • BCER #53, built in the BC Electric New Westminster shops in 1904 can be seen at The Old Spaghetti Factory on Water St.
  • BCER #153, retired from the North Vancouver system when it closed in 1947. The car body was rescued and cosmetically restored.
    Currently in storage in North Vancouver.
  • BCER #712, one of the large steel cars, became the Red Racer diner in Penticton BC, and was probably demolished in the 1970s.
  • BCER #1207, formerly named “Steveston,” stored at Snoqualmie WA, repatriated in 1989 and restored to running condition.
    Currently at Cloverdale BC (FVHRS) awaiting further restoration.
  • BCER #1220, currently under cosmetic restoration at Steveston.
  • BCER #1223, Cosmetically restored at Burnaby Village Museum.
  • BCER #1225, Fully restored to operating condition at Cloverdale (FVHRS).
  • BCER #1235, stored (as is) at Museum of Science & Technology, Ottawa.
  • BCER #1304, under extensive restoration at Cloverdale. Expected to be in fully operative condition summer 2017 (FVHRS).
  • BCER #17xx, baggage car, possibly restorable, undisclosed location, USA.

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References:

* Greg Pettipas, “Restore the Power of Streetcars Now.” Brian Kelly, “Transit in British Columbia.”
Henry Ewart, “The Story of the BC Electric Railway Company.”

** Jonathan Vance, “The Man Who Killed the Canadian Streetcar”

*** David Reuss, “Fraser Rails that Glow”

A HISTORY THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN –THE CURIOUS CASE OF CAR #601

An important philosophical foundation of the Vancouver Civic Railway is to maintain an a-political stance in terms of partisan politics. The story of Car #601 illustrates why this is a good policy.

In the mid 1970s, there was much interest in Vancouver following the development of the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle. The CLRVs were to replace Toronto’s aging fleet of PCC Streamliner streetcars, the newest of which dated from the mid 1950s.

One thing led to another, and the Provincial NDP government of the time negotiated the purchase of a Siemens-built streetcar from Hanover Germany for the tidy sum of $150,000. The car had been built in 1970, was lightly used, and by all appearances, was quite the bargain.

The plan was to activate part of the Central Park Line in Burnaby as a demonstration project. As in the best laid plans, there were delays and the Provincial Government decided to shelve the project until after the 1975 election. In that election, the ruling NDP was ousted, and replaced by a Social Credit majority.

The streetcar arrived shortly after the election, and as it was not part of the SoCred platform, it was put in storage where it remained hidden for nearly 12 years.

In the mean time, SkyTrain fever swept successive Provincial governments, and a section of the linear induction-driven light metro system was constructed in time to show it off for Expo ’86. SkyTrain was not without its critics then as now, and Car #601, now somewhat of an embarrassment, was quietly sold to Edmonton for $1.00.

The car was operated by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society for a number of years, but in August of 2016, #601 made its last trips over the High Level Bridge. ERRS had sold the car, and it was shipped back to Germany to yet another life as part of an operating museum collection.

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