Vancouver’s Forgotten Streetcars

Urban growth.

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The following excerpt and photographs are published with permission from “Iron Road West: An Illustrated History of British Columbia’s Railways” by Derek Hayes, published by Harbour Publishing, © November 2018.

On the muddy, uneven, horse-dung strewn streets of early Vancouver, a smooth and clean alternative was sure to find favour. And since Vancouver did not exist as such until 1886, the electric streetcar era was already under way. Victoria and Vancouver created streetcar systems in 1890, with New Westminster following a year later.

Streetcars of the Vancouver Electric Railway & Light Company began laying track in 1889, and streetcars began running on 27 June 1891. The company soon extended its network, lured by the promise of profits from land (Canadian Pacific gave the company 68 lots in Fairview to bring tracks to that area).

Victoria began running streetcars in February 1890. The National Electric Tramway & Lighting Company began operating an 8-km-long system, extending the lines to Esquimalt in October that year.

New Westminster began work on streetcar systems in 1891. One company built within the city and another laid track between Vancouver and New Westminster. The two amalgamated in 1891 as the Westminster & Vancouver Tramway Company, and service between Vancouver and New Westminster began on 8 October 1891. Initial promise did not hold, however, and with the onset of a recession from 1892 to 1897 all the companies failed. In 1897 a new company, the British Columbia Electric Railway Company (BCER), either purchased the assets or took over all the others.

In the interior, Nelson was the only city to acquire streetcars. Here the British Electric Traction Company began service in 1899, lasting until 1949.

BCER found that its streetcars had the ability to stimulate urban growth like nothing else; lay down a track and development seemed sure to follow. This was particularly the case in the years before the First World War in 1914, and lines extended into Vancouver, Point Grey (incorporated 1908), South Vancouver (1891), and Burnaby (1892). The line from Vancouver to New Westminster was in fact one of the final impetuses for the creation of the latter municipality.

In 1905 BCER added a line to Steveston, leasing existing tracks from CP, and in 1907 BCER added 8 km of lines in North Vancouver, despite the fact that it was not at the time connected to Vancouver. A line ran down Lonsdale Avenue to meet the ferry across Burrard Inlet. On the street car one could then penetrate the trestump-covered wilds of the Lynn Valley, where, of course, real estate agent were hard at work trying to sell lots.

The Vancouver to New Westminster line operated essentially as a long streetcar route. BCER developed into more of a railway in 1910 when on 3 October that year the company opened a line all the way up the Fraser Valley to Chilliwack, using lines across the New Westminster Bridge, conveniently built by the province in 1904. The bridge and this interurban line opened up the valley to settlement, and allowed farmers to sell fresh produce and milk in Vancouver daily. Here trains were used comprising more than a single car; often there was a driving car, one of two more passenger cars, and a baggage car for all the local freight. The 103-km-long line not only brought mobility but also electricity to the valley.

The service lasted for forty years, but by 1950 BCER had determined to replace it with buses, placating many of the municipalities with $40,000 or $50,000 for them to spend on road maintenance for roads that were to become bus routes. It was, as we know with hindsight, a ridiculously short-sighted decision. Service was temporarily reactivated in March 1951 using diesel locomotives when buses could not get through deep snow, yet the obvious warning was not heeded. The line remains, used by the Southern Railway of British Columbia after many years as the BC Hydro Railway.

Passenger service to Steveston lasted another eight years, with the last train running on the night of the 27-28 February 1958. By that time streetcars had been gone for three years, so this represented the passing of an era. That track also remains but is used very occasionally. And much of the route between Vancouver and New Westminster is now used by the elevated tracks of the Syktrain.


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November 17, 2018