The Nelson Street Railway

Posted by Daniel on Jul 27, 2009

Historian Chuck Davis writes:

I’m one of the members of a small committee planning activities for the 2010 conference of the B.C. Historical Federation, to be held May 6 to 8, 2010 in Vancouver. The title of the event is "Everchanging Vancouver: Transportation Created City". One of the other members is well-known transportation buff and writer Henry Ewert. Henry had us all laughing at our last meeting July 8 at a White Spot in Richmond when he reached into his briefcase and brought out four—repeat, four—books on the streetcar system in Nelson.

The streetcar system in Nelson is five miles long and had, at its peak, three streetcars. No wonder it was dubbed "the smallest streetcar system in the British Empire". Launched by a private company at the end of 1899, it was taken over by the city in 1914, thus becoming the first publicly-owned street railway in the province.

The first book, brought out in 1961 under the auspices of the BC Railway Historical Association, was Nelson’s Street Railway by Douglas Parker, published by the BCRHA as Bulletin #3. It was 16 pages long.

There was a long hiatus. Then, in 1988, a book appeared as part of the Kootenay Souvenir Series titled Nelson’s Electric Tramway by David May, with the subtitle Five Miles on a Nickel. It was 105 pages long. For a system five miles long, with three streetcars.

Four years later a third book appeared, this one also by Douglas Parker. It was called Streetcars in the Kootenays: Nelson’s Electric Railway 1899-1992. “It is a work of impeccable scholarship,” Henry told us, “and Professor Parker, who taught at the University of Alberta, is alive and well and living in New Westminster.” The 1992 date cited in the title is when Professor Parker’s book came out. The streetcar system is still running in Nelson, with one car, #23, which has been lovingly refurbished. (The cars were numbered 21, 22 and 23.) Professor Parker’s book is 200 pages long, and illustrated. For a system five miles long, with three streetcars.

Most recently, in 2000, a fourth book appeared. The title, the best so far, is Hanging Fire and Heavy Horses: A History of Public Transportation in Nelson. The author is Art Joyce and he has given us ANOTHER 200 pages! (Mind you, he includes material on buses, too.) “It’s a beautiful, glossy and flamboyant book,” Henry says, approvingly, “and was published by the City of Nelson.”

More than 500 pages (so far) for a streetcar system five miles long, with three streetcars.