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Friday fun guest post: My Travels with Norm, reminiscences of the Vancouver streetcar and interurban, by Michael Taylor-Noonan

Transit Museum Society volunteer Norm, photographed inside the restored B.C. Electric interurban car #1207.

I’m happy to welcome back Michael Taylor-Noonan, the newsletter editor for the Transit Museum Society (TRAMS), for another guest post! (He previously wrote a guest post about bus numbering in Vancouver.) This time, Michael has kindly contributed an interview with Norm, a fellow TRAMS member who rode Vancouver transit in the early part of the twentieth century. Read on for a look at how the system worked back then!

My Travels with Norm, by Michael Taylor-Noonan

Norm and I are travelling along Highway 1. We’re on our way to the Transit Museum maintenance shop near the Burnaby – Vancouver border. Norm no longer drives, so every second Sunday I take him to the shop. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and each time I drive Norm, I first ask how he’s been in the intervening two weeks.

Pretty good for an old guy he says. He’s 86: a retired machinist who’s worked on many things throughout his working career from screws to ships. Now Norm is a volunteer with Trams. His skill machining small parts comes in very handy. He also has amassed a great collection of tools over the years, some of which he brings to the shop in four very heavy toolboxes. And every time he lets me carry his tools out to the car, he reminds me that he was born in 1924, one year after Vancouver’s first bus ran.

And so the conversation shifts to his favourite topic: life in that Vancouver of years past when buses, streetcars and interurbans all displayed one name: B.C. Electric Railway Co. However, I decide today will be different, I will just not listen to Norm’s stories, I will begin to record them, transcribe them, and post them here. Like any good storyteller at a party, he at first doesn’t want to tell me anything, but is eventually ‘persuaded’ to begin…. “Well, seeing as you asked….”.

A 1936 map of Greater Vancouver interurban and streetcar routes, showing the interurbans at their height—routes began to close down after the Pattullo Bridge opened. The line connected Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Richmond. (The interurban lines are the dark dotted lines with circles every few millimetres – see the legend at the bottom right.) The map is from Wrigley's Greater Vancouver City Street Guide, published by Roy Wrigley Ltd, courtesy of the City of Burnaby Archives. Click for a much larger version!

Ok, where shall we start? At the beginning?

The first line was out to Steveston, run by the CPR for three years, 1902 to 1905, then they got interurbans on that line.

Did you ever ride on the Steveston line?

Oh yeah! A friend of my dad had a chicken ranch out at #3 and Blundell. St. Alban’s. We’d get off at Brighouse Station…

Passengers board the Lulu Island-Eburne-Steveston Interurban tram on the foot of Granville Street at False Creek, circa 1908. Item number Out P680, from the Major Matthews fonds. Courtesy the City of Vancouver Archives.

How long did it take you to get out there?

From Davie St.? (the interurban terminus). Oh about 3/4hr.

What was the fare?

Trying to remember, but out to Steveston it was about 50 cents, return.

Were there fare zones, like today?

No, they did distance. Brighouse was cheaper than Steveston. Chilliwack line, Burnaby Lake, and Westminster did the same… depended on the number of stations.

Did you get a discount for being a kid?

Yes, it was about 25 cents. A loaf of bread was about five cents, so to go out to Steveston and back would be equal to about 10 loaves of bread.

Today the same distance would be $7.50, a loaf of bread is $3 or so. Seems the cost of transit has dropped.

Well don’t forget they had a three-man train, the motorman, conductor, and train man. The motorman drove, the conductor collected the fares, and the trainman helped people on and off at stations.

How come it was so expensive?

Well, I guess people would pay… they had no cars!

What was the Brighouse station like?

Just a wooden structure, a shelter really. You could sit there. You didn’t have to flag down the trainou just stood on the platform, let him see you, otherwise they’d just go on sailing though.

A B.C. Electric Interurban station in Steveston. Click for larger! Item number Trans N96, from the Major Matthews fonds at the City of Vancouver Archives.

How about the station at Davie Street?

Oh that’s a big one with coffee shop, the whole works. It was about a block off Granville.

You can’t see a station there now. Not like Carroll St, or New Westminster.

Well it wasn’t like New West that cars pulled in off the street. The cars just waited on the street.

There was no platform?

Not downtown, but at the smaller stations there was. The trainman had a step he used to help you get on.

So downtown, when you got on the interurbans… and the streetcars, I’m assuming you had to step out onto the street..

Oh yeah, they ran down the centre of the street. For the interurban, say the Central Park, till it got to Cedar Cottage, past Commercial, then it was on its own right-of-way.

Did you have to watch out for cars… was there much traffic?

No not in those days. Couldn’t do it now. That was the same in downtown Vancouver, for the interurban and the streetcars. On the streetcars, except for the one-man cars, you paid the conductor at the back of the car. That’s all he did, the conductor, the motorman at the front was in there all by himself. The conductor sat at a desk at the back with a farebox. You got on at the back door. On the interurbans, the conductor walked around. On the one-man-car it was like a bus, you paid as you got on at the front. The Oak St and Nanaimo Rd were one-man cars. Double-enders. He could walk through the car take the farebox, brake handle, controller handle with him. So people could sit at the back and not fool around with the controls.

Now, you’ve told me before about going out to a hockey game at Queen’s Park during the war… Army versus Navy…

That was 35 cents return, because we had to get a bus just before New Westminster, at Woodlands. The train was packed… we were in the baggage compartment… standing.

You paid 35 cents for that ride?

No.. they didn’t get to us!

Oh you didn’t pay?

No… for one way anyway.

Was there a limit for standing passengers on the interurban?

No. I’ve seen people hanging onto the step!

On those two and three car trains, I assume that once you got into a car, you stayed put. It wasn’t like the West Coast Express, where you could walk between cars. So how did they collect fares?

Well, the conductor could walk between cars.

Did the conductor have to remember how much you paid?

You got a ticket, a receipt. You had to have that receipt in your possession; otherwise you’d have to pay again. On the streetcar it didn’t matter, the fare was the same if you were going one block or forty.

A Central Park Interurban line ticket circa 1930. Item 204-016 from the Mayors' Office fonds, courtesy of the City of Burnaby Archives.

Was there much fare evasion?

I don’t know, never paid much attention. I paid my fare.

Always? Even when you were younger?

Well, yeah, except for one time coming home from the library and Main & Hastings. Got one block, before he threw me off. My friends dared me. The conductor knew what was happening.
Another time back in the thirties, there was a heavy snow storm during the weekend. Monday morning there was rain on top of all this stuff, and there wasn’t a streetcar moving. Dad gave me money to go and get some milk from the store. So I Iooked up the street, the other side of the Clark St bridge, a wooden bridge, I see two streetcars up there. Stuck. Thought I’d better go and see what this was about.. put the nickel in my pocket.. forgot about the milk.

How fast could the interurban go, away from the city?

Well they had four motors, they could go about 50 mph (80 km/h). The Chilliwack trains were heavier, and they had bigger motors, they could do 70 or 80, though that varied with the passenger load, if it was on level track. Some runs had two motor cars with a trailer between them.

Could you walk through?

No, though there was a door, there was no walkway. You had to stay on the same car. But you had a toilet. Simple, no frills, that’s why in the city when they ran on streetcar tracks they were locked. There was a washstand, with a storage tank for clean water. They had a separate area for smokers, with a swinging door. But sometimes, depending on which way the car was heading, you’d have to walk through to get off.

Was there different classes of travel, other than non/smoking?

No, everyone paid the same fare.

How frequent were they?

The Burnaby Lake line was about every half-hour. The Central Park was every 20 minutes, but every five minutes during rush hours, and there might be three-car trains.
Did the service keep to the schedule pretty well? Pretty well, though one night I decided to take the long way around from New Westminster to downtown, go via Marpole. More money but I had time. New Westminster to Marpole…15 minutes there were no stops. It was a ‘1200’ – a St. Louis. Late at night, no-one getting one or off. We flew! The lights were flickering as the trolley wheel bounced along. The only stops were the mandatory ones.

Mandatory ones? At stations?

Crossings. Boundary was one. Just in case there was a car. [Most stations were at railroad crossings.] Others were flag stops.

Do you recall any accidents or crashes?

There was one between an interurban and a streetcar – a 700 – well, a two-car streetcar train at the Granville Bridge. The old Granville Bridge. It was foggy. The interurban rear-ended the streetcar.

Was anyone injured?

Well, the motorman of the interurban, maybe slightly as he ran back into the body of the car.

He ran back? He knew he was gonna hit?

Oh yeah, he knew as he got close enough! The 700s were steel streetcars, the interurban was mainly wood with steel as a frame, and an undersole. Even the St Louis’ were bolted on steel sides, the rest is wood. The streetcar being steel was almost undamaged.

When I was a kid, walking along Broadway, a boy ran in front of a streetcar, he got hurt. Clark Drive area, Queen Alexandria school. Wondered what everyone was looking at… he got caught up in the cow-catcher was we called them. Scooped him up, but he still had a broken arm, even though he’d been hit by a 25 ton streetcar.

A B.C. Electric Railway Interurban after a collision with a truck carrying canned salmon, circa 1942. Item number CVA 586-909 from the Williams Bros. Photographers Collection fonds, courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives.

Now Norm recalls the days when Vancouver had ‘pea-soup’ fogs. Smog really, caused by all the fires burning wood, coal, sawdust, even for cooking, burners at the sawmills pouring out smoke and so on. Visibility would be down to a few metres at best…

Me and a friend, we had flashlights so we decided to go down to the corner, the #5 route, you couldn’t see the middle of the road, practically from the sidewalk. So we’d shine the light so the motorman would stop the streetcar. People were scared to step out into the middle of the road, of course. We were young, not scared, so we’d get out there and shine the light. Occasionally you’d get two bits from the people that were generous. That was a fair chunk of change in the thirties.

You were worried about getting hit by a car?

No. The cars, the few that there were, were following the streetcar, that’s all they did. They were scared to do anything else.

I guess they figured the streetcar is following the tracks, so it can’t get lost?

I was told of a car that followed a Nanaimo Rd streetcar, but as it was the last car of the night, it was going to the car barn. It was on Main St. Followed him all the way into the barn and fell in the pit. Driver didn’t clue in even when the streetcar switched to the wrong side of Main [near 16th] to enter the barn.

Then we arrive at the Trams shop, me still trying to make up my mind whether that last story is true, or just an urban myth, Norm ready to tell more stories to the volunteers who gather every weekend to maintain the collection of buses. I still have questions, I guess they’ll have to wait till next time.

Postscript

I first printed Norm’s reminisces in the Transit Museum newsletter. That prompted another member, Jim McPherson, to write:

“You expressed a little doubt over the car into pit story. Not sure if you knew Ted Gardiner, but in case you didn’t, he started work with BCER in the late 40’s at the Kitsilano barn where he saw the arrival of the Brills on flat cars. They were unloaded in that neighbourhood, given a quick checkup I believe he said, then towed up to 4th where they put the poles up and drove them to Oakridge. No teething problems like the E901A/902’s in the 80’s!

Anyway he transferred to OTC (Oakridge) to become a trolley coach mechanic, and worked as such until retirement. He had a memory like a computer. Although he had only worked briefly on steel traction at Kits, he seemed to know about every street car owned by BCER and could reel off every modification each one or each small group had had. So decades ago, he told me about how autos would closely follow street cars in the fog and that many a motorist got a big surprise when he or she followed ones right into the Mount Pleasant car barns. Remember – they were following the street cars because they could not see even to the nearest curb.

I personally have only experienced one fog that severe. Coming home from elementary school in the early 60’s, I was momentarily scared for my life just to cross a quiet side street in a Dunbar neighbourhood. The reason – I could not see from the curb even to the centreline of a street that was 1.5 lanes wide in each direction. And cars seem to move so silently in thick fogs, that I thought what if a car comes even slowly, but silently, driven by someone who can barely see his hood ornament. And here I am in his path. I froze for a few minutes, strained to listen for any feint sound, then dashed across before anything could sneak up on me. ) So with frequent fogs like that, I can imagine drivers making a hard turn as a street car would at an intersection, then finding themselves in a worse fix.

The punch line from Ted was what etched the story into my mind 30 years ago: he said that this event happened so frequently that the shop personnel at Mt. Pleasant made up a special tool with which they could easily lift up the front end of the errant autos and then shove them out the door to fend for themselves once again. Life is harsh.”

Thanks Michael and Norm!

Thanks so much Michael and Norm!

If you’re interested in more, TRAMS has published a DVD of scenes from 1950s Vancouver, showing the interurbans and streetcars. It’s narrated by two retired motormen, and you can see an excerpt on YouTube—or buy a copy from the TRAMS website!

You can also check out the Buzzer’s past history posts about B.C. Electric and the streetcar/interurban system:


5 Comments

  • By Matt Laird, February 25, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    Great interview. For more historic BCER maps and information see http://bcer.trams.ca
    (Reprinted from Henry Ewart’s book with permission)

  • By Sally, February 25, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    Great post! The photos were excellent and it was a lovely interview.

  • By Cliff, February 26, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    Such fascinating tales to tell. I hope Norm doesn’t run out of stories to share anytime soon. They’re a great read. This stuff could go in a museum!

    A similar thing happens to this day. In whiteout conditions on the Coke, people will follow trucks, even as they pull into the scale or chain areas.

    So my trucker friends tell me.

    I wonder if there are any practical applications for streetcars today. How much of that reasoning is practical instead of the novelty factor?

  • By David Arthur, February 26, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    Fascinating stuff! I always find it interesting to see how much of Vancouver’s rail expansion of the last few decades is really little more than regaining (albeit in a substantially upgraded form) what was there years earlier.

Other Links to this Post

  1. The Buzzer blog » Friday fun guest post: A history of monorails in Vancouver, by Michael Taylor-Noonan — May 25, 2012 @ 8:26 am

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