The City of Nelson was a booming frontier settlement in 1899, fuelled by the gold, silver, copper and all the mineral wealth of the area’s successful mines. The mountains and valleys on all sides were dotted with camps where prospectors and miners dug into the hard-rock in search of their treasures, and most came to Nelson for supplies and a good time. As the region’s busiest supply centre, the community’s future looked bright, and civic leaders began to plan for future growth and development.
The Nelson Electric Tramway Company installed and began operating an electric streetcar system in 1899, funded by investors in Britain who shared their optimism about the community’s future. With big dreams for the future and only 3 streets, it began transit operations as the smallest streetcar system in the British Empire and remained that way for the next 50 years.
Nelsonites came to depend upon their streetcars for transportation, often deriding and cherishing their shaky, bumpy trams at the same time. The original line looped through the main business district downtown, and ran up steep streets to serve residential neighbourhoods on the mountainside above. Another branch ran along the rough roads to the CPR shipyard in Fairview, where sternwheelers and lake boats were built and maintained, also serving the people who lived in that “BogusTown” area.
The trams ran year-round, season after season, in good weather and bad, in good times and bad. There were days of prosperity when the citizens were happy and the mills and shops bustled, when the trams delivered people to their work, children to school, and families to their homes. There were days of sorrow and hunger as well, when the trams tied the community together with their shaky, bumpy rhythm. During the Great Depression, there were days when the glow from a tram’s coal oil stove was the only warmth enjoyed by many passengers, and days when the summer wind through a whistling tram came from the best thrill ride in town.
At the end of WW2, the city decided to renew it’s ageing transportation system, and a vote was held to determine which system the citizen’s wanted. People voted in favour of keeping their beloved trams first, replacing them with new trams second, and purchasing electric trolley-coaches third. However, the golden era of trams and electric streetcars in North America was over, and manufacturers no longer made smaller trams that would suit a city the size of Nelson. To avoid the cost of converting the electric overhead system to accommodate trolley-coaches, the fourth-place diesel-bus option was ultimately selected, and the city’s tiny fleet of streetcars was retired in 1949.
At the time, there were 3 passenger cars and a snow-sweeper in the fleet. Car’s #21 and #22 were stored for a while on the waterfront, perhaps in hope that they would one day return to the rails. Their ultimate fate is now a mystery, though it is rumoured that they may still lay buried beneath the sand flats of Cottonwood Creek, a treasure for some future miner to discover.
The remaining Car #23 saw a different fate. Built in 1906 by the Stephenson Car Company of Ottawa, it was purchased by Nelson in 1924 from Cleveland, Ohio, where it already had seen nearly 20 years of service. Car #23 was originally purchased to serve as a reserve unit, in case one of the primary streetcars needed maintenance. It was also brought into service for special excursions and charters, and to add extra passenger capacity for events such as hockey games.
After retirement in 1949, car#23 was employed as a change room at an outdoor skating rink in the Uphill residential area, within sight of its old route up the steep mountainside. The coal-oil heater was welcome by young hockey players and families, and the warm glow from the windows helped light the ice for figure skaters.
Car #23 was sold again, this time to a local veterinarian who moved the tram 4 miles up the lake to a summer property. It was soon joined by the remains of the Nasookin sternwheeler, which together became icons of the region’s frontier past. Car #23 was converted into a dog kennel, then a chicken coop, and finally a storage shed as it slowly deteriorated. However, the rhythm of the shaky old tram still echoed in the mountains, people spoke of restoration, and then one day the process began.
In the early-1980′s, a group of local historians and enthusaists formed a society to acquire and restore the old streetcar. Individuals and businesses offered their help, and soon Car #23 was being renewed by woodworkers and mechanics at the local campus of Selkirk College. Originally, the group intended that the tram be restored as a museum display, yet community support kept building and the restoration gained momentum. The CPR donated tracks, ties, spikes, ballast, and other supplies recovered when the historic Roseberry Line along the Arrow Lakes was decommissioned. The local electrical utility donated an overhead wire, and the City of Nelson contributed facilities, workers, and equipment. After years of work, Nelson’s streetcar system returned to life as a tremendous example of community spirit and accomplishment. The tram is restored, maintained and operated exclusively by volunteers, a demonstration of the community’s connection to its past and it’s confidence in the future.
Today, the Nelson Electric Tramway Society operates Car #23 along a scenic, waterfront route that shuttles between Lakeside Park and Hall Street. Over 15,000 people ride the tram each summer to enjoy or relive the shaky, bumpy ride and experience an emotional connection with generations Nelsonites. The tram is also a significant tourist attraction in the community, and visitors from across Canada, the USA, Europe, South America, and Asia, enjoy a ride each summer.
Take note, when you go …
- Streetcar #23 operates from mid-May to mid-October, 7 days per week. Hours of operation are 11am – 5pm. The fare is a bargain – about $8 for a family, or $3 for an adult, $2 for a senior – which allows passengers to ride all day. It is popular for passengers to get on at one stop, then get off to look around at various points along the way. Keep in mind that Car #23 is over 108 years old, so make allowances that events may change the tram’s schedule or operation.
- The tram can be chartered before or after regular service hours for $100 per hour, which is a real bargain. The fee covers operating costs, and because the conductors are all volunteers, a donation to the tram society to help with tram maintenance is often appreciated. Wedding charters and private tours are the most popular.
- A great experience and photo-opportunity is the nightly shut-down ritual. At 5pm each day, the tram returns to the car barn for the night, and the conductors will often allow passengers to ride along. The car barn is located in Lakeside Park, a short distance from the main parking lot. Passengers can watch as tracks and overhead wires get switched, and the tram is reversed into the car barn. Cover your ears when the compressor valves are opened!
- Inside the car barn is a small museum about the history of the tram system. Also, visitors can view the society’s reserve streetcar, a 1920′s-vintage tram which originally operated in Victoria, BC.
Nelson Electric Tramway Society (opens in new window)