Buses, SkyTrain, SeaBus, and the West Coast Express are the main transit options in the Greater Vancouver area today. However, Open Collections has many images of the railroads and streetcars that used to line our streets. From 1897 until 1958, the British Columbia Electric Railway (BCER) operated streetcars and interurbans, which were the major transportation options for people at that time.

Granville St., Vancouver, B.C., Post office, bank commerce & depot, [between 1908 and 1911?].

Brief History of Streetcars and Interurbans in BC

The first streetcar services in BC began in Victoria, operated by the National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company Ltd., in February 1890. Four months later, the first regular streetcar service was started in Vancouver by Vancouver Electric Railway and Light Company Ltd. By October 1891, the service area was expanded to New Westminster by the Westminster and Vancouver Tramway Company. The company also launched Canada’s longest interurban line between Vancouver and New Westminster. Eventually, the three companies merged as the British Columbia Electric Railway Company Limited (BCER) on April 3, 1897, and started to manage all of the transportation services.

Map and guide to Vancouver street car and interurban lines, 1923.

British Columbia Electric Railway Company. Tips for tourists: interurban trips over B.C. Electric Railway system, in vicinity of Vancouver, British Columbia, [1913?].

The following are photographs depicting streetcars in BC from the Uno Langmann Family Collection of British Columbia Photographs:

Park Drive, Grand View, [between 1903 and 1908?].

[View of a trolley car on Davie Street, Vancouver], [between 1900 and 1910?].

[Sketch of interior of Main Street streetcar, Vancouver, B.C.], [not after 1914].

 

You can also find interurban lines in the BC Historical Books Collection:

British Columbia Electric Railway Company. British Columbia Electric Railway Co. Ltd. : N.E.L.A. Convention, Seattle, June 10-14, 1912, [1912].

British Columbia Electric Railway Company. B.C. Electric Handbook and Directory, 1929.

British Columbia Electric Railway Company. Tips for tourists: interurban trips over B.C. Electric Railway system, in vicinity of Vancouver, British Columbia, [1913?].

Observation Streetcars

Around 1909, BCER purchased the designs of open-air sightseeing cars from the Montreal Tramways Company and constructed the cars in New Westminster. Thadeous (Teddy) Sylvester Lyons was a popular tour conductor, known for his wit and jokes while operating this service until it stopped running in 1950.

[B.C. Electric Railway Co. tour conducted by Ted Lyons, Vancouver, B.C.], [between 1923 and 1949?].

UBC Motor Buses

Motor buses were the main transit option for students and employees heading to UBC. In Carrying the People ([1929]) by British Columbia Electric Railway Company, UBC was considered the busiest route:

The U.B.C. Rush

Consider the problem of the University. Between 8 o’clock and 9.15 in the morning, transportation is required for more than fifteen hundred students and no sooner is this accomplished than the traffic falls off to nothing. In the afternoon the same surge occurs in the opposite direction and then zero in traffic again. […] There is no busier spot in Vancouver than this transfer point as the University rush is at its height each morning. (pp.7-8)

UBC 93.1/18. University bus, 1926.

British Columbia Electric Railway Company. Carrying the People, [1929].

The End of Streetcars/Interurbans Services

Around the time of the Second World War, the BCER streetcar and interurban services were approaching their end due to the high cost of maintaining the train tracks. The BCER decided to do “Rails-to-Rubbers” conversion throughout the entire transit system, changing from streetcars using tracks to buses with rubber tires.

The final run of Vancouver’s streetcar was in 1955. The last interurban car ran between Marpole and Steveston on February 28, 1958, and the rail passenger service by BCER ended.

Ever since the BC government took over the BCER in 1961, we have used “rubber” buses and automated trains as our primary transportation tools in BC. At UBC Vancouver campus, there are 15 bus routes to Metro Vancouver and two routes serving on-campus areas today.

UBC 1.1/15762. Students boarding bus in front of Home Economics Building, 1971.

 

If you want to explore more materials about BC transportation history, please visit our Open Collections.

References

Ya Min Wu has worked at UBC Library for the last five years. But his experience working with Chinese rare books goes back even earlier.

“Before I came to Canada [in 2001], I worked in a public library in China, Liaoning Provincial Library. I was there for about 15 years,” he says. “I primarily worked on the Chinese rare books, so I have lots of time spent on rare books authentication, cataloguing and some preservation.”

Moving from China to Canada with his family, he switched tracks to work in business and manufacturing in Vancouver for the next decade before returning to library work at a small company in Burnaby that provided library services to the Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver Public Libraries. Later, when an opportunity came up to work at UBC Library, he joined the Technical Services team in 2014 to work with Chinese language materials.

“UBC has a great Chinese rare book collection. It’s a huge collection, outside China,” he says, noting that the entire collection includes about 4,000 titles in 60,000 volumes, making UBC a top-tier research library for Chinese Studies in North America.

One of his first major projects at the library was to work on Discovering Modern China, a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) project that involved close collaboration between UBC’s Asian Library and the University of Washington East Asia Library to catalogue large volumes of valuable but hidden scholarly material: “At Asian Library there are lots of uncatalogued materials that have not been touched before. We worked very hard, together with some student assistants and Asian Library’s Chinese Studies Librarian to originally catalogue more than 1,000 items in one year.”

In 2018, the library got funding support through donors to work on the Puban Collection, UBC’s largest Chinese rare books collection, consisting of 45,000 volumes spanning subject fields like history, literature, philology and philosophy. Ya Min’s work is now centered on the Puban Collection, both cataloguing the collection and planning for its future storage, preservation, conservation and digitization.

“The project is focused on how to organize and make the Puban Collection support teaching and research. For the past 60 years, the collection has helped to make UBC Asian Studies one of the best in the world,” he says. “So how can it benefit new students in the future? This is the project.”

In honour of the 60th anniversary of the Library’s acquisition of the Puban Collection in 1959, Ya Min Wu will be hosting bi-weekly tours highlighting items from the collection at UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections. Learn more about the tours.

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