Origins of the British Columbia Electric Railway
The British Columbia Electric Railway Company [BCER] originated with National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company (NET&L), a company organized in Victoria in November 1888 and incorporated the following year. The NET&L introduced streetcars to Victoria on 22 February 1890. Victoria was the third city in Canada to create a transit system made up of electric-powered streetcars.1
Initially, the NET&L system consisted of two routes. One route extended from the Fountain, near the intersection of Hillside Avenue, Gorge Road, Government Street and Douglas Street. The line ran south on Douglas to Yates Street, turned west on Yates for two blocks, then south on Government Street to Superior Street in James Bay. It then jogged west along St. Lawrence Street and Erie Street to the Outer Wharf. The second route commenced at the north end of Store Street. It ran south on Store to Johnson Street, east on Johnson to Government Street and then south to the intersection of Government and Fort Street. It then ran east along Fort Street and Cadboro Bay Road to the Provincial Royal Jubilee Hospital.2
Later in 1890, the street railway was extended to Esquimalt. The streetcar line ran from north along Store Street across the Rock Bay Bridge and Point Ellice Bridge, then along Esquimalt Road to Esquimalt village and the Royal Navy yard at Esquimalt harbour.
Despite a promising start the NET&L was plagued with problems. Its steam plant was destroyed by fire in 1892 and in 1894 the company went into receivership. Investors in London, England refinanced the company as the Victoria Electric Railway and Lighting Company [VER&L]. The stockholders elected Frank Stillman Barnard as president and Robert M. Horne-Payne as vice-president of the new company.
In April 1896 the VER&L became part of the Vancouver-based Consolidated Railway and Light Company. Incorporated in 1895, the CR&L amalgamated several railway and utility companies - notably the Vancouver Electric Railway and Light Company (1889), the Westminster and Vancouver Tramway Company (1890), and the North Vancouver Electric Company (1895).
The CR&L was implicated in the Point Ellice bridge disaster, which occurred in Victoria on 26 May 1896. The Point Ellice bridge had not been well maintained and the bridge collapsed when an overloaded streetcar, en route to a Queen's Birthday spectacle at Macaulay Point in Esquimalt, attempted to cross it. Fifty-five people died in a disaster that affected the entire city of Victoria in some way or another. After protracted litigation the CR&L went into receivership in October 1896. The company's assets, including the street car system in Victoria, were acquired by the British Columbia Electric Railway Company [BCER] in April 1897.
BCER streetcars in Victoria
The BCER was incorporated by a provincial statute, the Consolidated Railway Act, which consolidated the electricity and gas companies, and street railway lines in New Westminster, Vancouver, and Victoria into one large company. Horne-Payne was named chairman of the newly-incorporated company and Barnard was appointed managing director. Local managers were responsible for the various activities of the BCER on Vancouver Island and the mainland. In 1901, Albert T. Goward was the BCER's local manager in Victoria. He was responsible for the day-to-day operations of Victoria's streetcars.
The BCER double-tracked the original line and extended the system north along Douglas Street to Tolmie Avenue. In 1902 the line was extended east along Pandora Avenue to Fernwood Road and south-east, down Menzies Street and along Niagara Street to Beacon Hill Park.3 A western extension took the streetcar to the Gorge Park on the waterway then known as Victoria Arm. The BCER also extended its streetcar line to the Exhibition Grounds at Willows and to Windsor Park in Oak Bay.
Promoting the streetcar & the city
The BCER was very progressive in encouraging Victorians to use the streetcar. For example, tickets were sold at wholesale rates to employers such as the Albion Iron Works, a company that sent its employees to work on ships in the naval yard in Esquimalt on a regular basis. Military personnel in uniform could ride at reduced rates, and the families soldiers, sailors and marines also qualified for the reduced rate as long as they travelled together.4
The BCER not only encouraged the growth of Victoria by providing an inexpensive means of transportation, the railway also encouraged tourism in the city. In 1905 an observation car was introduced on the streetcar line that went from the city centre to the Gorge Park. Tourists could enjoy an open top ride in this car, which gave everyone onboard a view with its theatre-like seating. In this way, the BCER helped to promote Victoria as a tourist destination.5
Despite occasional derailments and a few collisions with automobiles, the BCER ran a safe and efficient urban transit system. By 1904 it was operating twenty-four streetcars at fifteen minute intervals. In 1912 it carried approximately eleven million passengers from all points in Victoria.6 The B.C. Electric Railway continued to provide Victorians with a reliable system of transportation until 1948, when the tracks were torn up and streetcars were replaced with gasoline-powered buses.