Used & Reused in the Archives

This week, in preparation for the BC History course I teach at Vancouver Island University, I was searching the Royal BC Museum & Archives’ (RBCM&A) online database for images to compliment an upcoming class.  The theme for the class is urban development at the close of the nineteenth century and, alongside discussion of sewage systems, housing, and leisure time, transportation is a key focus. During the 1890s, electric streetcar systems were constructed in cities such as Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster, and Nelson. These symbols of urban growth and modern convenience had their golden age in BC prior to the Second World War, but with the rise of the automobile and gas-powered busses, streetcars began to disappear from city streets; by the 1960s, they were a relic of the past.

In searching for digitized images of streetcars in the BC Archives collection, I noticed a curious pattern of photographs. Although there were dozens of images of streetcars in service, I also came across a series of streetcars being used for a variety of other means. The Nelson Electric Tramway Society explains what happened the British Columbia Electric Railway’s (BCER) 1921 Birney streetcars (built in Preston, ON) when the series was retired in 1946/8:

After retirement the cars had their trucks removed, the controllers stripped and anything else salvagable [sic] taken. The car bodies were then sold to the public to become summer cottages, storage sheds or just plain shacks.

Indeed, the images I came across illustrated these diverse uses for the cars: a toolshed, a diner, a playschool, and a chicken coop. Retired car 400 served as a bunkhouse for the Cowichan Valley-based Mayo Logging Company. After decades in service for the logging company, the car was abandoned and eventually re-discovered and restored by the Provincial Museum (now the RBCM&A) during the 1970s. This restored car 400 serves residents of Nelson to this day, but it seems the other retired cars were less fortunate. Nevertheless, the images below highlight the clever ways that Victoria-area residents extended the life of these streetcars that once traversed the city. For myself, these images were a reminder of the stories we can find in the archives, whether we are looking for them or not.

– Kelly Black, FBCA Board Member

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