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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Vancouver Turns 125, Public Transit 121

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Vancouver's first streetcar line under construction

We kick off Vancouver’s quasquicentennial year with a look back at the opening of Vancouver’s first public transit system, a mere four years after its incorporation. Historic information is from Henry Ewert’s ‘The Story of the B.C. Electric Company’.

By John Calimente, re:place magazine

Public transit in Vancouver began at a spot on Granville St, a little north of Pacific Boulevard. That’s where the first section of streetcar track was laid by the Vancouver Street Railways Company in May of 1889. It’s fitting that this spot is but a few steps from the grand old Yale Hotel, which began life as a Canadian Pacific Railway bunkhouse around the time that the first transcontinental passenger train arrived in Vancouver in 1887.

The Company was a syndicate chaired by a man named George Turner, who had received permission from Vancouver City Council the year prior to construct a streetcar system operated by electricity, gas, cable, or horse. And in fact, the original plan was for the line to be a horsecar, a car pulled along steel tracks by a horse. The Company went as far as to purchase the horses and set them up in a stable on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Main Street.

However, existing streetcar systems across the continent were rapidly being converted to electric operation. With pressure from City Council, the public, and the equipment manufacturers, the Company decided to construct a full electric system instead. This delayed the opening by 10 months, which meant that Victoria would complete its streetcar system four months before Vancouver’s. During this time the Company was renamed the Vancouver Electric Railway & Light Company Limited, as it had consolidated with the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Company.

Vancouver’s streetcar opened on June 26th, 1890, with six streetcars operating on two lines at a maximum allowable speed of 10 kph. The Powell Street line ran down Granville St, then along Hastings, Cambie, Cordova, Carrall, then followed Powell Street as far as Campbell Avenue. The Westminster Avenue (now Main Street) line followed the Powell Street line as far as Main Street, then headed south as far as Dufferin Street (now Second Avenue). The total length of the system was 5.4 kilometres. It was Canada’s fourth electric streetcar system to be constructed and must have seemed a bit outsized at the time, as Vancouver’s population was only about 10,000 people.

As Ewert quotes from the Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser “In the afternoon a car was run up and down Westminster Avenue several times, a number of shareholders and scores of citizens taking advantage of the opportunity to test the comfort of a mode of locomotion now possible for the first time in Vancouver.” Fast forward to 2009, and the excitement and the crowds were similar for the opening of the Canada Line.

After a few months of operation, the system was not yet making a profit. But the Company was ambitious, buying four additional cars and putting out contracts for the construction of an extension of the Westminster Avenue line up to Mount Pleasant, at Main and Broadway. This would become the earliest Vancouver “suburb” from which residents would commute by streetcar to the downtown core. The rapid expansion of the streetcar system in the coming years would fuel Vancouver’s growth for decades. The neighbourhoods that grew up around the streetcar lines are the same commercial streets that are so familiar to us today.

Over the coming year, we will look at the some moments in the history of public transit in Greater Vancouver and consider our future as well. Will we again see rails on our city streets?


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great mass transit, cycling, walking, transit integrated developments, and non-automobile urban life. Click here to follow TheTransitFan on Twitter.