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Interurban rolls on in history

By Don Fennell

Published 10:26 PDT, Wed May 31, 2017

The 1220 rolls on, even if only as folklore.

Though the historic tram made its final journey between Marpole and Steveston nearly 60 years ago, it continues to be an important and cherished link to Richmond’s past. And as one of only seven BC Electric Railway Company trams remaining, its place is also entrenched in British Columbia’s transportation memories.

Now in the process of being restored, the 105-year-old tram is permanently housed at the Steveston Interurban Tram Building at 4011 Moncton St. and is the largest artefact in the City of Richmond’s collection. This weekend’s (Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) 10th annual Doors Open celebration is an optimum time to check out the tram and perhaps have a chat with a restoration expert. Family activities include the opportunity to create your own commemorative tram button. Doors Open is a free, city-wide public celebration of arts, heritage and culture featuring 42 sites.

Prior to completing its last scheduled run Feb. 28, 1958, which completed a decade-long decommissioning of the interurban and streetcar system, the tram served on one of the most heavily-used routes in the Greater Vancouver region.

“It was quite a popular line, which at its peak usually operated two tram cars connected together,” said Gabrielle Sharp, co-ordinator of the Steveston Museum and Interurban Tram Building. “And because the BCE also shared the track (with the Canadian Pacific Railway) it had to follow an exact schedule.”

The predecessor to today’s fully automated light rail transit system, the rail line on Lulu Island from 1902 to 1958 provided both freight and passenger service via steam trains. The line was built and owned by the CPR and leased to the BC Electric Railway Company, which electrified the line after initiating its Vancouver-Steveston interurban and freight service in 1905. In 1913, BC Electric added 28 tram cars it purchased from the St. Louis Car Company, among which was the 1220.

Each tram had the capacity to seat 64 people, with a few leather straps at the front and back to assist standees. Besides providing regular passenger service throughout the day, the trams also towed freight such as milk (farmers deposited heavy containers at reinforced stations) into Vancouver. The containers were returned with spring water, which wasn’t available in Richmond because it had no fresh water supply.

Affectionately called the Sockeye Special, tram 1220 got its name because of its original intent to provide a rail link for workers and canned products between Steveston and Vancouver. Traces of the line’s route can still be seen along Railway and Granville avenues, Garden City Road and Great Canadian Way.

It wasn’t cheap to ride the rails, at least in the early days. A return trip into the “big city” cost 85 cents, which Sharpe notes equates to $17 today.

If you’re unable to make it out this weekend, the Steveston interurban tram building is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and until 5 p.m. during the summer.

But once ridership grew fares dropped significantly, and by 1954 a return trip—though it required a transfer because all of the streetcars in Vancouver had stopped running—was very reasonable. It cost only an additional 15 cents beyond the local Richmond fares which ranged from five cents (a child’s one zone fare) to 10 cents (an adult’s one zone fare). Richmond was divided into four zones, with fares increasing from 10 cents to 15 cents (two zones), 25 cents (three zones) and 30 cents (four zones).

While Richmondites frequently ventured into town as a family on weekends, the reverse was also true. The Steveston Opera House was a popular destination, as was the race track, as Brighouse featured some of the finest horse racing in North America. That required the interurban to add trams known as “racing specials” to meet the demand.

Restoration work on the 1220 tram began in late 2016 with the undercarriage which has been cleaned and treated for rust and painted. This winter the ceiling was removed and salvageable parts tagged to be restored before being reinstalled. The interior lights and headlights will also be returned to working order, while the roof is scheduled to be repaired and a new canvas cover ordered to go on top to ensure the tram is water tight. Volunteers are also conducting research about the 1200 class trams to identify parts to help complete the restoration project.

If you’re unable to make it out this weekend, the Steveston Interurban Tram Building is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and until 5 p.m. during the summer.

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