Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.


Friday, April 07, 2006

The Streetcar Referenda

Considering how many Victorians wish we had streetcars today, it’s hard to believe that residents actually voted to get rid of them. Back in the 1930s, the city had 10 streetcar lines, radiating from downtown to the Esquimalt naval base, the Gorge, Beacon Hill Park, Mount Tolmie, the Uplands, and Oak Bay. But the B.C. Electric Railway company took a financial beating from newfangled buses and “jitneys” (unlicenced taxis) working the same routes, and it refused to reinvest in the system. Though ridership was at record levels during World War II, by 1945 Victoria’s streetcars were dilapidated wrecks. (Many were over 40 years old.) So the BCER proposed a new 25-year transit deal with the city, replacing the streetcars with gas-powered buses to better serve Victoria’s expanding suburbs.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, similar changes were pushed in American cities by General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires, which surreptitiously bought up aging streetcar franchises, and then scrapped them. (In 1949 a Chicago court apparently convicted the companies of criminally conspiring to replace trams with buses.) Did the same thing happen here? “There was no conspiracy,” says Henry Ewert, who’s written several books on the BCER. “Streetcars were on the way out long before – Victoria started talking about it in the ‘30s. Once people got going with automobiles, the flexibility of bus service was seen.”

One auto manufacturer did take an interest in our streetcars, however. In the summer of 1946, representatives of the Ford Motor Company toured Victoria, and submitted a report to alderman H.R. Diggon, the head of the city’s transportation committee. In their report (excerpts at right), the Ford men recommended an “entire rehabilitation and conversion” to diesel buses, and removing all the “unsightly” overhead wires used by streetcars and electric trolley buses. That October, Diggon announced that Victorians would vote on a bus deal with the BCER – which, coincidentally, duplicated many of Ford’s suggestions. (Unions later confronted Diggon over the Ford report, mainly because it denounced public ownership of transit systems, but Diggon said it hadn't added anything to the debate.) On December 12 the deal failed, with 3,107 voters in favour of it and 3,227 against.

The BCER and Diggon’s committee regrouped. They negoitated a bigger bus deal covering Victoria, Esquimalt, Saanich, and Oak Bay, and announced that another referendum would be held in all four municipalities. Diggon took out newspaper ads (example left) and went on the radio, saying the vote was a choice between “progress and stagnation,” a question of whether “that ancient, dirty, clamorous vehicle, the Victoria streetcar, is good enough for this beautiful city of which we are all so justly proud.” It worked. On June 19, 1947, the ballot passed by a vote of 11,487 to 1,225. A few months later workmen started tearing up the city’s tracks, and the city had 80 new buses – 16 of them built by Ford.

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