You should know that before the Skytrain, transit buses and even the arrival of the automobile, Metro Vancouver had an extensive system of streetcars and interurbans taking people where they wanted to go. And if you look closely in the right spots you can still see the scars of this new mass mobility age on our urban landscape.Vancouver city and suburban lines published by the BC Electric Railway Co., 1923 (crop). Photo: CoV Archives – 2011-067.1.2
A strip of granite cobbles found along Frances Street in East Vancouver reveals the alignment of a former streetcar track. Starting in 1906, the “Georgia East” car travelled from Main Street to Victoria Drive via Harris Street (renamed East Georgia in 1915), Vernon Drive and Keefer Street (the latter renamed Frances Street in 1929). The “Georgia East” line was never successful. It was situated too close to the popular Hastings Line and the No. 4 Grandview Line to attract much traffic. The line finally closed in 1925 because of low ridership.
Another factor that may have led to its end was the failure of the old Georgia Viaduct to act as a streetcar connector. Built between 1913 and 1915, the Georgia-Harris Viaduct was an undertaking by the City of Vancouver to connect West Georgia Street with Harris Street at Main Street.
The viaduct would allow traffic to travel over the rail yards, CPR tracks and industrial buildings of the northeast end of False Creek. The British Columbia Electric Railway (BCER) signed a rental agreement with the city to run cars over the Viaduct in 1914. Streetcar tracks were laid in the roadway, but they were never used. By the time the viaduct opened on July 1, 1915, it seemed BCER had experienced a change of heart. They determined the project too prohibitive to undertake.
It is well-known fact in the annals of Vancouver history that the original Georgia Viaduct was a construction disaster; it was in constant repair due to subsidence issues. Occasionally, chunks would fall off the structure, terrorizing people and endangering buildings below. It’s safe to assume the structure would have been too unstable to support the continual rumbling of streetcars in addition to the constant flow of vehicular traffic. You can still see evidence of the old Georgia Viaduct streetcar tracks on a stub of the roadway just west of Main Street (next to Dalina), left after the viaduct was demolished in 1971. The photo below (left) shows the streetcar tracks embedded in the roadway today. The image on the right is from 1942, and shows what I believe is the exact same portion of roadway – notice the two grates visible in each image.
My friend, Michael Taylor-Noonan, editor of the Transit Museum Society‘s newsletter, is well versed in public transportation history. He told me that the BCER was responsible for the roadway between the tracks and roughly 18” further on each side. When tracks were lifted they had to restore the roadway. On Frances Street, it appears they replaced the rails with the narrower cobblestones seen in the photo below.
I’ve written before about historical street paving methods in Vancouver prior to the use of asphalt. In the past, hilly portions of city streets were paved with bricks or stone to allow horses’ hooves better “grip” on the sloped road surfaces. You can see evidence of this early paving practice in a few of the older areas of the city, including along a section of Frances Street near Victoria Drive. When the tracks were removed on this bricked portion of Frances Street, they were replaced with asphalt. The strip of asphalt that cuts through the centre of the brick paving is the only remaining evidence of the former streetcar alignment on this portion of the street.
Four years after the closure of the Georgia East streetcar line, the section of Keefer Street that ran between Vernon and Victoria Drives was renamed Frances Street after Frances (‘Fanny’) Dalrymple Redmond (1854-1932). “Sister Frances”, a nursing sister, was Vancouver’s first public health nurse and director of BC’s original training school for nurses. Frances Street also has the distinction of being one of only a handful of Vancouver streets named after a woman.
In his novel, All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy wrote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” We should similarly appreciate urban landscape scars like those of the “Georgia East” streetcar line. These historic “scars” on our city’s landscape form part of the history of Vancouver; as such they should be shown and celebrated rather than hidden.