British Columbia Electric Railway car 1304

VIDEO: Rebuilding railway royalty

Fraser Valley Heritage Railway society volunteers on track to bring BCER interurban car 1304 back to life in September.

Colour photos and video by Boaz Joseph

Born in 1937, Henry Ewert grew up at 10 Avenue and Quebec Street in central Mount Pleasant in Vancouver.

It was “one block off Broadway and Main, and Broadway and Main was streetcar central,” he recalls.

“My parents weren’t flush enough then yet to have a car, so we’d walk to Broadway and Main and take off… downtown in 10 minutes, shop at Woodward’s and bring the groceries at home.”

Streetcars became part of his life.

“(And) here’s the kicker,” he proclaims: “At 13th and Main, which is now a big shopping centre built on the platform of what was there, was a huge streetcar barn. That was the whole block. It was double decked of all things.”

As kids, he and his friends would go there to explore and play only be kicked out and sworn at.

“Street cars were, for many of us, were the ultimate source of fascination,” says the South Surrey resident.

For years, tickets in Vancouver were five cents.

The now long-retired teacher is the historian-in-residence at the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society (FVHRS).

He’s written four books about the subject, starting with his biggest, The Story of the B.C. Electric Railway Company, published in 1986.

“It’s the story of railcars and interurbans – in other words, transit – in Vancouver, The Lower Mainland, North Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster since 1890.”

A portion of the narrative is focused on one BCER interurban in particular, car 1304, known as Connaught.

Weighing 81,720 lbs. (37,000 kg) when it was built in New Westminster in 1911, the Chilliwack-class car got its name a year later when it was overhauled and decorated for a visit by the Governor General of Canada, The Duke of Connaught, on Sept. 21, 1912.

The visit by Queen Victoria’s third son only lasted for a day, but the name on the car stayed forever (with the exception of a fire in 1945.)

For most of its life in, car 1304 made the 76-mile (122-kilometre) run from Vancouver to Chilliwack and back.

It was built, like other cars in its class, for cargo as well, and transported vast volumes of valley Milk to the Lower Mainland.

“It was a long-distance, big-motored, heavy-duty car,” says Ewert (photo at left).

Due to the length of the ride – three hours one way – it was equipped with his-and-hers toilets on either side of the car.

Ewert remembers a few rides as a kid on hot summer days heading to the Fraser Valley with all of the windows wide open passengers with their heads and arms out with abandon.

There was one major mishap in the car’s history. It caught fire Sept. 16, 1945 near Cloverdale while making its way back to Chilliwack.

There were no passengers on board when car 1304, the last car of an empty three-car train, began to burn.

By the time the fire was out, only a shell remained above the floorboards.

It was restored within several months and continued on with its run.

Rides to the valley cost $2.15 until 1950, says Ewert. When passenger service ended that year, the car was still used for a few more years hauling cargo.

Volunteers at the FVHRS believe car 1304 has the distinction of being the last wood interurban to be built (based on its 1945-46 rebuild) in North America.

Those volunteers, like Ewert himself, are taking the opportunity to rebuild history as they restore car 1304 to its former glory.

The car was brought back to B.C. in 2009 after spending decades in Oregon.

Car 1304 has already gone through more than 16,000 volunteer hours during its restoration – the FVHRS’ earlier project, car 1225, took about 25,000 hours.

Eight to 18 volunteers are at Cloverdale Station a few days a week toiling on its metal, wood, faux-leather and electrical components – including its four 115 horsepower electric motors.

Ewert recalls as a 20-year-old taking part in the last BCER interurban ride in Steveston on Feb. 28, 1958.

He says it was a celebratory, raucous trip – a morbid party.

“It was a mask for the loss that was going on,” he concludes.

Starting a new era, Ewert will take part in the first running of car 1304 at Cloverdale Station on Sept. 9. The public is invited.

Director Ray Hudson hopes it’s the tentative start of interurban service to Newton, perhaps five years in the future.

The public event, at 176 Street just south of Highway 10, begins at noon.

For more information, visit fvhrs.org

Below: Ray Crowther, vice chair and director of buildings and grounds at the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society, steps up towards car 1304.

 

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