By Roy L Hales
In 1910, Vancouver had one of North America’s most advanced electric train networks. The old interurban line ran for 114 miles, to Chilliwack in the heart of the Fraser Valley. It also serviced the sleepy village of Steveston to the south. This technological wonder was abandoned when British Columbians turned to the automobile, in the 1950s. A 4.6 mile segment of the route through Surrey was recently brought back to life as part of living museum project. So I went riding Vancouver’s old interurban.
This story has some personal significance for me. All of my grandparents, and some of their parents, came to Vancouver during this era. While most of them presumably used the interurban at some point, one couple found it to be a necessity.
My grandfather Clifford Walter Hales brought an English bride home, when he returned from World War One. They used a veteran’s mortgage to finance construction of their bungalow close to an Interurban station in Burnaby. Clifford worked for the Giant Powder Company, whose offices were in Vancouver’s old Birk’s building. For the first six years that he lived in Burnaby, Clifford relied on public transit to get to work. The interurban is mentioned
After hearing a section of the interurban is back in operation, I had to go for a ride.
Breath Taking Speed
The Fraser Valley Hertiage Railway Society (FVHRS) operates a restored station in downtown Cloverdale. They currently have two vintage cars in operation. The “Connaught” (BCER 1304) acquired its name after it was used by Prince Albert, the Duke of Connaught, in 1912. That same year, BCER 1225 rolled off the assembly line in Saint Louis. Fifty years later, it was the last interurban to run through Surrey.
Last Saturday BCER 1225 carried my wife, two of our children and I from Cloverdale to Sullivan Station and back. We passed through corn and blueberry fields much like passengers would have seen a century ago. The experience lasted for 55 minutes.
“We’ll be hurtling along at the breath taking speed of 15 miles an hour,” explained the conductor.
He added, “The old interurban actually travelled at 50 mph, but are operating under restrictiions.”
They use tracks belonging to SRY Rail Link, which are in use during week days. Consequently the interurban can only operate Saturdays and Sundays. There are five runs:
- 10 AM
- 11:15 AM
- 12:30 PM
- 1:45 PM
- 3:00 PM
The trip from Cloverdale to the Sullivan Station takes 55 minutes, during which you pass through blueberry farms and cornfields much like passengers saw a century ago.
A Volunteer Run Enterprise
This is a volunteer-run-enterprise. Their enthusiam is contageous. As soon as we stepped onto the loading ramp, someone came forward to assist us. We were greeted again, at the door. On their website, it says:
“Volunteers are needed on weekends during our operating season of May through to October to help with greeting guests, ticket sales, guided tours and more. Additionally, we are always seeking volunteers with electrical, mechanical and woodworking skills to help maintain and restore the cars … All ages are welcome – we have active volunteers from 12 – 80s, both men and women.”
One of their brochures states that “over 18,000 volunteer hours and many community donations were required” to restore BCER 1225.
Four Trains A Day
Four trains used to run every day. In addition to passengers, the old interurban carried milk, fruit and vegetables from farms in the Fraser Valley. 475 milk cans left Chilliwack at 8 AM every day.
“A Friday farmer’s market train to New Westminster Market was a great sucess … The longest trains took (urban) passengers to Chilliwack’s annual Cherry Carnival.”
The Automotive Culture
For my grandfather Clifford Hales, the end came in 1927. He may have admired the interurban, but it was more convenient to drive to work. He is believed to be the first person on his block to buy a car.
His wife, Nellie, continued to use the interurban when she wanted to go downtown. Sometimes, during the hot summer months, she packed the kids onto the interurban and they would head off to the beach at Spanish Banks. Cliff would pick them up after work.
Though the Interurban reaked peak passenger numbers during World War II, as a result of gas rationing, its days were numbered. Everyone wanted a gas powered vehicle. The last interurban in the Fraser Valley ran on September 30, 1950.
Real Estate Values
There were 77,000 people in the Fraser Valley when the interurban stopped running. Now there are over a million. While the populating of rural British Columbia is usually depicted in terms of the immigrants coming from overseas, many of Vancouver’s older families participated.
My other grandfather, Jack Cross, was initially attracted by the valley’s real estate values. He purchased a 40 acre parcel in Maple Ridge as a vacation property. Our family’s exodus from Vancouver started after Jack gave his children portions. His two daughters decided to raise families there. Jack and his wife followed. Clifford and Nellie Hales retired in Maple Ridge. This was only the beginning. More family members came to Maple Ridge. Others settled in White Rock and Cloverdale.
Return To Other Means Of Travel
History is repeating itself. As the automobile era is coming to a close, other means of transportation are coming to the fore. Bicycles usually trounce automobiles and buses in races through Vancouver’s congested streets. According to the city’s website, “50% of trips in Vancouver are made on foot, bike, or transit …Our goal: Encourage and support walking, cycling, and rolling so that 2/3 of all trips are made by walk, bike, and transit!” There is talk of extending Greater Vancouver’s Skytrain network. Someday, perhaps decades from now, it may have as great a reach as the old interurban run.