2 May 2006
Recreating a Symbol of Burnaby History
Vancouver - The meticulous restoration of Interurban 1223 by 52 mostly senior volunteers in a warehouse on Royal Oak Avenue is a testament both to their painstaking dedication to recreating a tangible symbol of early Burnaby history, and to the idiocy of civic officials in the 1950s.
Friends of Interurban 1223 volunteers, including project manager Dennis Brown (left) and president Pixie McGeachie have spent more than 20,000 hours rebuilding the vintage tram.
Until 1958, Interurban 1223 was one of a number of electric-powered trams that travelled a network of four railway lines between Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and Richmond. In other words, it was a complete Lower Mainland rapid-transit system before anyone coined the term.
But in the 1950s, when cars came into their own, city leaders scrapped the network in favour of gridlock, pollution, road rage and global warming. They called it progress.
They also destroyed most of the trams - Interurban 1223 restoration project manager Dennis Brown, who is 80, recalls several being burned under Burrard Bridge. But six survived.
Two run along the south side of False Creek between Granville Island and Science World. A third is in Ottawa. Two more are in Steveston and Surrey (the Surrey tram is awaiting restoration, while the Steveston tram is on display in Steveston Park), leaving 1223, which is now - thanks to the efforts of its restoration team - five months away from finding a permanent home in the Burnaby Village Museum.
Built in St. Louis in 1912, the almost 17-metre-long tram could carry 54 seated passengers comfortably and dozens more standing. It ran between the corner of Hastings and Carrall in Vancouver and Sapperton in New Westminster, a route it travelled every day for almost 40 years.
When it was retired, the city of Burnaby saved it from demolition and put it on display at the corner of Edmonds and Kingsway, where it remained until 1971. Then it was moved to the village museum, where it continued to sit outside for 27 more years of rain, snow and hail. In 1998, a group of concerned citizens clubbed together to form the Friends of Interurban 1223 Society to save what was left of it.
Not much, according to Brown. "Another year or two, and it would have been another pile of junk."
When the city finally moved it to its current warehouse home, it was a rotting, stinking, rusting hulk that took three months just to dry out.
Nearly five years later, it has been rescued one piece at a time by Brown, society president Pixie McGeachie and 50 other volunteer artisans and labourers to the point that it literally gleams with newness. The five types of wood used to reconstruct its frame and interior - fir, oak, cherry, maple and mahogany - are showroom glossy. The brass shines. The off-white rattan seats are soft and spongy.
In total, more than $100,000 has been raised, and more than 20,000 person hours donated so far to bring the 1223 to a point where it's starting to look like the lustrous red museum piece it will be five months from now.
Because there was no blueprint to follow, restoring it "was a logical process of taking it apart and then putting it back together," says Brown. It was a giant jigsaw puzzle with no picture.
Meanwhile, the museum has learned its lesson. When it takes possession of the finished tram in September, it's going to display it indoors. It's also hugely appreciative of the society's work.
"You can't say enough about their ability to get this job done and the fun we've had," says curator Elisabeth Czerwinski. "When people see it all done, they're going to realize how important this artifact is to the community and how pretty it is too."
FRIENDS OF INTERURBAN REACH OUT
- If you remember travelling on Interurban 1223, the Friends want to hear from you. They hope to publish reminiscences of the tram when it is displayed at the Burnaby Village Museum later this year. Send your memories to Friends of Interurban 1223, c/o Pixie McGeachie, 6501 Deer Lake Ave., Burnaby, V5G 3T6.
- Meanwhile the Fraser Valley Railway Heritage Society is looking for help restoring Interurban 1225 at a site in Surrey. Project manager Robert Ashton says volunteers are needed to help find or build parts for the tram, which was returned to B.C. from California last year. If you can help, contact Ashton at 778-838-8141 or at email@example.com
- The society also hopes to purchase another, larger tram that ran between Vancouver and Chilliwack in the early part of the last century. Known as the Duke of Connaught Car, it is in Oregon, where it is for sale for $250,000 US.