Then and Now: Transit into James Bay

Beacon Hill streetcar - Victoria: Photo courtesy of BC Archive collection #E-01977

Beacon Hill streetcar - Victoria: Photo courtesy of BC Archive collection #E-01977

By Ted Ross

An 1890 map, from the 'National Electric Tramway & Lighting Co. Ltd.,' shows the Outer Wharf at the end of the #1 streetcar line. This route ran from the junction of Douglas, Government and Hillside, travelled through downtown along Government and on the bridge across the bay to Superior, west along that street to St. Lawrence, south to Erie and east to its terminus. It was to serve the outer harbour. Robert Paterson Rithet founded the Victoria Wharf and Warehouse Company to build the Outer Wharves at Shoal Point in the 1890s. His enterprise, R.P. Rithet & Co., imported groceries, liquors, and sugar. The wharves enabled large ships, such as Canadian Pacific's Empress Liners, to dock at Victoria. The #1 line ran to this busy area.

On June 30, 1892, a new line to Beacon Hill Park offered its first day of service. The #3 route left the #1 route at Superior and Menzies heading south on Menzies to Niagara, then east on Niagara to Beacon Hill Park. A scheme to loop around the bandstand in the park was abandoned. The terminus was at Niagara and Douglas, across from the park's upper ground playing fields. The car would simply reverse direction for its trip back north. Travelling through downtown along the reverse route, it then went east from Government on Pandora, north on Fernwood to Haultain, where it turned east to its terminus at Shelbourne.

August 15, 1897 saw the incorporation of the 'British Columbia Electric Railway Company' (BCER). This new company took over the streetcars in Victoria. BCER began a period of expansion that lasted until WW1. By 1914 many lines, including the #1 and #3, had been double-tracked.

Streetcars were double-ended. When they reached their terminus the motorman (driver) lowered the trolley pole from the wire and tied it down at the one end, then raised the pole at the opposite end. The motorman went to the other end of the car, climbed on, and reversed direction of travel on the single-track or on the appropriate side of double-tracks through the use of switches.

The car in our picture on the #3 route was built by the Birney Safety Car Division. It had 32 wood slat seats, was 8.6m long, weighed eight tonnes, and was electric-powered. It was built before 1920 by the American Car Company in the United States.

Streetcars were replaced by motor buses in 1948. Rails were taken up and overhead wiring removed. The street-rail era was over.

BCER continued to operate Victoria transit until 1960. Then the B.C. government purchased BCER, including the transit services, and incorporated British Columbia Hydro & Power Authority. No longer part of BC Hydro today, the system is now run by BC Transit.

The #3 bus, like its streetcar predecessor, travelled south on Menzies to Niagara, then east on that street to Douglas. Unlike the streetcar, the bus turned left on Douglas to loop around the block at Toronto Street before returning downtown along Niagara and Menzies, something the streetcar didn't need to do with its ability to reverse direction.

Streetcar service to the Outer Wharves was replaced by motor bus service in 1948. Most recently the #31 and #30 have terminated at Fisherman's Wharf in James Bay after a trip from Royal Oak transit hub far to the north along Douglas Street. The 30 has also serviced Beacon Hill.

The two bus routes in James Bay have followed the historic streetcar lines for the most part. Whether it was Fisherman's Wharf or Beacon Hill, riders were travelling an old streetcar route when they rode the bus. Other than the Beacon Hill loop, they were never on Douglas south of Superior when on a transit bus.

After 127 years, BC Transit is abandoning those old streetcar routes in favour of ones that will more efficiently serve James Bay. Incorporating Douglas Street in the service and diverting Fisherman's Wharf traffic across James Bay to Douglas at Niagara make good sense. We'll be downtown more quickly, and there'll be two different buses home from town, if you live in the Beacon Hill area. But how the historically minded cringe at this major change to the way things are routed. After 127 years. Ouch!

New routes will connect James Bay with Oak Bay, the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and Vic West. We'll lose our direct connection to WalMart, but there will be advantages, including easier access to Esquimalt and two different routes to RJH from Menzies.


"A Brief History of Transit in Victoria",  Scott Ingbritson, Victoria Transit Operator, 2007;  "From Outpost to City; Wharf Street 1881", Melissa Quantz, 2003;  "History of the BCER", Matthew Lloyd, 1999;  "Beacon Hill Park History", Janis Ringuette, 2004; "The Story of the B.C. Electric Railway," Henry Ewert, Whitecap Books, Vancouver, 1986; "James Bay and Fairfield Rider's Bulletin," Victoria Regional Transit Commission, January 2, 2018

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