Charlie Bunce scored his first job in 1943, working as a cleaner and mechanic on the Nelson streetcar. He did a short stint as relief conductor and worked as a motor-man for a few shifts, but mostly he preferred to remain in the solitude of the car barn, greasing and preparing the tracks and monkeying with various mechanical problems that inevitably arose. Then the city started to transition to bus service.
“When the streetcars finished back there in 1949, the city started farming out all the equipment. They started bringing all this other stuff to the car barn, so I started doing oil changes and then they brought these news buses. They had to hire a couple more guys, so that’s how the city garage started,” a coveralls-clad Bunce told the Star during a visit on Tuesday morning.
Bunce worked his entire career in the city garage, retiring in 1984, but somehow he couldn’t resist the pull of the historic streetcar. Now a regular fixture in the Lyle Ward Memorial Barn in Lakeside Park, the 88-year-old volunteer routinely spends approximately 10 hours a week working on both Streetcar 23 and the Birney car.
“Charlie is, of course, one of our mainstays because his knowledge you can’t get in a book. We find all the ladies want to see Charlie,” joshed long-term president Walt Laurie, who is still spry and enthusiastic at 92 years of age.
A PASSION FOR RAILS
Operation superintendent Jim Robertson said his wife doesn’t allow him to play with train sets, so he’s devoted his life instead to the Nelson Electric Tramway Society.
The impulse is identical.
And his passion for the topic is not uncommon amongst the rest of the team, who meet twice a week to prepare the tracks, make repairs and drink leisurely cups of coffee while reminiscing about their experiences over the years.
“Were 100 per cent volunteer. I spent 25 years with CP Rail and in my family there’s probably close to 250 years of rail-roading. One of the fellows with us right now used to be a car-man, spent 40 years with CP Rail. These guys come down here and get involved, then they’re hooked.”
Laurie said the tramway is one of his most intense passions.
“I love it, every minute. Other than my wife who passed away, and I still love her, the street car is my second love.”
Their pride and joy is Streetcar 23, which Robertson calls their “workhorse”. It is the one that does the full circuit, taking tourists back and forth from the Prestige Resort out to Lakeside Park during the summer months.
The crews are already hard at work digging dirt out of the grooved tracks, ensuring the rail bonds are still intact and preparing for the streetcar’s return from its seasonal slumber.
“He ploughed the streets of Nelson up until 1949, and she was destined for demolishment,” Robertson said, noting that at one point it was being used as a dog kennel. He marvelled at how far it had come.
The car is the last of its total vintage in the world.
Robertson said the founders of the Nelson Electric Tramway Society had a vision of creating a historical landmark that would attract history buffs country-wide.
“At that point they had no vision of it being back on track, but then over the years they decided it would be nice to create a sort of rolling museum.”
THE BIRNEY CAR
Laurie is especially fond of their second streetcar, a model from 1924 named after Charles O. Birney. Affectionately known as the Birney Car, it can’t complete the entire circuit but gets trotted out routinely for community events.
“It operated in Victoria from 1924 until 1957 or 58, then it was left with the government tourism museum. Finally they asked us if we would look after it so they shipped it out to us and we restored it.”
He said they spent approximately $100,000 on the project.
“It’s still technically owned by the government but they’re never getting it back unless they give us lots of money,” joked Laurie.
Recently the society ran a food drive and attempted to stuff the entire car full of charitable donations.
Laurie praised Selkirk College and the Chamber of Commerce for having the foresight to preserve the streetcars, but said the younger generations will have to start learning about them if they’re going to keep this particular slice of history alive.
He said at times it’s been tough to get by, financially.
“The city helps us when we can, but we get no actual grants from the city,” he said.
Recently vandals stripped a number of their rail bonds for the copper, a theft that will make for time-consuming repairs. They have not yet replaced them all.
Bunce said he’s always busy.
“I’m 88 now, so crawling around on the floor under the cars I’m finding a little difficult now. But it keeps me busy.”
LAYING TRACKS FOR THE FUTURE
Robertson said some of the work completed by the volunteers is a lost art.
“Most of us, when we need a part we go to Lordco or Taylor-Wilton to pick up whatever we need, but with a 109-year-old streetcar you can’t just go buy a part.”
He said even mechanics can be baffled by the logistics of running a streetcar.
“Students come down from Selkirk and have no idea how we do what we do, because they’re used to having a giant lathe or a plasma cutter, but we do all of our stuff by hand.”
Laurie said they’re very thankful for the work of Nelson Chysler’s Archie Mcken.
“He’s a machinist, millwright, all-around-everything sort of guy. You want something manufactured, chances are he’ll be able to do it.”
And though the crew is primarily male, that’s something the Nelson Electric Tramway Society is actively trying to change. They currently have 12 female conductors and are actively looking for younger volunteers to join the team.
“It’s not a boy’s club anymore,” said Robertson.
Laurie said he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“We perform a historic service to this community. All this group, Charlie included, are some of the greatest people in Nelson volunteering to keep this alive.”
For more information on the Nelson Electric Tramway Society visit nelsonstreetcar.org.