Sixth in a series of pioneer profiles
Walt Laurie spent more than 40 years with the Canadian Pacific Railway, but never got to drive a train. Piloting Nelson’s Streetcar 23 was the next best thing.
Laurie went to work for the CPR in his native Cranbrook after being discharged from the army during World War II. He would have been a trainman, but couldn’t pass the medical exam. So instead, he unloaded boxcars.
After working his way up to station agent in Fernie, he transferred to sales in Kelowna, and then Vancouver. But big city life didn’t suit him. When Laurie’s boss asked in 1968 if he’d like to be considered for district manager of marketing and sales for the Kootenays, he replied that he was determined to get the job.
“I explained I grew up in the Kootenays and knew most of the people in the industry. Trying to build myself up, I told him ‘I’m the only man who can do the job you want in the Kootenays, because I know it so well.’ I really went at it pretty strong.”
Laurie had fond memories of Nelson, where the position was based: he spent a summer here with his uncle and aunt when he was 14 or 15. Back then, Nelson had a larger population than Cranbrook and many more amenities.
“I thought I was in heaven. [There was a] five-and-ten Woolworth’s store. As a kid, that was a supermarket. The Capitol Theatre was so beautiful. Then you had the Civic Centre with artificial ice, a gymnasium, and a field where they played baseball and lacrosse — everything a young teenager could want. We didn’t have that in Cranbrook.”
For a nickel, he could ride the streetcar downtown from Fairview. If he walked, he could pick cherries off trees hanging over the sidewalk on High Street.
Furthermore, his relatives lived only a block from Lakeside Park, “and to have a beach like that was wonderful. Kids here didn’t realize what they had.”
One day, Laurie marvelled as a passenger train pulled up beside the park and hundreds of people spilled out: it was the Cominco picnic, the one day of the year when Trail smelter workers and their families frolicked at the company’s expense.
Having convinced his boss he was right for the job, Laurie arrived in Nelson to find little had changed — except the Capitol Theatre was closed and the streetcar no longer ran. His task was to keep the CPR’s industrial clients happy, which he generally did until retiring in 1983.
Fourteen years ago, neighbour Archie McKen suggested Laurie become involved with the streetcar society, which had put the old tram back on track. Within a year, he was president. Since then he has filled all the roles, including driver.
“It’s a great feeling to operate it,” he says. “The big thing is the people you meet and work with. It’s a great bunch of guys and gals.”
Keeping the streetcar going isn’t easy — meeting safety standards and replacing rails and ties has taxed the volunteer group — but Laurie says his former employer has been extremely generous with materials and labour.
At 89, Laurie remains active with the streetcar, lately as its historian.
“It’s my second love,” he says. “My wife is my first love and the streetcar is my second.”
He and Effie have been married nearly 67 years and have five children, seven grandchildren, and six great grandchildren.
They always planned to retire to Kelowna, but when the time came, “we looked at the value of Kelowna versus Nelson. Kelowna was a big city. Nelson was a beautiful town. We stayed here.”
Previous installments in this series: