It’s a vital part of Nelson’s identity as a community that values its past, but Streetcar #23 may have never seen its rebirth if not for the vision of a former Selkirk College administrator who helped pluck the storied people-mover from a pathway towards total disappearance.
Streetcar #23 clangs along Nelson's waterfront as one of the community's featured attractions. Before it was restored to its former glory, the streetcar was almost lost forever. It took a strong community effort to save it and Selkirk College played a big role in its return to glory.
In 1981, Bruce Meldrum was the Principal at Selkirk College’s Silver King Campus and in his spare time took on the role of President of the Nelson & District Chamber of Commerce. When Meldrum caught wind of the rumblings to rescue the dilapidated streetcar from the backyard of a property on the North Shore of Kootenay Lake, he quickly became involved.
“To be quite honest, when we pulled it out I really thought we probably should have burned it at that time,” Meldrum remembers. “It was only half there, it was a real mess.”
The Rise and Fall and Rise of Streetcar #23
Long before rubber tire traffic dominated the roadways of the West Kootenay, residents relied on streetcars to transport them to their destinations. In Nelson, streetcars dominated its undulating terrain prior to the midway point of the 20th Century. Streetcar #23 was part of fleet, but like the rest of the outdated public transit workhorses was taken out of commission in 1949.
Streetcar #23 is put into place at the Selkirk College Silver King Campus in November, 1982. The dilapidated streetcar would stay at the Rosemont campus for six years while it was restored and then finally moved in 1988.
Many streetcars across Canada were scrapped and destroyed, but luckily Streetcar #23 never fully vanished from the local landscape. For a short period of time it was used as an outdoor skating rink shelter in Nelson and was eventually purchased by Mr. and Mrs. JJ Carney to be used as a dog kennel. By 1980 it sat on a property along the North Shore that is currently home to the SS Nasookin wheelhouse.
The fight to save Streetcar #23 from ultimate doom is believed to have been started by former Regional District of Central Kootenay administrator Reid Henderson who wrote a letter to the City of Nelson saying it might be a good idea to purchase it for restoration. Several years of wrangling ensued as community leaders stepped up to help the effort. One of the champions of the cause was Meldrum, who had recently left Mohawk College in Ontario to take up a position at Selkirk College where he was charged with starting the Electrical Program.
“I have always had an interest in trying to preserve old things and that was a pretty unique one for the City of Nelson,” Meldrum says of his motivation to help the project.
Selkirk College Gets Involved
The early 1980s were challenging economic times in the West Kootenay and Nelson was hit particularly hard as it struggled to transition out of an economy built on industry and primary resources. Unemployment was high and the future was uncertain in a community that had witnessed the recent closure of its waterfront mill.
Meldrum and those behind the Streetcar #23 project saw an opportunity to not only restore the vehicle, but put people to work. In November, 1982 the streetcar was moved to the Silver King Campus where it could be safely housed while the restoration took place. Using job creation programs from senior levels of government, the group managed to secure funds to hire unemployed workers to undertake the task.
The inside of Streetcar #23 is a work of historic art. It was at Nelson's Silver King Campus that the effort to restore it was completed.
“We had really good people at the college and that was key,” says Meldrum. “Everybody supported each other and it was probably the best place I ever worked. We were able to do a lot of things in those days and had a lot of fun doing it.”
Master carpenter John Corbin was appointed as the supervisor of the project. He received help from Selkirk College instructors Don Getty (woodwork) and Roy Crutchley (millwright). Over the course of six years, the project to restore Streetcar #23 plodded along at the Silver King Campus. Those on government programs did the bulk of the work, but students and instructors in many of the shops chipped in where required.
In 1988, a grant was secured to construct a building that would house the now refurbished streetcar on the corner of Hall and Front streets. The building was pre-fabricated on the Silver King Campus and then constructed on the site. In February, 1988 Streetcar #23 was moved to the new location where it was put on display for the public to see. In the first six weeks, more than 1,700 people came through to check out the impressive restoration.
“The key to success is that we had the people that were prepared to work together,” says Meldrum. “Selkirk is a true community college that’s for sure.”
Back on the Tracks and Off to a Bright Future
It took a few more years for community leaders to prepare and raise funds for the waterfront route which Streetcar #23 currently runs. On July 1, 1992 the community finally realized the rebirth of a cherished piece of history. On that opening day more than 800 people rode the streetcar along Nelson’s majestic shoreline.
Former Silver King Campus principal Bruce Meldrum now lives on Vancouver Island where he retired from North Island College in 2001. Meldrum was instrumental in saving Streetcar #23 from destruction.
Though he was key in making it happen, by the time it was a reality Meldrum had moved away from the West Kootenay. In 1990, his 10 years of great work at Selkirk College was recognized by the provincial government who seconded him to Vancouver Island to help establish North Island College. Though it was only intended to be a one-year stint, Meldrum stayed in Campbell River where he helped build the programs that thrive today. He officially retired in 2001 and continues to enjoy life on Vancouver Island.
Meldrum has returned to Nelson many times over the years and always takes an opportunity to ride Streetcar #23, even getting a chance to drive it during one visit. Though he is quick to share credit for the cherished amenity’s impressive restoration, he admits there is a level of pride when he reflects back to that chapter of his life.
“I was so pleased that it didn’t just become a pile of scrap lumber in somebody’s backyard,” says Meldrum. “It took a lot of hard work by a lot of people to make it happen. It was great to see all the effort people put into that project come to what it is today.”