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Electric cars of Kootenay/Boundary: Home-made electric cars

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Fourth of five parts

Alexander Zuckerberg of Castlegar’s Zuckerberg Island had an electric car in the mid-1950s. An ingenious man, he no doubt built it himself.

John Charters wrote in the Summer 1997 edition of BC Historical News: “When he had reached retirement age his back was bent with arthritis and he could no longer ride his black bicycle so he built a concrete causeway to the island for his electric car. The difficulty with this idea was the fact that the car would not climb the slopes at either end. Consequently he spent most of his time on the island.”

At a glance, I couldn’t find anything more about this car in the Zuckerberg Island Historical Restoration Project report of 1983. But according to my mother, who remembers it on the streets of downtown Castlegar when she was a child, it was tiny and looked like a toy: it had one wheel in front, two wheels in the back, and was pastel coloured. It probably only sat one person.

A different kind of electric auto

In 1906, Maurice Quain of Cranbrook invented an electric automobile. However, it had nothing to do with transportation; the term here was employed in some archaic sense, but I include it for the sake of completeness. Here’s the story from the Cranbrook Herald of Feb. 1, 1906.

Have you seen Maurice Quain’s electric automobile? It is one of the latest inventions of the age and is the handiwork of Mr. Quain. The outfit consists of a stone sled on which is fixed a complete electric apparatus for driving through the frozen pipes of the water works system of the city a current of electricity of sufficient strength to melt the ice. The principle involved is a simple one. By connecting each end of the frozen pipe with a copper wire, which is a first-class conductor of electricity, and as the iron pipe is a poor conductor, the friction causes heat in the iron and thus melts the ice inside. Every night since the cold spell Mr. Quain is out with his automobile thawing out the frozen pipes and it is far cheaper and much quicker than digging up the pipes and thawing them out in that way.

Quain’s device was mentioned a couple more times. From the Fernie Ledger, Feb. 21, 1906: “Maurice Quain had his electric automobile out again this week. Maurice is getting proud of his vehicle.” And the Cranbrook Herald of March 19, 1908: “Maurice Quain will have his automobile going tonight thawing out frozen water pipes.”

Quain was manager of the Cranbrook Telephone Co. and Empire Electric Co. and later opened the Quain Electrical Supply Co. There’s a photo of the Empire Electric office:

Kaslo’s first car

The Kaslo 2018 visitors guide, which has a lot of historical information commemorating the village’s 125th anniversary, states on page 32:

There is some dispute about who owned the first car in Kaslo. Some claim it was Fred Archer. It may have been the Caldwells in 1912 … If it was ever to leave Kaslo, the car would have been loaded on the K&S Railway or into the hold of a sternwheeler.

(It wasn’t until 1926 that a primitive road was blasted around the Coffee Creek bluffs, linking Kaslo to Nelson via Ainsworth.)

The Kootenaian of April 17, 1913 reported:

The first automobile brought into Kaslo arrived on board the Moyie on Monday afternoon. It was consigned to F.E. Archer and was one of several cars shipped in for the West Kootenay section by the Ford Co., Walkerville, Ont. It is a neat and handsome runabout and was an object of considerable comment at the wharf. After some experimenting it was put in motion and once through the heavy sand that clogs the approach to the floating dock it was navigated up and down the streets without difficulty.

Two weeks later it was noted Archer was selling his boat, now that he has a car. 

The recently reprinted Pioneer Families of Kaslo, p. 30 also says Archer “was the first person in Kaslo to own a car. It was a Ford and many people still living in Kaslo can remember the thrill of being invited for a ride.”

Kaslo’s first car is seen outside Fred E. Archer’s home in 1913. Charlie Archer, Fred’s son, is in the driver’s seat, with his mother Margaret and cousin Jean McQueen in the back seat. On the porch are Fred Archer (who was Kaslo’s longtime mayor), Cora Murchison, and in the white dress, Phyllis McQueen. (Kootenay Lake Historical Society 988.040.1428)

Elizabeth Scarlett of the Kootenay Lake Archives says it was not the Caldwells who might have had an earlier vehicle, but the Hendricks family. In a 1996 interview, Robert Hendricks Jr., who was born in 1908, indicated they had the first car in Kaslo, a Ford, followed by the Giegeriches, who had an Overlander, then the Kanes, and the Archers. However, he was probably mistaken.

Elsewhere the Pioneer Families book says Walter Hendricks, Robert’s uncle, opened a garage and machine shop after World War I and became a Ford dealer. He also owned the first ten-wheel tractor-truck in Kaslo and when he operated the mail run between Kaslo and Nelson, he used the first Ford station wagon in BC.

Probably none of these early vehicles were electric, but today Kaslo mayor Suzan Hewat has a Chevy Bolt, while Elizabeth and Don Scarlett bought the first Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid) sold by Kalawsky Chevrolet Buick GMC in Castlegar in 2012.

Fernie’s first baby boy

While A.B.W. Hodges was tooling around in the first car in Grand Forks, the Fernie Ledge of March 8, 1905 reported: “Fernie Beck sports the first automobile in the city.”

I don’t know if this vehicle was electric; I can’t find any further mentions of it and it does not appear to have been licensed in BC.

Fernie Beck had another claim to fame, as the first boy born in Fernie. But he would have only been six in 1905. While things were a little more lax back then, that still seems pretty young to be behind the wheel. I’ll wager that Fernie was also his father’s nickname.

(It turns out young Fernie wasn’t actually the first boy born there; the distinction appears to belong to Robert Gordon McDonald, born Oct. 18, 1897, although his birth wasn’t registered until 45 years later.)

R.T. Dean and the Iris

R.T. Deane moved to the east shore of Kootenay Lake with his family in the first decade of the 20th century. They are remembered in Deanshaven, a place name that remains in limited use. As his granddaughter Pauline Butling explained in her 2013 book The Deanshaven Story, Deane’s jobs after graduating from Royal Engineering College included

director of a company that developed an electric car, the Iris. The electric car venture led to the first of many driving marathons and a life-long love affair with cars. He and a friend drove the car from London straight through Madrid in Spain for an auto exhibition.
“I, with a fellow called Erp, drove all the way to Madrid in our most fancy white convertible with the hope of selling it to the Queen of Spain — a thing that we did not manage to do, but it was a wonderful trip.”

Next: Modern electric vehicle pioneers

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