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Electric cars of Kootenay/Boundary: The greatest place on Earth

Updated: Nov 21, 2018

Second of five parts

In 2016, John Mackie of The Vancouver Sun wrote an interesting story about early electric vehicles, and called Nelson “a hotbed of electric cars,” because it had its own power plant. He quoted one old car expert as saying “Nelson was the greatest place on Earth for electric cars. The city had plug-ins all around town.” Indeed, the Calgary Herald of Oct. 12, 1912, noted Nelson’s “public services and institutions, including electric cars, electric light, artificial gas,” etc.

However, I am convinced that this and any other early mentions of electric cars in Nelson must have referred to its streetcars — which did in fact run on electricity. If there were plugs, no one took advantage of them. Nelson’s heritage register update of 2011 states the first car came through Nelson in 1908, which may be the case, but the first ones weren’t registered to Nelson owners for another four years. Doubtless the city’s steep hills made car ownership questionable.

On Aug. 2, 1912, Paul Nipon, proprietor of the Nelson Steam Laundry at 605 Vernon St., received license 4198. He renewed it through 1915. The second car was licensed to the real estate firm of McQuarrie and Robertson on Sept. 13, 1912. Theirs was No. 4512 — which gives you a sense of how quickly people were now buying cars; more than 300 licenses were issued in 42 days. The latter license was transferred to hotelier Napolean Mallette at year’s end and renewed through 1916.

Mallette has the dubious distinction of being involved in what was probably West Kootenay’s first car accident. According to the Nelson Daily News, in July 1914, “Skidding at the corner of Kootenay and Silica Streets last night Nap Mallette’s automobile spilled its three passengers over a high bank. They were pinned under the car but none was seriously hurt.” (Perhaps they were racing to the Chahko Mika carnival, which was on at the time.)

Both Nipon’s and McQuarrie and Robertson’s cars appear in an oft-reproduced photo taken in front of the Strathcona Hotel in October 1912 (below) when Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney passed through town as part of Canada’s first coast-to-coast road trip. Ron Welwood has written several articles about this voyage and it’s also discussed in the book The All-Red Route by John Nicol; Haney did the lion’s share of the driving, but Wilby took all the credit.

The car that Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney drove across Canada is seen at left outside the Strathcona Hotel on Stanley Street (present site of the library) in October 1912 along with the only two cars then on the road in Nelson.

(Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History 1966.002.043)

However, there are significant discrepancies in various captions that have accompanied this photo over the years. The 1947 Nelson Jubilee program claimed it showed William Doolittle, who was driving across Canada. But I can’t find any other mention of anyone with that name who crossed the country in that year or any other.

The Wilby and Haney vehicle, a REO special touring car, was not electric and neither were the other two, which the photo reveals to be Ford Model Ts.

The Vancouver Daily World of July 11, 1914 quoted a Ford salesman as saying: “An automobile in Nelson until this year was somewhat of a novelty. Sales at that point this season have been very gratifying.” By then, the electric car’s heyday had passed.

Cranbrook auto club

In the early days of motoring, it was actually the East Kootenay that had a high concentration of automobiles per capita. I’m not sure who owned the first one, but in May 1905, the Fernie Ledge reported “Miss Martin, Mr. Lindsay Jr. and Mr. Brown spent Sunday at Elko. They made the trip on the gasoline motor car.”

At least eight vehicles were delivered to Cranbrook in the spring of 1911, and an automobile club formed that July with Nils Hanson of Wasa as honorary president and V. Hyde Baker as president. Seven others rounded out the executive.

I don’t know if any of them drove electric models. The Cranbrook Herald of April 27, 1911 reported: “Among the many new automobiles recently imported into Cranbrook, that of V. Hyde Baker, a White gasoline, is one of the handsomest. Cranbrook can make a showing in the way of autos that would be hard to beat in any city of twice the size.”

The club’s annual meeting in 1912 in Wasa drew 25 members. By contrast, membership in the Nelson automobile club that year could be counted on your thumbs.

Next: An electric car fit for a king?

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