A Streetcar Named Disaster: The collapse of the Bay Street Bridge

By Norman K Archer

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The guns of the warships were preparing to bombard Macaulay Point with salvo after salvo, knowing volleys would answer them from the guns on the shore. Everyone knew the battle would rage for hours, but it was inevitable.  Crowds swarmed down to clifftops as far as Clover Point to watch. The attackers were ships, known as "sloops of war" powered mainly by steam, with sails used to eke out the coal.

This onslaught was part of Victoria's annual May 24 celebration, sponsored by the Royal Navy to entertain the locals. Several sloops were always anchored at Esquimalt and the "bluejackets" in their wide-brimmed, ribbon-bedecked straw hats, sporting Van Dyke beards, were a common sight on the streets of old Victoria in 1896. But that particular year, Queen Victoria's Birthday party was postponed for two days, because May 24 fell on a Sunday. The events were never quite the same each year, as the Royal Navy dreamed up new ways to entertain.  The sham battle at Macaulay Point between the Army and the Navy was an innovation, and the people were eagerly anticipating the event, which was to follow the traditional regatta on the Gorge. During the morning, the soldiers were transported by streetcar over the Bridge to take up their positions on the shore and, on the way, one of the officers remarked that the Bridge seemed particularly shaky.

The Bay Street (or, more correctly, Point Ellice) Bridge was built in 1885 and the streetcars started to use it in 1890. Within a year or two, it became evident that the Bridge was never intended to carry the heavy loads that now crossed it daily. Some repairs were made and large holes drilled to ascertain the condition of the wood, but were not filled in again, contributing ironically to the ensuing rot. Reports of the Bridge sagging ominously whenever a fully loaded streetcar crossed it were ignored. On that fateful Tuesday afternoon in May 1896, at precisely 1:40 p.m., Streetcar No. 6, one of the older small light cars, crossed the Bridge safely. As soon as it reached the other side, the newer larger Streetcar No. 16, severely overcrowded with 104 merry-making passengers packed on board, including a bunch of adventurous teenagers on the roof, began to cross. The Bridge swayed sickeningly as everyone heard an odd cracking sound and the car suddenly dropped half a metre. Everything was silent again as Motorman Farr eased the car forward a few more metres. Suddenly, there was a very loud crack as the centre span broke, plunging the car and the victims into the deep water. Moments later, the main super-structure fell on top of the bus. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. People inside the bus were shot out through the broken windows, probably due to bridge wreckage falling on the vehicle with such force that people were propelled out by the sudden pressure.

Pleasure boats enjoying the festivities from the vantage point of the sea raced to the submerged car. Bystanders climbed down the embankment and many lives were saved by instant acts of heroism. But soon, there were no more survivors.  Bodies were hauled out of the water and laid in rows on the manicured lawns of people who lived on the water's edge. Curtains were torn down from windows by local residents and used as blankets for the rescued and shrouds for the deceased. The death toll was appalling. Fifty-five men, women and children died that day - over half the number of passengers in Streetcar No. 16. Among the dead was Mrs. Fred Adams, whose husband, the original contractor for the Legislative Buildings, had been drowned in a wreck off Trial Island. It was the worst streetcar disaster in North American history.

After 10 days of hearing evidence, the Coroner's Jury found the Consolidated Electric Railway Company guilty of negligence and the city council guilty of contributing negligence. The Company was severely reprimanded by the Judge for flagrantly ignoring the rules against overloading the vehicle.

Until this catastrophe, streetcars in Victoria had earned a reputation for safety, efficiency and economy, providing an effective, inexpensive and well-organized public transit system that the city so sorely needed. The National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company (NET&L) introduced streetcars to Victoria on 22 February 1890. The *Daily Colonist* heralded the event as one of progress, showing that the city "has advanced and is advancing." Victoria was the third city in Canada to create a transit system made up of electric-powered streetcars.

Initially, the NET&L system consisted of two routes. One route extended from the intersection of Hillside Avenue and Gorge Road, terminating at Ogden Point. The second route started at Store Street and ran out to the Royal Jubilee Hospital.  Later that same year, a third route was added out to Esquimalt, crossing Point Ellice Bridge and terminating at the Royal Navy yard. But from the beginning, the Company was plagued with problems, including a major fire at its steam plant on Store Street. It went into receivership and eventually wound up as part of the Consolidated Electric Railway Company. A fourth route was added that ran east from the city as far as Fernwood and Gladstone. Most of the passengers on the fateful Car 16 had been transferred from the "Spring Ridge" Car that day to the Esquimalt Car to attend the Queen's Birthday celebrations. Consequently, most of the victims were from the Spring Ridge area.

The compensation that the Company was compelled to pay forced it into bankruptcy and its assets came into the hands of the British Columbia Electric Company, which consolidated all gas, electric and transportation systems in Vancouver and Victoria into one large company. Streetcars proliferated in both cities and many lines were double-tracked. By 1912, it was carrying over 10 million passengers annually in Victoria alone. But by the 1940s, streetcar travel was declining and the oil-fueled bus was taking its place. In 1948, the last streetcar was taken out of service.


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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

The family life goes that my great-grandmother Rogers was on that car, got a "bad feeling" about how over crowded it was and got off with her 9 kids at the stop before the bridge.

Posted by Bob Rogers | August 22, 2017 Report Violation

Great piece of history. To this day I still call the bridge Point ElliceEllis. Our grand father and great uncle were survivors of the crash. In the 60's we lived up the hill on Skinner Street and as a kid we played under the bridge, always wondering about that event.

Posted by Earl Rhode | September 11, 2016 Report Violation

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