OPEN THIS WEEKEND!! Come on down and support our wonderful streetcar, starting this Friday, May 21st. Because of Covid, we are working on a reduced schedule, so the tram will be operational 7 days a week from 11 am till 3 pm (we will keep you updated if that changes as the summer progresses). Unfortunately there is no wheelchair service during Covid protocols, and pets, strollers, buggies and carts can’t be brought on board. Everyone over 5 years of age must wear a mask, and we are at 1/2 available seating to allow distancing. Finally, we are unable to make change so the ride is by donation, and because we are completely volunteer-driven and all funding is by donation and grants, we ask that you be generous! Thank you Nelsonites who love our living piece of history!!
Forty years ago Reid Henderson of the RDCK wrote to the City of Nelson that the body of streetcar #23 was available for sale, and wondered if there was interest in a restoration project. With a lot of help from the City of Nelson, the Chamber of Commerce, CP Rail, the Province of BC, West Kootenay Power (now Fortis BC) and many local businesses and individuals, over the next ten years the restoration of streetcar #23 was completed, the car barn built and tracks and electrical system installed.
Local dentist, Dr. Mike Culham, was involved almost from the beginning. He had a passion for trains and he was a natural choice for Chairman of the Restoration Committee. When this committee became Nelson Electric Tramway Society (NETS) in 1988, Mike became the Society’s inaugural President, a position he held for many years. Mike led the acquisition of the mechanical and electrical parts from around the world needed to make Streetcar 23 operational, the building of the tracks from Rotary Lakeside Park to the airport, building the car barn and recruiting and training volunteers, in short ensuring the success of NETS and creating such a delightful and interesting piece of working history right on our waterfront.
When operators pass their written and on-board tests, they are issued a number. Culham became Operator #1, meaning he was the first licensed operator to be qualified to operate the revived Streetcar 23 out of almost 200 volunteer drivers to date. He moved to Vancouver several years ago but still returned to Nelson every summer to operate the streetcar.
Sunday, August 16th, 2020 was Mike Culham’s last run. A group of dedicated NETS volunteers (including Reid Henderson, talk about full circle!) surprised Mike at the car barn at the end of his last shift, where he was presented with a piece of photographic art by Greg Osadchuk and donated by Jean Elliot, another long time volunteer and operator. Mike did say that he still might come back, so maybe this isn’t the end of an era after all?
We at NETS are so grateful to our local Rotary Club for their generous donation to assist in enhancing the access to our museum. The Walt Laurie Memorial Museum is located at the Nelson Electric Tramway Society’s car barn in Lakeside Rotary Park and plans are in place to build a ramp for easier access for those who use a wheelchair or scooter.
Photo L – R: Streetcar volunteers Ed Stockerl, Dave McMichael, Al Walker, Terry Thompson, Rotary President Tom Roy, Tina Coletti (Walt Laurie’s daughter), Gary Shroeder, Bill Drake (in streetcar), Norm Facchina and NETS President Jim Robertson
Photo Credit to Michael Dill
I’ve been running trains and trolleys since 1987, starting with volunteering at the Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) in Perris, California. My original intent was to volunteer on the steam crew but the guy in charge at the time wasn’t particularly friendly. I found that the trolley folks over there were very welcoming and I got hooked on the “juice”! At the time, I was the youngest qualified Motorman on the roster and ran various streetcars, interurbans, and locomotives.
Orange Empire has quite a collection of railroad rolling stock and traction. Most of the electric cars came from the Pacific Electric and the Los Angeles Railway and can be seen in many of the classic movies made back in the day.
In 1990, I went to work for Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, as a Fireman/Engineer on their “Ghost Town & Calico” Railroad and ran and fired their two narrow gauge steam locomotives that came off the Denver & Rio Grande Western and Rio Grande Southern railroads. I also ran Galloping Goose #3.
In 1993, I went to work for the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona as a Hostler/Mechanic where I worked on their steam and diesels locomotives. I did the fire-ups in the morning, shut-downs & servicing at the end of the days and ran the engines for switching out the cars. Added to this was the day-to-day inspections and repairs of the locomotives for their daily runs.
Finally, in 1996, I hired out with the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) in Pasco, Washington, as a Trainman and then took my Engineer promotion in 1997 and worked for them until 2014, with most of my service with them working out of Spokane, Washington.
During my career on the BNSF, I was really missing running the steam locomotives and trollies and was considering volunteering again. I rejoined Orange Empire and got requalified on a number of the electric cars, of which I would fly down to California on vacation time to visit family and friends and spend some time twisting controllers.
In early July, 2014, My wife and I took our 3 daughters and a French foreign exchange student we were sponsoring on a road trip to Lake Louis and Banff. When we got to Cranbrook, BC, we were told that Canada was burning down and that the road to Banff was closed. I had heard about the streetcar in Nelson before and had also did a couple training runs as an engineer with BNSF on the “Nelson Turn” (which terminated in Salmo, BC) in 1997 so I was curious about Nelson. When we drove across “BOB”, I noticed the wires at Lakeside and had to ride the car. I went into the carbarn after riding and met Terry Thompson and Jim Robertson and joined on the spot. After telling Terry about my previous experience, he let me run the car to the Mall parking lot going out and from the Mall parking lot to the barn coming back. I was definitely hooked and made arrangements to take the class a couple weeks later. Unfortunately, I missed the class because I was in the ER at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane because of a windstorm that blew a 110′ tall pine tree onto my car which sent a branch through the windshield that severed off my left forearm and completely impaled me through the right hip. So, for the next two years, I was laid up. I took the Early Job Disability Railroad Retirement with the railroad as I realized that I was in no condition to go back to the BNSF. Railroading in one form or another is my passion so I figured that I still can volunteer on a limited basis and NETS (Nelson Electric Tramway Society) and OERM is a good place to try. In the Winter of 2015, I went down to OERM and got back into running the streetcars. I was able to figure out how to run the cars with my prosthetic arm and bum leg and this gave me further confidence in my recovery.
In June, 2016, I managed to get back into the game with NETS and got qualified to run Car #23 and have been doing this since. I do NETS in the Summer and OERM in the Winter. I find Nelson to be a very pleasant town and my Canadian neighbors to be very friendly. Many kids ask me about my hook and I love to tell them that I’m a pirate who lost his pirate ship but now has a pirate trolley! Adults will often ask how I lost my arm and I tell them the true story of what happened and how I bounced back from the threshold of death to enjoying life again. One just can’t let bad things get him down… if you get a load of lemons, make lemonade! I’m making new friends at NETS and enjoy working with each one that I encounter along with hearing their Life stories. The drive from my home in Chattaroy, WA, to Nelson, BC, takes almost 3 hours but it’s a beautiful drive and really no big deal. It’s actually a good “getaway” destination for a couple days twice a month during the season.
At this moment in the photo, #400 is awaiting a replacement part, so drivers and trainers got an unscheduled break, but it was an exciting day (Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019) when our regular trolley – #23 – was in the shop for repairs and we ran this sweet little Birney car ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birney) all day instead.
Check out the Walt Laurie Memorial Museum at Lakeside Rotary Park (between the soccer fields and the tennis courts, right next to the Nelson Rowing Club building) between noon and three pm every weekday while the streetcar is operational. Not only will you be able to get a close look at #400, we also have memorabilia, streetcar-related tools and equipment, souvenirs and there’s always wonderful volunteers available to tell you all about it!