Canada's First Traffic Accident

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In 1866, Father Antoine Belcourt, parish priest at South Rustico, Prince Edward Island, purchased a steam powered automobile from the United States. The automobile was delivered by ship to Charlottetown. Father Belcourt engaged a local farmer, Moses Peters, to go to Charlottetown with a team of horses and haul the machine to Rustico.

The extent to which Father Belcourt may have used the machine is unknown. There is one story to the effect that he instructed his housekeeper to light a fire under the boiler and she complied by lighting a fire under the entire machine and almost destroying it.

At any rate, Belcourt undertook to demonstrate the machine on the occasion of the parish picnic on June 24, 1866. Unfortunately the machine went out of control, ran off the road, went through a fence, and rolled over, thus creating what we have called the first traffic accident in Canada. Actually, strictly speaking, Canada as we know it did not come into being until the next year and in fact Prince Edward Island did not become part of Canada until 1873.

Father Belcourt terminated his automobile experiments at that point. Local folklore has it that the engine was removed and used to pump water. Efforts in recent years to locate and identify any components of the machine have not been successful and it seems probable that any remaining pieces might have become part of a World War II scrap drive. Father Belcourt subsequently moved to the western United States and ministered there for the remainder of his life. He never returned to Prince Edward Island.

I strongly suspect that father Belcourt's car was one built in 1861 by Elijah Ware of Bayonne, New Jersey. An article appearing in "Scientific American" in 1913, and of which there is a copy in the Provincial Archives, describes Elijah Ware's car in some detail and concludes with the comment that he sold it to a clergyman in Prince Edward Island. I am inclined to discount the water pumping story without some knowledge of the actual construction of the car. The engine in most steam cars was integrated with the chassis and the driving axle also served as the crankshaft. However, it is possible that the boiler and some other components might have become part of the water pumping equipment.

Father Belcourt is, perhaps, better known for his role in the establishment of the Farmers Bank of Rustico which would be somewhat similar to the credit unions of today. There were no banking facilities available in the Rustico area at the time and so the Farmers Bank provided local residents with a facility for investing their savings and a source of capital for local farmers, fishermen, merchants, etc. In recent years the building which housed the Farmers Bank has been developed into a museum. The museum has a mural with an artist's depiction of Father Belcourt's car. The artist has drawn the machine to somewhat resemble the steam fire engines in use in many cities and towns around 1900. However, it also resembles a steam car built in the United States by a Sylvester Roper sometime prior to 1870 and which has been reported to have been destroyed. We must keep in mind here that, to the best of our knowledge, there are no photographs of Father Belcourt's car and that no one actually knows exactly what it may have looked like.

Steam cars seem to have been particularly prone to accidents. The world's first non-guided, self-propelled, mechanical vehicle is reputed to have been a steam car, or more accurately, an artillery tractor, built by Louis-Joseph Cugnot, a French Army engineer, in 1770. After some experimental runs it crashed into a brick wall in 1771 thus creating the first known automobile accident and ending the French Army's experimentation with self propelled vehicles.

In 1867, the year after Father Belcourt's unfortunate accident, Henry Seth Taylor of Stanstead, Quebec, built what is regarded as the first automobile to be built in Canada. After some minor mishaps with the car in its first year, and following some modifications, Taylor proceeded to drive his car the following year. Apparently all went well until he attempted to descend a steep hill. The car, which had no brakes, went out of control and crashed at the bottom. Taylor managed to escape, but the car was a wreck. Taylor gave up on it, salvaged the boiler for his steam yacht, and devoted his experimental efforts to steam boats. This incident has been described as the first automobile accident in Canada, but this would have been two years after the wreckage of Father Belcourt's car.

It has been reported that many years later Taylor's car was discovered in the United States where it was subsequently restored, this time with brakes, eventually returned to Canada and is now the property of the Ontario Science Centre. As I have noted, Canada did not come into being until 1867, Prince Edward Island did not join Canada until 1873, and so, in that context, Taylor's accident is probably the first in Canada although it was two years later than Belcourt's.

Austin L. Bowman is a member of the Prince Edward Island Antique Car Club and of the Society of Automotive Historians. Mr. Bowman and his son own a small collection of old cars. Most of them are from General Motors and range in age from a 1930 Chevrolet to a 1983 Pontiac T-1000 and include a rather rare 1969 Pontiac Firebird with a Ram Air 3 engine.

Note: Article published in Motorhome Monthly, Britain's former number one motorhome magazine, by Chris Burlace, now an author at Motorhome and Campervan Magazine.

Did You Know?

The first woman driver was Bertha Benz, wife of Karl Benz, the father of the automobile. She became the world's first woman driver, driving her 14 and 15 year old sons in the newly constructed automobile August 5, 1888 from Mannheim to Pforzheim over a distance of 106 km. Other female drives before were short, trial runs with other persons helping. She did it without permission of her husband.

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