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P.E.I. put the brakes on cars 115 years ago. It took 5 years to lift the ban

P.E.I. may have been the first place in Canada where a horseless carriage first took to the roads, back in 1866, but by 1908 automobiles had been banned. 

At the time, there were only seven vehicles on the Island. 

The past president of the Prince Edward Island Antique Car Club says they were located mostly in the Charlottetown and Summerside areas. But they weren’t a huge hit with most Islanders. 

“The cars at that time had no mufflers. They were very loud vehicles, so they were scaring, apparently, the horses and the people,” Rudy Croken said. 

person with car
Author and antique car enthusiast Rudy Croken says in the end, the fear of a rash of accidents involving cars and horses didn’t really materialize. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

Croken’s book about the history of the early automobile on P.E.I. was published in 2017. It’s called Ban the Automobile: Instrument of Death

The back cover lists some of the terms used to describe cars at the turn of the century — including devil wagons, public nuisances, and a source of danger of life and property.

person reading book
Rudy Croken’s book Ban the Automobile: Instrument of Death was published in 2017. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The issue was brought to the legislature, where it was suggested cars be allowed on the roads only three days a week. 

Then-premier Francis Longworth Haszard “decided that if it was a problem for four days of the week, why wouldn’t it be a problem all seven days of the week? And he didn’t think the resolution went far enough,” Croken said. 

“There were a few members of the legislature who supported the automobile … They urged caution. ‘Let’s not be too hasty here. Maybe we’re going too far.'” 

He would put his car on the train, and go down to Charlottetown and drive around.— Rudy Croken 

Croken said politics came into play, as it was an election year. 

“They quickly figured out that because there were so many people against the automobile, if they supported and voted for the automobile, they’d be looking for a new job and it wouldn’t be in the P.E.I. legislature,” Croken said. 

“When it came to a vote, every member of the legislature voted against the automobile. So the only place in the world that banned the automobile was here in Prince Edward Island.”

head shot
Andrew MacLean, creator of Backyard History, says many Islanders thought cars would scare horses and people alike. (Submitted by Andrew MacLean )

Andrew MacLean writes a newspaper column and podcast called Backyard History.

He too has taken a close look at the history of P.E.I.’s car ban. 

“It was kind of a kick at wealthy people, because the economy was on a big downturn at the time,” he said. 

“If you go through newspaper reports, you’ll find other people weren’t very happy cause they frightened their horses. P.E.I. had quite narrow roads at the time … and they would indeed scare horses. And it seemed like they actually scared the drivers of the carriages an awful lot too.”

family in antique car
Photographer J. A. S. Bayer and his family in their Ford Model A car in Charlottetown. (Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island)

Croken said some of the vehicles were taken away after the ban while others were put into storage, only to be sold off later. 

But the movement to legalize cars continued. They were popular on the mainland and other provinces were benefiting from tourism. 

In 1913, newly elected Premier John A. Mathieson’s party passed a resolution that would allow automobiles to be driven around three days a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“Again, there was an uproar and an amazing number of letters written to the editors of the different newspapers, some arguing for it and most against it,” Croken said. 

people in antique car
Frank Tuplin and his family in his large automobile in Summerside in 1913. (Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island)

Mathieson decided a vote would be taken before school district meetings, because each community had a school. Croken said over 90 per cent of the districts voted against allowing cars back on the roads. 

The government then said it would allow each community to have the final say for their area. 

“They would allow people to get petitions in their town, their village, their road to allow automobiles to be run,” Croken said. 

“The people who were opposed to it thought that was kind of [a] backdoor way of getting the cars on the road … If you could get a petition with 75 per cent of the people to support automobiles, then you could run the automobile in your village.” 

antique cars
There were 26 cars and trucks driven slowly along the dusty red Island roads of P.E.I. in 1913. (Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island)

The decision created what one Islander referred to as a “patchwork quilt of roads.” 

“You could drive your car from Charlottetown maybe out to North River. But then North River would have a ban … So then you’d have to hire a farmer to haul your vehicle through, maybe to Cornwall,” Croken said. 

Andrew MacLean tells the story of Frank Tuplin, a fox farmer from Summerside who wasn’t allowed to drive his car there — but he could in Charlottetown.

“He would put his car on the train, and go down to Charlottetown and drive around, and then get the train back to Summerside,” he said. 

Croken said for the most part, it was rare for cars to scare horses to the point where there were accidents.

“There were very few accidents, actually, or at least very few accidents that were reported … There were more accidents with vehicles, with people sabotaging the vehicle,” he said. 

Croken said there were tales of people putting old mower blades, planks with spikes, or even barbed wire on the roads where vehicles were allowed. 

In the end, cars were given unlimited access to all P.E.I. roads every day of the week, in 1919. 

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