Rustico priest had first automobile in Canada 150 years ago

P.E.I. Antique Car Club and the National Association of Automobile Clubs honour Father George Belcourt


Published on January 15, 2017

This drawing shows what the Belcourt car looked like. The simple vehicle had a steam-powered engine that was connected to the wheels by a chain.

©SUBMITTED PHOTO

RUSTICO, P.E.I. - Although few Prince Edward Islanders are aware of it, the wheels of Canadian automobile history first began rolling a little over 150 years ago in P.E.I.

I can only imagine the discussions that would have taken place in the community 150 years ago when this peculiar vehicle arrived. It must have been quite an experience to see it Wilfred Moase

The little-known piece of Canadian history was celebrated recently at the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico Museum during a ceremony put on by the P.E.I. Antique Car Club and the National Association of Automobile Clubs.
December marked the 150th anniversary of the first automobile arriving in Canada, before the country was even officially formed, a steam-powered carriage that was imported by Father George A. Belcourt.
Rudy Croken, president of the P.E.I. Antique Car Club, said many already know Belcourt due to his “spectacular” work as a missionary.
“But his contribution to Canadian automobile history is every bit as spectacular,” said Croken. “He was the first person to have an automobile. To think the automobile history in Canada started in this very area is astounding, and that’s what Father Belcourt did.”
Croken said Belcourt purchased the car for about $300, equivalent to about $5,000 today, from a manufacturer in Bayonne, N.J.
An archive of The Charlottetown Herald newspaper described in December 1866 the arrival of the car, which was carried by horse from Charlottetown to Rustico.
“I can only imagine the discussions that would have taken place in the community 150 years ago when this peculiar vehicle arrived,” said Wilfred Moase, vice-president of the National Association of Automobile Clubs and director of the P.E.I. Antique Car Club. “It must have been quite an experience to see it.”
The one-seater vehicle was powered by a two-cylinder steam engine and was designed to run on roads and ice.

Rudy Croken, right, president of the P.E.I. Antique Car Club, presents Arnold Smith, president of the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico, with a plaque honouring the Belcourt car. The steam-powered carriage was purchased from New Jersey by Father George Belcourt and became the first automobile in Canadian history.
MITCH MACDONALD/TC MEDIA

It was also adaptable. In addition to providing transportation, it could thrash, pump water and fulfil other agricultural purposes.
Croken said although some records of the vehicle exist, they are few and far between.
“It would have been such an amazing thing at the time that you’d think it would have been written about a little more,” he said. “Whether it was seen as a realistic form of transportation or just for amusement, who knows?”
Although the vehicle was relatively simple by today’s standards, with no suspension windshield or roof, Farmer’s Bank president Arnold Smith said the vehicle was quite a wonder in its day.
“What we take for granted nowadays is something that somebody struggled and worked hard for,” said Smith.
However, one question of the car still remains.
“Where did the car go? No one really knows,” said Croken, adding that many felt Belcourt got rid of the car around the summer of 1869 when his health began to fail.
One account states the vehicle went to a New Glasgow farm where it was used for thrashing and sawing wood, while another states it was dismantled and used as a tug at a power plant in Pictou Nova Scotia.
A third account states the vehicle was collected as scrap metal and melted down to help with the efforts of the First World War.