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No Motors, Thank You!

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“Come to Bermuda, the Isles of Rest” So says the postmark on this letter sent in 1930 by the Bermuda Trade Development Board, the appointed body that managed Bermuda’s tourism from 1913 to 1968.

The list of slogans that Bermuda used to attract tourists could probably stretch on for pages —“Come to a Place That is Different”, “From Showers to Flowers in 48 Hours”— but they all have one idea in common: Bermuda is different; Bermuda is quiet; Bermuda is a place where you can escape from the pressures of life. Bermudians have carefully cultivated and maintained this image for almost 100 years, and the needs of this image are probably the main reason behind Bermuda’s rejection of the automobile from 1908 to 1948.

In 1900, automobiles were new everywhere, not just in Bermuda. As cars became more common in the United States and Britain, a small but growing number were brought into Bermuda. By 1905, even a motorized omnibus, the “Scarlet Runner”, was imported and could be seen ferrying passengers from Hamilton to Tuckers Town or the South Shore.
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The "Scarlet Runner"
The bus was not popular, especially with the livery stable owners. As the purveyors of Bermuda’s only form of land transportation, aside from bicycles or feet, the stable owners claimed that the “Scarlet Runner” frightened the horses and made the roads unsafe. This reaction was perhaps to be expected.

Negative responses also came from another quarter: Bermuda’s tourists. The rich Americans who came to Bermuda did so to get away from the bustle of the U.S. east coast, where motorized traffic was becoming commonplace. Letters to the Editor in Bermuda’s daily Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily lamented the potential destruction of Bermuda’s special charm that “motors” might bring. The message soon became clear: if automobiles were allowed in the “Isles of Rest”, visitors might have to find somewhere else to spend their winters.

Early in 1908, Mark Twain, a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to Bermuda, convinced another illustrious tourist, soon-to-be U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, to circulate a petition calling on the colonial government to ban the motor car and protect their island paradise. 111 visitors signed. Within a few months, encouraged by the petition and the pressure of certain influential members, the Bermuda House of Assembly narrowly passed the Motor Car Act of 1908, banning all private motor vehicles from the island. Banned they would remain until 1946.

By taking this step, Bermudian government and business leaders felt they had protected both the quality of their island and the happiness of their tourist visitors. But they also had left in place a transportation problem that could only grow along with the developing tourist trade and the increase of Bermuda's resident population.
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The debate over transportation returned, year after year, as supporters and opponents of motor transport squared off regularly in the House. It was in this context that, in 1922, as tourism began to recover from the collapse caused by the Great War, the House of Assembly commissioned a study to see if a railway might be a proper solution to Bermuda’s internal transportation problems.
This pre-railway postcard, entitled “Front Street During Crop Season”, shows the congestion possible when Bermuda's farmers all arrived by horse and cart on Hamilton's docks.
Some Bermudians thought a bus service would fill the bill, but they got a railway instead.
Learn how in Deciding to Build a Railway.