Category Archives: History

Sapper Flap Jack Saturday: September 10th

On September 10th, 1898, New Westminster was very nearly destroyed by what is now referred to as “The Great Fire”. Pictures show a city completely ravaged; the devastation razed most of the city’s buildings.


Photo courtesy New Westminster Public Library, accession # 3123 New Westminster after the great fire. The view looks down Columbia Street. Street running left to right (right-hand side near foreground) is Church Street. Building at right next to Church with the arch is the YMCA. Cluster of buildings beyond this would be the Public Library, Firehall and the Post Office. Beyond that cluster of buildings Sixth Street runs down to Columbia Street. At the top of the hill are the ruins of the Court House. The aforementioned is all on the north side of the street. Photographer: possibly S.J. Thompson. Source: Suzanne Spohn

Maps of the city show us just how bad it was. The circled area was just… gone.


Photo Courtesy New Westminster Public Library.


City residents banded together and rebuilt most of the city in less than two years. (Imagine that happening in this day and age?) I am sure many residents of Sapperton pitched in, housed their friends, and generally made themselves useful.

On Saturday, September 10th (the same day and date of the Great Fire), New West Fire Fighters will be flipping the pancakes and cooking ham for Sapperton Old Age Pensioners Association. Sapper Flap Jack Saturday is from 8:30 am to 12 noon. Melitta will be supplying the coffee. Cost is $5.00 per person, children 9 and under free. Tickets at the door or call 604 – 522-0280.

Have you been to Sapperton Hall? If you attended the UBE sessions or live on this side of town and voted, you probably have. Tucked 1/4 block up from RCH’s Emergency entrance at 318 Keary Street, Sapperton Hall is a great little meeting place. Since April this year, it has been undergoing about $60,000 worth of upgrades. New high efficiency furnaces, new high capacity high efficiency hot water tank, repainting the interior walls of the lower floor, installing new thermal windows on the lower floor, adding a new handicap accessible washroom and increasing and updating the women’s washroom upstairs. They are now working on improving the electrical in the kitchen and installing a new hood over the stoves. Sapperton Hall, opened in 1962, has 10,000 sq. ft. on two floors. The upstairs has a beautiful hardwood floor and about 4,000 sq. ft. of open area plus a small stage. The lower floor has a lino floor and a good sized kitchen facility. There is also an elevator lift to assist wheelchairs or people with mobility challenges.

For more info, contact: Vic Leach, V.P., Sapperton O.A. Pensioners Assoc. Ph: 604 – 525-1829 or Sapperton Hall 604 – 522-0280




Meet J.J. Johnston: New Westminster’s ‘Mr. May Day’

The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right

The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right

New Westminster is a proud and busy place this week. As the Hyack Festival proudly begins its 40th year of celebrating the city, children around the city are busy practicing how to folk dance and dance together around May Poles to celebrate May Day on May 25th. Ambassadors are preparing, volunteers are working hard and everyone in the city is looking forward to the wonderful celebrations. As parents and grandparents watch their children and smile, memories are rich within their minds. For some of the older people in the city, a name and face who embodied those celebrations for almost 100 years might come to mind. “Mr. May Day”, J.J. Johnston is proudly remembered as a symbol of the events and celebration of youth in New Westminster.

The first May Day took place in Sapperton in 1870. A celebration organized by the Hyack Engine Company , it was to appreciate the children of the city and celebrate how those young citizens could proudly use their energy to help the young city grow and mature along with those children. William and Elizabeth Johnston helped organize and attended that first May Day. With them was their newly born son, John Joseph. Soon to be known as J.J., throughout his life their son embodied the birth, growth and pride of New Westminster that May Day came to represent. Through his 96 years in New Westminster, J.J. Johnston attended every May Day celebration, was actively involved in many of them. So much so, to the people of our city he became known as “Mr. May Day”.

J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week

J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week

As he grew up, J.J. Johnston was vibrantly involved in the city along with his parents, 8 siblings and extended family. He met and helped people around New Westminster, worked throughout the city in his youth and by 1906 he started an Insurance and Real Estate company that he kept involved with until he was in his 90s. In 1907 Mr. Johnston was elected to council and he served as Mayor from 1920 to 1923. During that time he became an active member of the May Day committee each year to organize the celebrated events. Through the years he shared his memories through of the early May Days with many people, helping build an understanding and appreciation of the event. In a 1949 interview with Vic Andrew, Mr. May Day expressed his fondness by stating he “could become a kid for a day”, every year. As the ‘perennial General Chairman’ and Master of Ceremonies alternatively with J.J. Cambridge for many years at May Day, children in New Westminster first came to know him as Mr. May Day. As those children grew up with him being part of the event through their lives, the yearly celebration and the name became synonymous with J.J. Johnston.

Through the years, along with youth, May Day in New Westminster became a celebration of the heritage and pride of people within the city. As J.J. Johnston aged through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Mr. May Day was saluted and thanked for his contributions to the growth and pride of the city. As Master of Ceremonies in 1950, May Queen Patricia D’Arcy presented a cane to Mr. May Day, from the children of New Westminster in appreciation to his 80 year contribution to all the May Days in the city. In 1955 J.J. Johnston was given the honour of “Freeman of the City of New Westminster” by council for his services and 50 years ago at the 1961 May Day, he was celebrated and thanked by all the children, with his cane to help him stand. After his death in 1966, J.J. Johnson was honoured with a tribute at a special meeting of council on May 21, 1967 and a special memorial to Mr. May Day was built in Queen’s Park that remains today.



Meet the historian devoted to the Samson V

Historian Mark MacKenzie, caretaker of the Samson V museum.

Historian Mark MacKenzie, caretaker of the Samson V museum.

Many afternoons or weekends over the past 12 years living on the Quay, I have seen amazement on the faces of children and elderly people pointing out on the river as they share tales of the past with a very knowledgeable person at one very special point on the waterfront. The place is the Samson V and the person is Mark MacKenzie, the smart man who devotes himself to the care of this wonderful ship.

I recently spent several afternoons on board the Samson V with Mark  to learn more about the fire that threatened the ship back in 1955. As Mark and I walked around on board, he proudly shared the evolving history and duties of the Samsons that have paddled on the Fraser for 130 years. Some of the equipment on board has lasted for many decades. Equipment visible in pictures of earlier Sampsons is out on the deck of the Samson V today. As he worked to clean the deck, Mark often pointed to cast or forged iron pieces that were built for earlier Samsons. He explained to me how the Samson pulled logs that drifted down the Fraser during spring thaws  from the sand on the banks to protect fishboats or tugs. The Samson V was used to dredge the Fraser for large ships crossing the Pacific to and from the wood mills and for importing and exporting goods from the Pacific Coast Terminals (where the Quay is now). Earlier Samsons helped launch many ships over the years from Star Shipyards in Queensborough as well as large First World War ships from Poplar Island in 1917.

Inside we climbed down around the boiler. Mark showed me the first growth cedar frame within the hull with the creosote-treated oversized beams that were fitted first before being treated to ensure a perfect and strong fit. He shared stories from former crew members and families about how different parts were improved, damaged and repaired over the years. He showed me the Samson V’s event logs and spoke of them with a working knowledge like no one else alive today.

Mark and I sat down on the top deck to chat about the fire in 1955 that caused great damage to the ship. The fire department purposely submerged the Samson in the Fraser to stop the fire. Mark explained to me all of the work that went into repairing the superstructure of the Samson, replacing the boiler and some of the hull and frame as well. He explained the long and drawn-out process to get the Samson working again. Later, I went to the New Westminster Museum & Archives and saw the huge expenses of well over $50,000 to repair the Samson so that she could proudly continue her work on the Fraser for another 20 years until 1980. As we walked and climbed around the ship, Mark pointed out many examples of the work done to restore the Samson. There are portions of the ship that have survived for almost 75 years and others that were made for earlier vessels years before that.

I always enjoy asking questions of Mark that I know will get him smiling. He loves to speak of the captains and crew who worked on Samsons and the great evolution of the ships over 100 working years. Mark shares pictures, documents and stories with me with an expertise like no one alive today. There is a great pride in his voice as Mark speaks of how he is able to help work and preserve the last floating example of a steam powered snag boat paddlewheeler in Canada and how she serves as one of the only surviving examples of the fleet of Public Works vessels that served so important a role on the Fraser River and on the West Coast of Canada.

I’ve never met anyone with the pride, knowledge and hope for the future that Mark shows for the Samsons. There’s only one thing that Mark Mackenzie does not speak of, but to me is just as important. That one thing is the honor that Mark should feel for being the most knowledgeable expert on the working ships of the Fraser and the work they’ve done for so long. I am proud to be able to know him and learn from him in my regular visits to the Samson V. I so very much hope that people around the city and on the river recognize this unique expert knowledge and continue to allow Mark to share it like he has done for so long and so does so well every day with so many people.


Recollections of Childhood in Moody Park in the 1950′s

Recently, we have had some excellent posts here on Tenth to the Fraser by New Westminster resident, historian and Friend of the “New Westminster Museum and Archives” Ken Wilkinson. Based on some survey results and the readership statistics, I know that Ken’s articles are popular and anticipated by our readers.

To add to this genre, I will be posting an occasional guest post from my father, Richard Tomkinson, who was born here in the Royal City in 1943 and was, with his brother Robert, the 3rd generation of New Westminster Tomkinsons. These recollections of childhood have as their epicenter, 1040 7th Ave, a house removed only 3 years ago, across from Lord Kelvin Elementary and just next to the pool area of Moody Park.

I have edited what began as an interview format, into a narrative so any deficiencies in fact or style are all mine. Likewise, I have kept all of the best of the source material, so any lighthearted word or turn of phase must also be attributed to the source.
Will Tomkinson, Ed.

Email, 1940's style ... Birth announcements via telegram announcing Richard & Robbie's arrivals.

My memory of growing up around Lord Kelvin school and Moody Park area was mostly of unrestricted roaming and fun, with groups of boys and girls from the post-war baby boom filling the neighbourhood houses.  Younger kids would move through the back lanes, neighbourhood streets, over back fences and through yards and the neighbourhood streets in packs, older kids in groups of 4 or in pairs.

This was all without supervision of course, at any age, but there was a curfew for children in the 50s. I seem to remember there was a horn that blew meaning that you were supposed to be at home rather that at roam. I don’t remember the source of the horn but I seem to recall that it was in the east of the park, as it sounded fairly far off. Moody Park itself was ever popular in the summer when the Kiwanis pool was open. I remember the pool’s opening day but I am not sure exactly when that was. (Editor’s note: I suspect this was in 1947 but I have not been able to confirm this.) Of course in later years we all had the adventure of struggling over the fence for a midnight swim. In the park, the playground was a big draw, as it still is, but lacked any hovering parents. During late fall as the huge towers of leaves from the many trees were often piled up, which were great fun.

The Author, circa 1947

Hard to imagine now, but great fun was the circus that regularly visited in the 50′s. That was always exciting and an adventure opportunity. Circus came for a week sometimes, other times for two days. In the beginning it was a real big circus with many tents, rides, animals etc. As time went by it got less and less. Mostly the circus set up in the high ground opposite and away from Kelvin school. Seems to me they set up once in the north field but it was boggy and had mosquitoes. Actually the north field was probably responsible for all the mosquitoes for a mile around. Yes, some enterprising kids would get jobs from the circus hands. Kids got jobs, I got 25 cents here and there for little jobs while they set up and tore down. During the winter and into the spring the north side always flooded, sometimes dangerously, and often in the winter provided a very large skating rink. We would be cautioned not to cross the ice on our way home from Lester Pearson Junior High. Did we listen? Kids today, just like kids in the 1950’s.

Richard as a teenager in New West, circa 1959

With so many kids around, you would have thought there may have been some neighborhood rivalry but there was not much of that. There was a gang on Nanaimo we battled with, that was about it. We also had a bunch of really smart kids in the general ‘hood, which did not mean they stayed out of trouble, but they were involved much more in sports. Box lacrosse, tennis, little league baseball, soccer, girl’s softball, and junior softball kept many kids and young adults coming to Moody Park.  Mostly kids would go to sports on their own except for little league which had a lot of parent involvement, and was the site of quite a number of adult punch-ups. Then, as now, lawn bowling kept the seniors in ‘whites’.

In the spring, I remember using the park for practice on May Day poles or with batons. This was before Hyack had the profile it has now. Back then it applied to the Anvil Battery only. The park was also a place for city youth programs and Young Life meetings at Century House. As a youth I remember those meetings and hanging out in the late evening in the playground just barely on the safe side of aggression which was often in play. I learned to run real fast at just the right moment, probably not much different than most of today’s young ones. On the other side of aggression was the first kiss and a lot of confusion.

By the time the city’s 100th anniversary came around in 1959, I was 16 and had a lot of other things on my mind other than 7th street and the park. Band, cars, school etc…. but I will always remember the scary long walk through the park coming home from band practice. Even today the shadows threaten, but never did I actually have an event to regret.


What does ‘Hyack’ mean anyway?

The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)

The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)

For almost 14O years, thousands of New Westminsterites have enjoyed celebrations like May Day, the famous Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery, parades down our main streets and the crowning of Miss New Westminster.  The Hyack Festival Association continues these New Westminster traditions that many people have enjoyed for their whole lives, introduces them to new generations and shares them with people from around the world. People enjoying the festivities and the city often wonder what the word ‘Hyack’ means and how it became such an important part of the language of New Westminster.

Throughout the 19th Century as Europeans began settling up and down the West Coast from Northern California to what would become B.C., they traded, worked with and learned from aboriginal people about the lands. Communication was often difficult because of the different languages of aboriginal people and the settlers. Throughout that time, a common language emerged to help the people communicate more successfully that took words from various languages and developed into what came to be known as Chinook Jargon. Although the exact origin of many of the words is unknown, many of them became very much a part of the common language used by settlers. Many Common phrases used at the time are still in use today or had things named for them. For example, Tyee meant a leader, Kimtah was looking back, a Skukumchuck was a strong waterway and Cultus meant worthless. Another important word in Chinook Jargon was Hyack, that meant swift, fast or to hurry up.

The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)

The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)

As the Royal Engineers and others in New Westminster started building the new town in the 1850s and 1860s, one of earliest and most important groups to be established was a volunteer fire department. In 1861, the “Hyack Company #1” was given its name to inspire the more than 50 men who volunteered to be part of a swift group who would hurry up when they were called into action. The motto of the brigade was “ready, aye, ready” that was inscribed in their headquarters on the north side of Columbia Street, just east what is now Sixth Street. Nearly 30 people were required to operate their original piece of equipment, the “Fire King”, a large hand operated pump bought in 1863. Any one person could only operate it about 10 minutes, but in the early years of New Westminster, it was said that the “work was completed by those Skukum (Chinook Jargon for Strong) volunteers in their battles with the fire fiend” (an unidentified Fire Chief in the early 20th Century, from the New Westminster Museum and Archives).

As part of the very first Victoria Day celebrations, New Westminster residents wanted a 21 gun salute to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on May 24. Because no cannons had arrived in the city to fire the salute early, the Hyack Company used gunpowder between anvils to fire the salute. As New Westminster residents know, the Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery became a very important part of celebrations that survive now. The bright red uniforms that people see worn today for the Anvil Battery are a representation of the original dress uniforms worn by the Hyack Company #1. Some say that the swiftness of the Anvil Battery may also be why the name Hyack became associated with the events.

A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)

A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)

The proud Hyack Company became a very important part of other city events early on in the history of New Westminster. When the Fire King arrived in 1863, many of the members of the Royal Engineers Band were part of the volunteer firefighters, so dressed in their uniforms and performed for the residents to celebrate. They later became known as the Hyack Band, so when May Day began in 1870, they became a very important part of the celebrations. Ever since then, the band, the Anvil Battery and other parts of the original Hyack Company #1 became recognized and acknowledged as a key part of all the events each May, with their uniforms being a representation of the history of the festivities.

After 100 years of celebrating the special events each May, the Hyack Festival Association was established in 1971 to preserve the historical spirit of the events and to organize them into a full and rich celebration of New Westminster. The name was taken as a remembrance to the Hyack Company #1 and their historic significance in the city. The Association’s endeavours have preserved the name and helped keep the meaning and significance of the Chinook Jargon and keep the word within the language of New Westminster ever since the first settlers arrived and carry it on into the future.


Remembering New Westminster’s heroes

The Armouries, an important building in the history of New Westminster (from The Royal Westminster Regiment)

The Armouries, an important building in the history of New Westminster (from The Royal Westminster Regiment)

New Westminster’s annual Remembrance Day Ceremony will be Thursday, November 11, 2010 at the Royal Westminster Regiment Armoury. People are asked to assemble by 9:30 a.m. at the Armoury, and the ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. Overflow seating is available at nearby Queen’s Avenue United Church. Following the ceremony, there will be a procession to the Cenotaph in front of City Hall, where two minutes of silence will be observed at 11am.

For many younger people, it can be harder to understand the importance of Remembrance Day because fewer Veterans are left surviving from times of war. Over the past 50 years, New Westminster’s residents have not had as many friends and relatives who have gone to war for our country and brought those experiences home to share, and knew people who have been lost in war.

Throughout my life I have met many Veterans, been touched deeply by their stories, as well as learning of the long and diverse history of The Royal Westminster Regiment (the oldest Unit in B.C.) and our Armouries, so this week I will share the stories of a few special heroes and look briefly at the story of a very special place on Queen’s Avenue.

Over the past 150 years, thousands of people have protected New Westminster, and fought, served and died elsewhere around the world during several times of war, since the time Queen Victoria sent the Royal Engineers here to protect the Fraser River. After they finished their duty in 1863, about 55 of the soldiers who remained here came together with some civilians to establish the New Westminster Volunteer Rifles. They protected the city and built the Armouries building on Queen’s Avenue in the 1890s. It survived the 1898 fire and served as a hospice for people whose homes were lost while the city was rebuilt. In 1910, the Rifles became the 104th Fusiliers of Canada and trained people from around the area during the First World War with 2 Battalions. They became the Westminster Regiment in 1924 and served throughout World War II and shortly after served an important part in securing the city during the floods of 1948. They became the Royal Westminster Regiment in 1967 and been maintained as a reserve Battalion since that time.

Corporal Filip Konowal, World War I Victoria Cross winner (official portrait by Arthur Ambrose McEvoy)

Corporal Filip Konowal, World War I Victoria Cross winner (official portrait by Arthur Ambrose McEvoy)

The Victoria Cross is the highest award granted to a very small number of Commonwealth soldiers (about 1350 since 1856) for very special courage in duty. Three people serving New Westminster have been granted the Victoria Cross during World War I and World War II. The first person serving New Westminster to win was Corporal Filip Konowal, for his bravery in France in 1917. He was a Ukranian-born soldier, who emigrated here just before World War I. He was trained in New Westminster as part of the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and was one of 6500 men from around New Westminster deployed to serve in Europe between 1916-1918. Cpl. Konowal was leading a section of soldiers near Flanders on August 22, 1917 during a very difficult time mopping cellars and houses to provide protection for others. Cpl. Konowal was an expert in quickly dealing with difficult situations underground, and on 3 different occasions in 24 hours he stormed forward into dangerous situations and killed at least 16 enemy soldiers continuously to gain protected land until he was severely wounded. For this amazing work he was awarded the Victoria Cross later that year. Unfortunately, Filip Konowal’s injuries took several years to recover from and he eventually moved to Hull, Quebec where he died in 1959.

Major Jack Mahoney, who stood strong for the Westminster Regiment

Major Jack Mahoney, who stood strong for the Westminster Regiment

During the Second World War, two people born and raised in New Westminster were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first one was Major John Keefer Mahony, a company commander with the Westminster Regiment at the River Melta in Italy in the spring of 1944. Commanded to secure a line across the river on May 24, Maj. Mahony led his company across and survived assaults from German guns on 3 sides throughout the day and into the evening. He held strong with injuries and maintained his company as it weakened. They finally drove back the German guns and secured the river for other Commonwealth soldiers to cross. For his incredible fortitude and disregard of his own condition, Maj. Mahony was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI in July of 1944. When he arrived home to New Westminster, Maj. Mahony was proudly welcomed and honoured. He continued in the Army to become a Lt. Col, working across the country with youth.  He died in 1990 in London, Ontario.

Pte. Earnest A. “Smokey” Smith, a proud and humorous New Westminsterite (IHP0846)

Pte. Earnest A. “Smokey” Smith, a proud and humorous New Westminsterite (IHP0846)

Perhaps the most well-known New Westminster Winner of the Victoria Cross is Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith. Born in New Westminster in 1914, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1942 and was deployed to Italy. On the night of October 21, 1944,  Pte. Smith was part of an infantry force spearheading an attck over the Savio River during bad rains. Pte. Smith fought hard to wreck a Nazi tank, then moved out to drive the German soldiers in it away, helped a fallen comrade and protected the river courageously all night. For this work, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. After he returned, “Smokey” Smith’s great sense of humor lent well to him becoming a figurehead for Veterans and Remembrance Day in New Westminster, British Columbia and across the country for nearly 60 years. He told his story well, remembered his fallen friends and laughed with everyone. He was later awarded the Order of B.C., The Order of Canada and upon his death 5 years ago “Smokey” Smith was celebrated for his many years of work. His last words to Colin Stevens in July, 2005 were “You’re all invited to my Funeral”.

Hopefully hearing the stories of great courage and service by these people through the years will help some of you understand Remembrance Day better. I know I will think of the people  I’ve met and learned about over the years. I will also think of the soldiers from the Royal Westminster Regiment who continue to serve in the war in Afghanistan. In my research for this article I learned  Master Corporal Colin Basin, a soldier from Abbotsford serving the Royal Westminster Regiment , died in service in 2007.  I will think of him this Thursday.

Ken Wilkinson is a founding member of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society, which aims to help more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and region.


Poplar Island: A History as Thick and Colorful as the Trees

Poplar Island and the original trees before 1890 as New Westminster grows in the background (NWPL-1912 Web Database)

Poplar Island and the original trees before 1890 as New Westminster grows in the background (NWPL-1912 Web Database)

People looking down to the Fraser River from the West End and enjoying beautiful views from the River Walk at Port Royal or the Esplanade at Westminster Quay always notice the cottonwood trees growing tall and wild on Poplar Island. It appears untouched by anyone, but it actually has a long history. Many things, people and struggles have lived for 150 years on or about the unique island.

150 years ago, when the Royal Engineers first arrived in what was to become New Westminster, they found a strong community that had successfully been living here for thousands of years.  To establish the new colonial capital Col. Richard Moody chose to segregate these people, known as the “New Westminster Indian Band” by Col. Moody and now the “Qayqayt”, to one of 3 places called “rancheries” . One of the rancheries was located on a small island on the North Arm of the Fraser River just downstream of the new community. Col. Moody named it Poplar Island for the trees that grew on it. The Colonial Government maintained this and many other rancheries as reservations until B.C. joined Canada in 1871.  The reservations were then turned over to the administration of the Federal Dominion of Canada.

Unfortunately, with the European settlers in B.C. (and throughout North America) came diseases such as smallpox causing several epidemics that affected the native population. As settlement spread up the Fraser River an epidemic occurred in 1889. Because it was not connected to any other part of New Westminster, Poplar Island was chosen as a place to quarantine smallpox victims.   In July, New Westminster Mayor John Hendry reported to council that “prompt steps had been taken to prevent the spread” and that a “good hospital had been created on Poplar Island to which patients as far as known had been removed” (City Minutes-July, 1889). $100 was spent to build the hospital.  It is believed that many native people from around Vancouver were transported to Poplar Island during the epidemic and many may have been buried there. Because of its association with smallpox, most residents of New Westminster looked sadly upon Poplar Island and it was ignored and became uninhabited for a number of years.

The War Comox being launched from Poplar Island by the Samson III in April of 1918. The War Edenshaw, War Kitimat and War Ewen were also built on Poplar Island (from Samson V Museum Collection)

The War Comox being launched from Poplar Island by the Samson III in April of 1918. The War Edenshaw, War Kitimat and War Ewen were also built on Poplar Island (from Samson V Museum Collection)

During the First World War, a place was needed to build War Ships in New Westminster. Most of the waterfront was already used for mills and shipping, so New Westminster Construction and Engineering was founded in 1917 and within a month, they had totally cleared Poplar Island, built a rough foot bridge across from the foot of 14th Street and built a working shipyard for the Imperial Munitions Board. Four warships were built in the next year and launched from Poplar Island. About 600 workers earned $4-10 daily and built some more coal carriers for France shortly after the war. Because the island easily flooded, not much more work was done to continue industrializing it. From Port Royal and the Quay today, part of the dock where the ships were all launched from can still be seen at the Eastern end of Poplar Island.

A Fisheries warden lived on the island but in 1940, the city zoned Poplar Island for industrial use and the city bought it in 1945. Not many ideas came up, so in 1948 the city sold the entire Island for $20,000 to Rayonier Canada Forestry. For about 50 years tall trees grew back on the island as big booms of logs were anchored around it while they waited to be processed at the lumber and paper mills around Poplar Island. Much discussion about what the use of it might be and native land claims were discussed and so Western Forest Products sold the Island back to the Province of British Columbia in 1995 to be preserved.

Not much more has been done to decide how to use Poplar Island because of its history. It is now the only large Island on the North Arm of the Fraser that remains without dikes. It was suggested as a connection point for a pedestrian bridge between Port Royal and Downtown without decision a few years ago, homeless people took up residence about 5 years ago for a while and treaty negotiations have continued. Poplar Island is now mainly a place that people look upon in contrast to all the busy and rapidly changing places that surround it.


Tapping the History of New West Brew

Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)

Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society.

The Brewery District is a new development being built in Sapperton on the corner of Brunette and Columbia Streets. Its name remembers beer brewed successfully there for 110 years. New Westminster beer has been on tap since 1862 for thirsty residents who have always enjoyed it.

As American gold miners flooded up the coast in the 1850s, the new Colony of British Columbia was created and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie was called from England to help control the new settlers. Very unique laws never seen in Canadian colonies were introduced to heavily tax alcohol and only allow beer to be sold where food was served. Along with miners’ taxes, alcohol taxes created great revenue and quickly spread across Canada. After two breweries on Vancouver Island, New Westminster got the third license in 1862. The City Brewery started the corner of Carnarvon and Eighth Streets and thrived there for almost 40 years under several owners. The Jamieson brewery started at Brunette and Columbia in about 1890.

City Brewery beer flowed freely throughout New Westminster by 1880 when an alderman complained because for every 28 residents there was one place serving alcohol. Some of the famous early saloons included the “Eldorado”, the “Pioneer”, the “London Arms” and the first in Sapperton was the “Retreat”. Smart saloon keepers knew just how to treat the Police enforcing Judge Begbie’s strict laws. Officers would drink where there wasn’t a license and lay charges. Too often they were dismissed because officers “consumed the evidence” (Jack Peden, Labatt’s personnel manager in the Columbian Centennial Edition).

The most successful brewer in New Westminster was Nels Nelson, a Danish immigrant who first arrived and worked in Victoria breweries. In about 1882 Nelson moved to New Westminster and became brew master at the City Brewery. After it became the Westminster Brewery, he bought and expanded it in the 1890s. Nelson was one of the first in Canada to use glass bottles sometimes instead of beer kegs or barrels. During the great fire of 1898, Nels quickly brought out fire hoses and used brewery water to protect modern new machinery while the building burned around it.

People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)

People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)

The New Westminster Brewery was rebuilt at Brunette and Columbia on the site of the defunct Jamieson brewery for better access to trains bringing barley and hops, and Brunette River water. During Prohibition (1916-20 when alcohol was banned in Canada and the U.S.A.), Nelson was allowed a unique allowance to produce beer for export, but much was also sold in New Westminster illegally. Many people in the city prospered during prohibition and when it continued in the U.S. until 1933. From the 1890s until he sold the Brewery in 1928, Nels Nelson became a rich, powerful and active man in the city. He built one of the largest homes at 125 Queen’s Avenue in 1912 for his extended family and in retirement bought an orange grove in California for winter retreats.

The Coast Company bought the Westminster Brewery from Nelson, expanded and in 1941 it became Lucky Lager. It was a very popular western brand and expanded again into the largest and most modern brewery in B.C. with Labatt’s purchase in 1958. Labatt’s kept selling Lucky Lager Brew that challenged Molson’s eastern brands until the 1970s. As Brunette Street grew more into a highway and Sapperton began to make a shift from industry to a residential and commercial centre, the location of the large brewery became awkward for Labatt’s and it was closed for redevelopment in 2005.


Theatre brightens the cultural landscape

Bernie Legge Theatre as it was in 1914. Photo: Vagabond Players

Bernie Legge Theatre as it was in 1914. Photo: Vagabond Players

One of the many things I admire about New Westminster is the innate enthusiasm found here concerning the city’s history, the pride that’s shown in it, and the continuing traditions which bring that history into the present as well. I’ve lived here for about a year and a half at this point, and I’m still discovering little corners of the city that shares an illustrious history, and continues as a force to bind a community together.

The Bernie Legge theatre is the home of the Vagabond players, nestled in the trees near Queen’s Park stadium. The theatre building was constructed in 1909 under the eye of architect E.G.W Sait, once a fisheries building, and turned over to the Vagabond Players in 1951.

The Players themselves date back to 1937. Since then, the troupe has hosted a number of luminaries in their ranks, including the Medallioned One himself, Bruno Gerussi, and Perry Mason/Ironside local hero Raymond Burr.

The idea behind the troupe is the encouragement and development of local talent. This is not just in treading the boards as actors, but also in the very important fields of set design and construction, costuming, light and sound, and even ushers, coffee bar staff, and ticket takers.

The point is that theatre does not have to be a faraway and inaccessible activity that happens mysteriously somewhere else. But rather, theatre created by those living in the same community can be something that brightens the cultural landscape on the most direct level possible. It takes a city already enriched by its own history, and makes sure that the history goes on for current and upcoming generations of those interested in artistic expression. Local theatre can bring unique vibrancy to the lives of friends, neighbours, co-workers, and community leaders.

Apart from regular performances of plays you know, and some you don’t know yet, here’s what lies at the heart of the troupe’s approach in creating an environment that puts the ancient art of theatre into the hands of everyone in the community.

From the Vagabond Players website :

Vagabond Players is not just a troupe that puts on plays. It is a learning center for people interested in becoming actors, directors, lighting or sound technicians, set designers, and costumers. It’s also a place where aspiring writers can present their new work. (read more about local theatre in New Westminster from the Vagabond Players website …)

See that last part about writers? That should send the imaginations of you aspiring playwrights out there a-reeling!

Of course in addition to being involved in productions, a big emphasis with local arts is getting people out to the events themselves. In the past, the local community was enthusiastic about funding local theatre. And even today, anyone can contribute to the Vagabond Players first by seeking a membership, and of course by buying tickets to upcoming shows as well.

And what are those upcoming shows as of this writing? Well,

  • Doubt - October 21-November 13
  • The Highwayman’s Christmas – December 18 & 23 at 7:00 p.m, December 19, 21, 22, 26, 27 & 28 at 2:00 p.m.
  • Norman, Is that you? - Jan. 20 – Feb. 12
  • Amadeus - March 31 – April 23rd
  • Shadow of Murder – June 2 – 25

You can reserve tickets by phone at 604-521-0412, or reserve them by email at

For you experienced, and presumably not-so-experienced thesps out there, auditions for Amadeus, including the role Salieri (immortalized by F. Murray Abraham in the 1986 film version, a role for which he was awarded an Oscar for Best Actor ) are being conducted November 28th-29th.

For more information, be sure to visit

And because I’m the one writing this piece for Tenth to the Fraser, and because I can’t help myself in my role as resident music geek, here are 5 songs loosely about stardom, actors, and the stage.

1. Everybody is a Star – Sly & The Family Stone

2. Stage Fright – The Band

3. You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show) – Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis

4. Nick Lowe – Marie Provost

5. I’m in Love With A German Film Star – The Passions


New Westminster loves Markets

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society. Ken is a fifth generation New Westminster resident, whose family arrived in 1859 and have enjoyed the city ever since. He helps People with Disabilities enjoy their lives with direct support and as a writer and designer of education and employment programs. He also enjoys helping others throughout the community. He is a founding member of the newly established Friends of the New Westminster Museum and Archives Society (FNWMA), which is responsible for helping more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and our province. He wants to find out what people know, want to learn and want to help, so wants peoples’ input. Until the FNWMA Society has a website, you can contact him at kenw10 (at)

Vendors gathering with their goods at the market before the Great Fire(NWMA IHP0098)

Vendors gathering with their goods at the market before the Great Fire(NWMA IHP0098)

People in New Westminster love Markets. You can see it today in the popularity of The Royal City Farmer’s Market and the anticipation about the long-awaited reopening of River Market. But the same has been true for many years. People bartered and sold their goods on the streets right from New Westminster’s beginning.

Back in 1892, as trails (and train tracks) grew between Vancouver and New Westminster, and paddlewheelers started bringing farmers down the Fraser, the city decided to build its first market.

The City Market was on the waterfront between 4th and 6th Streets at Lytton Square (Westminster Pier Park will have a monument named for it). Fruit and vegetables, fish, crafts, meat and dairy filled the market. But in 1898, the market was at the centre of a huge fire that destroyed the downtown.

People shopping at the new market after the fire (NWMA IHP1112)

People shopping at the new market after the fire (NWMA IHP1112)

The market was rebuilt (it used the original plans so looked similar) soon after for people to socialize and help rebuild their spirits and the city. With the New Westminster Bridge and the Interurban streetcar network between Vancouver and Chilliwack, fishermen came to the docks and farmers could bring berries in the spring, sweet corn in the summer, Okanagan fruit in the fall, knitted winter clothes and Christmas crafts. The market was expanded several times.

Another fire destroyed the market in August of 1925. The city had grown, streetcars and automobiles mostly used Columbia Street and people came from Vancouver, so instead of rebuilding the market on the waterfront docks, a modern building was constructed nearby on Columbia Street. The Columbian Newspaper called it “The finest market yet established in the province” when in was opened in April of 1926.

Columbia Street kept on growing with help from the Market. People often called it the “Golden Mile” (and later the “Miracle Mile”) because of the market and many stores between 8th Street and the Patullo Bridge. After the Second World War, the city sold the building to Spencer Company for a great profit. The market and other buildings were combined into an Eaton’s department store for growing young families. Army and Navy eventually moved into the building and are still there after 40 years. On Front Street the building still resembles the original market. How many of you knew that building was once the city market?

After Another Fire burned the market in 1925, a newer market was built on Columbia Street and is now part of the Army and Navy store (NWMA IHP3736)

After Another Fire burned the market in 1925, a newer market was built on Columbia Street and is now part of the Army and Navy store (NWMA IHP3736)

A new city market was built for $110,000 in 1947 with hopes to rejuvenate the former Chinatown district of New Westminster near the foot of 10th Street (where Columbia Square is now). It was still a good place for local foods and crafts, kittens and puppies for families and bingo for 40 years. Unfortunately, suburban growth and changing needs of people did not help the market. In 1987, because of competition from the new, private Westminster Quay Market and other plans for downtown, the city closed the market and it moved to Port Moody.


Remembering New Westminster’s ‘Pay-a-Toll-o’ Bridge

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society. Ken is a fifth generation New Westminster resident, whose family arrived in 1859 and have enjoyed the city ever since. He helps People with Disabilities enjoy their lives with direct support and as a writer and designer of education and employment programs. He also enjoys helping others throughout the community. He is a founding member of the newly established Friends of the New Westminster Museum and Archives Society (FNWMA), which is responsible for helping more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and our province. He wants to find out what people know, want to learn and want to help, so wants peoples’ input. Until the FNWMA Society has a website, you can contact him at kenw10 (at)

Cars on the narrow deck of the New Westminster bridge while the Patullo Bridge was built. Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives.

cars on the narrow deck of the New Westminster bridge while the Patullo Bridge was built (IHP7826-004)

Translink recently announced a new bridge will be built in the next 5 years between New Westminster and Surrey, the third bridge across in the past 106 years.

The first “New Westminster Bridge” was opened by Premier Richard McBride on July 23, 1904. It was the first bridge across the Lower Fraser River, mainly for rail traffic but had a second, wood-planked deck above (mainly for horses and carts at the time) that shook horribly when trains passed underneath. It allowed for trains to link from the U.S. to Vancouver, and in 1911 created a great opportunity for B.C. Electric’s Interurban tram line to move people and freight from Chilliwack to Vancouver. This led to great economic growth for many years.

But the New Westminster Bridge was very inefficient for families who, by the 1930s, wanted to travel to the U.S. and up the Fraser Valley on their own schedule in cars. Premier T.D. “Duff” Patullo pushed hard for the bridge to be built by the province in New Westminster to create jobs during the depression and to stimulate growth.

The Patullo Bridge was built tall so that large ships could pass under to go to mills up the river. The New Westminster bridge swung open for ships to pass. Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives.

The Patullo Bridge was built tall so that large ships could pass under to go to mills up the river. The New Westminster bridge swung open for ships to pass. (IHP7152)

The very modern and expensive ($4 million) bridge was opened on November 15, 1937 and named after the man who proudly spearheaded the project. Tolls were required for 15 years to pay for it, so it was often called the “Pay-a-Toll-o” bridge by unhappy New Westminster residents. It allowed for construction of the Pacific Highway to Blaine and helped encourage growth in Surrey and New Westminster.

73 years later the bridge is aging and has narrow lanes for trucks and cars, so soon it will be replaced by the 3rd road bridge, just upstream of the bridges that have survived well for the past 106 years.


Mayor to recognize award-winning heritage properties

New Westminster’s heritage architecture is one of its biggest assets. While there are pockets of heritage neighbourhoods throughout the Lower Mainland, New Westminster is lush with vintage appeal. At June 14th’s Regular Council meeting at 7pm, Mayor Wayne Wright will recognize two award-winning local historic properties and present plaques to a number of recent homes that have received municipal heritage designation status.

Here are the details, from New Westminster Heritage Planner Julie Schueck:

Two projects were nominated by New Westminster to stand against heritage projects from around the province and both projects were recognized for their achievements at the Heritage BC conference that recently took place in Victoria.

Boiler House

The Boiler House at Victoria Hill has won an Award of Honour from Heritage BC

The Boiler House at Victoria Hill won an Award of Honour from Heritage BC. The Boiler House was constructed in 1930 by the provincial Department of Public Works. The original intention of the Boiler House was to provide a reliable source of heat to all the buildings on the site, using what was then an advanced technology. It was designed in the Art Deco style of architecture and consists of cast-in-place reinforced concrete, a circular smokestack with decorative banding, and gothic-inspired quatrefoil inset panels in the centre window bay.

The distinctive board-formed concrete was repaired where necessary, windows were repaired rather than replaced, unsympathetic additions were removed. New structural elements, including the seismic bracing, were left exposed in a manner that respects the old while being clearly new. The main interior feature of the Boiler House is its fitness room with an impressive 2-storey high ceiling and exposed structural and mechanical systems, which gives the space a gritty yet modern feel. The washroom facilities are completely accessible. The remainder of the Boiler House consists of rooms for friendly gatherings, billiards, a theatre with raked seating, meetings, and reading – where there are overstuffed chairs and a gas fireplace. Inside and out, the Boiler House has been rehabilitated into a pleasant and functional space that honours the past and looks forward to the future.

-The heritage conservation plan was developed by Robert Lemon of Robert Lemon Architects
-the architectural work was carried out by Doug Johnson of Doug Johnson Architects
-the landscape plan was developed by David Stoyko of Sharp and Diamond Landscape Architects
- the owner, Onni Group of Companies

Howay Cottage

Howay Cottage received a Certificate of Recognition from Heritage BC. The 500 Fourth Ave house was created through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement that saw the property at 340 Fifth St subdivided and an at-risk heritage house relocated to the new lot from the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood.

The Howay Cottage at 500 Fourth Avenue won an Award of Recognition from Heritage BC. Built in 1902, the Howay Cottage was originally located at 506 Tenth Street. In 2008, the cottage was under threat of demolition when it was spotted by Felicity and Chris Rudolph. Unlike most people who saw a badly run-down house, they saw a house with potential.

Through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement and with the help of architect Eric Pattison and contractors Basil Restoration, the Howay Cottage was relocated to the Rudolph’s property in Queen’s Park and rehabilitated using an approved heritage conservation plan.

The rehabilitation of the cottage retained the clarity and simplicity of its form, scale and massing; the deep enclosed roof eaves and wide frieze boards; the wood sash multi-pane windows; and the cantilevered window bay. Contemporary asphalt shingle siding was removed and the original wood siding was restored. Corner boards and trim were restored and replicated where necessary. The masonry chimney was rebuilt to its original profile. The front porch was replicated to match the original and paint scrapings established the original paint scheme that was able to be matched. All original windows were repaired or restored. All non-historic windows were replaced with matching historic style windows. The non historic front door was replaced with just the right salvaged door that took months to find. New cedar roof shingles were installed. New elements to the house included a 450 sq ft addition on the side of the cottage that was set back 12 feet from the street. This allowed for a family room and a second bedroom, making the house more liveable.

The Howay Cottage has quickly settled into its new location and its new life; showing that a run-down house could be turned into a sought-after gem when in the right hands.

The heritage conservation plan and the rehabilitation plans were developed by Eric Pattison of Eric Pattison Architects; and the construction was carried out by brothers Mark and Miles Wittig of Basil Restoration.


NW Museum & Archives a place both ‘of the people’ and ‘for the people’

This is a guest post from Rob McCullough, Curator at New Westminster Museum and Archives. The museum is running a “Community Visioning Workshop” on May 4 at 7pm in search of inspiration for fresh exhibits in its upcoming gallery redevelopment (call 604-527-4640 for more details). The event description says, “We are seeking new ideas and a progressive outlook so we can create interesting and dynamic exhibits. What can we do to accomplish this? What would make you visit your museum?” Interested, we pressed Rob for more, and this is what he had to say:

Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives

Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives

“Make it personal” I was told, “explain why it needs to happen”.  Uhmm Okay, I think I can do that, but where do I begin…?

I suppose I can take it back to my earliest years, to a time when much of the world was unknown to me.  I cherished new experiences and ideas that stimulated my imagination.  I loved fairy tales that took place in times of yore, but those were just for children, right?  Then, I discovered the Choose Your Own Adventure books; I loved the way they carried me to another place. The Cave of Time sticks out the most.  It took me right back to the dinosaurs, through the Middle Ages and up to when the Titanic slipped beneath the waves of the Atlantic.  Suddenly, for me, a whole new world was opening up; a world of the past where stunning tales of adventure might really have happened.

I had to learn more about history to see if the stories were true… and thank god they were.  I wasn’t just being led astray, but hold on a minute, there was much more to these stories.  There were people, and with those people came ideas and objects that didn’t make it to the pages of my Choose Your Own Adventure.  I needed to find out more.  Low and behold there were places dedicated to storing these objects and documenting the ideas.  To think that I could actually be in the presence of a stone-age spear point that brought down the mighty mammoth! This alone had the power to take me back ten thousand years.  I’ve now been to several museums that hold such treasures, but some of them made the stories seem more real than others.  They managed to stimulate my imagination. There was a gift to this method of storytelling – the kind that uses objects and ideas.

After spending time in a few museums, I began to realise that the objects on display were just a special chosen few from the entire collection.  Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of others were being stored behind locked doors.  I had to see them, so I began looking for work in a museum.  Then one day, after finding such a job, it struck me: how do I choose which items to put out for others to see?  How do I choose which stories to tell?  Now I was living the Choose Your Own Adventure and the many possible outcomes were at my fingertips. My conundrum was selecting the stories that stimulated other people’s imaginations.  What do they want to know about?  What would make history real for them?  After all, everything that I’ve been hired to care for belongs to them.  Whoa, this is gonna be a big task.  How can I create a museum gallery that connects to the toddler, the parent, the teenager, the tourist, the old timer and the teacher all at once? It occurred to me that the best way to find out is to ask them, so I’ve arranged to have a visioning workshop at the New Westminster Museum and Archives on May 4th at 7pm.

I was told that in writing this I should make it personal.  It is personal, to every man, woman and child that comes through our doors and lives in our city.  I was also told that I should explain why it needs to happen.  Well, I suppose this visioning workshop needs to happen because everything held in the bowels of our institution belongs to the people of New Westminster.  No one person can know what stimulates the imagination and curiosity of nearly sixty thousand people.  A visioning workshop is at least a place to start finding out.  Our museum must be more than a place “of the people”, it must also be a place “for the people” of New Westminster.


New Westminster Museum and Archives Community Visioning Workshop event details:

The New Westminster Museum and Archives is undertaking a gallery redevelopment. The purpose of the museum is to tell our City’s story in a manner that best connects with our visitors, supports Parks, Culture & Recreation’s comprehensive planning and encourages the community to feel at home in their museum. We are seeking new ideas and a progressive outlook so we can create interesting and dynamic exhibits. What can we do to accomplish this? What would make you visit your museum?

Residents are encouraged to provide their ideas on future exhibitions and programming and assist us in understanding what stimulates curiosity and inspiration. Join us at this visioning workshop and help us share the story of New Westminster’s rich history.

When: May 4th, 2010

Time: 7:00 pm

Where: The New Westminster Museum and Archives, 302 Royal Avenue

Contact: 604-527-4640


Bluebird Dairy Demolition

The Bluebird goes down.

The Bluebird goes down.

The Bluebird Dairy corner store, long an icon at 8th Street and 4th Avenue, was unceremoniously demolished today. I feel a bit sad.  Long ago, as a young early 20s single woman-about-town, I used to rent the top floor of that big brown house next to the Bluebird. And I bought a huge amount of my groceries at the little corner store. I came to rely on the Bluebird. The staff became familiar faces.

Silencing the Bluebird

Silencing the Bluebird

On September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work, and stopped in at the Bluebird for a pack of smokes. The radio was on behind the counter and the two employees were glued to it. That’s when I heard a second plane had been piloted into the World Trade Centre.  I’ll always remember where I was.

Local reporter Theresa MacManus has also posted some memories of the Bluebird on her blog.

Goodbye, Bluebird. You served me well.


Changing of the Guard (well, at least the C.O.)

Regiment taking the parade grounds

Regiment taking the parade grounds

I was in the Queen’s Ave Armories the other day talking with Captain Vernon, an officer in the Royal Westminster Regiment. We had Farmer’s Market business to discuss as the armories are neighbours of the market and I was gauging their interest in joining the RCFM on a project. Captain Vernon was very gracious with his time and during our discussion he reminded me that the public was invited to a ceremony that Sunday, September 13th, in the Queen’s Park Arena for the Change of Command Ceremony.

Wow, that was an event I could not turn down. My father and grandfather were both in the regiment. My Dad was a Lieutenant, specializing in french horn and my grand-dad was Staff Sergeant. Near the end of his career he kept the books. The upcoming event reminded me that the position of the Regiment in the city. Annual soirees like the Officer’s Ball or the NCO’s ball were marquee events in the city’s social calendar and anyone (who was anyone) would be there. The rest of us would be left to clean up. I heard of one less formal gathering in the armories in the mid 1960′s that featured in an indoor car race, the object of which was to see who could stop their sports car closest to the 6th street wall of the armories (from the inside) with out touching it. The race ended with one car passing through the 6th st gate and down onto the street. The driver, no doubt, felt no pain until morning.

But for better or for worse, that was then and this is now. The army is a much less public institution than it used to be and the armories is no longer the kind of building the average citizen sees the inside of. While our regiment is tied to our city in a way few regiments are, it is now a world apart and the number of people who would know the name of the Commanding Officer are few.  His name is Lieutenant Colonel Doug M. Poitras, Canadian Dragoons. He is an able speaker, looks pretty snappy, is a veteran of Afghanistan and many other postings. He has a Psychology Degree and he was raised in the lower mainland. He is around 51 years old but he doesn’t look it.

The transfer of command ceremony consisted primarily of two uniformed guard elements and one cadet element marching to The Maple Leaf Forever and Colonel Bogey’s March.

Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.

Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.

Within one of the regimental guards was a group of 12 or so soldiers in desert fatigues. These men were destined to serve in Afghanistan. The regiment has sent 40 members there already (since the conflict began) and another 30ish troops are due to depart.

The pomp and ceremony was fascinating, like a window into some lost time. Many of the rituals and traditions seem to be almost sacraments, such as the transfer of the possession of the Regimental Colours. The departing commander marches the colours from the Honour Guard to an Honorary Officer with all of the deference you would expect. The incoming commander then takes possession of the colours and returns it to the Honour Guard. As the colours are the single most important regimental artifact, with all of the battle honors displayed on the flag, the affair is as solemn as the blood of fallen comrades demands.  When two officers salute on the parade grounds, both with swords drawn, the inferior officer makes an elaborate swoop down of his weapon in deference to he ranking officer. The Commanding Officer barely whispers the marching orders to the junior officer, the officer then calls for the Regimental Sergeant Major and quietly explains the orders again. After all of the officers depart, the Regimental Sergeant Major then assembles the sergeants of each guard and belts out the orders to the assembled troopers.  It is a visible and visceral display of the chain of command at work.

For the time being I have this collection of photographs from the event. I plan to post some video somewhere in short order.

One of the afternoon’s speeches that I will remember was a reference by Colonel G.W.J. Richmond (I think) to the Regiment’s relationship with the city.

I want to remind the community how fine a regiment this is…one of the few in Canada to have its regimental colours fly at City Hall. Most regiments never get that opportunity but this is your regiment…(and that is)a great testament to the connection this regiment has with your community.

Photo slideshow from the Change of Command Ceremony on September 13, 2009


A Critical Eye on ‘Canadians for Reconciliation’

Our Chinese Canadian Pioneers

I am having a real problem writing this post. I am a white guy and as my ancestors came to New Westminster in 1909. I am one of the very, veeery few New Westminsterites whose oldsters may have actually participated in active or passive discrimination of Chinese Pioneers in this city’s past.

I fully understand my position in this story but as a bleeding heart liberal and as a BC elementary and secondary student whose history education consisted of French Canadians, Aboriginal Canadians, Chinese Canadians and South Asian Canadians to the exclusion of all else, I have been fully conditioned to feel guilty, sympathetic and responsible.

I understand that by simply raising the following issue here, I could be branded a reactionary or a racist but in fact, I would be the first to support reasonable measures to honour the contributions of historically marginalized groups. I would feel more comfortable, however, if the voice calling for action also had an echo of credibility. It is time for a critical view.

By a critical view, I mean to be open-minded and not take anything for granted. I am not here to criticize per se, but I do believe there has been a real lack of true reporting on the claims and demands made by Bill Chu, founder, chair and spokesperson of ‘Canadians for Reconciliation,’ a Christian organization dedicated in the past to a religious reconciliation, and more recently to the reconciliation of ‘society’ with the stories and worth of Chinese and Aboriginal Canadians and the past abuses of those groups by historical British Columbians and now, New Westminsterites.

Like any good spokesperson, Chu is great at getting press releases published and getting interviews in local media. I have heard him on the radio twice and he has had articles and news stories in the local papers more times than I could count (Record, Leader, Georgia Straight, Province and I think the Sun). In all such cases, the report is simply a blind acceptance of the position and opinion of Bill Chu, a Canadian arriving from Hong Kong in the 1980’s, and no actual investigation into the veracity of what he says. I say, there should have been questions asked that were not.

  • Are the remains of early Chinese Canadians buried at the NWSS site?
  • Did New Westminster turn the Chinese Benevolent association building into a dog park?
  • Has the education of our children excluded the story of the Chinese Community?
  • Has nothing been done to reconcile our past and honour the legacy of Chinese Pioneers?
  • Is Mr Chu a descendant of the Chinese Canadian pioneer community? Does he officially represent the claims of this community?

In many of his interviews and articles and statements, I have found the claims of Bill Chu to be misleading and sometimes false and his demands to be irresponsible, irrelevant and made without the input of the descendants of early Chinese Canadians. He seems dismissive to the needs and welfare of the community here in New Westminster and I am of the opinion that no matter what commemorative or reconciliation activities may have happened in the past, if it was not at the hands of Bill Chu, they just won’t cut it.


City of New Westminster shows “reluctance to acknowledge” historical discrimination against Chinese residents”

I don’t see it. It is covered in all of the museums, a special feature is about to be unveiled in the Fraser River discovery center and every review of our city’s history had a prominent position for the stories of our Chinese Pioneers. The subject is covered endlessly in our city’s schools, our Mayor and Council have reached out to communities in China and elsewhere and a committee for multiculturalism works actively in the city. What is more, New Westminster is a multicultural city with a pluralist view and population. Our city includes Chinese Canadians as equals, not as outsiders.

New Westminster Senior Secondary built on Chinese Graves

Kind of true. There was a Chinese Cemetery in part of the cemetery that is under part of the NWSS school site. The practice was to inter the body for a few years and then ship the exhumed remains to China for final burial. It is projected by city historians and by Chu himself that the likelihood that remains still exist is low. This cemetery and the other grave areas on the site were built over during WW2 by the federal government for use by the army as a camp. After the war, NWSS was built. The fact that there was a (multi-ethnic) cemetery there was not forgotten, but it did not stop the building of the school. There is a lesson in that.

Chinese Benevolent Association Building site turned into a dog park by City, Mayor and Council

Well there is a dog park there. Apparently, before the 1920s, the swampy semi-tidal land that is now between the Spaghetti Factory and the old London Drugs site was a China Town. I remember a story that McInes St was built with rail road ties that had to be replenished every few years as the swamp sucked them up. I would bet there is not much left to find after a century of suction and the construction of the Quay, New Westminster Station, the overpass, 8 high-rise towers, Fogg Motors (gone) London Drugs (gone) and various industrial and automotive businesses. The idea that the dog park was built over the Benevolent Association site is a real stretch as that site has been a crackilakin’ weed patch for the last 5 years and a light industrial building before that.

Carnarvon dog park emotionally damaging to Chinese Canadians because of whites only dog parks in China’s past

I don’t even know what to make of this one. China made dog parks that were for whites only? Why? Is that something we should have known about? Is the suggestion that we are intentionally rubbing salt in the wounds of Chinese Canadians? Is the multi-ethnic, pluralistic society of New Westminster now to blame for this bizarre occurrence in China that took place decades ago?


City of New Westminster: Enact a Chinese Heritage Week

OK, I am sold on this one. Lots of ethnic communities put a real great events together in this city.  Our position as an affordable, central and dense community with lots of community service institutions means that we have large populations of new Canadians from Africa, the Caribbean, East and South Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. We also have vibrant Aboriginal and Western European populations. I think council should proclaim a Chinese Heritage event. Like the Caribbean community does, the Chinese Community could organize a family-oriented public event that is fun for everyone and promotes inter-cultural understanding.

During this Chinese Heritage Week, Schools in District #40 will be taught all about the Chinese Story in New Westminster.

Besides not being in the power of City Council in the first place, I should point out that there is precious little local curriculum of any kind in the school system in the first place. When I was in high school, when Provincial and Canadian history was taught at all, it was focused almost exclusively on the history of our marginalized and minority Canadians until about grade 11 and 12.

All excavation of Chinatown area be accompanied by an archeologist

Way too expensive and it only serves the interests of the group demands it as the whole area has been built over at least once already and anything else is under the 10 meters of fill used to make the land a former swamp

A memorial park to Chinese Pioneers must be built on the NWSS site.

Chinese Nationalist League Building, New Westminster 1946

In a city as dense and small as ours, where almost every contentious community issue comes down to the lack of available land, we have already been told that a portion of the New Westminster Secondary School site must be reserved as a passive park, over the Cemetery. Despite what the needs of the community are, the status of portions of that site as an active cemetery mean that this must happen. Ideally, this passive park will include a monument that will honour all of the pioneer populations that used the space as a cemetery and it will be incorporated as part of the graceful open spaces used by the students and teachers of NWSS.

This city is in a gut-wrenching stage of its history as our school system seems to be imploding, buildings are falling apart, recently forgotten cemeteries stymie plans to move ahead while we are forced to slash teachers, support staff and even close schools. While it is important to give honour where honour is due, can we allow it to be at the expense of the whole community; a multi-ethnic community that we all belong to? Should the voice or claims of one person outweigh the needs of a city?

I think no. I think the city should reach out to the actual descendants of our Chinese Canadian pioneers to determine if the last few decades of correcting our history and understanding of the Chinese Canadian story has allowed them to feel like whole citizens. Should we ask them whether we need to gnaw over old bones and dig up old wrongs or is this just needless self flagellation?

If there is a real feeling that a commemoration should occur, let’s look to one that doesn’t pit one ethnicity against another or ascribe shame to a pluralistic city filled with people whose ancestors, except for me and perhaps a hundred other citizens, had nothing at all to do with the challenges or opportunities of the past.

Post Script: Look, this is my opinion here and it is not necessarily shared by the blog Tenth to the Fraser or by the other authors. There is a comment section of this post. Fill it up if you disagree or agree. I am an even minded type of person. I can admit if I have some of this wrong. Share some evidence with me if you think I should know about it. Until then, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.”

Sources:  much of what I am quoting and referencing here has been on the radio, in the Record, Leader and Province but for right now, I am only referencing this article in the Georgia Straight and this one in the Record.

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The Way We Were: Videos from our Past.

Recently, commenter and contributor Ruth Seeley mentioned a link to Rick Springate’s website Go See TV, a website that contains fascinating old video footage of New Westminster events, converted into easy to view digital vignettes. This website is a rare treasure trove of nostalgia for all who have lived a life in the Royal City or who are interested in the way lives use to be lived here.

One page of Go See TV exclusively presents footage from most May Day celebrations from 1932 to 1963, all of which were filmed by H.Norman Lidster, who was involved in the celebrations. Each file is a precious time capsule into the past of our city, our country the British Empire (take a look at some of the earlier videos and you will see what I mean) and the World. See elementary school students and high school students doing orchestrated calisthenics and complex dances. See the look of common purpose and confidence on the faces of the youth and the pride and respect they seem to get from their elders. It was a different time.

Here is the oldest of the files, from 1932.

In 1944, The May Queen arrived on an armoured personnel transport and there is an aircraft carrier in Coal Harbour.

Have a look and ask yourself: “what has changed in our society since some of these videos were created”? For one thing, I don’t think today’s school board would issue band and sports uniforms with such short skirts. Wait, we could once pay for uniforms?

For more period videos, see
and as well.

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Local B&B and Its Proposed New Look

I popped by a Public Information Session a few weekends ago at the Admiral Anson Bed and Breakfast. I’ve never stayed at the Admiral Anson, but it’s a pleasant member of my neighbourhood with a well kept yard. As a fan of B&B’s, I think I’d like it and although I’ve not slept there, I do recommend it frequently to family and friends and have heard no complaints. According to the website, rooms are offered at $45 – $75 a night – which is incredibly reasonable – beyond reasonable, to be honest, when plain Jane hotel rooms in this city go for an average of $100 a night. The owner of the Admiral Anson, Allan Greenwood, held the Public Information Session because he is seeking City approval for a three-fold application: a Heritage Revitalization Agreement for the existing home, approval for a secondary suite below in the basement, and the subdivision of his lot into two separate lots so he can construct another house. 

Click here for the rest of the article. 


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Anachronistic thrills at Festival of Volunteers

I have had the rare pleasure of having a local newspaper delivered to my door (seriously, our paperboy must be stockpiling them for a Piñata-making party), and after reading through the agenda in the two-page ad for the Festival of Volunteers, I see now that they’ve buried the lede.

My co-author Jen has already covered the altruistic reasons to head out to Royal City Centre this Saturday for the Festival of Volunteers. But even if you have zero interest in volunteering, it will be worth it to come out to see Mayor Wayne Wright take Gov. James Douglas (d. 1877) to task for allowing cheeky Victoria to steal away our birthright as capital city of British Columbia.

Up until 1868, New Westminster was the capital city of British Columbia, before that honour was snatched away by Victoria. Find out how such a historic injustice could have occurred! Join Mayor Wayne Wright for a spirited discussion with Governor James Douglas (first Governor of B.C.) on the merits of restoring the Royal City of New Westminster as B.C.’s rightful capital.

Source: Festival of Volunteers ad, page B2 & B3 of The Record

Actors from The Royal City Engineers Living History Group will play Sir James Douglas, Lady Amelia Douglas, riverboat captain John Irving, New Westminster’s first Sheriff Chartres Brew and a Royal Engineer. It gets better: Colin Barrett of the Delta Police Pipe Band (warning: autoloading audio files if you follow the link) will play a period bagpiper, skirling away! 

The historical re-enactment portion of the Festival of Volunteers is from 11am to noon. The actors will be available for photos by donation, with proceeds going to support The Royal City Volunteers. 

Other events include: 

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New West playwrights invited to submit scripts

If you’re passionate about theatre and New Westminster history, this could be right up your alley:

The Backroom Theatre Club is issuing a Call for Plays to the many playwrights in New Westminster to write short play vignettes, of about 10 minutes duration, on any New Westminster history theme of their choice. These vignettes will be produced throughout 2009 to celebrate New Westminster’s 150th anniversary.

It is expected that the vignettes will provide theatrical snapshots of what life was like in New Westminster in the past 150 years.

More: BTC 150th Vignettes Project Overview (PDF file)

If you’re interested, call the Backroom Theatre Club at 604.523.1523 or 778.868.2254. You can also watch the New Westminster Arts Council website for more details as the project progresses.


Thinking on the Mighty Samson

New Westminster, the oldest city in western Canada, has much to offer the history buff. Yet our overstuffed museums struggle along piecemeal, cramming 150 years into nooks and crannies around the city. It does not do justice to the stories this city has to share. The New Westminster Museum is an artifact in itself yet the vast majority of the collection is not available for casual inspection. The cramped but fantastic Royal Westminster Regimental Museum screams for more space – but it is never open anyway, so no one knows it is there.

samson-vAnd then there is the Samson V. She is a visible icon of our not-too-distant past, a beautiful example of machinery and engineering and a unique attraction for our city. Operated by the Royal Agricultural and Industrial Society of B.C., the Samson V museum ship operates on a shoestring budget and a lot of volunteer love, tied up to pilings next to the boardwalk at the New Westminster Quay. The city recently announced over $200,000 in funding for urgent repairs to the hull of the wooden sternwheeler so she could stay afloat, but should the grizzled old ship really remain bereft on the river, exposed to the elements?

Contrast poor Samson to the St. Roch exhibit in Vancouver. The St. Roch is the centerpiece of a larger museum project. It is the kind of meaningful attraction that has staying power and really adds value to a community. Yet the Vancouver Maritime Museum too is bursting at the seams and in need of a rebuild or a new home.

Imagine the Samson V, the Regimental Museum, the Fraser River Discovery Center and the New Westminster Museum enfolded into one installation, all housed in a single complex attracting regional, national and international visitors. This would be a Museum of Vancouver Maritime MuseumNew Westminster that would be worthy of notice, a place to celebrate the birth of our province and the people who built it.

With the Maritime Museum and the St Roch needing a new Home, a truly meaningful museum complex could be just what New Westminster needs. Haul the Samson V out of the river and give it a home with the St. Roch in a new facility, built between the river and the Columbia Street parkade!

The B.C. Museum in Victoria seems to leave out so much of the mainland story of the beginnings of this province, but a new federal, civic, and provincial joint project could really show it off. New Westminster is the first capitol of this province and its story as a city is at the heart of the history of British Columbia. This is the place to showcase our city, our province and our society. And the Samson V.


A Christmas story

Here’s a lovely hint of a story to think about as we approach Christmas: when soldiers were posted to B.C. in 1943 to guard against a feared attack by the Japanese, New Westminster opened its doors and made sure every last one had a home to go to for Christmas:

Despite omnipresent danger, tasteless bully beef and hardtack rations in the field, and nearly dying of pneumonia one year, Christmas in the army was the only place Charles Goodman wanted to be in his youth.

Having left home in Saint John any lying about his age so he could enlist in 1943, the 15-year-old found joy and escape from unhappy family life in military camaraderie.

Sent to B.C. to defend against a feared Japanese attack during his first military Christmas, Goodman recalls the town of New Westminster opening its doors to feed and fete every soldier on the festive day.

That gives me some warm and fuzzies. It’s so typically New West.


Remembering New West’s Great Fire in 1898

Local blog Regarding Place has an interesting feature called “A Year in Five Minutes” in which they write a quick overview of the highlights of a given year in history here in the GVRD. The latest was 1898, which was marked by (among other things), New Westminster’s Great Fire :

Another Great Fire

The year was bad for New Westminster. The entire downtown section of the city was burned in a great fire September 10/11, including almost all the commercial section. Hundreds were left homeless. Almost 60 city blocks were leveled. Vancouver Fire Department historian Alex Matches writes: “The fire started in a riverfront hay storage warehouse and spread to two sternwheel river boats, the Edgar and the Gladys, which drifted down river setting fire to every wharf they touched. The raging fire then jumped Front Street and was quickly spread uptown by fierce winds.” Damage was estimated at $2.5 million, an enormous amount in 1898 dollars. Only two brick buildings were left standing. The VFD had saved one of them.

The VFD had a busy year closer to home: after a few years in which fewer than 100 fire alarms came in annually (58 alarms in 1894, 97 the following year, 64 in 1896 and 62 in 1897) expansion of the city—largely fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush—led to 131 alarms, the highest the city had experienced since incorporation 12 years earlier.

Front St., from Lytton Sq., New Westminster, after September 10 fire, 1898. Photographer: C.E. Bloomfield. Photo #Out N584.

Front St., from Lytton Sq., New Westminster, after September 10 fire, 1898. Photographer: C.E. Bloomfield. Photo #Out N584.

Read the full article for more – it’s interesting stuff for the history buff. 


Irving House’s twist on Christmas tradition: apple garlands

Those seeking ideas for sustainable decorations this Christmas, should cast their eye to the keepers of the past. New Westminster’s Irving House museum is profiled on Gardenwise for their unusual twist on a traditional garland that uses real apples for a beautiful and memorable look.

At Irving House in New Westminster the halls really are decked with boughs of holly — and lots of other traditional accents that transform the home into a celebration of a Victorian Christmas.

There are probably not many better places to evoke the spirit of the season than at this heritage home, where visitors are transported back to the 1860s and the ambiance of Victorian times.

Full instructions (and more illustrations of these lovely and eco-friendly decorations) are on Gardenwise .