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.
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.