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

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.

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.

Ken Wilkinson

Ken Wilkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

10 comments

  1. Thanks Ken, this is an excellent article and one that deserves some exploration and discussion. Being a resident of Quayside I remember viewing drawings of the bridge to connect Port Royal to Poplar Island and the Quay. I believe it was presented by Parks, Culture and Rec. I sure wish we could see those again.

    The discussion to build a bridge by the current rail crossing is just not something our community is embracing because of the loss of our little park, the impact on residents homes and the noise and smell of the train engines along side.
    We have discussed the crossing to Poplar Island and now that I read there has been one in the past it makes it all that more important that we open up discussions and look at other options for a river crossing.

    Vision if you will, a low crossing bridge from the new Muni Park (history is renewed) to an elevated walkway around the park (being sure to leave it untouched and in its natural state) respecting the site and all the contents. Plaques that tell the story of the island as you walk or cycle around it. Vistas from each tip looking up and down the river! Imagine the sunrise and sunset.

    This would ultimately be connected to the Port Royal boardwalk. You can see where it currently ends and would make an excellent starting point until more boardwalk is built to the west. There is also a road at the end of this location at Port Royal. The island would become safer as more people would be viewing it. The activity on the river would be so much more personal and up close. Hey maybe its passive enough to allow people to dip their toes in the river or allow kayaks access.
    Can you imagine – I can!

  2. I just love all these fantastic old photos. I feel very grateful that they are in the public archive online. These posts are just great, Ken! Can't wait for the next one!

  3. Thanks for the entertaining and informative history lesson. My daughter was asking about Poplar Island the other day (I think she had been painting it in art class) – now I can fill her in on the broad strokes (pardon the pun).

  4. Great post indeed! I've often wondered about that little island. It contributes to one of my favourite views from the skytrain, and I regularly wish I could stop the train to get a decent photo. To imagine such a small little island in this part of the world could have such a history – and especially to imagine it without any trees, holding a working shipyard – awesome! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Interesting how the CNW sold the island to that company wasnt someone else talkin about the city selling islands ? I imagine now a days it probably is a contaminated site due to the shipbuilding and would cost more to clean it up then could be done with it, not to mention the indian gravesites. spooky for haloweens or gravediggers looking for human remains ! and I thought NWSS was scary !!

  6. Thanks Everyone. The Friends of the New Westminster Museum and Archives Society is registered now, so get ready for more articles and tell people about them. Share them so people can learn and be entertained at the same time. It helps our community grow with an understanding and interest to learn more! Thanks again!

  7. The post by James Crosty makes eminant sense as both a gateway and destinination of the new bike/pedestrian overpass proposed by the City that was supposed to be 100% funded by $10 million in "Casino Money". I furthered this proposal in THE RECORD last June with the suggestion that this connection made more sense than the proposed $20 million bridge that would destroy the green area and Children's Submarine Park on the Quay. In this way, not only could developers on either side of the river be tagged to provide the $10 million shortfall, but also hook up to existing infrastructure at the west end of the 3rd Street Overpass. I have collected over 600 signatures on a petition to save the park. This project only lacks a farsighted and frugal politiian, with both children and taxpayer pocket books in mind, to champion such a logical and cost-effective alternative. Anyone out there interested? When I looked into its history, another friend of mine here at the Quay was kind enough to send me a history of the Island that appeared in a March 2, 2006 article by Terry Glavin that can be accessed at http://www.straight.com/article/how-poplar-island….

  8. My understanding of the proposed overpass/boardwalk is that it is primarily for Queensborough residents who are essentially river-locked without a viable means of transportation over the QB bridge or in case of an emergency. As a QB resident, I am not in favour of positioning the overpass/boardwalk anywhere near Poplar Island. What we need is a walkable/cyclable option to amenities in mainland New West – not access to a park, which squatters will occupy, with no police presence. As a fairly recent purchaser of property in the new Port Royal development, we were promised access to the mainland for amenities, whether that was the overpass/boardwalk or a pay-for-use ferry from the Port Royal dock to the Quay.

  9. Hi Brigette,
    Just so you know access from Quayside is very limited too. With over 4000 residents here there are only three ways in and out by car and one additional way by foot only (with lots of stairs). So not sure why you think getting over here would make access easier to get to amenities. As far amenities – there are none in our community, at least you have the Queensborough center. It would be great if we could get to it from here. The bridge will work both ways as it should to connect our communities together.
    By the way these "squatters" would not be there if there was proper access and the police patrols would be extended to BOTH communities. I had thought the people of Port Royal would want more green space especially in light of the increased density coming to your community. I suspect the person who promised you access when you purchased your new property, is likely the same person that told our community that the rail yard was going to be relocated.
    On the dock issue did they tell you it was placed in a spot where the water is moving too fast for small craft and that logs get caught under the dock making it dangerous for boats. That is what happened during the 150 Paddlewheeler boat tours and they had to cancel the tour. Nothing is as easy as it seems but lets work together on a solution. I am sure there is an option both communities can live with. Remember no matter what way the bridge comes across we will all be cycling or walking in each others neighbourhood.
    Cheers!

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