Connections Through the Years in New West

A look back on some of the earliest ways residents felt connected.

A friend recently told me an incredible story about an acquaintance of his who is currently living in Britain. He was chatting on Skype with his father in Hong Kong when he realized that his Dad was starting to slur his words and one side of his mouth was drooping – he was having a stroke!

The son immediately called the Emergency Ambulance Service in Hong Kong, sent an email to his father’s next door neighbour to ask him to go next door, then opened the front door to the apartment electronically, all while keeping an eye on his Dad via a couple of the many security cameras he had installed throughout the suite. His father was in hospital within about half an hour of the stroke beginning and recovered completely, all thanks to technology, connections and instantaneous communication across the world.

Now let’s look back to how people connected and got information when New Westminster began. When Richard Blanshard resigned as governor of Vancouver Island in November 1850, it took almost nine months before he received notification that his resignation had been accepted and he was authorized to quit the Island. By 1858 the turn-around time had been reduced by almost half, thanks to improvements in transportation, especially the addition of steam power to ocean transport.

1865 British Columbia Stamp
1865 British Columbia Stamp

While the first post-office in New West opened in 1860/61, delivery of mail was pretty haphazard. The British Columbian complained in June 1861, “…Our mails have been subjected to a week’s delay in Victoria and the interior mail service is said to be even worse.” The first New Westminster mail carrier, a Chinese man who was paid £1 a week, carried letters door to door after the Victoria steamer docked. The letters he carried had very likely been written several months earlier in Europe, eastern “Canada” or Australia. However, a letter addressed with simply a name and the word “City”,
could be delivered within hours.

People had access to relatively current news in newspapers from the very beginning of New Westminster, but on April 18, 1865 the first telegraph message was received in the Royal City, carrying news of President Lincoln’s assassination. People were amazed that they were hearing of an event that taken place mere hours earlier. They read the details in the newspaper the following day, but individual and personal news could now travel in hours, not days or weeks.

Reproduction New West Telephone Exchange
Reproduction New West Telephone Exchange

Telephones were generally available to the public in New Westminster by the 1880s. In 1883 a telephone line was built to Port Moody and later to Vancouver. By 1891 there were 128 phone subscribers in the New Westminster Exchange.

Another relatively early way of receiving news was by radio. Families gathered around the radio for the daily news and for sports broadcasts. The first radio broadcast of an ice hockey game took place on 8 February1923, with the broadcast of the third period of a game between Midland and North Toronto. Later that month, the first full-game broadcast took place in Winnipeg and that same season, hockey broadcasting pioneer Foster Hewitt made his first broadcast.

Baseball was broadcast even earlier. The first baseball game ever broadcast was on the 5th of August, 1921 on KDKA in Pittsburgh. The first World Series that was broadcast in October that same year. The voice was that of Tommy Cowan who was in the WJZ Radio studio in Newark, NJ with a telephone at his ear, standing at a microphone. A newspaperman at the ballpark spoke into the phone and told him what was happening in the game, and Tommy, as best he could, reported it over the air.

Since Cowan relied on someone at the ballgame to feed him information, he was essentially the first man to “re-create” a baseball broadcast. Re-creations were commonplace until World War II and there is a photo of a local one in the New Westminster Museum from the late 1920s or early 1930s. It shows a large number of men standing in the middle of Columbia Street in front of the Windsor Hotel, Kidd Market, McKenzie’s and the interurban station. Above the McKenzie’s building is a large diamond-shaped signboard and all the men on the street are looking at it. At first glance it’s hard to figure out what is happening, but in fact, they were watching a World Series baseball game.

The large signboard was sponsored by the Vancouver Sun and represented a baseball diamond. One person was listening to the game on a radio (still rare in New West at that time), and someone else then changed the various signs and markers on the board to give the play-by-play, showing the score, who was on base, who was at bat etc. So now we have a re-creation of a re-creation of a game. One person is at the game, giving a play-by-play to a second person who is in a radio station filling in with sound effects and extra details to make it more “real” to his listeners. In New West, someone is listening to that radio broadcast and relaying the information (possibly by ‘phone) to another person on the roof, who moves the markers around so the folks on the street can “see” the game.

Indian Head Test Pattern
Indian Head Test Pattern

Of course, once television arrived, people could see the games themselves without any intermediary, and within a relatively short time, the expectation of seeing and hearing details of any event in real time became the norm.

So have we advanced or have we regressed in terms of connecting with other people? Some of each I suspect. Our social networks have changed in less than 50 years from friends and family who live within walking distance, to potentially thousands of people around the globe whom we will never actually meet. The number of “inboxes” many of us possess is staggering: Email (usually more than one), public Twitter, Twitter DM, public Facebook, Facebook messages, Facebook chat, LinkedIn messages, public Google +, Google + messages, blog comments, Skype, text messages, Instagram, phone, voice mail, forums, groups and social networks. Why do we do that? Often because of the belief that interacting with more people is better than interacting with fewer people. But social media gives us a feeling of intimacy and closeness that doesn’t actually exist.

Certainly relationships that began with a Twitter exchange or series of blog comments can flourish into treasured real-world ties. But those situations where we “meet” someone through social media, have the opportunity to interact in real life, and then develop a relationship that creates true friendship are few and far between. And as social media gets bigger and more pervasive, it becomes even less likely. So back to
the question, are we more connected or less connected than our ancestors? The answer is yes.

Sense of History

Dale Miller is one half of the duo behind A Sense of History Research Services. For many years Dale and her husband Archie have been providing New Westminster residents and beyond with insightful and interesting tidbits into the ways New Westminster has been. They offer walking tours and research services.

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