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September 02

The Resilient Royal City
Stewart Clayton
‘New West,’ has suffered many snubs and as many disasters over the years

House on Canarvon Street
The year is 1860. Richard Clement Moody, the Lieutenant-Governor, Land Commissioner, and Commander of the Royal Engineers of the new colony of British Columbia stands on the north bank of the mighty Fraser River near its mouth. Coast Salish villages are scattered nearby. The Hudson Bay Company's fort at Langley is also close by, on the south side of the river. Moody surveys the hillside covered in towering cedars rising from the water’s edge, and declares this place the site for the capital of this new frontier. Moody chooses this site above all other possibilities in the colony’s vast landscape. The sloping site has a clear view of America to the south, and in the frontier mentality of this era, this is considered a strategic military advantage, as the new inhabitants of the North American continent are still jostling for territory, staking claims. The place is named Queensborough, but soon after is renamed New Westminster.

The future looks promising. Gold has recently been discovered in the Fraser and Thompson rivers, a few hundred kilometres into the interior. Prospectors with dreams of riches will soon be streaming through the town. Saloons, hotels, maybe a brothel or two, and more saloons will be built to meet the demand. And, soon there will be talk of the forming of the dominion of Canada, as well as the building of a unifying trans-continental rail line. New Westminster will be the most likely candidate as the line’s western terminus.

The year is 2002. Close to two million people now live in the region at the mouth of the Fraser River; the area is comprised of several sprawling municipalities. New Westminster is at the geographic centre of the region, but is no longer the centre of attention—and has not been for well over a century. The city of 55,000 is not the capital of B.C., and it is definitely not what it could have been. As it is situated at the centre of the bustling, fast-growing Greater Vancouver regional district, the city on the hill sees a steady stream of commuters pass it by daily as they head in to Vancouver’s downtown core—a familiar feeling for this once ‘chosen’ town. Vancouver has completely overshadowed the Royal City.

Columbia Street 1898
Today, the buzzword along historic Columbia Street, the main drag that runs parallel with the river, is "rejuvenation." It must seem like a familiar refrain to the long time residents here: The city is always recovering, rebuilding, rejuvenating. ‘New West,’ as it is commonly known, has suffered many snubs and as many disasters over the years, but it has shown an amazing resiliency.

Some ‘highlights:’ 1868: The first rebuff comes soon in the history of the new capital. When New West was declared capital a mere eight years ago, the BC mainland and Vancouver Island were two separate colonies. The capital of the Island colony was Victoria, and when the two colonies amalgamated in 1866, New Westminster was proclaimed the capital of the new union. But less than two years later, the legislature takes a vote and decides that Victoria would make a better capital after all.

Early 1880s: The Canadian Pacific Railway dynamites its way through the Rockie mountains and a decision must be made at the Coast: where will the line terminate? Vancouver, with its large, protected harbour, is chosen, and New West is bypassed completely (a spur line from Port Moody to New West will be added later).

1890's transportation

The Street Car

Late 1880s: The last twenty years have been boom years. During the peak of the Fraser and Thompson River gold rushes, paddlewheelers have regularly steamed up and down the Fraser River, making it as busy as the Mississippi has ever been. New Westminster is a natural calling point, and it has bustled with prospectors and their packs full of gold. But now the gold fever is fading, and the fortunes of this town take another blow.

1898: A great fire destroys three quarters of the town, including the city market, the wharf and all the ships at berth. The city rebuilds.

1948: Many communities along the Fraser River suffer extensive flood damage this Spring, but in New West, after as many as a million sandbags are stacked up along the shores, with a peak tide of fourteen and a half feet, the threat passes.

1970s & 80s: The sprawling Vancouver suburbs, including Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam, allow huge shopping malls and big box retail outlets to be built in their respective municipalities. Local businesses suffer as residents are lured to the big malls.

2002: Today, the city is a diverse mix of industry (paper, fisheries) and heritage and commerce. It is likewise populated by an eclectic mix of professionals, seniors, students attending Douglas College, and small-time drug dealers and grow-op owners. Heritage buildings are home to many antique stores and other eclectic shops and make for great window-shopping. Parts of the riverfront have been redeveloped with condominiums, as well as the New Westminster Quay and its public market, and the nearby Riverboat casino.

To the east of the Quay is a three-level parkade that stretches for several blocks along the riverside. This area is ripe for redevelopment: more condos, inevitably, but plans have been stalled due to debate over the design and height of the numerous structures that will eventually redefine the city’s waterfront skyline. It may not be the power it once was or could have been, but it does have a charm that the surrounding urban sprawl cannot shake a stick at.
A Royal Visit to New West in glory days

City council this fall approves the rezoning of a large lot in an industrial area for use as a big box retail outlet. Could the invasion of Wal-Mart or a similar retailer ruin the livelihoods of local small businesses? That is a new fear for many locals, and they wonder if this city will eventually end up as a small retailer’s ghost town, or whether it will survive yet another challenge in its storied history.

Bowering, George. Bowering's B.C. A Swashbuckling History (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books, 1996).
City of New Westminster
New Westminster Heritage

Off the Street and Onto the Wall
Artist Martin Budny shines at DV8
Stewart Clayton

I follow my dreams. I’m open to my passions.

© Stewart Clayton - Writer/Teacher/Import-Export Business Developer - Intern on hackwriters
October 9th, 2002

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