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Royal City: A Photographic History of New Westminster, 1858-1960

By Jim Wolf

Review By Patricia Roy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 151 Autumn 2006  | p. 112-4

Today, many residents of the Lower Mainland know New Westminster only as the site of traffic jams as they wait to get on to the Pattullo, the Queensborough, and Alex Fraser bridges; Highway 401; or the Lougheed Highway. If they pass through on the SkyTrain, they see densely packed townhouses and highrise apartments covering much of the waterfront where once stood docks and warehouses. Yet, as Jim Wolf ’s splendid illustrated history demonstrates, New Westminster has a proud history, and transportation played an important role in it. Settled by Sto’lo people who early on abandoned the site, it was briefly the capital of colonial British Columbia and, until the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Vancouver, the leading city of the mainland. It long remained the commercial centre for the Fraser Valley, with busy retail stores and financial institutions lining the “Golden Mile” of its main street, Columbia. The economy was based on fishing, manufacturing (especially of forest products), and transferring goods from rail to ocean-going ships and vice versa. Government institutions, the British Columbia Penitentiary, and the Provincial Hospital for the Insane (later, Woodlands School) also provided employment.

Among its residents were a number of professional and gifted amateur photographers. Jim Wolf has delved into this treasure trove of images and includes biographical vignettes of nine of their creators. A few – Charles Stride, Paul Okamura, and the talented Norman Lidster and Horace G. Cox – spent their entire careers in the city; Charles Bloomfield, John Vanderpant, and Stephen Joseph Thompson moved to Vancouver; and David Judkins, an American who literally floated in from Seattle, and Francis George Claudet, a British colonial official, were birds of passage. Their work and that of a number of other photographers, some of them unknown, justify the book’s subtitle.

The photographs are the raison d’être of Royal City and may explain the bias of its focus. Thus, Wolf gives considerable attention to civic festivities, including the annual May Day, which has been running since 1870; the Royal Visit of 1939; the celebrations marking the end of the First World War in 1918 and V-E Day (but, curiously, not V-J Day); and the construction and opening of such structures as the Fraser River Railway/Road Bridge (1904) and the Pattullo Bridge (1937). Disasters are overrepresented. The Great Fire of 10-11 September 1898 and the start of rebuilding occupy twenty-two pages as several photographers saw the destruction of most of the commercial area and some major residences as an attractive subject. There are also some nice shots of the fire that destroyed the Queen’s Park exhibition buildings in 1929 and of the 1948 Fraser River flood.

Wolf mourns the conscious demolition of several handsome homes, such as those that formed Columbian College. After the college closed, the city took it over for taxes and, in 1939, demolished it lest indigents take possession and, by establishing residence, qualify for municipal relief. Even major structures of the 1950s – St. Mary’s Hospital and the Woodward’s store – have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. Yet others survive, the best example being the Irving House (1865), now the home of the New Westminster Museum and Archives, repository of many of the photographs shown here.

The text goes some way towards filling a void in BC historiography – a history of New Westminster. Although a few theses, articles, and short books have been written on aspects of this city, this is the first serious attempt at an overview. Wol f offers only glimpses of the city’s diverse social composition; the great strengths of his well-informed text are his sketch of New Westminster’s economic history and his explanation of why Columbia Street, a frequently represented image, was once a “golden mile” and why it declined. That the handsome art moderne Mc & Mc Hardware Store built in 1939 is now a Salvation Army thrift store is symbolic of the city’s changed status.

Jim Wolf has made a wonderful start in telling New Westminster’s story; let us hope that it will inspire him or another historian to make a definitive study of the oldest city in British Columbia (incorporated 1860), whose very full history is, in many ways, a microcosm of British Columbia and its ever-changing economy and society.