Royal City is full of history, heritage

Archie Miller prepares to lead a walking tour of New Westminster
Archie Miller prepares to lead a walking tour of New Westminster's cultural heritage spots, including the Paramount Theatre, which was originally opened as the Edison in 1910.

If you walk the streets, graveyards and parks of New Westminster, you're walking through history. Especially if you have local historians Archie and  Dale Miller at your side.

There may be no better place in the Lower Mainland to go on a historical walking tour, says Archie. The province's original capital city, established in 1859, has a rich history that details the emergence of the city and B.C.

You can read about history in textbooks but on a walking tour you almost get to live it, said Moore.

"All you need is your imagination."

Take, for example, Queen's Park. It was dedicated as a park in 1888 when it was transferred over to the city from the province. It soon became home to one of the most prominent fairs in Western Canada.

With streetcars stopping right outside its gates, thousands flocked to the fair. It boasted some of the top commercial exhibitors of the day – such as Singer and Edison. In 1905 the park was home to the Dominion Exhibition, further enhancing its dominance over other fairs offered in neighbouring cities.

"It was a bustling, busy fair," said Miller. People from New West, Vancouver and all of the surrounding towns would flock to it by the thousands. Because of the fair's notoriety, it was high on the list of exhibitors that travelled the Western Canada and West Coast circuits of fairs and exhibitions.

The fair was focussed around large buildings erected within the 75.5 acre park, like the agricultural, women's and industrial buildings. Another added to the inventory was the 1909 Fisheries Building, which still stands and has been reincarnated as the Vagabond Theatre.

The spinoff from hosting the fairs was similar to Vancouver holding Expo in 1986. "It had the same sort of affect," said Miller of the economic impact.

Queen's Park's heyday ended in 1929 when a great fire destroyed all of the major buildings. As bad luck would have it, it was to be one of the most notable fairs ever, with British Member of Parliament and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill opening it.

The fire levelled the site but the fair still went on, with exhibits housed in giant tents. Churchill attended and made the opening speech, crediting the resiliency of the people.

It was to be the last fair. After that, Vancouver became the most important fair in the province.

Fire had also reduced the city's downtown to rubble more than 30 years earlier. The citizen's of the day rebuilt after the 1898 fire. No one died in the fire and neither did the spirit of the community, points out Miller.

Successful businessman James Cunningham was one of those. He ran a hardware store, owned a warehouse and other buildings and seemed to have the business world by the tail. Just prior to the fire, Cunningham announced he was selling everything and moving to Vancouver, where there was a larger market for his wares.

The fire changed his plans, destroying all of his businesses.

Not long after the disaster, he made another announcement. He would rebuild in New Westminster. Cunningham's Hardware on Columbia Street became a fixture in the Royal City and the tools and materials he sold played a role in rebuilding the community.

A tour of Columbia Street today still has much to say about the city's past, says Miller. Some of the more interesting features were the theatres and entertainment venues, which became important gathering areas for the community. Not only could one see a movie and watch a play, but they were also places to hear speeches, travelogues and other presentations.

Today the Paramount (originally the Edison and built in 1905) and the  Raymond Burr (Originally known as the Columbia when it was built in 1927) theatres are the only ones left on the street.

"That theatre," says Miller of the Burr, "if it could only talk.

"If you went to the back of the stage, there would probably be a lot of ghosts around."

Speaking of ghosts, people are bound to run into a few if they take in one of the many cemetery tours offered in New Westminster.

Established as one of the earliest cemeteries in the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Cemetery tells stories about famous figures, original founders, crime, war and other aspects of the past.

Some of the more important graves are those of the Royal Engineers, who arrived in 1858 from England. Under Col. Richard Moody , the Columbia Detachment of the Royal Engineers played an crucial role in making sure  British Columbia was not annexed by the Americans and remained a British colony. Their job was to survey and build townships and roads. They also constructed government and public buildings.

When the detachment was disbanded in 1863 many stayed and continued to build the community. Today there are as many as 20 grave markers for the Royal Engineers in the cemetery.

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