Without exploring New Westminster’s rich past, it’s impossible to understand the culture and history of the province of British Columbia.
The main village of the Kwantlen people stood on the river bank at Skaiametl (present-day New Westminster). A small seasonal village, Kikait, existed on the south shore (Brownsville Beach, Surrey).
The Fraser River Gold Rush kicked off in 1858, and New Westminster, located at the mouth of the river, was built in 1859. Construction was undertaken by The Royal Engineers of the Columbia Detachment of the British Army.
Under the British colonial governor, Sir James Douglas, New Westminster became Western Canada’s oldest incorporated city in 1860. The new capital of British Columbia got its name from Queen Victoria, who chose to honour her favourite district in London. Thus, it’s still known as the “Royal City” today.
New Westminster’s Economy Grows
Gold Rush fever was short-lived, and after Britain united the previously separate colony of Vancouver Island with British Columbia in 1866, New Westminster lost its status as the provincial capital to Victoria in 1868. However, the city continued to grow, developing an economy based on core BC industries like sawmilling, salmon canning and agriculture.
The Great Fire of 1898 ravaged New Westminster’s downtown core, destroying businesses, warehouses, wharfs and steamboats along the waterfront. But by 1910, the city had been fully rebuilt, and an electric railway connected New Westminster with Chilliwack. The Canadian National Railway arrived in town in 1915.
At the start of the 20th century, retaining the feel of a small town in a big city was challenging for New Westminster. But the city met the challenge, refocusing its economy on manufacturing and industrial development through the 1970s. Even more importantly, New Westminster would commit to preserving its identity and heritage.
Image: A view of Skaiametl (New Westminster) from Kikait (Brownsville Beach, Surrey). Image taken between 1866 and 1870. BC Archives A-01595