Port Coquitlam breaks away . . . and goes broke

The history of Port Coquitlam is marbled with high hopes, near misses and plenty of perseverance

The parade started at the schoolhouse, just about where the rec centre is today. They marched, blissfully unaware of what was going to hit them or how fast it was going to hit.

It was April 18, 1913.

Port Coquitlam was a newborn. It had been incorporated March 7 but the parade was the coming out party, the inauguration, the statement that Port Coquitlam had arrived.

The procession ambled down Shaughnessy and came to an abrupt stop as they waited for the train to pass. The train represented the good and great fortunes that awaited. It went by.

It was a boom period in Port Coquitlam but the bust was chasing the young city like an echo following a shout.

Writing about photos of the parade 85 years later, historian Chuck Davis notes that no one was watching. “Everyone was in the parade!” Davis explains.

Once they arrived at Aggie Park there were races and games and a band and a view from Mars.

Mayor James Mars, after evidencing his lack of understanding of the past (he called Canada “the land of equal rights” at around the same time a shadowy company pledged to prohibit “Asiatics and Negroes” from buying Coquitlam land) displayed an equal lack of understanding about the future.

It will take three years, Mars predicted, and in that time the population of this new city will swell by five or six times. It will be home to 10,000 residents, Mars said.

It was the second time the town seemed to be on the doorstep of something momentous only to find out nobody was home.

Fort Coquitlam

Langley was a terrible choice for a military stronghold.

That was Colonel Richard Moody’s conclusion as he contemplated the best way to repel a U.S. invasion.

It was 1858 and 20,000 gold prospectors from the United States had streamed over the border with pans and dreams. Anxious to keep the colony British, engineers undertook a branding exercise in the interest of national security, building roads, displaying flags and considering what would happen if their neighbour to the south took their expansionist practices northward.

If they did, Moody reasoned, Langley wouldn’t hold.

“He was appalled by Fort Langley’s strategically poor location on the south side of the river, with its ‘back’ to the Americans,” Davis writes in his history of Port Coquitlam, Where Rails Meet Rivers.

In a bid to fend off a Red, White and Blue Dawn, Moody turned his eyes to Mary Hill.

Moody ordered his captain to swing an axe into a tree near the river. This first swing would lead to the first tree falling and the first steps in establishing a fort that would conceivably become a city.

The swing was a miss.

According to an account from R.E. Gosnell’s British Columbia Year Book, Captain Jack Grant was just about to heft the axe when he looked downriver.

“Colonel, with much submission I will ask not to do it,” he said.

Just a little to the southwest the land was easier to defend and river bed expanded, allowing easier passage for big ships.

“The colonel was convinced, rowed down the river, and ordered the first cut to be delivered on one of the huge cedars” in Queensborough, later New Westminster.

It would be more than 50 years – span that covered Confederation and a smallpox plague that devastated the land’s Indigenous population – until engineers with big ideas returned.

Local news that matters to you

No one covers the Tri-Cities like we do. But we need your help to keep our community journalism sustainable.

Function at the (Westminster) Junction

After a year of plucking up land and water frontage in Coquitlam, the Canadian Pacific Railway announced plans.

On Sept. 8, 1911, CPR president Thomas Shaughnessy announced Coquitlam’s Westminster Junction would get a huge expansion including a roundhouse, a shunting yard with 27 tracks and the capacity to hold 5,000 train cars, according to Ralph Drew, who documents the change in Coquitlam Chronicles: Historical Crossroads on the Fraser River.

At the time the area was rural. So much so that Coquitlam council passed a bylaw prohibiting the running of bulls, boars, rams or jackasses on municipal property. Violating the bylaw was punishable by a $10 fine.

For land speculators, the reaction was unambiguous, Ness says. “We’re all going to be rich!”

Local farmers protected but were, “drowned out by the clamour of excitement over the huge new development,” Davis writes.

CPR’s decision to set up shop in Coquitlam was simple, according to Ness.
“It was flat. It was cheap.”

Putting it slightly more poetically and hyperbolically, a newspaper article at the time declared: “Level land in a ‘Sea of Mountains’ is more valuable than in any part of the Dominion. . . . the possibilities are unlimited. In her capacity as a Port, however, Coquitlam will achieve her greatness.”

In terms of CPR’s motivation to set up shop in Coquitlam, Davis notes that the railway’s 25-year tax exemption in Vancouver was about to expire.

With Buntzen and Stave lakes nearby, the area offered two sources of hydroelectric power Ness adds.

The boom was on.

Purchasers came from as far afield as England as property that had once sold for shillings an acre was now going for as much as $6,000 for a 33-foot lot.

A newspaper advertisement at the time described Coquitlam’s “relentless momentum.”

“The forces which are behind it cannot, will not be stopped by government or man. Coquitlam will pull you if you hitch yourself up to it,” the advertisement reads.

A headline in the Coquitlam Star declared: “What Pittsburgh is to the United States, so will Coquitlam be to Canada.”

A rosy projection of the future of Port Coquitlam. image courtesy Port Coquitlam Heritage

You are Leaving Coquitlam. Welcome to Railhaven

As workers started cutting through the 600 acres of land that would hold CPR’s 180 miles of track, the first separatist stirrings arose.

“The wealth was pretty well situated in this area,” Ness explains, noting hotels and blacksmiths around Westminster Junction.

Up the hill at Blue Mountain and Poirier the houses were smaller and family farms were more the norm.

“The movers and shakers, the bankers, all lived on the south side,” he observes.

Davis describes it as a matter of keeping profits high and taxes low.

“Why, Junction leaders began to ask, should the people clustered there subsidize the construction of roads and such for the vast empty areas that lay beyond?”

With a split imminent, the Coquitlam Star newspaper held a contest to name the new city. “Railhaven” got first prize, Drew reports, but the name, it seems, was always going to be Port Coquitlam.

The new town took 6,200 acres of what was Coquitlam and the lion’s share of the city’s $220,000 debt. Fraser Mills seceded 18 days later.

Leading up to secession, a new house was built every day for nearly two years.

Anticipating huge economic growth, Coquitlam council approved a $340,000 loan.

Davis calls that period a: “blizzard of plant openings and construction . . . it was intoxicating.”

The inauguration celebration marked a high point for optimism in Port Coquitlam. photo supplied Port Coquitlam Heritage

The hangover

There were predictions of grain elevators as well as plans for a canal stretching from Pitt River to Burrard Inlet through Port Moody.

“What they were going to do with the river, I’m not sure,” Ness chuckles.
Only five years after its inauguration, Port Coquitlam’s grand plans followed the pattern of grand plans throughout history and failed spectacularly.

In September of 1918, the city put 1,300 properties up for auction because the owners hadn’t paid their taxes. Those homeowners included a former city engineer and a couple of city councillors.

“The broad and merciless sword of the taxman mowed down virtually everyone,” Davis writes.

But it wasn’t just that everything was for sale, it was that almost no one wanted to buy.

Paying an average of $42 per property, a handful of speculators picked up 83 properties. The rest – some of which were only $20 in arears – were left to the city.

G. Roy Leigh, the city’s tax collector, had “virtually nothing to collect,” Davis writes.

The city’s debt ballooned to $500,000 and by 1920, 75 per cent of all properties in Port Coquitlam had reverted back to the city.

In only five years Port Coquitlam had weathered the onset of the First World War and a global economic slowdown. Things, however, would get worse.

Flu, fire, flood

One month after hosting a poorly attended auction, the city was forced to host the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the troops were headed to Vladivostok to back the white Russians when they fell ill.

Military authorities commandeered Aggie Hall, turning it into a makeshift hospital to treat soldiers down with what became known as Spanish flu.

Schools, theatre and bars were closed as sickness spread through the town.
“That was a kick in the teeth,” Ness reflects.

By this point the city was so broke that multi-tasking municipal employees had job titles like: police chief/tax collector/pound keeper/licence collector/fire chief. This was, perhaps, too efficient.

On Aug. 5, 1920, a bit of soot slipped from a stovepipe and a fire started. Adding irony to insult, the first building to burn was the fire hall and the man who set the blaze was the fire chief (as well as the police chief/tax collector/pound keeper/licence collector).

Fire investigator J.A. Thomas later dubbed the reaction a “village comedy,” as the town’s elected officials: “ran upstairs and then downstairs, dodging about the fire engine, but made no attempt for some time to pull the equipment from the hall. There was a hydrant within a few feet of the door, but no one thought of making use of it by attaching a hose to it. The greater part of the city’s hose was hanging in the tower of the hall, where it subsequently burned.”

Flames ripped through the city’s fledgling downtown. A Vancouver Sun article describes a moment when the firehose sank into the hot pavement and “suddenly burst into flame.”

The fire raced through a poolroom, a blacksmith shop, garage, shoe store, the Coquitlam Star printing office, three houses, barns, the CPR freight shed as well as the hotel. Total losses were estimated at $250,000, according to Davis.

“Whole families could be seen lugging whatever they could lay their hands on away in order not to be caught napping should the wind veer,” according to a report in the British Columbian newspaper.

In a scathing report, Thomas concluded there had been no fire drill in six years. “The evidence of the chief was to the effect that he had never had a day’s training in firefighting in his life,” Thomas concludes in an article published in The Province.

Through an act of community and courage, the city managed to rescue their fire engine. However, given the fact that the city was on the hook for much of the damage, the decision was made to sell the engine and replace it with a converted dump truck.

“It paid dearly for that move the next year when another fire hit the downtown,” Davis writes.

The city was still recovering from the fire when, as Ness puts it: “The Coquitlam River just basically backed up and let go with a bang,”

The half of the city that sidestepped the fire ended up underwater. One church floated away and “ended up perched on a downstream sandbar,” Davis writes.

A three-storey hotel was ripped from its foundations and floated away. One observer said it looked like an ark.

The pre-war optimism was well and truly ended, Ness notes.
They didn’t recover. They survived.

A flood plunges Port Coquitlam into the life aquatic. photo supplied Port Coquitlam Heritage

Bureaucracy by candlelight

Describing the city in the late 1950s, authors John Stewart and H.A.J. Monk write: “The City of Port Coquitlam lapsed into a quiet village for more than 30 years and only in the last few years has there been renewed interest and hope of a great development.”

It’s fairly remarkable the city never went bankrupt. Ness describes Roy Leigh and John Smith for shutting down city hall and doing their bookkeeping by candlelight. Davis notes that a potbellied heater was used instead of a furnace.

But during a break from bird watching at Blakeburn Lagoons, Ness reflects on the grand plans that never came to fruition.

If the industrial boom had brought everything it promised, the trees would’ve been gone, he notes. The rivers would’ve been fouled and smog would’ve hung overhead.

“Thank goodness that the plans never went through.”

Port Coquitlam eventually found its footing as a major suburb following the Second World War.

The population, which was 1,312 in 1931 finally crossed 10,000 in the 1960s, just about 50 years after Mayor Mars predicted.

“They persevered,” Ness says. “We’re kind of a resilient lot.”


Help us continue serving you!

The Tri-Cities Dispatch team and I are immensely proud of what we’ve built here and couldn’t have done it without the support of our readers. Will you join 191 of our readers and help keep Tri-Cities Dispatch accessible to everyone?

Help us reach 24 new monthly supporters.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top