A couple weeks ago, my home city was offering free entry into local museums and attractions and one to never say no to free, I dragged my family out for a day of playing tourist. There is a surprising amount of history in the city I call home, only if you know where to look.
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Even though I say I live in Vancouver, I actually live in a city immediately south of Vancouver called Richmond. The Vancouver Airport is actually in Richmond too. Richmond grew out of a small fishing village called Steveston, so accordingly we went there in search of something new. Our first stop was the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site which is located just outside of Steveston Village. Despite living in this city for most of my life, I had no idea this shipyard even existed.
The Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site is an authentic representation of what was once a thriving community of canneries, ships, residences and stores. It is celebrating its 125th year in 2014, making it some of the oldest shipyard buildings in British Columbia.
The site is separated into two sections: one that highlights ship building and another that takes you back in time to explore what life might have been like for the many workers that come from very different backgrounds.
Walking into the main ship building, you’re welcomed by an imposing boat currently under restoration. Sometimes you can watch the ongoing boat restoration. The building was originally used as a cannery and was only converted into a shipyard and maritime repair station in 1917.
Wandering through the building it is part museum and part workshop. You can see where shipwrights have just left and where they’ll pick up their work again. Along the way there are displays and descriptions of what you were looking at.
Checking out the S.S. Master – A Historic Tugboat
We wandered onto the S.S. Master, a fully operational steam powered tugboat that was tied up to the dock. The boat was close to 90 years old apparently and it still runs. They take up and around Vancouver and will be heading to Granville Island soon. The men working on the maintenance of the boat were on hand to show us around the boat and answer our questions. When peeking down into the engine room, we were informed that the tugboat’s engine was a scaled down size of the Titantic.
As we were walking back through the main building, we startled a heron who had hidden itself among the posts holding up the building. I had never seen one flying before so that was really cool. It is amazing the wingspan it has.
The Stilt Houses
Wandering down the boardwalk, you come upon the stilt houses which were once home to fishermen. Walking through them you can immediately telling the difference in class and hierarchy in the workplace. In the Manager’s house you walk into a beautifully decorated Victorian home. Flowered wallpaper from floor to ceiling and the best furnishings money can buy. There was even a doll house!
At the end of the boardwalk is the Chinese Bunk House – the last in the Pacific Northwest – which was where immigrant workers were housed. Between 75 – 100 men would live in this house. It is incredible how many people they could fit inside. It’s not very big!
Today, there are many displays talking about the life and working conditions of these immigrants. Though my family didn’t move to Canada until much later, it was still interesting to find out how much of an influence the Chinese were in this area.
We spoke briefly with a shipwright, someone who has dedicated his life to building and restoring ships. He looked at us expectantly, volunteering to answer any questions that we may have about what he does. I came up blank. Given enough time I probably could have come up with some questions, but when put on the spot, I really had no idea what to ask. I didn’t even know where to start!
Apart from a week-long sailing trip during my teens to Desolation Sound, I really have no experience with boats, nor do I have much interest in the subject. My grandfather worked on a boat for most of his career. He traveled all around the world and he has some fantastic stories to tell of his adventures. It was interesting to see what he might have encountered aboard his ships through this visit to the shipyard.
Westwater Dr, Richmond, BC V7E 6S2
Admission is free (Donations accepted)
All summer long I’m playing tourist in my own city. Come along for the adventure!