Steveston and the Shipyards

by - January 07, 2021

One of the first places I visited when I moved to Vancouver was Steveston, The village is named for Manoah Steves. His family was the first white settlers in the area. The townsite began in 1880 as a crown grant to William Herbert Steves, his son. 

Steveston is a quaint little town which was the set of the show, Once Upon a Time and the site of Storybrooke. But there is a lot to see there besides this.

The History of the Shipyards
The main attraction for us was the Britannia Shipyards. The Shipyards began originally as a Cannery. It was built in 1889 and was purchased by the ABC Packing Company two years later to operate as a salmon cannery. It became one of the busiest canneries on the Fraser River, producing canned salmon for shipment all over the world. However, in the early 1900’s railroad construction and blasting in this part of the canyon had dumped large amounts of rock into the narrow gorge, called Hell's Gate, culminating in a devastating rock slide in February 1914 that almost dammed the river and blocked the passage of sockeye salmon en-route to their spawning grounds in central BC. This caused a significant decline in salmon stocks, forcing many canneries to close or convert to other uses. In 1917-18, the Britannia Cannery was converted into a shipyard and general maritime repair shop for fishing boats of the ABC Packing Company, which operated until 1969. The Shipyard was then purchased by the Canadian Fishing Company and was operational until BC Packers purchased it in 1979, closing its doors in 1979-80.

The Layout
The Shipyards sight consists of the Boardwalk, which continues to serve as a main street for the Steveston waterfront. Next to the boardwalk are a number of important buildings.

The Story of the Murakamis
One of the main buildings is the Murakami House, which was built in 1885 on piles over the marsh. It was home to the Murakami family. They have a fairly complicated story.

In the late 19th century, Otokichi Murakami, a trained boatbuilder and fisherman, arrived in British Columbia from the fishing village of Takumaru, Hiroshima. Otokichi was married and had two children with his first wife who died during the birth of their second child. Then, later in 1924, Asayo Imamoto arrived in Canada as a twenty-six-year-old picture bride who was previously married and divorced. Asayo’s fiancée, Murakami, was a short unattractive man so Asayo broke her marriage contract upon seeing him. Yikes! For three years, she worked to repay her $250 transportation debt to her former fiancée. A few years later a matchmaker introduced Asayo to the man she would marry who was also named Murakami. Asayo, Otokichi and his two children lived on Westham Island (Delta) before moving into a house at the Pacific Coast Cannery east of the Britannia Shipyard. In 1929, they moved to the house now known as the Murakami House on the Steveston waterfront. The building was originally on piles over the marsh and could have been built as early as 1885. It was the home to the couple and their 10 children from 1929 until their internment in 1942. It was also known as Phoenix House #40 and was among many small residences linked together by wooden boardwalks. 

The Murakami residence seen today was reconstructed on a new foundation on its original footprint. The interior was recreated from a sketch drawn by George Murakami, Otokichi and Asayo’s eldest son, and from shared recollections of their other children. Portions of the house were furnished based on their descriptions to reflect life between 1929 and early 1942.

Murakami Boatworks
The Murakami family built a boatworks in 1929 on property rented from the Phoenix Cannery. Otokichi Murakami built two gillnetters every winter, and fished during the summer. Japanese and Western tools were used to build one boat at a time. Using temporary rails, completed boats were directed across the front boardwalk for launching. A hand-operated capstan was used to move the cradle along the rails. Today, the boatworks is home to boatbuilding programs and maritime demonstrations.

Stilt Houses
Besides the Murakami house, there are four stilt homes that were built in the late 1800's as fisherman's dwellings. John Murchison, Steveston's first police chief and customs officer, purchased the Murchison Houses in 1895.

The Murchison Houses are the two buildings painted red, and were pushed together at one time to accommodate John Murchison's family. Today, the stilt homes are open to visitors as the Murchison Visitor Centre, the Manager's House, the Men's Bunkhouse and the Point House. Exhibits inside explore the living conditions of company employees of many different backgrounds.

Chinese Bunkhouse

The Chinese Bunkhouses remind you to thank your horses because the conditions of the bunkhouse were frightening. The bunkhouse in Steveston is the last surviving Chinese Bunkhouse on the west coast. The Building was originally located in Knight Inlet, and was relocated here by BC Packers. This bunk house was home to 75-100 Chinese cannery workers who were employed through Chinese contractors to work a variety of jobs on the canning line. 

Japanese Duplex
This building was once part of a complex of 16 buildings used by Japanese workers at the Phoenix Cannery. The Duplex contains two living areas with net making and storage upstairs. Constructed in the 1890's, it is the last building of its kind on the Steveston waterfront. In the 1940's, metal cladding was added over wood siding. Japanese newspapers used as wall coverings are still visible inside.

First Peoples Bunkhouse

Built in 1885 to house native cannery workers, the First Peoples Bunk House is similar to traditional 19th century Coast Salish Longhouses. The board and batten fir siding is secured with hand made nails. It is probably the last cannery dwelling of its type on the coast..

Richmond Boatbuilders
Saeji Kishi and his employees constructed the boat works on piles above the marsh in 1932. The boat works was designed to accommodate up to four 30-foot fishing boats at one time. Gillnet fishing boats, 24' and 26' in length, with drums and Easthope engines, were the main product of the shop.

In winter, boats were sidetracked on wooden beams in front of the boat works. The Kishis lost their boat works in the W.W. II internment. They later built boats at Christina Lake and shipped them to the coast by rail. This boat works remained in operation until 1968. The last boat built in this shop was the Silver Ann, which is currently being restored in the same spot in which it was created.

The Environment
Britannia's heritage park was originally a treeless marsh in an inter-tidal waterway. Across the channel is Steveston Island, known as Shady Island to locals, and was little more than a sandbar as far back as the 1920s. In the 1930s, the landscape changed when a wooden bulkhead (vertical planks) secured with large stones was built to protect the dyke from storm wave erosion. Remnants of the early schooners and clippers ballast stones remain. During the 1950s, as a consequence of dredging the Steveston Channel, the marsh was filled with sand. Today, the marsh and Steveston Island is home to rare species of plants, many types of birds, and wildlife.

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