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YOUR HISTORY: Our Coquitlam stories, preserved for all time
Over the last year, the Coquitlam Heritage Society has collected the stories of more than 40 long-term residents in a bid to preserve their knowledge about what life was like growing up, living and working in Coquitlam over the last nine decades. The stories were video recorded and, as of Dec. 3, have been inducted into the city archives.
The earliest stories reflect life in a fairly rustic town full of the challenges of living along a river that froze solid in the winter and often flooded in other seasons.
They reveal the many communities that make up the area, including Oakdale, Burke Mountain, Austin Heights, Maillardville and what is now City Centre.
They include the memories of people whose families built their own roads, took stage coaches into New Westminster to shop and lived in a very multicultural community.
As we endure what is feeling like an unusually cold winter, it is interesting to watch the videos and see how most interviewees remarked on how bitterly cold the winters used to be.
Violet Johnstone talked about how the houses had very little insulation and recalled that when her mother mopped the floor, the water would freeze.
Both Lloyd McInnis and Denis Wagner told stories of how boomed logs would freeze into the Fraser River. The ice would be so thick that workers would have to use dynamite to free the logs. Dynamite, by the way, was readily available and something boys as young as 10 would experiment with, whether they were removing tree trunks or just making a mess.
The annual freezing of the Fraser River was enough of a national safety concern that it spurred the Royal Engineers to design and build North Road. As Ella Benndorf tells it, there was real concern around the turn of the century that the Americans might try an invasion of Canada. Since the Fraser was not a reliable supply and ammunitions route into New Westminster (the provincial capital at the time), North Road literally paved the way to Burrard Inlet, a salt water body that did not accumulate ice.
Burrard Inlet was used for more than just an emergency route, though. Chester Evans remembers that trees felled on Burke Mountain were so large that Fraser Mills didn’t have equipment large enough to cut it so a steam engine would drag the logs to the inlet, where they were boomed together and hauled to Seattle for processing.
These tales are, of course, a small sampling and memories were collected in French and English. The French stories are still being edited and will be added to the archives in due time. All the completed videos will be available in the New Year through Mackin House Museum, which is operated by the Coquitlam Heritage Society.
Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities’ three heritage groups writes about local history. Candrina Bailey is with the Coquitlam Heritage Society.