YOUR HISTORY: Listen to the sounds of history

Pause for a moment in the parlour at Coquitlam’s Mackin House museum and be transported back to 1909. The furniture, the fireplace, the pictures, the household items and the rippled glass of the single pane windows speak of the 104-year-old house.

But don’t pause for too long. The charmed moment will inevitably be shattered as the old house vibrates in response to the traffic at the corner of Brunette and King Edward.

The tenuous music emanating from the Concert gramophone will be overwhelmed by the wail of a passing siren, a leaf blower or the aggressive bass thumping from a passing car. Our modern world intrudes, driving that 1909 moment out of our consciousness.

Let’s imagine what the neighbourhood would have sounded like around 1909. How different it would have been then as the arrival of warm spring weather prompted us to open windows and reintroduce ourselves to the outdoors.

We know something about the sounds that would be heard at the Fraser Mills town site — not all was bucolic but it was a far cry from what assails us today.

Elsie Windram Mckinnon, a longtime resident of Fraser Mills, remembered, in the book Coquitlam: 100 Years, that the daily rhythm of life in Fraser Mills was marked by the sawmill’s whistle: “The first one sounded at 7 a.m. to awaken its employees, the second at 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. to begin work.”

This whistle could be heard throughout the community and the locals paced their daily life to its schedule. The whistle was also used to call firefighters when needed. The volunteer brigade drove a horse-drawn carriage fully equipped with four men, a collection of buckets, a lantern and some rope.

The bell of our Lady of Lourdes Church played a significant role in the audible landscape, too. It called people to prayers and to mark important celebrations and rites. When the original church burned down in 1913, it was the belfry bell that alerted residents to the tragedy.

There were many softer sounds that informed the pioneer reality: the rhythmic clopping of the Clydesdale horses delivering firewood to the settlers’ homes; the gentle moaning and creaking of the wooden sidewalks; the bell announcing the iceman’s arrival; the fish seller (“Fishy”) calling out to bring your attention to the fish in the baskets that hung from a pole slung across his shoulders; the far-off sounds from tugs on the Fraser; the railway at the mill site; and the rumble of the interurban tram connecting Fraser Mills to New Westminster.

There were no cars until later. The police were on horseback until 1916, when a Model T was purchased. In 1909, there were no paved roads so the sound of a car would, indeed, have been a rarity.

But what about the winds in the forest around us, or the rain on dirt roads, the birds announcing spring’s arrival, the happy noise of children playing outdoors? All these sounds were easily heard through the single-pane windows or through an open Dutch door designed to merge outside with inside.

Of course, birds still sing, children still play and winds still blow. Sadly, the ambient noise of today’s world masks these sounds and overlays them with the pervasive and dominant sounds of urbanization.

As much as we try to recreate the 1909 world at Mackin House, we can only partially succeed. Some things are gone forever.


Your History is a column in which representatives of the Tri-Cities’ heritage groups write about local history. Jill Cook is executive director of the Coquitlam Heritage Society.



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