Steveston: A gem along the Fraser River

E_p10_streetSteveston is about a 30 minute car drive south of Vancouver. It is also easily accessible by Canada Line and bus. The latter takes about an hour and makes for an inexpensive day trip. Steveston is located in the southwest corner of Lulu Island just along the Fraser River before it empties into the Georgia Strait. It is now part of the city of Richmond.

Location, location , location is the reason for Steveston’s historical success as a fishing village. Surrounded by arms of the Fraser River and small inlets, the area supported large runs of sockeye, coho, pink and chum salmon. For thousands of years the Coast Salish shared these waterways and fished seasonally according to the runs of salmon. Musqueam First Nation records show a permanent house site in what became the township of Steveston.

The area of Steveston and its surroundings was in large part a flat, boggy, treeless place prone to flooding in springtime. It supported crab apple trees, gooseberries and salmon berries. At the same time, because of the silt build up from the flow of the Fraser, rich soil for farming was created and this attracted some of the early European settlers. Among them were the Steves Family who came in the late 1870’s. Steveston derives its name from them. Successful farming necessitated the ditching and dikes we see today to control the flooding. Before the dikes, many early structures were built on stilts.

Steveston also began as a fishing camp for new settlers in the 1870’s and then rapidly spiraled into a major fish-canning town so that by the turn of the century clipper ships from around the world were docking to transport canned salmon. It was the largest fishing town on BC’s coast and had the largest operation of canneries in the British Empire. It became the salmon capital of the world and was nicknamed Salmonopolis.

Of course, an operation this size required many workers. In the early days, most of the fishermen and cannery workers were First Nations people. However, by the 1890’s, large numbers of Japanese immigrants began to supplant them. The Japanese filled the role of the fishermen, and mainly Chinese workers supplied the cannery positions. The work was difficult and conditions for the Chinese cannery workers were poor, especially in terms of wages. Europeans were chiefly in supervisory positions. But there were great profits to be made and when there were good runs of salmon, some fisherman could make more in a week than most men made in a year.

All this money built early Steveston’s hotels, an opera house, a newspaper, a telephone system, and coach lines. Later there was a rail line and eventually a tram system. There was also the seedier side of success with houses of ill repute, gambling and saloons. In short, the Wild West!

The Japanese became a predominant force in Steveston, and until WWII, composed over two-thirds of the population. Although anti-Asian attitudes abounded in BC, the Japanese in Steveston, at least for awhile, enjoyed some degree of harmony. The Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society built a school and a hospital. The hospital was open to all residents. The society also acted like a union, helping set fair prices for fish.

With the coming of WWII, a serious blow was dealt to Steveston’s Japanese as many were interned along with the confiscation of property and businesses. The Japanese Fisherman’s Benevolent Society was also disbanded. As a result, this undermined the fishing industry and the viability of Steveston as a town since 75% of businesses were owned and operated by Japanese.

Some returned after internment and today about 5% of Steveston’s population is Japanese. Recently, the Japanese Benevolent Society building was renovated as a museum exhibiting many community artifacts. There are also judo and kendo clubs as well as a Japanese language school and cultural

In the 1990s, the canneries, after a long period of decline, finally closed. One of the largest canneries, Gulf of Georgia, is today a national historic site of Canada. In 1897, it produced 2.5 million cans of salmon. There is also the Steveston Museum which is located in the current post office. Garry Point Park is another historic site offering 75 acres of waterfront just adjacent to Steveston.

Today Steveston still functions as a vibrant fishing community with over 600 fishing vessels. Along its waterfront docks, where many of the pictures were taken, the main one with this article and the others on-line, you can buy fresh fish off the boats, and enjoy a glimmer of its fabled past. Above the docks are many restaurants offering fresh seafood. The town itself has over 350 businesses and is very quaint and walkable. It’s become a very popular tourist centre as well as a popular place to live.