It’s easy to see Steveston Village as a relaxing destination for a day of shopping and some great fish and chips. But the charming old waterfront community on Richmond’s southern shoreline also has a fascinating backstory that’s just waiting to be discovered by curious visitors.
Home to two national historic sites, a preserved 1913 tram car, and a Moncton Street main drag that’s lined with yesteryear façades, the first stop for anyone interested in this heritage should be the Steveston Museum. We dropped by on a recent afternoon to explore this free-entry attraction that occupies twin antique buildings in the heart of Steveston.
The Steveston Museum provides an evocative introduction to the historic village. | Photo: John Lee
What is the Steveston Museum all about?
“From the early days onwards, Steveston has felt very different from the rest of Richmond,” says Rachel Meloche, Executive Director of the Steveston Historical Society, the grassroots organization that created the museum in 1979. “Our goal here is to tell the village’s distinctive story, touching on its fishing, farming, and Japanese-Canadian history.”
The buildings hosting the museum are also steeped in history, she says as we explore the site. The gable-roofed original building—now also housing a post office and our Tourism Richmond Visitor Centre—was purchased in kit form from a catalogue more than a century ago. Constructed in New Westminster and floated here along the Fraser River, it was Steveston’s first bank for many years.
Next door is the white-painted Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society Building. An even older construction that was once part of the Japanese Fishermen’s Hospital, this bright, high-ceilinged building was moved here and incorporated into the museum in 2010. Together, these buildings invite visitors to immerse themselves in a village story that frequently veers from quirky to gritty and from emotional to tumultuous.
Banking and beyond
The museum’s original building started life as Steveston’s Northern Bank branch in 1905. Today, visitors can peer into its recreated manager’s office (check out that clunky typewriter); peruse its wood-carved counters (now used by the post office); and marvel at the heavy metal door of a large walk-in safe.
The adjoining second room in this building is even more evocative. “Steveston was not a town of fancy people—we focus on everyday human stories here,” says Meloche as we check out nostalgic exhibits such as colourful tins of salmon and shoe grease that many locals would have had in their homes back-in-the-day.
Everyday items showcase yesteryear Steveston. | Photo: John Lee
There’s also a pioneer-luring 1891 poster that advertises Steveston as ‘the coming town of BC’ plus a stark photo reminder of the 1918 fire that quickly ravaged three blocks of wood-framed village buildings. Sparked by an overturned lantern, it destroyed half of the village’s business area and the homes of 600 people.
Other large-format photos in this room bring yesteryear Steveston to life—including one that really caught our eye. Depicting boats alongside a cannery building, it includes a group of smiling young women gillnetters from the 1940s strolling along a boardwalk. They look like they might walk out of the photo and into latter-day Steveston at any moment.
Curated photo displays at the Steveston Museum showcase life in Steveston. | Photo: John Lee
Evocative photos are also a key feature of the second half of the Steveston Museum. In the adjoining Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society Building, several striking images immediately draw attention. “I love this photo of Buck Suzuki,” says Meloche, pointing out a uniformed Japanese-Canadian man who was refused his wish to fight for Canada in World War Two—prompting him to join the British armed forces instead.
But that’s not the only wartime story here. From 1941, 21,000 Japanese-Canadians from Western Canada were sent to internment camps or work projects in BC and across the country. More than 2,000 were from Steveston, where many had worked in the fishing and boatbuilding industries for decades. A dramatic photo depicts hundreds of their boats confiscated and later sold or scrapped.
Wall panels inside the museum shed light on Steveston's history. | Photo: Tourism Richmond
Internment wasn’t the end of the story for Steveston’s Japanese-Canadian community, though. Another room in this part of the building indicates that those who returned after the war launched cultural programs and town-twinning (sister city) initiatives that are still alive today. The museum’s final room—a favourite among many children, Meloche says—showcases martial arts clubs in the area and also displays some uniforms.
Steveston Town Square Park
A door from this room leads visitors directly into the small Town Square Park, which mirrors the dual sensibilities of the museum: one half is a Western-style garden of planted trees and flowerbeds while the other has traditional Japanese plants and a classical water feature. It seems like a fittingly tranquil spot to end our visit. But there’s one final surprise that Meloche is keen to show us.
“This is one of my favourite things,” she says, pointing to a memorial slab embedded alongside the pathway. “And I think it really shows the quirky side of this community.” With a carved profile of a panting dog, the lettering reads ‘Big Red Forever Remembered 1989.’ The Irish Setter made the village his home after hopping from a fishing boat here in 1979. Locals shared the chores of feeding and vet visits and during his many years here he was known as the unofficial mayor of Steveston. It’s the kind of colourful story that makes you want to know more about the village.
Big Red's memorial water bowl is located in Town Square Park. | Photo: John Lee
Don’t miss the museum’s touchscreen profiles of Japanese-Canadian locals (you can also explore these Nikkei Stories here). You can also pick up a map flyer at the museum that plots key Japanese-Canadian sites nearby, and snag a Treading Through Time flyer that showcases additional heritage buildings in Steveston.
If you go:
The Steveston Museum is located at 3811 Moncton Street (our Tourism Richmond Visitor Centre is also located in the same building). Admission is free and the museum is open from 9:30am to 5:00pm Monday to Saturday, and from noon to 4:00pm on Sundays.