A new walking tour is bringing history-minded visitors and locals closer to Richmond’s colourful past—with a side dish of delicious, retro-themed treats to sample along the way. The Steveston Heritage Experience takes curious, peckish participants to four historic attractions in the waterfront village, bringing the past to life with a twinkle-eyed costumed guide who seems to have just stepped from the streets of 1914. We recently joined olden-days fisherman John Thomas (the character our guide played so well) to enjoy the tour’s inaugural run.
Stop one: Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site
Our time-travelling exploration starts in the cavernous, wood-floored Seine Net Loft at the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site, where John—dressed in grubby working togs—welcomes us with a traditional toast that wishes “a merry good day to mudflatters all.” He then sets the scene in the “salmon capital of the world,” a place where you can hear “five different tongues spoken on the streets.”
Steveston was the unrivalled centre of BC’s busy fishing industry back then, bringing in thousands of workers—including John, his wife Marge, and their misbehaving son Michael, who John suspects is playing hooky from school for the day. He tells us to keep an eye out for the young scallywag as he leads us out along the boardwalks to some of the Shipyard’s evocative antique buildings.
Visit the Murakami House during the Steveston Heritage Experience. | Photo: John Lee
This shoreline mini-village once housed cannery and boatbuilding operations, with many workers living onsite. We step into the Murakami House, a well-kept home where a large Japanese family lived until being removed during Canada’s devastating Second World War internment program. Next, we check out the Chinese Bunkhouse, where employees slept in narrow beds up to three levels high. This is also the site of our first snack: a cupful of rice and salmon, echoing the dishes workers subsisted on here.
Salmon and rice are offered at one of the tour’s stops. | Photo: John Lee
Stop two: Steveston Interurban Tram
A five-minute bus ride brings us to another richly nostalgic site. Until 1958, tramcars trundled into Steveston from Vancouver, bringing workers and supplies straight from the big city. The Steveston Interurban Tram building houses one of the original red-painted cars that used to rattle along the line. John tells us that trams like this cut the journey from Vancouver from five hours to one—and that locals nicknamed the service the Sockeye Special after all the cannery workers using it.
John Thomas, a Steveston local from 1914, talks to visitors inside tramcar 1220. | Photo: John Lee
Today the beautifully refurbished car looks brand new—and far cleaner than when John used to ride it to Richmond’s Minoru Racetrack and back. Returning home in those days, he says, the tram would be “covered in peanut shells and ticket stubs.” This second stop feels like a real immersion into the not-too-distant past: sitting in the tram, then stepping off to dive into bags of old fashioned popcorn and bottles of old-school soda pop.
Retro-cool pop (and popcorn) are provided at the Steveston Interurban Tram. | Photo: John Lee
Stop three: Steveston Museum
After a short walk along Moncton Street, still lined with dozens of heritage buildings, John gathers us in the garden beside the gable-roofed Steveston Museum, telling us about the huge fire that destroyed many businesses here in 1918. One of the survivors was the Northern Crown Bank, which had been shipped in from New Westminster in pieces—an early prefab—back in 1905.
Ducking inside what’s now the museum, we hear of the bitter 1900 strike when fisherman refused to accept a lowball pay offer from cannery owners before a better deal was eventually struck. We also discover that a Japanese school and hospital were built here—the museum’s walls are lined with sharp, large format photos of this close-knit community. Our treat here reflects this deep Japanese influence on the area: a delicious sampling of locally-brewed YK3 Sake—crisp Yu Junmai recommended.
The Steveston Museum stop includes a local sake tasting. | Photo: Tourism Richmond
Stop four: Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site
It’s a short walk to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site—or the ‘Monster’ as John says it was called in his day, when it dominated local production. Creosote aromas and cool temperatures hit as we step inside: the cannery was built over the water to preserve the fish, but workers froze their fingers to the bone here. Walking the line, we hear of jobs including hooking fish from the boats for 14 hours a day and speed-butchering salmon (and the occasional finger) in 20 seconds flat. We also discover John’s son Michael: he spots him in the ceiling area where kids were paid to feed empty cans onto the line.
The Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site. | Photo: Tourism Richmond
After shouting at Michael (hidden just from our view), John bids us a final goodbye and tells us to “go get a fast beer before the government signs a law of prohibition.” Our final treat is perfect: steaming bowls of chunky seafood chowder—from local fish and chips legend Pajo’s—as well as glasses of tasty ale from nearby Britannia Brewing. At tables covered with red-checkered cloths, a chatty, party-like atmosphere ensues as we tuck into our treats and toast the day’s time-travelling visit to yesteryear Steveston.
Exploring the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. | Photo: Tourism Richmond
If you go:
The next Steveston Heritage Experience is on October 6, 2018. From then, tours run once-a-month between April and September 2019. Book ahead: numbers are limited to 21 participants per tour. Tickets are $80 per person and can be booked here. Participants must be 19+.
Mostly on foot, bus transport is provided between Britannia Shipyards and the Steveston Interurban Tram stops, plus—at the tour’s end—between the Gulf of Georgia Cannery and Britannia Shipyards. A free bus from the Lansdowne Canada Line Station is also available, if requested in advance.