Irrepressible New Westminster
New Westminster, historically an important city in the Lower Mainland of mountainous British Columbia, Canada, and now a municipality of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, was the capital of the mainland Colony of British Columbia from 1858 until merger of the mainland and island colonies in 1866 and was the province’s largest city until Vancouver overtook it in population early in the 20th Century. New Westminster is in the southeastern part of the Burrard Peninsula on the north bank of the Fraser River about 12 miles from the City of Vancouver, adjacent to Burnaby and Coquitlam, and across the Fraser River from Surrey. The Queensborough portion of New Westminster is on the eastern tip of Lulu Island adjacent to Richmond on the river downstream. Total city land area is 5.9 square miles. In the 2011 Census the population was 65,976, of which in census terms “visible minorities,” mostly Asian, accounted for about 35, “aboriginals” 4, and “European Canadians” 61 percent.
The discovery of gold in British Columbia caused fear of an American invasion and takeover. For this reason, the colonial government in 1859 established Queensborough as the first official capital for its defensible location and communication facilities by water. The London government, however, did not favor “Queensborough,” so Queen Victoria renamed the city after Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament stand. From this renaming by the queen came the official nickname “The Royal City.” A year later, New Westminster became the first British Columbia city to incorporate under an elected municipal government. It was then the principal staging point for prospectors traveling to the gold fields beyond Yale and Port Douglas up the Fraser River.
When the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island merged in 1866, Victoria on Vancouver Island, not New Westminster on the mainland, became the capital of British Columbia by a vote of 13 to 8 in the legislature. After British Columbia became the sixth province of the Dominion of Canada, the Royal City’s economy benefited from the Canadian Pacific Railway extension to Vancouver with a spur to New Westminster in 1886, although most rail traffic went to Vancouver, where the port never froze, unlike the Fraser River in winter at New Westminster. Twelve years later, in 1898, a devastating fire destroyed most of downtown New Westminster. New Westminster’s Chinatown, one of the earliest and largest in the mainland colony, perished in the Great Fire of 1898, and none remains in New Westminster today.
The downtown heart of New Westminster close to the city waterfront, Columbia Street in its heyday was the main commercial retail and service centre for Burnaby, Coquitlam, and the whole Fraser Valley. The high-quality shopping experience drew customers from even Vancouver by interurban rail or by car via Kingsway (originally Westminster Highway or Westminster Road). The 1964 completion of the Trans-Canada Highway bypass and the building of suburban malls with plentiful free parking drove Columbia Street into a slump during which many businesses abandoned the downtown district.
In October 2006, Columbia Street changed alignment to one lane in both directions with a bicycle lane and reverse-angle parking to encourage pedestrian and bicycling traffic. Construction or renovation projects at the Plaza 88 condominium towers, the Columbia Theatre, and the Westminster Pier Park are evidence of some rejuvenation.
Originally a dockside street and market, Front Street converted to a truck route and elevated parking facility during the 1960s to increase parking space for Columbia Street. More recently, it has been the scene of a thriving trade in antiques and a frequent location for feature film productions.
When Queen Victoria renamed the city, “Queensborough” became the name of the New Westminster section of Lulu Island across the river channel from the southwestern mainland end of the city. Queensborough is today an area of low- to middle-income housing with some new condominium complexes near the Westminster Quay development.