One of the best loved features of the Steveston waterfront, Steveston Island, known as Shady Island to locals, is something rare in an urban landscape, an untouched, undeveloped piece of natural land. Home to rare species of plants and many types of birds, the island was little more than a sandbar as far back as the 1920s. Rivers are natural island builders and the Fraser would have formed the island on its own but the process was accelerated by the interference of man, leading to the treed sanctuary we see today.
In Steveston’s early days, a naturally formed sandbar protected the waterfront by diverting some of the river’s water away from shore. A natural, protected channel formed behind the bar, suitable for the moorage of fishing boats and the construction of canneries.
As European immigration increased, swelling New Westminster’s population and increasing the size and amount of traffic on the river, it was necessary to keep the main river channel navigable by regular dredging. Spoils from dredging were dumped on the Steveston bar forming two distinct parts which were exposed at low tide and were connected by the submerged part of the bar. At high tide, smaller boats could still be taken across that part of the bar, although the route became closed after further dredging and natural build-up closed the gap.
In the 1930s two wing dams were built on the south side of the island to keep sand from being washed back into the channel. Later, a long training wall was built just upstream. The effect of the wing dams and training wall were to divert the river’s water toward the main channel, increasing its rate of flow and helping to keep the channel clear. This also increased the rate of natural silt build-up on the island. The island now had an important function other than a place to deposit dredging spoils. It formed a well protected harbour along the Steveston waterfront.
In order to to prevent the infill of the harbour channel and to provide access to the island for potential moorage facilities, a high rock dam was built across the upstream entrance to the channel. While the dam was effective, it eliminated flow through the channel, allowing effluent from the canneries to settle, creating a foul smelling basin that infiltrated the whole area with the stench of rotting fish. Within two years the top part of the dam was removed, allowing the channel to flush with each high tide.
The island’s form was further changed when a long rock breakwater was built. It extends along the length of the island like a spine and gives it the geographical profile it has today.
Steveston Island today is a gem on the waterfront of the village. Having resisted development proposals that have arisen over the years, it remains undomesticated and accessible only at low tide across the rock dam, a fact that many people learn each year when they lose track of time and are stranded by the incoming tide. As other parts of Steveston and Richmond change under the pressure of development, let’s hope this little piece of man made nature remains the same.