Art in a Pickle – The Cartoons of Phil Dill

Banner

The banner of the first Boeing Beam, published January 6, 1943.

Boeing Canada had been building aircraft in the Lower Mainland since 1929 when they bought the Hoffar-Beeching Shipyard at Coal Harbour and began building seaplanes there. The massive expansion of the aircraft industry that came with the start of the Second World War resulted in the construction of more facilities including the massive factory on Sea Island, built in 1942, as well as many other smaller shops in communities around BC. This expansion of Boeing Canada’s production came with a corresponding expansion of the workforce, providing thousands of jobs for men and women during the war years.

The importance of a nutritious diet for aircraft production workers is explored in this cartoon from Phil Dill. Boeing Beam image.

With the flood of new workers, the Boeing Canada Public Relations Department needed a method of communicating with their employees on a mass scale and so, on January 6, 1943, the first issue of the Boeing Beam was published. The Beam, was issued fortnightly (every two weeks) until August 31, 1945 when the war ended and wartime production ceased.

This New Year cartoon in the premier issue of the Beam was the first Dill cartoon to be featured. Image from the Boeing Beam.

Featured in the Boeing Beam were articles about the various plants and shops, information on training and production, stories about the aircraft produced at the plants, health and safety news as well as social news about employees, events and sports. Also featured in the Beam were the cartoons drawn by the Art Director of the Public Relations Dept., Phil Dill.

The Art Director of the Public Relations dept. for Boeing Canada, Phil Dill, shown working on a poster. Boeing Beam image.

Phil Dill was a young man who was originally employed in the Expediting Department but was relocated to Public Relations due to his talent with pen and ink. His work, featuring the antics of character “Claude Hopper” , dealt mostly with worker safety but also covered other aspects of the culture at the plants.

Claude Hopper was the anti-hero of many of the Dill cartoons. The trademark pickle also appears in this early cartoon. Boeing Beam image.

The majority of the cartoons also featured his trademark pickle character, who often added commentary to the cartoons.

The dangers of rumour-mongering are covered in this cartoon. Boeing Beam image.

Mr. Dill also produced posters. He developed a system of glass fronted poster frames which were mounted in key locations in all the factories operated by Boeing Canada.

This image illustrates some of the posters created by Phil Dill. Boeing Beam image.

The posters, dealing with safety, security and production, were numbered and rotated through the plants, providing a constantly changing theme.

A Phil Dill safety poster warns workers of the hazards of crossing Georgia Street near Plant 1, as does the armed guard. Boeing Beam image.

As new problems cropped up, Dill would produce new posters to deal with the subject using a touch of humour.

A little humour goes a long way, as illustrated in this cartoon published during a bond drive. Boeing Beam image.

The poster campaign proved to be so effective that large aircraft manufacturers in California requested photos of the images so they could use them in their own facilities.

Phil Dill appeared in his own cartoon showing the results of Claude Hopper’s poor safety performance. Boeing Beam image.

Dill’s work was acclaimed by National Safety Council as well as the US Navy Visual Aids departments and the Aircraft Industry Relations Committee.

The large female work force at the Boeing Plants was a new situation for male employees. Dill broached the subject with his usual humour. Boeing Beam image.

His cartoons and posters were put on public display at the Vancouver Art Gallery in December of 1943.

The dangers of unfettered long hair on female employees is addressed in this Dill cartoon. Boeing Beam image.

Subjects such as War Bond Drives, security and the relatively new experience of working in a mixed gender industrial workplace were also covered in Dill’s cartoons.

Working at an aircraft plant had its own set of unique hazards, as shown in this cartoon. Boeing Beam image.

After the Boeing Canada plant closed, Phil Dill found a new home for his cartoons in the pages of the “Buzzer”, the BC Electric’s transit publication.

The last Phil Dill cartoon to appear in the Boeing Beam was in final issue, August 31, 1945. Boeing Beam image.

Reach for the Sky – The Dawn of the High-Rise in Richmond

Up until the 1960s  Richmond was a “low-rise” community, the tallest buildings being the grandstands at the two thoroughbred racetracks in the municipality and the industrial buildings like canneries and mills. Richmond’s Zoning Bylaw had restricted building height to no more than three storeys above natural grade before the late 1950s. However, the increasing rates of population growth, brought on by the completion of the Oak Street Bridge in 1957, spurred the construction of residential subdivisions and the Municipal Government began to change Richmond’s Zoning Bylaw 1430 to permit higher density housing.

An aerial view of the Brighouse area in 1963 shows no buildings over three floors. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1984 17 65.

Richmond’s surface soil profiles have been studied and show that most of the land west of No. 3 Road has a clay cap about 3 metres in depth with sand or silty sand below. East of No. 3 Road there is typically a layer of peat up to 7 metres deep, then a 3 metre deep layer of clay underlain by sand. In the event of a major earthquake studies have shown that the most likely place for liquefaction (the loss of strength of soils due to vibration) to occur will probably be in a limited zone below the clay layer. As better understanding was reached of Richmond’s underlying soil conditions and how its soils react to supporting buildings in varying conditions, including earthquakes, site preparation and foundation construction techniques were adopted allowing taller structures to be built. Buildings in Richmond have to be built stronger and with greater attention to foundation design than similar buildings in Metro Vancouver which can be fastened to bedrock.

The first step in any construction is the provision of a soils report which addresses structural foundation support and the liquefaction potential of the soils in the building site. Structural drawings approved by a Professional Engineer deal with seismic design and the details of the soils report. Preparation of building sites for construction involves the densification of the soils with a preload of sand to a predetermined height and for a specified length of time. This compresses the soil and removes ground water to increase its load bearing capabilities. Various types of compaction using vibration are also commonly employed to increase the removal of ground water from the soil.

This photo shows concrete pilings which support the weight of buildings on soil below the liquefaction zone, in this case at the construction site of Richmond City Hall. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Most buildings over three storeys high are placed on pile foundations which support the building on soil below the liquefaction layer. Concrete “Franki” piles, reinforced concrete pilings forced down a metal tube and which expand out the bottom in a large bulge, provide structural support. Stone columns and timber “compaction piles” are often placed in a pattern around support pilings to further eliminate water from the soil supporting the building. All of the methods of supporting the building structure and compacting the soil create a large block of dense soil beneath the building site, essentially an artificial bedrock.

Richmond General Hospital was Richmond’s tallest building for many years. At six storeys it did not quite make the height required to be called a high rise. City of Richmond Archives photograph, accession 2004 11.

The first building to exceed the three-storey limit was the new Richmond General Hospital. At six storeys it did not quite qualify as a high-rise building, the standard being seven storeys or more, but it had been designed with the ability to be expanded to nine storeys and for years it was the tallest building in Richmond. The hospital opened on February 26, 1966. Plans to add an additional three storeys to the building in 1972 were quashed, however, due to changes in the National Building Code for 1970 which dramatically increased the specifications for earthquake building loads.

With the new changes in the building code the stage was now set for the construction of true high-rise buildings in Richmond. Through the early 1970s the Richmond Review newspaper announced the planned construction of the first buildings, a seven-storey seniors’ residence, two hotel towers, and three seventeen-storey apartment buildings.

Public opinion about the changing Richmond skyline was mixed, with very vocal opponents to the flat terrain of the community being “splattered with 200 foot towers”. Residents around the 1000 block of Ryan Road were so outraged at the plans for the construction of a fourteen-storey tower as part of an apartment development in their neighborhood that 150 of them showed up at a Municipal Council meeting to protest. Citing a complete lack of consultation they managed to have the proposed development cancelled.

The March 18, 1970 Richmond Review showed this photo of the proposed Lions Manor building. At the time it was published, the location of the building had still not been settled.

The Richmond Review newspaper announced the construction of a $1.2 million apartment block for seniors on March 19, 1970. The seven-storey concrete building, planned since 1968, would fill a need for affordable senior’s housing with room for 144 people living in single suites. Occupancy would be limited to persons having an income of $150 per month or less and rent would be $110. The project had been in planning for many years by the Richmond Lions Club. The location chosen to build the residence was on Aquila Road, but opposition from neighbours forced a change of location. Seventh Avenue in Steveston was suggested as an alternate site, but eventually a property at 1177 Fentiman Place in Steveston was approved for its construction.

By December 8, 1971 the building structure was almost complete. Richmond Review.

Described as “like a hotel for old people – all they have to do is dress themselves and come to the dining room to eat”, the rooms each had a bed, chair, clothes closet, dresser, desk and wash stand. Each floor had a lounge and a washroom with four private tubs. The top floor featured a library and the main resident lounge while the main floor housed the kitchen and dining room as well as a crafts room, laundry and visitor’s lounge. Construction began on the manor in 1970 and the first 15 guests had moved in by November 1972.

In this aerial view looking over Steveston the Lions Manor is clearly visible at the centre left. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1977 22 2

On April 12, 1971 the Review announced the Municipality’s “first high rise complex” to be built on Minoru Boulevard. Expected to cost $8.25 Million, it consisted of three seventeen-storey towers, two to be built in the first phase of construction with the third to follow later.

An artist’s drawing of the Park Towers complex from a brochure at the City of Richmond Archives.

The entire complex was to provide 561 dwellings. Foundations for the towers used Franki concrete pilings about every four feet on centre with concrete beams on top to support the buildings.

The first two towers of the Park Towers development near completion in this photo. City of Richmond Archives photograph 2019 24 1.

The project was proposed in 1969 by well-known developer Ben Dayson of Highgate holdings who had previously built the three-storey Minoru Garden Apartments next door to the high rise building site. The first two towers (“Towers C and B”) were ready for rentals by November 1972. Apartments in the third tower (“Tower A”), completed the following year, were sold as condominiums.

The three buildings of the Park Towers, Richmond’s first high rise apartment complex, dominate the skyline of downtown Richmond, ca. 1976. City of Richmond Archives photograph 2008 36 3 75.

In May of 1971 the construction of the Vancouver Airport Hyatt House hotel complex was reported. The hotel was to include a 10-storey tower, 431 rooms, ballroom and meeting rooms, a 200 boat marina, and three restaurants (one on “stilts” over the Fraser River), all built on a seven acre site on Sea Island.

This architectural drawing shows the proposed Airport Hyatt on the bank of the Middle Arm of the Fraser River. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

The building height had been restricted to 135 feet above ground level because of its proximity to the airport and had to have non-metallic roof sheathing so as not to interfere with navigational signals.

Construction is underway at the site of the new Airport Hyatt in this Richmond Review clipping from January 12, 1972.

The site was prepared with an 18 foot high preload of sand which sat for one year before construction began, compacting the soil 60 to 70 feet down. Three hundred and sixty Franki piles were spanned by two-foot by three-foot concrete beams which are in turn supporting a 3 1/2-foot concrete slab. Rising above the slab is the Y-shaped tower of the main structure. The Hotel opened for business in early June 1973.

The Delta Airport Inn before the construction of the first tower. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1988 18 77.

In June 1971, construction began on an expansion of the Delta Airport Inn on St. Edwards Drive which would involve the erection of a fourteen-storey tower with 144 suites and the renovation and expansion of the existing hotel amenities. The upgrade to the hotel, in the planning stages since 1969, was expected to cost $2.5 Million.

This architect’s drawing shows the planned expansion of the Airport Inn. A second, taller tower has been added since. Photo from January 14, 1972 Richmond Review.

A preload of 25,000 yards of sand had already been in place before the project was announced in the June 9, 1971 Richmond Review and 126 piles had been driven 40 feet into the ground at the site to compact the soil and support the building. It was expected that after the completion of the first floor, each floor would only take one week to build. The tower had been completed by March 1972 and the rooms ready for guests by April.

By October 15, 1971 the Airport Inn claimed to have the highest view in Richmond. Richmond Review photograph.

These first four high rise building projects began a trend which continues today, and high rise buildings have come to dominate the city’s skyline, especially in the City Centre area. Which was Richmond’s first high rise? All four were under construction at the same time but by opening date, the Delta Airport Inn’s tower (now the Sandman Signature Airport Hotel) was the first in March 1972, followed closely by the Lion’s Manor and the first phase of the Park Towers in November 1972. The Airport Hyatt House Hotel (now the Pacific Gateway Hotel) on Sea Island was opened fourth, the following March. All of the buildings are still in use except for the Lion’s Manor which was demolished in 2014.

Richmond’s high rises are dwarfed by other buildings in the Metro Vancouver area. Transport Canada  mandates through the Vancouver Airport International Zoning Regulations that buildings in Richmond not exceed 47 meters (150 feet). There has been a study around the possibility of an increase in allowable building heights in the Brighouse area, something that is still ongoing, and it is possible that someday we may see buildings in Richmond that rival some of the “skyscrapers” seen in other cities.

Focus on the Record – The Eric Rathborne fonds.

The Eric Rathborne fonds at the City of Richmond Archives consists mainly of black and white photographs of aviation activities at the newly opened Vancouver Airport on Sea Island, taken ca. 1935 to 1960.

1997 5 5

This aerial view of Vancouver Airport shows the hangars, administration building and radio building, ca. 1939. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 5.

Donald Eric Dalby Rathborne was born in England on December 18, 1907. He had his first ride in an airplane in 1924 which sparked a lifelong passion for aviation. He, with his family, emigrated to Windsor Ontario in 1926 when he was 18 years old. In 1930 Mr. Rathborne moved to Victoria in 1930 and then to Vancouver in 1933.

1997 5 107

Eric Rathborne sits in the cockpit of an open biplane, ca. 1936. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 107.

 

1997 5 68

An unidentified aviator wearing a sheepskin flying suit poses on the wing of an aircraft, possibly a Junkers A50, ca. 1936. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 68.

In his spare time Eric did odd jobs around the Vancouver Airport in exchange for flying lessons, achieving his private pilot’s license in 1936. In 1939 he took a full time job as a maintenance man with Trans Canada Airlines, the precursor of Air Canada, his duties including loading food, oxygen and mail onto aircraft, refueling and engine servicing.

1997 5 33

Two Trans Canada Airlines Lockheed 14H-2 aircraft rest on the tarmac at Vancouver Airport. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 33.

 

1997 5 19

The public lines up to see the interior of the United Airlines “Mainliner” Douglas DC-3, on display at Vancouver Airport at the time of the introduction of this type of aircraft into commercial service, ca. 1938. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 19.

In May 1941 he earned his commercial pilot’s license and then joined the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan as a staff pilot. The BCATP was the organization responsible for training thousands of Commonwealth pilots and air crew during the Second World War.

1997 5 26

A United Airlines Boeing 247D airliner sits in front of the Vancouver Airport terminal and administrative building in this photo, ca. 1936. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 26.

 

1997 5 38

Ruth Alm poses on the observation deck at the Vancouver Airport in the flight attendant’s uniform of Trans Canada Airlines, ca. 1939. The airfield is in the background. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 38.

 

1997 5 82

WWII aircraft mechanic, pilot and career flight attendant Ruth Johnson poses beside the Aero Club of BC’s De Havilland Tiger Moth DH82c at the Vancouver Airport, ca. 1946. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 82.

After his wartime service Mr. Rathborne was, at 37 years old, deemed too old to work as a commercial airline pilot, so he flew as a private pilot and worked occasionally as a pilot for local airlines while making his living as a commercial photographer for over 30 years.

1997 5 93

A young Don Rathborne points to a sign for Brisbane Flying Shcool Air Tours in this photo ca. 1949. Nearly 30 years later he saw an airport themed display put on by the City of Richmond Archives at Lansdowne Mall and contacted the Archives to see if they were interested in copying his father’s collection. These images and the rest of the collection will now be preserved, illustrating Vancouver Airport during the Golden Age of Flight and the post War years. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1997 5 93.

That Rathborne made his living as a commercial photographer is evident in the quality and composition of the photographs he has left documenting the early years of Vancouver Airport on Sea Island. Eric Rathborne died on November 30, 1990 at the age of 82.

The full collection of photographs from the Eric Rathborne fonds can be viewed at: https://bit.ly/2HvXxdb

The City of Richmond Archives – Inside the Box

What is the Archives?

The Archives and what goes on there is a mystery to most people so in this posting we will try to explain what the City of Richmond Archives is, where it is, and what it does.

2006 Preservation19

An archival box is designed to exclude light and dust from the records stored within. In this blog we bring the records “Outside the Box” so that the public can see the history of their community. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

The City of Richmond Archives is the official repository for the inactive public (City) and private (donated by individuals) records of enduring and historic value to the City of Richmond and the community as a whole. The main work undertaken at the Archives follows two paths, namely, preservation (to preserve and protect records) and access (to make them accessible to City officials and to the public). The Archives is a section of the City Clerk’s Office which, among its other duties and responsibilities, is responsible for records management for the City.

History

The idea of creating an archives facility for Richmond was originally discussed in 1970. With the approach of Richmond’s Centennial year, a proposal had been put forward to publish a book to mark the event. The committees formed to organize the Centennial celebration and the book were made up of Richmond residents with an interest in archives and in establishing one for the Municipality because without the original documents and photographs of the community, it would be impossible to have a history.

1987 30 92

Ted Youngberg, Chair of the Richmond ’79 Centennial Society and Leslie Ross, author of the book “Richmond-Child of the Fraser” look over some archival images. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1987 30 92.

Before 1982, archival materials were collected and stored by the Richmond Museum and Historical Society which had been formed in 1961. In 1982, Richmond’s first City Archivist was hired, working with the City’s Leisure Services Department. In 1987, in recognition of the Archives’ growing role as a part of the City’s records management system, the Archives was transferred to the City Clerk’s Department.

In 1992 when the Richmond Cultural Centre was built, a dedicated space for the Archives was created allowing the Archives’ holdings to be stored in one place for the first time. On July 29, 2002 the Corporate Records Management Program Bylaw 7400 came into effect setting out the terms and scope of activities of the City of Richmond Archives. This link will take you to the text of Bylaw 7400 which provides a picture of the stewardship the City of Richmond exercises over City government and community records during their lifetime: http://www.richmond.ca/__shared/assets/bylaw_7400463.pdf

Where is it?

The City of Richmond Archives is located in the Richmond Cultural Centre. The door to the Archives is located between the Library entrance and the Front Desk in the Rotunda of the Centre. A window to the left of the door shows a display relating to some aspect of Richmond’s history using material sourced from the Archives. Just through the door is a vestibule, featuring a photographic display.

The front entrance to the Archives is located between the Library entrance and the Cultural Centre front desk. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Past the second door, you enter the Reference Room where most researchers do their work. A photographic timeline on the walls shows images from Richmond’s history and digital photo frames present images from specific photograph collections. A research library offers books, research finding aids and telephone/street directories. A microfilm/microfiche reader is provided as well.

The Reference Room at the Archives features a historical photographic timeline on the walls. Space is provided for researchers to work. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Past the service desk and through the door is the Archives office. Here is where Archives staff and volunteers work at several work stations and tables. More research material can be found here as well as equipment for the handling and conservation of records.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This work station in the Archives office is set up for conservation work and includes an exhaust system for the evacuation of fumes. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Through the doors at the rear of the Archives office is the closed Archives storage area, commonly referred to as the stacks.

These sections of rolling shelves are used for the storage of textual records in the Archives. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Here, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, is where the records held in the City of Richmond Archives are stored for future generations. Each set of shelves or drawers are labelled, as are the boxes and files located there, allowing the Archivist to find a single item among the mass of material stored there.

Drawers like these are used for the storage of maps and plans. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

The Collection

The Archives acquires records for its collection in several ways. Public records are transferred from the City. Private records are received by public donation. The title of the material passes to the Archives with the understanding that ownership is held in trust for future generations.

The conservation of documents is an important activity at the Archives. Here a Contract Archivist works at disbinding old by-laws for preservation and accessibility. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

The Archives holds more than one kilometer of textual records, 170,000 photographs, 20,000 maps and plans and over 500 sound and moving image recordings. There are also collections of subject and biography files and a small reference library.

Photographic negatives, which deteriorate over time, are shown here after being dehumidified, and sealed to prevent moisture incursion. They are then frozen to slow the rate of their decay. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

What goes on?

When records are acquired by the Archives, whether from the City or as a donation, they undergo a fairly complex and time consuming process to ensure their preservation and accessibility. If a member of the public decides to donate a group of photographs, the process is:

  1. An accession number is given to the donation which consists of a four digit number indicating the year it was received and a second number indicating its order of donation, for example, a donation numbered 2019 5 would indicate the fifth accession of 2019.  A Deed of Gift Agreement form is generated by the Archivist which includes a description of the photographs. By signing the Deed of Gift Agreement, the donor states that they are authorized to donate the material, that ownership of the material is transferred to the Archives and disposal instructions for the material are stated should the Archives decide not to keep it.
  2. Once the ownership of the photographs is transferred to the Archives, the Archivist will create an entry in the Archives database. The accession can now be stored in the Archives.
  3. Each photograph will be given a specific item number and will be placed in an individual acid free envelope. The envelopes are then placed in archival boxes, designed to keep out light and dust, and the boxes are placed on the photograph shelves in the Archives.
  4. Lastly, as time and staffing allow, the photos will be digitized. Once this is done they may be added to the Archives website allowing researchers to search the photos without actually coming to the Archives.

Volunteers at the Archives work at scanning some of the thousands of photographic images preserved there. Once digitized they can be made available online. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

The Friends of the Richmond Archives

The Friends of the Richmond Archives was formed in the fall of 1986 as a volunteer and non-profit organization by members of the Richmond ’79 Centennial Society Historical sub-committee. The Friends undertake a number of activities to support the City of Richmond Archives and to promote the preservation and understanding of Richmond’s history.

Members of the Friends of the Richmond Archives with a display at the annual Remembrance Day event at City Hall. City of Richmond Archives photograph.

Out of its membership of 216 people, a core group of volunteers take part in community outreach activities, support a publishing program for local history, and help fund the purchase of specialized archival equipment and projects at the City of Richmond Archives. The Friends have also endowed a UBC award for students in the Masters of Archival Studies Program and have supported a number of programs for local students in Richmond.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie speaks at the Annual Archives Tea, a popular event open to members and guests of the Friends of the Richmond Archives. City of Richmond Archives photo.

The funds managed by the Friends are raised through donations and membership fees. If you are interested in the preservation of your city’s history and want to support the Archives in its work consider becoming a member of the Friends of the Richmond Archives. The membership form is available at: https://www.richmond.ca/__shared/assets/FOTRA_Membership_Application_Form_201851284.pdf . As a member, you will receive in the mail the semi-annual Archives News (the newsletter of the City of Richmond Archives), notifications of special events at the Archives, opportunities for volunteer involvement with the Friends, and an invitation to the annual Archives Tea. A receipt for Income Tax purposes will be issued for donations over $10.

The Richmond Oil Boom – In Search of the Steveston Gusher

In these days of environmental concerns, global climate change and pipeline protests, the oil and gas industry has become the target of much criticism. This was not the case around the turn of the last century when, in the middle of the Texas Oil Boom, attention was focused on a small fishing village at the mouth of the Fraser River.

The existence of natural gas on Lulu Island had been known for millennia.  The Musqueam fishing camp at Terra Nova was named sp`’elekw`eks (pronounced SPALL-uk-wicks), “Bubbling Water” in English, referring to the gas which was visible bubbling through the water in the slough. The Musqueam village at Garry Point was known as kw’áýò7xw’ (pronounced KWAY-ah-wh), meaning “Boiling (bubbling, churning) Water” in English, referring to the gas bubbling in the Steveston Slough.

Early European settlers in Steveston were also very aware of the gas deposits beneath Lulu Island. In 1891 the Steveston Enterprise Newspaper reported that the natural gas “forces its way through the water that accumulates in the wells and ditches where it is exposed and blackens the soil with heat when it is consumed.” Tossing a match into the bubbles would cause them to ” flash like powder”. Tipping a barrel over a gas vent would collect it and produce a continuous flame at a hole in the top of the barrel.

Steveston in 1891 looking North up 2nd Avenue. The sign on the left advertises the land auction of June 16. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1984 17 75 .

 

This ad from June 1891 in the Victoria Colonist invites investment in Steveston where you will “see the natural gas burning.”

 

Word of the gas spread with advertising for land auctions in the area. An ad in the Victoria Colonist invited people to bid on 400 lots available in Steveston, “The Key City on the Fraser River”.  According to the ad, participants would see the natural gas burning, its presence sure to make the area a manufacturing centre and a leading city in the Province.

The presence of the colourless, odorless gas led to efforts to exploit this resource. In August 1891 the Steveston Natural Gas and Development Company was formed by a group of local entrepreneurs who attempted to start a well but found their expertise and capital were not up to the task.

The evidence of natural gas led to the speculation that large oil or coal deposits would also be found in the area. In 1904 an organization of Vancouver businessmen, The Steveston Land and Oil Company Limited, bought a lot on No.1 Road in Steveston, east of the end of Broadway Street and next to the Japanese Hospital. They hired some experienced oil riggers and engineers from the oilfields at Beaumont, Texas. A derrick was erected and drilling began at British Columbia’s first officially recorded well. The results were encouraging and by April the shaft had reached 1000 feet, passing through “shale, clay, and blue, greasy mud or gumbo”.

In June, The optimism spurred the company to look for more investors and ads were placed in newspapers announcing that 30,000 shares were available in the company. Hoping to attract sales, the company offered early buyers a “buy two, get one free” deal.

 

An ad from the Victoria Colonist, June 1904, inviting investors to buy stock in the Steveston Land and Oil Company.

A copy of a share certificate for the Steveston Land and Oil Company. City of Richmond Archives photograph RCF 47.

In August the excitement grew when a large pocket of natural gas was reached by the drillers. The pressure sent sediment and water spouting high over Steveston. That evening a burn off flare was ignited to expend the gas and the resulting flame was 80 feet tall and 18 feet wide and could be seen from New Westminster. Reports claimed that the drillers expected to hit high quality oil soon, after which Steveston would take her place among the world’s great oil fields.

The drilling rig of the Steveston Land and Oil Company in 1904, B.C.’s first documented oil well. Sections of well piping can be seen leaning against the structure. Investors had high hopes that Steveston would be sprouting with derricks like this and black gold would be flowing from deposits under Lulu Island. City of Richmond Archives photograph    1978 15 10.

Despite all the optimism surrounding the search for oil, problems were arising. Oil was certainly present under Lulu Island, droplets had even shown up at the well, but the silt surrounding it was so flour-like that even with fine screens the piping would plug immediately. More expensive equipment and more specialized screens were shipped to the well but eventually the costs of operation overwhelmed the company and the project was abandoned in 1906.

Looking north up No.1 Road in 1908 gives a view of the back of the Steveston rail station, a Roman Catholic Church and the now defunct drilling rig of the Steveston Land and Oil Company, City of Richmond Archives photograph 1978 5 7.

The halt of operations, while saving Steveston from the fate of becoming surrounded by oil wells and a busy tanker port, did not entirely stop the idea that natural gas might be a viable product. In 1930 a well was drilled on the farm of Henry Fentiman at 120 Garry Street. Mr. Fentiman’s house was located at the north side of the present Steveston Community Park, not too far from the location of the old oil rig.

Henry Fentiman’s turn of the century mansion on his Steveston farm. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1986 54 1.

The International Pipe Line Company invested $17,000 in a plan to supply Vancouver with superior, odorless natural gas from Lulu Island, supplanting the manufactured gas used in the city at the time. The first test well was drilled to a depth of 850 feet, produced a flow of gas, but soon plugged with sand. A second well, drilled in 1931 to a depth of 730 feet and using finer screens to separate the sand, proved to be more successful and produced a steady flow of gas.

Drilling for gas on the Fentiman farm. City of Richmond Archives photograph  1978 36 22.

Once again the plan to capitalize on the energy resources of Lulu Island did not come to fruition, but Mr. Fentiman used the gas from the well for decades, easily heating his big, drafty turn of the century house, running his water heater and stove using the apparently unlimited supply of gas from his property. The only complication encountered with the system was the fluctuation in gas pressure caused by changing tides, the gas having to force its way through the whole depth of water in the well.

Henry Fentiman’s gas well, shown here in the 1930s, kept his house heated, water hot and kitchen cooking for decades. City of Richmond Archives photograph    1978 36 21.

In 1969 with the gas well now capped off, the Fentiman property was expropriated for $70,000 by City Council. The buildings were demolished in the late 1970s. The farm was sub-divided and exchanged or used for other purposes, the northern part now home to the Steveston Buddhist Temple, the Lions Club Senior Citizen housing occupies a portion of the old property and the southern part, where the Fentiman house and gas well were located were absorbed into Steveston Park. The natural gas and oil deposits that created so much excitement in the early 20th Century are still there, captured in the earth below Lulu Island but are unlikely to be looked for again.

The Fentiman house and outbuildings in the late 1970s. The gas well was located in the small building between the house and the barn. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1986 54 8.