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The oldest city in Western Canada, New Westminster was originally the second capital of the colony of British Columbia behind Vancouver Island's southern city, Victoria.
Located on the Burrard Peninsula on the Fraser River's north embankment, the 15 square miles that comprise New Westminster is 19 kilometers southeast of Vancouver, next to Burnaby and Coquitlam and just across the river from its neighbor, Surrey. Having the honour of receiving its name directly from Queen Victoria (who drew her inspiration from Westminster, one of London, England's more famous neighbourhoods) New Westminster quickly adopted the nickname, The Royal City.
In its early days, the city's growth was spurred by its location as a corridor between Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, making it a major outfitting post for prospectors trying their luck up river during the Cariboo gold rush years. And as the entire Pacific West Coast began to grow and prosper, as industry and agriculture flourished from the Fraser Valley to the Fraser River Delta, so did the little city on the river. The most obvious tribute the New Westminster's rich and important history is the New Westminster Museum and Archives (NWMA). The most famous attraction is the Irving House, the oldest home on the Lower Mainland, dating back to 1865! And while you'll find things here like the Governor General's coach from 1876 and the 1859 maps to the city, one important factor makes New Westminster special: the city is its own museum.
From the 1850's cannons to the 1890's armouries to the 1937 Samson V paddlewheeler, New Westminster proudly wears its history on its sleeve. Just stroll through the numerous cemeteries or past the rows of heritage homes. But some of the more interesting pages of New Westminster's history have been buried under years of modernization, re-gentrification and development. For these pages, you have to know where to look... In 1878, the federal government opened the first federal penitentiary west of Manitoba. The British Columbia Penitentiary (otherwise known as BC Pen, the Pen and Skookum House) was situated directly between what are now known as the neighbourhoods of Sapperton and Queen's Park. For over a century, it was home to some of the provinces most hardened criminals and the site of some of British Columbia's most celebrated trials and indeed, executions. Today, all that remains is the original centre block that now provides condominium living to law-abiding citizens and features a high-end restaurant. What comprised the rest of the prison grounds has fallen to a similar leisure-living fate.
Closer to the river, The Pen's dockside holding area and adjacent armoury are now more recognizable as the idyllic riverside park on the Fraser - an integral part of the walking and cycling paths that make up the city's waterfront promenade.
With a bit of imagination, one can stroll past the Royal City Manor and imagine the original colonial Government House that once stood here serving as home to Colonel Richard Clement Moody, commander of the local Royal Engineer detachment. With even less imagination, one can disembark from the Skytrain at the New Westminster Station and visit the nearby Keg Restaurant - the former Canadian Pacific Railway Station. History can be intriguing when it comes medium-rare with a baked potato!
Perhaps the most melancholy of New Westminster's missing chapters is the saga of its once-lively Chinatown. Once one of the earliest and largest of its kind, it originally occupied what is now known as Front Street. Chinatown was eventually relocated to The Swamp - a southeast section of town bordered by Royal Avenue, Columbia Street and 8th & 12th Streets. In 1898, the majority of Chinatown was destroyed in the Great Fire. And Front Street? Today, it's a centre for New Westminster's thriving antique and second-hand industry. It's also become a favourite with movie location scouts, doubling as Chicago, Philadelphia and The Bronx in recent popular feature films.
New Westminster incubates its own arts and entertainment culture as well. The West End of town along 12th Street and 20th Street between London Street and 8th Avenue is a haven for antique hunters and curiosity collectors. This art deco corner of town features an annual Ragtime Festival that is one of the most anticipated days on the Metropolitan Vancouver calendar.
Additionally, New Westminster has a handful of live venues including two theatrical facilities in Queen's Park as well as the Massey Theatre (home of the popular and longstanding Royal City Musical Theatre) and the Burr Theatre (restored with funding from actor Raymond Burr's estate).
More jock than theatre aficionado? Visit the Queen's Park Arena, home to the hugely-popular New Westminster Salmonbellies, the area's own professional lacrosse team!
By far New Westminster's most recognizable attraction, the Westminster Quay is home to the massive public River Market, a hub of restaurants, shopping and live entertainment nestled on the banks of the beautiful river that's given New Westminster its life and history and shining reputation.
Come on down to the river!