Navvy Jack’s Ambleside legacy

OVER A CENTURY - The Navvy Jack House has a 128-year history in Ambleside seen in these photos from (left to right) 1914, 1957, 1988 and presently.  (Left to right)West Vancouver Library, West Vancouver Archives, West Vancouver Archives, Rob Newell photos
OVER A CENTURY – The Navvy Jack House has a 128-year history in Ambleside seen in these photos from (left to right) 1914, 1957, 1988 and presently. (Left to right)West Vancouver Library, West Vancouver Archives, West Vancouver Archives, Rob Newell photos

After failing to strike it rich in the gold fields, “Navvy Jack” settled in Ambleside with Chief Kiepilano’s granddaughter and built what is now the Lower Mainland’s oldest continuously occupied house


You would never know unless someone told you.
There are no visible plaques or historical markers on this old house.
The outside finish, once pristinely white-washed with elaborate Victorian brackets, shows decades of wear.
But, although it’s difficult to tell, the Navvy Jack House is one of the North Shore’s most significant heritage houses, and has been owned by the District of West Vancouver since 1990.
Located at 1768 Argyle Ave. on the Seawall in Ambleside, it’s the oldest-known continuously occupied house in the Lower Mainland.
Pioneer John Thomas, known locally as “Navvy Jack,” built the house in 1868 after leaving Great Britain.
He originally planned to find fortune in the Cariboo gold fields, but instead ended up operating a ferry on Burrard Inlet and later established a gravel-hauling business on Capilano River.
It was then that he acquired 32 hectares of land along West Vancouver’s waterfront and, the following year, built the Navvy Jack House after marrying Rowia, the granddaughter of Chief Kiepilano.
In a black-and-white photo from the turn of the century (top left image), women wearing broad hats and cotton, floor-length dresses gather in front of the house to prepare for West Vancouver’s first church wedding.
Elizabeth Lawson, the daughter of the “Father of West Vancouver” John Lawson, is getting married on Dec. 31, 1914.
John Lawson bought the house, then standing proud with dark trim and turned-columns, at an auction after Navvy Jack fell on hard times in the early 1890s. Down on his luck, the house’s original owner returned to the gold fields and died shortly after.

Nature centre?
Today the historical significance of the Navvy Jack House can be easy to miss.
Stucco replaces much of the wood trim, aluminum windows are installed and a glass-walled balcony is added to the steep roof line.
While many heritage homes on the North Shore are celebrated for their historical significance, proudly displaying plaques near the front steps, the Navvy Jack House’s significance is clearly understated.
The District of West Vancouver, which owns the house and is responsible for all upkeep, has put aside money in this year’s budget to replace the moss-covered roof.
But it isn’t clear how much the district has spent on maintaining the house since it was acquired in 1990.
When asked by The Outlook, the district said it owns several houses on Argyle Avenue and doesn’t keep separate records of expenses for repairs and maintenance.
The district further explained: Much of the work is done by municipal staff but time isn’t recorded for each project separately and, when an outside service is called in, the payment is recorded against general facility repair.
But still, a bit worse for the wear, the Navvy Jack House has thankfully managed to remain standing for nearly 130 years through extensive redevelopment of the waterfront.
With priceless oceanfront views, the house has been in the caring hands of Lloyd Williams, who has lived there for 46 years, including after the district bought the property in 1990.
Williams, who is in his 90s and has a lifetime-tenancy agreement with the district, would like to see the house kept standing after he no longer lives there.
“When we bought the house, my wife saw an old clipping of it and wanted to retain as much as possible,” Williams told The Outlook over the phone.
“Now that she has passed away, I’ve been thinking more about what should be done with the house.”
With some additions and upgrades, such as electrical and plumbing, the inside is in great shape and still has its historical charm, says Williams, whose parents used to take him for picnics on the property when he was young.
Concerned about the rapid changes happening in Ambleside, he wrote a letter to council last year asking them to think carefully about their next steps.
“The house has a lot of character, is recognized by the District for its heritage value and I would hope it would be retained in some way, other than an eatery of some kind.”
One option is transforming the Navvy Jack House into a nature centre, which would include the West Vancouver Streamkeeper Society and other stewardship groups.
A report on this possibility will likely go before council this year and Mayor Michael Smith has already shown his support, emphasizing the new use would help revitalize Ambleside.
“What could possibly be more exciting on the waterfront than a nature centre?” he asked council after reading Williams’ letter and hearing a presentation from the West Van Streamkeepers.
“The public spent a lot of money buying that land and what’s [on the Ambleside waterfront] now is far from ideal in my mind. We have some good art facilities, we have some Victory gardens and some crab grass patches, and that’s basically it.”

Rowia, granddaughter of Chief Kiepilano
Navvy Jack Thomas, a heavy-built man with dark curly hair and a moustache, settled in Ambleside after he finished operating an unscheduled ferry service on Burrard Inlet for workers of Pioneer Sawmill in Lower Lonsdale’s Moodyville neighbourhood. During the early 1860s, the bustling mill sent lumber to Australia, the earliest export of lumber from Burrard Inlet to a foreign port.
But Navvy Jack’s ferry service was short lived.
In 1867, Capt. VanBramer arrived with his small steamer, Sea Foam, to begin a scheduled service.
Always resourceful, Navvy Jack began hauling clean river-washed gravel from the mouth of Capilano River to towns developing around the inlet.
He soon settled down with his wife Rowia and had their first child, Christine Thelka Thomas. She passed away in 1960 at the home of Chief Dan George at the age of 84. Although the record isn’t clear, the couple is thought to have three daughters and two sons.
When Navvy Jack died suddenly while on an ill-fated gold discovery mission in Barkerville, his family moved onto the Squamish Nation Reserve with their relatives and the house was sold at auction.
It’s this First Nation’s history that Carolanne Reynolds, chair of Heritage West Vancouver, would like to keep alive.
“This history should be incorporated some way, it’s a very important part of the house and should be honoured,” she tells The Outlook, adding she is “overjoyed to see that the interior can be easily restored to its original type.”
In total, Navvy Jack and his wife have 10 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren — and counting.
Ensuring the iconic house survives the next century will be the work of the District of West Vancouver and heritage groups on the North Shore.
Peter Miller, president of the North Shore Heritage Preservation Society, said while there is a financial cost to maintain heritage homes, it’s vital to preserve them to protect our connection with the past.
“When we find an old photograph, map or painting… we can sometimes recognize the building in it because it is still there today. But as soon as you destroy that building you remove the connection to the past and it makes the photograph, painting or map meaningless,” he explains.
“All the memories that go with it are taken away.”
This is why the weathered Navvy Jack House, even with significant maintenance and repairs in order, is hailed as one of the Lower Mainland’s most remarkable heritage houses.

– With historical information from the West Vancouver Historical Society and West Vancouver Archives.

Ambleside had a fantastic outdoor pool 60 years ago


I was surprised to come across this photo while digging through the West Vancouver Archives for another story.

It’s picture perfect — a pool overlooking Stanley Park and the Lions Gate Bridge on a sunny day.

Even though my parents and grandparents have lived on the North Shore for years, they never told me an outdoor pool existed at Ambleside Park 60 years ago.

The Kingsmen Pool opened on July 9, 1954 (the year the photo was taken) and was in use until 1977.

It cost $65,000 to build and was a collaboration between the Kingsmen’s Club, the public and local businesses.

But the pool had seen its day by the time the West Vancouver Aquatic Centre was built in 1976. It was deemed too costly to operate and, after 22 years of life, it was filled in. Plus, money was being lost due to the West Coast’s lengthy rainy seasons, despite the pool being heated.

Even though it was a long shot, this photo got me thinking.

With talk of Ambleside revitalization constantly being brought up at West Van council, would Ambleside ever be home to a similar pool?

Not likely.

With the success of the new West Vancouver Rec Centre nearby (numbers are exceeding expectations), the needs of swimmers are already being taken care of, district spokesman Jeff MacDonald told me.

So this image, shot 60 years ago, will have to remain in history.

The North Shore’s Lost Generation


Many 20- and 30-somethings living on the North Shore have parents who bought a house in the early 1980s for around $150,000.

Lucky them.

Even taking inflation into consideration, this chump change likely isn’t enough to buy a rundown apartment suite now.

Today the average house in North Van is selling for $1 million more than ’80s bargain prices. In West Van it’s over $2 million more, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

The North Shore’s “Lost Generation” was examined by The Outlook in November 1999, the newspaper’s first-ever edition.

Then and now, skyrocketing housing prices have driven young people away from the community they grew up in, attended school, played soccer and got their first jobs.

But the situation is now even worse for first-time homeowners.

Prices have jumped 163 per cent in North Van and 239 per cent in West Van since the original article was written 14 years ago.

Sticker shock is an understatement.

The result: Rising prices make owning a home here unattainable for many young people who once fondly called the North Shore home.

Adiós North Shore

There is no way Melissa Ramkissoon and her young family would move back.

It’s simply too expensive.

They bought a four-bedroom townhouse in Calgary for just under $300,000 in 2010 and would be lucky to find a small one-bedroom suite for that price in North Vancouver.

“I’m putting up with minus 40-degree weather and awful winters to live here, and I still wouldn’t move back,” says Ramkissoon, an account manager and mother of two young girls who grew up near Lonsdale.

But if she and her husband, who works in marketing, could afford a place on the North Shore, they likely wouldn’t hesitate to come back.

The 29-year-old’s mom still lives in an apartment near Lonsdale Avenue, a one-bedroom that cost more than her attached-garage townhouse in Calgary.

“We’re raising our kids without family nearby because they’re in Vancouver and we can’t really afford to live there.”

Ramkissoon would like to raise her family in her hometown — she praises the “beautiful” mountains and ocean — but has settled on the 1,000-kilometre distance from loved ones.

When the original Lost Generation article was printed 14 years ago, detached houses cost an average of around $361,000 in North Van and around $550,000 in West Van. Today the number has soared to $950,000 and $1,878,900, respectively.

And, to make matters worse for young buyers, houses currently on the market are even more expensive: $1.1 million in North Van and $2.2 million in West Van.

Saying goodbye isn’t only a trend for parents wanting extra bedrooms and a yard for their kids to play in.

Raised in Norgate, Naomi Robertson bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in Penticton with a roommate for $240,000 and wouldn’t consider moving back to the North Shore.

“I’d only be able to afford a tiny apartment, which is OK, but it’s not what I would want forever,” says the 29-year-old veterinary assistant.

“If I ever moved back I would have to live in Chilliwack or somewhere out there.”

Like many 20- and 30-somethings from the North Shore, she will likely never be able to afford what her parents had.

“My parents bought their house 25 years ago for $250,000, now just the land is worth $800,000. Ridiculous,” she laughs, realizing the irony.

Foreign investment

Overseas buying — a term not mentioned 14 years ago in The Outlook’s original story.

Typically from Mainland China, these investors are sometimes blamed for raising prices, but it’s difficult to tell, partly because new homeowners don’t have to register their nationality. And in B.C. there are no restrictions on foreign ownership of real estate.

“We’re not seeing as many offshore buyers as 2011 but probably 50 per cent [of sales] in West Van are Mainland Chinese buyers right now,” says Eric Christiansen, a leading real estate agent in West Vancouver.

These overseas buyers are usually looking for new houses priced $2 million to $5 million and love the British Properties, he added.

“A view is extremely important to them. If a house doesn’t have a view you really don’t even get any showings from Mainland Chinese customers.

“If it has a great view and it’s a newer house, it probably has a 70 per cent chance of selling to someone.”

Over in North Van, the percentage isn’t as high as 50 but foreign investors are still interested in new development.

Overseas buying began in the 1980s, when waves of Hong Kong residents travelled across the Pacific Ocean, fearing communist China’s rule. On the North Shore, the surge began in late-2010.

Based on his real estate experience, Christiansen says one-third of buyers are moving in with their families, one-third have their children live in the houses while attending school, while the remainder leave them empty as an investment.

It’s the last third that are often blamed for decreasing housing supply and upping prices.

Along with the West End and Shaughnessy, West Van is a go-to place for Mainland Chinese buyers.

In July agents jumped on packed busses for the Lower Mainland’s annual Luxury Home Tour to see properties listed at upwards of $9 million.

Steering clear of heritage houses and boomer-style bungalows, they headed for large lots, particularly new construction in the B.P.s.

“Anytime there is a new house being built in the British Properties… the houses are getting wok kitchens and [developers] are paying attention to things like feng shui,” says Christiansen.

West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith says there is little the municipality can do to alter overseas buying. Because it’s beyond the scope of local council, he says he hasn’t heard much about the trend from residents.

“We don’t have control and nor should we, in my mind, have control over a person’s private property, who they sell it to, as long as the purchaser complies with the laws and bylaws of the district,” Smith adds.

Good ol’ days

Back in November 1999, Bruce McWilliam, a then 35-year-old father of two, spoke with The Outlook about moving to Maple Ridge to escape rising housing prices on the North Shore.

A full-time planner for the Municipality of Pitt Meadows, McWilliam and his former wife weren’t willing to increase their mortgage to move back to North Van, the community he grew up in.

“My parents paid $76,000 for their house when they bought it in 1978,” he told an Outlook reporter at the time. “They sold it for $259,000 in 1988 and bought another house down the street for the same price.

“Now you can’t touch a bull-dozed shack for $220,000.”

In today’s market, the average apartment in North Van is $350,000 — that’s only $10,000 less than a detached house was 14 years ago. (In West Van the average apartment is nearly double at $610,100.)

Prices 14 years ago — when McWilliam first chatted with The Outlook — definitely are low by today’s standards.

The article’s headline “Lost generation: Will any North Shore kids grow up to live in their community?” now seems ironic with the average house in North Van nearing $1 million and inching towards $2 million in West Van.

McWilliam currently lives in the Tri-Cities and works in land planning. He no longer has family living on the North Shore — his mother moved to White Rock and most of his friends have left.

“You get way more for your money in the Tri-Cities. You can move from a townhouse on the North Shore into a house for virtually the same amount of money,” he says, catching up with The Outlook.

He recommends young people save money while renting basement or apartment suites if they want to stay put on the North Shore. If it’s a house they’re after and can’t afford the hefty downpayment, he says the Tri-Cities are a great place to raise a family.

“These rental options weren’t there 15 years ago. In the late ’90s, there were only a handful of Lower Mainland municipalities that actually had legalization of secondary suites.”

It’s an option he might have considered for his family.

Senior central

How to keep young people on the North Shore?

The topic comes up routinely at all three municipalities’ council meetings.

West Vancouver is trying to protect its aging rental stock and may approve coach houses, an alternative form of housing proponents say would allow children to live in their parents’ backyards.

New development projects in North Van, such as Onni’s two highrises slated for 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue and Seylynn Village’s three towers under construction in Lower Lynn, have advocates excited more apartments are available for young single people and new families starting out in the high-priced real-estate market. But despite these recent attempts to hold onto diversity on the North Shore, the average age has steadily increased.

Fourteen years ago, in The Outlook’s first article, the average age in the District of North Vancouver was 37. Today it’s 43, according to Statistics Canada. In the City of North Van residents were 38 years old on average; today they are 41. And in West Van, the typical person is 50 years old, five years older than before.

Schools have shut down as a result of the North Shore’s aging population. Balmoral, the last junior high school in North Van, transitioned to an adult education and alternative learning centre last year. Plymouth and Ridgeway Annex elementary schools are also among those to recently shut their doors due to declining enrolment.

Susan Haid, the District of North Vancouver’s manager of sustainable community development, said bringing back the “lost generation” is central to the new official community plan.

“The 20- to 38-year-old age group in the district, compared to many municipalities, is relatively low,” she told The Outlook. “The biggest way we’re working to attract that missing generation back is by encouraging and facilitating a much wider range of housing.”

The district’s four new village centres — Lower Capilano-Marine, Lynn Valley, Lower Lynn and Maplewood Village — are expected to see 75 to 90 per cent of new population growth in the next 25 years.

“We want ensure that we always have a diverse population representing all age groups, and we do. But in recent years, comparatively, our 20- to 38-year-old cohort is a bit lower than many municipalities.

“They’re a part of a healthy and sustainable community.”

Issue of freedom hits home for West Van MP

Weston copy

Four days after two pressure cooker bombs sent Boston into chaos, MP John Weston stood up in the House of Commons to demand MPs have the right to speak on any topic important to their constituents.

“There was a direct attack on freedom,” said Weston, who is MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, referring to the Boston Marathon bombing that had recently killed three people and injured hundreds more.

“Here we were standing in our parliament and I felt I had to weigh-in on the importance of freedom for our constituents and for our members who represent them, not just now but in the future.”

Following demands made by Weston and nine other MPs, Members of Parliament are no longer constrained by prepared caucus lists, which name who will speak in the chamber. The decision means MPs can speak on any topic, regardless of the Whip’s or Party’s stance.

Continue reading Issue of freedom hits home for West Van MP

West Van’s “shantytown”?

A building on the north side of the 1300-block of Marine Drive in Ambleside has remained vacant since a fire last year.
A building on the north side of the 1300-block of Marine Drive in Ambleside has remained vacant since a fire last year.

West Vancouver is one of Canada’s wealthiest communities but boarded-up stores and empty lots have the mayor and others calling a certain section of the Ambleside-area a “shantytown.”

While this characterization is a stretch, the point they’re trying to make is that Ambleside desperately needs improvement.

And the nicknames don’t stop there.

“Our real estate agents refer to the 1300-block… as the Gaza Strip. A great comment on Canada’s most desirable residential community,” Mayor Michael Smith noted during a March council meeting. “It’s a disgrace. We’ve sat here as citizens and allowed it to go on.”

In the heart of Ambleside on the 1300-block, a building with boarded-up doors that has sat vacant since a fire in October is an example of how these unflattering nicknames began. Beside it an empty lot is fenced off until a gas station moves in.

Continue reading West Van’s “shantytown”?