It was a hub of activity at the CN station house back when the rail companies stopped at Boston Bar to drop and pick up passengers, water up and even occasionally store bodies awaiting a coroner.
It is this hub of activity that the Boston Bar North Bend Enhancement Society wants to re-create as they spend just under $2-million in federal and provincial infrastructure dollars to restore the historic station house to 1914 standards. The society found out last week that they had been awarded the $1.9-million, an amount that needs to be spent by 2023. With over $1.14 million coming from the feds and $763,000 from the province, the project is fully funded by the two levels of government.
Despite its slightly tattered look on the outside of the building, Howard Johnson assured the bones are good. “The inside is solid as a rock,” he said of the two-level, 2,800 square foot building.
The plans for the restoration are to keep it as close to the original 1914 architectural design as possible, while implementing modern climate-conscious design as well as bringing the building up to code for accessibility.
The station house will become a rest stop and museum “to showcase the unique railway and cultural heritage” a Government of Canada news release stated. On the main floor, an educational gathering place and artisan area will exist, as well as a coffee shop. The basement will appeal to fans of railroad history, as well as possibly fans of the paranormal.
Local employment will be mandated into agreements with contractors, Electoral Area A director Terry Raymond said, and afterwards local people will be employed within the building. Encouraging Indigenous businesses to take part is a priority as well.
Constructed in 1914 and in operation from 1915, the Station House played a role in Boston Bar’s position as a thriving rail and mill town where people remembered stopping off, staying a time and even working at the old station house. Raymond remembers working there as a clerk, sorting post and selling tickets for passengers catching the train. Karen Tillotson, who both edits the town’s monthly newspaper and is involved with the enhancement society, remembers stopping at the building as a teenager.
The building has a long history, and as Ang Hunter said, has become somewhat of a dormant ghost of a building as the town itself became one of B.C.’s ghost towns after seeing a mill and a thriving railway industry leave town. “This will put us back on the map,” she said.
27 years of work to secure building
Since the 1990s, a committed group of community members has been pushing to revitalize the building for the benefit of the town. Some of those citizens were present at the station house July 9, others have left the community and others have passed away before seeing this major milestone.
Irene Fisher was the first person to bring up saving the station house said Raymond. At this time there wasn’t a concrete plan of how exactly to refurbish the building. The idea was to make it a historic site, Raymond said, yet this plan hit some hurdles. Part of the complication was where the station house stood. It wa not at its original location and therefore did not qualify for heritage funding.
The building was moved in October 1994 from directly beside the railway tracks to just a stones throw away by a group of soldiers from Quebec who were stationed at the Canadian Forces Base in Chilliwack. The move, according to the Joan Blakeborough Museum, was meant as a “field exercise to benefit the troops in training and the community.”
Quite the operation, the move began with freeing the original beams and tearing away a kitchen area. Massive beams were then inserted to support the building, after which it was “jacked up 14 inches at a time by ten hydraulic jacks working in syncronization to ensure it remained supported and level.”
“It was settled onto blocks of the prepared new site,” a museum fact sheet states.
“Then it was just sitting here while everybody pondered what to do, and then along came Rob Dufresne,” Raymond said. On July 6, when the news about the funding was made public to the community, it was the one-year anniversary of his passing. While he was not in this world to see the funding come to fruition, the group agreed without the strength and drive of Dufresne this 27-year effort would not have been possible.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back, he was such a good guy, he became involved in every part of this town,” Howard Johnson said. “He always said to me that he was the brains and I was the muscle.”
“He did what he could to make jobs happen, he looked out for grants and funding just to try and employ (locals),” Hunter added. “He pushed us beyond our limits and kind of held you to it in his coy little way.”
Dufresne started writing grant applications for the building, working with the Fraser Valley Regional District, and getting engineering studies done. He was joined by Al Regehr as the two began meeting with provincial and federal politicians about the project. The Boston Bar Indian Band and Chief Dolores O’Donaghey donated gas for these trips.
“It paid off on our behalf to go and see (Jati Sidhu), pester him. A lot of letters were written,” Regehr said, adding Johnson was involved and Tom Durrie was one of the better letter writers who also wrote letters on behalf of other community members.
At one point, there was talk of the station house restoration going onto taxes. “I had said at that time, if it ever went on taxes I was going to light a match to it,” Raymond said. It’s a concern expressed by some community members. Yet with this new funding, this won’t come to pass the group said.
Even when the funding was looking bleak last spring, Durrie said he still kept phoning, emailing and writing. Finally he got a call from federal Minister of Infrastructure Catherine McKenna’s office confirming they’d received the money.
A storied history, and some paranormal activity, in the ol’ station house
The once bustling station house is also a reminder that the town, now an economically depressed area, was once a hopping place to live, do business and stop by along the Trans-Canada Highway.
“It’s going to breathe some new life into town and it’s going to be a place to stop, there will be a museum, coffee shop, restrooms, gallery. And it will showcase who we are historically,” Tillotson said. The group agreed, the building will be a tourist attraction and a source of pride in local history.
It will also be integral to ongoing efforts to build tourism along the Fraser Canyon, a place with a long and storied history. This includes the area’s deep Indigenous roots, being a hub for Indigenous and settler exchanges in the fur trading days, the brief but impressive Fraser Canyon gold rush, and as an integral part of of uniting the modern Canadian state via the railway.
The station house also has a storied past, so much so that the members of the enhancement society agree there are “at least” five resident ghosts in the building.
“People that worked in the restaurant claimed that a lot of people didn’t like to go in the restaurant because there was a ghost living there,” Diane Johnson said.
Since then, two groups have come to investigate the paranormal activity in the building. The experiences members of the enhancement society have had in, and even outside, the station house have turned many skeptics into believers.
“My knees are still shaking right now,” Howard Johnson said, recounting seeing a woman in a blue period clothing type dress. That’s “Emma” someone else in the group confirmed, a ghost that’s been seen at other local establishments.
The history of the station house perhaps explains the paranormal activity – apparently a walk-in cooler in the basement used to function as a temporary morgue. “They used to store bodies in there, people that were killed on the railway, on the highway and people that died in town,” Howard Johnson said, until the authorities would arrive. “So that might be a starting point of why some of them decided to stay.”
“Anyway, we’ll never get anyone to live in there now,” Tillotson joked, as the group is looking for a live-in caretaker once the restoration is finished.
Howard Johnson has previously said that ghosts are good for business, but it won’t be the only draw in the soon-to-be-refurbished station house.
There will be a museum holding the two communities’ histories, as well as input from the railway companies and their integral role in the development of this area. This could take the form of a large-scale model railway, and other historical artifacts. The Chinese consulate has also been in touch, informing the group of their interest to include a memorial to the history of Chinese workers on the railroad – a history that infamously involves one Chinese worker dying for every mile of the railroad built through the Rockies from Calgary to Vancouver.
The two First Nations on either side of the town – Boston Bar and Boothroyd – who wrote letters of support for the project, will also have their history and culture showcased in the building. How exactly this will look is still to be determined by the nations, who are partners on the project together with the enhancement society and the regional district.
And Boston Bar, along Highway 1, doesn’t have a formal rest stop so the building will cater to the basic needs of travellers, including washrooms and information.
The funding for the station house, announced July 3, is part of a joint federal and B.C. government initiative to stimulate local economies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure plan, 21 projects in the Lower Mainland are sharing the $44.5 million in federal and $19.2 million in provincial funding.
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