Old + New West: The Golden Mile

1912: A view of Columbia Street looking northeast. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.

Columbia Street in downtown New Westminster has always served as a central location where people would come and gather. Through time, the street has seen the glorious days of the 40’s and 50’s, when it was known as “The Golden Mile” and it has also faced its fair share of hardships that came along with shifting trends in transportation and retail. Today, Columbia Street is seeing a resurgence. New restaurants and businesses have been moving in and exciting festivals have been igniting the historical street. 

1880’s – Photograph shows an elevated view of Columbia Street looking east. Irving House and St. Mary’s Hospital are visible in the far background. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.

The road was first surveyed in 1860 by the Royal Engineers. They worked hard to survey the land that is now downtown into a grid pattern that ran parallel to the Fraser River. In the 1870’s, downtown New Westminster was established as a transportation and economic hub for the region. The construction of the CPR, docks to support the shipping industry, the BC Interurban railway and the beginning of a ferry service between New West and Surrey all contributed to this early prosperity. Unfortunately, The Great Fire of 1898 ripped through the downtown area and destroyed all but two buildings. New West residents began rebuilding immediately. It was not long until Columbia Street was once again the centre of the action!

September 11, 1898 – Columbia Street after the fire of 1898 – This photo was taken from the roof of the Burr Block (now the Met Hotel), one of only two buildings to survive the fire. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.

One of the most iconic buildings along the street is the original Burr Block (in reference to its original owner William H. Burr), now known as the Met Hotel. It is one of the only two buildings that survived the fire, making it one of the oldest buildings in the entire downtown. The 1892-built building was designed by the well respected Architect George William Grant, who played a major role in the redesign of many downtown buildings after the fire. The Met Hotel is also rumoured to be haunted! You can learn more about the stories of the hotel’s ghastly inhabitants by taking one of Ghostly Vancouver’s downtown New West walking tours. 

1982: The Burr Block near the intersection of Columbia Street and 4th Street. Today, the building is the home of the Met Hotel. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.

Another one of the central establishments along Columbia Street is the Columbia Theatre, first built in 1927. It was an atmospheric theatre that offered its patrons “Vaudeville + photoplay,” a combination of cinema, vaudeville and live music – the standard in entertainment fare for the time. Later in 1987, the Fraternal Order of Eagles purchased the building and transformed the lower cinema into a banquet hall with catering facilities installed in the backstage area while the upper cinema was converted into a lounge. The City of New Westminster purchased the Columbia in 2000 and leased it to the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society until 2006, during which time the theatre came to be known as “The Burr Theatre.” The theatre then remained closed for the next four years until it was acquired by a new owner who spent more than a year to turn it into a cabaret style theatre that served as the home of Lafflines Comedy Club. In 2018, the main stage was re-christened the “Qayqayt Stage” in recognition of the Qayqayt First Nations upon whose unceded territory the Columbia was built. After a complete refurbishment, The Columbia is primed to be the hub of cultural revival in downtown New Westminster. 

1982 – The Columbia Theatre, then known as Columbia Cinemas. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.

Today, Columbia Street is a vibrant destination that is constantly in the process of reimagining and revitalizing itself. With its high concentration of heritage buildings, exciting festivals such as the Columbia StrEAT Food Truck Festival, and brand new developments, “The Golden Mile” looks certain to live up to its glory days of the past. 

In the comments section, we would love to hear about some of your memories from Columbia Street!

1944 – Columbia Street looking east from the intersection at Eighth Street. Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives.