Britannia Heritage Shipyard Celebrates Steveston’s Maritime Roots

Step back in time with a tour of BC's oldest shipyard community

Credit: John Thomson

Restored homes at Steveston’s Britannia Shipyard have been refurbished for public tours

Take a tour of the oldest shipyard buildings in BC at Steveston’s Britannia Heritage Shipyard

The City of Richmond has recreated an historic riverfront community minutes from downtown Vancouver. I found it by accident, strolling along the boardwalk that skirts the Fraser River, a 100-year-old riverfront community that has been meticulously brought back to life.

The Britannia Heritage Shipyard started life as a cannery but in 1918 the owners converted it to a repair depot to service their fishing fleet. At one time up to 200 welders, carpenters, mechanics and general labourers lived there in company bunkhouses. The lucky few, managers and other professionals, lived in houses.

The City of Richmond, which owns the site, has repaired and refurbished these houses, filling them with period furniture and audio recordings of the people who used to live there. Stepping onto the site is like stepping back in time.

A Self-guided Tour of the Britannia Shipyard

The Britannia Shipyard repair depot (Image: John Thomson)

I started my self-guided tour at the manager’s house. Because the community sits on marshland that floods at high tide, houses rest on pilings connected to each other by a boardwalk.

I pushed a button on the living room wall and listened to a recording of Coby Kobayashi who lived there as a child. “I fell in the water many times,” she said of the water lapping at the front door. “Often I was rescued by my mother who would wade into the river up to her knees.” One time Coby fell in and found herself floating down the Fraser. She was rescued.

Life in a Waterfront Community

The Murakami house garden (Image: John Thomson)

I pushed another button in the nearby men’s bunkhouse to activate the voice of former resident Jimmy Hing. He told me he and his mates would head east on the weekends to gamble because back in the 1920s Vancouver “was a wide open town.” I looked around to get a sense of life in a bunkhouse. Cards and beer bottles sat on the table, freshly laundered clothing hung from the doorway.

The Murakami house next door, home to carpenter Otokichi Murakami his wife and 10 children, told a sad story. Like other Japanese residents living in BC during WW II, the Murakamis were rounded up and interned. They never returned – they settled elsewhere – and the house remained empty. I toured the building and noticed the nearby garden. When I asked why it was so lush, a guide told me the Murakamis’ children created it years ago to honour their parents’ memory and a volunteer comes in twice a week to maintain it. The Muakamis may be gone but their spirit lives on.

Watch Old Boats Come Back to Life

The Fleetwood under repair at the Britannia Shipyard (Image: John Thomson)

I crossed the boardwalk into the repair depot, the heart of the community. An antique planer, a lathe and a drill press reminded me that old-time ship repairing and ship building, too, was done largely by hand with rudimentary tools.

And then I saw it, a boat on the slipway with half its hull scraped free of paint. Except it wasn’t a fishing boat; it was a pleasure craft, the 40-foot rum-runner “Fleetwood,” built to carry contraband and outrun the authorities. Restoring boats like this is a labour of love for the Britannia Heritage Shipyard Society, which uses the space to bring dilapidated vessels back to life and yes; the public can sit in and watch them work.

Getting to the Britannia Shipyard

Steveston’s boardwalk leads to the Britannia Shipyard (Image: John Thomson)

Britannia is a work in progress and the community is always expanding. Next up for restoration: the Chinese bunkhouse and the net loft.  

For me the Britannia Shipyard makes an ideal Vancouver day trip. Thanks to the Shipyard Society, it’s alive with activity, it’s nearby and it’s free. Pedestrians will find it 10 minutes east of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. Just follow the boardwalk. There are access points along Westwater Drive, too.