Southlands is a unique community. Indeed it is probably unique in Canada and perhaps the world in that it has special semi-agricultural zoning which allows the keeping of livestock within the boundaries of a modern, sophisticated, "world-class" city. Horses are the core of the community -- without the Southlands Riding Club, the boarding stables, and the many equestrian families with their "backyard" horses, one reason to retain the Agricultural status would disappear. Many residents also produce eggs, honey, fruits and veggies which are sold at a local farm market throughout the growing season.
This is the Southlands we respect and seek to preserve; more than just another neighbourhood -- a way of life. It is the Southlands of horses, dogs, and children roaming streets and trails free from city pressures and perils just blocks away.
It is the Southlands of friends and neighbourliness from an earlier era, uncomplicated by social and professional considerations and nurtured by the common desire of residents and visitors to keep those values alive. Yes, it's also the Southlands of ditches and weedy verges, of horse droppings on the road, and no sidewalks. But the ditches are home to tadpoles and sticklebacks, which in turn attract Great Blue Herons and Little Green Herons; and the weedy verges are hides for songbirds and coyotes.
And although the coyotes can be a serious hazard to small dogs, cats, ducks and chickens, residents have learned to confine their pets after dark, and the coyote family singsongs rising over the golf course at night create a special Southlands symphony.
And who needs sidewalks when you can still walk down the middle of the road and expect most of the drivers, most of the time, to avoid running you down. It's a community where the pace of life for hundreds of people, residents and non-residents alike, slows to the measured walk of a horse; where kids from the concrete learn the responsibility and discipline of an equestrian life -- chaps not shops, and mucking out, not making out!
Southlands' fierce community spirit is no accident. "The Flats", as it is affectionately known, has a rich history, going back to the end of the last Ice Age. This brief historical summary was prepared by Jennifer Maynard and Dan Rurak. The following people made helpful suggestions:
- Bernice Ramsay - Terry Slack - Larry Emrick - Maggie Cumming - Jonty Parker - Mary Jean Otway-Ruthven
In addition, the following references were consulted:
Vancouver, A Visual History, by Bruce Macdonald, Talon Books, Vancouver, 1992.
Vanishing Vancouver, by Michael Kluckner, Whitecap Books, North Vancouver, 1991.
11,500 years ago... Buried Under Tons of Ice...
At the end of the last ice age, the mile-thick sheet of ice that covered what was to be Vancouver was in retreat. However, as the weight of the ice had depressed the land by at least 1,000 feet, the site of Vancouver was under water. As the ice retreated and the land rose, the area north of the escarpment along S.W. Marine Drive appeared. Southlands and the islands of the Fraser Delta formed after that period, as a result of silt deposition, a process that continues to this day. As a consequence, all of the RA-1 zone is in the Fraser River flood plain and land elevations are as much as eight feet below the Provincial Flood construction level.
~1,000 B.C.... A Natural Paradise
The oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver and its major population centre before European settlement is Musqueam or Wh'muthkweyum. The Musqueam people have inhabited it for at least 3,000 years. Vancouver at that time was densely wooded and full of wildlife. The adjacent waters were teeming with fish, shellfish and other marine life. The marshes were home to thousands of waterfowl; and bear, deer, and cougar filled the forests.
1808... The White Man Cometh
Simon Fraser encountered the Musqueam people in 1808 when, with native help, he reached the mouth of the Fraser. The population of Musqueam at that time is estimated to have been at least 2,000.
1860-1870's... Trees Give Way to Farms
Most of the land along the north side of the north arm of the Fraser River, which included what is now Southlands, was pre-empted by European settlers, who gained title to the lands. The Magee and McCleery families had title to most of Southlands, and operated farms. Hugh Magee owned District Lot (DL) 194, which comprises all of the residential area in the Blenheim Flats. During 1861-62, the North Arm trail was developed to link Southlands toNew Westminster, at that time the only non-native civic settlement on the B.C. mainland. In our area, S.W. Marine Drive follows the course of this trail.
The McCleery family operated a dairy farm until the 1950's. The lower portion of their farm is now McCleery Golf Course, which opened in 1959. The Magee and McCleery houses, built in the 1860's and 1873, respectively, were the oldest non-native houses in Vancouver. They were both demolished in the late 1950's. The Parks Board was responsible for destroying the McCleery house, despite tremendous public opposition, when it obtained ownership of the land and created McCleery Golf Course. The McCleery house occupied the site of what is (or was) the 11th tee of the golf course.
1880's... Logging Begins in Earnest
Logging of the area north of the Blenheim Flats began. A logging road ran through the Flats to the River, just east of Carrington Street, paralleling a stream that flowed down the ravine that originates north of Marine Drive and continues down through the Point Grey Golf Course. The stream, Blenheim Street Creek, entered the river to the west of Blenheim Street.
1892... United We Stand
Southlands became a part of the newly incorporated District of South Vancouver. In 1928, South Vancouver and Point Grey amalgamated withVancouver.
1893... Fishing is Big Business
Celtic Cannery was built on what is now the foot of Balaclava Street, but which at that time was Celtic Island. Fisherman lived on the mainland adjacent to the slough, where their boats were moored. Two other canneries were built soon afterwards. These canneries processed salmon caught in the North and Middle Arms of the river.
The fishermen were of many nationalities, including Japanese, Chinese, English, and Scandinavian. A community of Japanese developed around Celtic slough, with fishing and boat building as their livelihood. It included a Japanese school, and the schoolhouse survived until 1995, when it was burnt down in a bush fire. The community was removed with the internment of Japanese-Canadians in 1942.
A Mr. Pentland operated the boat yard in Celtic Slough from ~1942 until his death in the late 1950's. A remnant of this boat yard remains as the tracks (marine ways) that run into the Slough just west of Blenheim Street. Mr. Pentland also operated a commercial European bullfrog farm in a pond that existed between the Slough and Celtic Avenue before the land was filled. The bullfrogs that still croak in our ditches are very likely the descendants of Mr. Pentland's frogs..
1902... B.C. Packers Buys Island
B.C. Packers bought Deering Island, until 1985 known commonly as Mud Island, and Celtic Island to form the Celtic Shipyards. The cannery was closed and converted to net storage. Subsequent developments included a marine slipway to service larger vessels. Eventually, the shipyard came to be the largest on the coast for servicing wooden boats and it handled all of the B.C. Packers fleet.
1909... Magee Dies; Land Subdivided
Hugh Magee died and portions of District Lot 194 began to be sold off, with that portion along the river being bought by B.C. Packers. Other portions served as market gardens and orchards. Some of north-south streets in the area were constructed at this time to connect the gardens to the City. The two properties at 51st and Balaclava (Southlands Heritage Farm & the big house to the north) are the remains of a market garden established in the late 1920's by Mr. and Mrs. Archie Irwin, who planted the King Alfred daffodils and fruit trees.
Also occurring at this time was subdivision of Deering and Celtic islands. The aim was to create a more formal village for fishing families. However, World War I put an end to these plans.
1922... Golf Anyone?
Point Grey and Marine Drive Golf Courses were established.
1920's... New Park Created
Tarahil Park was created within DL 194 on the south-east corner of 55th Ave. and Balaclava. It existed until after World War II, when the land was purchased by Bernice Ramsay.
1941... Marine Station Employs Many
The B.C. Forest Service moved their Marine Station from Sonora Island to Southlands at the foot of Carnarvon St. The station operated until 1988, when it closed. The property was then obtained by the Musqueam People, who operated it as a commercial shipyard until selling it to a developer who built 10 new houses along the river front. Luckily, the city required the developer to create a pedestrian and horse trail along the river front, and this is a very popular spot at all times of year.
1943... Riders Form Club in Southlands
The Southlands Riding and Polo Club was founded. The first clubhouse was on Hewitt Hayward's property, located at the north-west corner of 55th Ave. and Blenheim Street. In 1947, the 16 acres currently occupied by the club was bought for $7,000 from the McCleery family. A group of 7 anonymous donors put up the money, and in 1949, the present clubhouse was completed.
The original 12 club members included Bernice Ramsay (who bequeathed her 2 acres to the ALS Society) and Claire Maynard (whose great grandchildren are 5th generation "Flat Rats") and Hewitt Hayward, whose granddaughter learned to ride on the Flats. This is an example of the stability of the area in terms of residents. There are numerous other second, third and fourth generation families (Cooke/Otway-Ruthven, Cote/Leckie/Bromley, Ewald, Guest, Laidlaw/Stevenson, Leonoff, Longley/Vilvang, Maynard, Mills/Gregory, Ogilvie, Potter/Rurak, Sehmer, Simpson, Simpson/Dent.) In addition, many who rode at Southlands as children have moved to the Flats as adults (Belkin, Cohen, Cumming, Ellis, Heiss, Keevil/Gjervan, MacLean, Nield, Pegg, Ross).
No flooding of Southlands occurred in the big Fraser River flood of '48, nor probably in the even bigger flood of 1898. However in 1957 and 1967, when river levels in the delta were high as a result of high tides and a storm surge, flooding of the area occurred, although there was little damage. High winter tides accompanied by low pressure storm surges are the primary sources of flooding in the Flats, especially when combined with heavy rainfall. The high tides prevent drainage of runoff water into the river, so that the ditches fill and occasionally overflow. Prior to the installation of the pump at the foot of Blenheim Street in the early 1980's, flooding of the roads often occurred in the winter as a result of the ditches overflowing during high tides. But since the pump was installed, this has occurred only once (in 1982), but only Celtic Avenue was affected.
1951... Slough Filled
The slough separating Celtic Island from the mainland was filled in. Although this resulted in loss of a part of the marine environment, the line of poplar trees planted on the filled area have become a major landmark in the Flats. Also at this time, the gravel roads were upgraded to tar and gravel. Asphalt paving of the roads was done in the early 1990's when the water mains were replaced.
1955... Southlands Gets Unique Zoning
Between 1909 and 1955, progressive and unplanned subdivision of DL 194 continued. However, this ended in 1955, when the City rezoned the area to RA-1 (Limited Agricultural District) to maintain its equestrian and limited agricultural nature. The minimal lot size was set at 2.25 acres.
1959... Southlands Expropriation Threat!!!
In 1959, property owners on most of the Flats received expropriation notices from the City. The land was to be used for playing fields (third base for the baseball diamond was to be located in what is now the riding ring on the Potter-Rurak property). In response, there was a mass rally and assault upon City Hall by many residents and riders, including many, many children wearing riding attire. Council chambers were packed and council members told in no uncertain terms that the expropriation plans stunk (and not of horses). Council backed down and the order was rescinded. Southlands survived to fight another day.
1961..."A Dream Comes True"
The river trail linking Southlands with West Southlands and what is now Pacific Spirit Park was constructed. This involved a legal agreement between the Southlands Riding Club, Point Grey Golf Course and the City. The original impetus for the trail came from equestrians, and it was constructed largely by volunteers from the Riding Club. The trail is now used and enjoyed by many others and is the only multi-use path in the City used by horses, cyclists, pedestrians, and dogs. It is actually possible to ride, cycle or walk by forested trails from the Fraser River to the beach at Spanish Banks -- an incredible opportunity within a major urban centre.
1973...Farm Status Protected
With the creation of the B.C. Agricultural Land Reserve, the RA-1 zone (including the Golf Courses) was included in the Reserve and still is.
Largely as a result of development pressure in the Angus Lands (to the east of Marine Drive Golf Course), which were then part of the RA-1 zone, the City initiated the Southlands Local Area Planning Program. The purpose was to consider development and other issues in the lands bordering the north arm of the river from Marpole to Musqueam. This was one of numerous local area planning processes that have occurred in the city. However, it was unique in terms of resident and public involvement, with 100-150 people attending weekly meetings for the first three years of the process. The Southlands Plan was adopted in large part in March 1988, but meetings continued into 1991 to deal with implementation of the Plan.
In terms of the Blenheim Flats, there was near unanimous agreement from the start of the planning process that the unique semi-rural equestrian character of the area should be preserved. However, there was disagreement over the best methods to ensure this and this led to some fairly acrimonious debate. Eventually, after many, many meetings a compromise and consensus was reached. This involved a revision of the RA-1 District Schedule to set very generous upper limits on house size, and permit infill houses on the larger properties that maintained stables for horses. The RA-1 Guidelines were also developed, which describe the preferred form for residential development in the area: clustering of buildings to maintain open spaces and view corridors; low building form and subdued external surfaces to minimize built form; informal streetscapes, and post-and-rail fences.
After much lobbying by Planning Committee members, City Council approved a number of traffic measures for the Flats. These included the 30 km/h speed limit, the 4-way stop signs along Blenheim and Balaclava, and the left-turn restriction at Blenheim and S.W. Marine Drive. The latter measure was adopted to discourage UBC commuters from short-cutting through the area, which had become a serious problem.
Another major change was that Council approved the keeping of all farm animals, so long as they did not create a health hazard. This means that if you live in Southlands, you need to love the sound of roosters crowing at 5 AM!
The Plan also dealt with environmental, equestrian, recreational and floodproofing issues in the Flats. For those residents involved it was an informative, memorable and usually enjoyable saga. Although some issues (particularly revisions to the RA-1 zone) were contentious, the end result was achievement of a consensus and an increase in community spirit that survives to this day. Copies of the Southlands Plan can be obtained from the City Planning Department.
Also occurring in 1985 was the closure of the B.C. Packers Celtic shipyard, ending nearly a century of commercial fishing activity in Southlands. The fish boats left the slough, and Deering Island and the adjacent mainland property were developed for housing. During the Southlands Planning Process, committee members made vigorous efforts to have the City purchase the entire B.C. Packers property to create an Island Park, but City Council was unwilling to spend the amount required. It was possible, however, for the City-owned land on the island to be consolidated at the western end to create Deering Island Park. Also, most of the marsh area in the slough was protected and to compensate for that portion lost, a new marsh was created just down river from Deering Island. And when the adjacent mainland property was developed, the trail along the slough was dedicated.
Most of the historic shipyard buildings on what was Celtic Island survive, including the slipway and net loft building. The property is now sadly for sale by the Ross family, who have long been involved with Southlands as riders and stable owners.
The rustic benches along the trail, at the tip of the Blenheim Street end (soon to be a park), and at the western end of Deering Island Park were built out of driftwood by Terry Slack, and dedicated by Terry to the memory of Paul Binkert, Lea Bain, and Alf Slack.
1993... Yes, We're Green
Southlands was included in the Greater Vancouver Regional District Green Zone Program, under the Renewable Resource Lands and Outdoor Recreation and Scenic Lands Categories. The purpose of the Green Zone Program is to identify and protect those lands which have a greater value as open space, recreation areas, habitat or resource lands than they would as intensively developed areas. However, Green Zone Designation has no impact on RA-1 zoning issues. More information on the Green Zone can be obtained from the GVRD.
" The Pillars of the Temple stand apart, and the Oak Tree and the Cypress Grow Not in Each other's shadow..." Southlands is a strong community, fiercely protective of its uniqueness. This strength is enhanced by the fact that we are a diverse lot, united in our desire to retain our rural character, our market gardens, and our horses, and firmly cemented by our "trials by fire": we have been through floods, expropriation threats, and the Southlands Planning Process together! In spite of strongly held differences, we emerged from our trials with a consensus: the special character of Southlands, originally based on its market gardens, and then on its Horses, and more recently with a renewal of interest in farming, must be preserved and protected. In this outline, we tried to give you a feeling for the reasons behind our strong community spirit, just a small sampling of the rich history of our wonderful "Flats". There are many other events, anecdotes, and personalities that could be described. The Flats is special in part because of its history and we should all know something about it.