One of the themes that I’m always keen to emphasize in my writing about Vancouver’s historical landscape and events is the relatively short time frame in which they have developed. As a very young city (it turns 129 this year), the variety and types of historic buildings that we see – or have chosen to preserve – span only a few decades. It’s uncommon to pass by structures built prior to 1900 around these parts, which makes Vancouver’s oldest building, the Old Hastings Mill Store, all the more valuable as an icon of our urban beginnings.
Much of Vancouver’s early development was due to the establishment of Edward Stamp’s “B.C. and Vancouver Island Spar, Lumber and Sawmill Company” at the foot of Dunlevy Street in 1865. Known by local First Nations as Kumkumalay, meaning “big leaf maple”, the land used for the sawmill was chosen for its position between the two inlet narrows. By the time Stamp’s company began exporting lumber in 1867, the community featured its own Hastings Mill Store (though the 1930s historic plaque dates it to 1865). The store acted not only as a supply of clothing, food, tools, medicine, and tobacco, but also as the Burrard Inlet’s first post office and library. It was also a gathering place to buy, sell, and connect with other locals and those just passing through. In 1870, following the departure of Edward Stamp, the site was renamed the Hastings Sawmill.
The original store is also celebrated as being one of the very few buildings to have survived the Great Fire of 1886—an especially remarkable feat considering its proximity to the flames. In 1887, a second Hastings Mill Store was constructed and the original was converted into storage. This second iteration featured a large Boomtown-style façade extending over the front of the original structure, and an adjacent garage area — a significant upgrade from the simple pioneer-style design of the first.
When the call came for the demolition of the mill in 1928, the community rallied together to save the small store and relocate it to a new home. The Native Daughters of British Columbia lead the preservation effort, which included barging the structure to its new home at the bottom of Alma Street on the West Side and restoring it to its original glory. The Old Hastings Mill Store re-opened on January 10, 1931, and was declared a museum by Premier Tolmie the following year. The women’s organization continues to oversee its operations and fundraising today.
The exterior of the store is largely unchanged, save for new windows and shutters, museum signage, and the installation of the mill’s original warning bell (donated by Lieutenant Governor Eric Hamber). Inside, you’ll find a variety of pioneer artifacts, local memorabilia, and an assortment of unique items which earned the museum a Heritage Canada award. Right now the site is only open for a few hours on the weekends, but come summertime you can pop by any day you like (admission is by donation) and enjoy an exclusive glimpse at Vancouver’s pioneer past.
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