In 1858, a 29 year old man named John Thomas followed the very first major wave of settlers into mainland BC up the Gold Rush Trail ending in Barkerville. He made a name for himself in 1863 when he and four others literally carried a piano from Quesnel to Barkerville. That piano is still in Barkerville today. By 1865 he became one of the first white settlers on Burrard Inlet and set up the first ferry service to the North Shore using a rowboat and a small steamer.
His nickname was Navvy Jack and by 1873 he bought a homestead of 160 acres in what is now called West Vancouver and built a house on the waterfront of his property. That house still stands today as the oldest building on the North Shore, and is our only remaining physical connection to the very earliest colonial settlers to come to this Shore.
Shortly after building this house, John “Navvy Jack” Thomas married the granddaughter of Coast Salish Chief Kiepilano. Her name was Slawia and bore him three daughters and a son. Emma Thomas was born in 1876 and Christine Thomas born in 1877. Before his untimely death in 1897 he was able to see his daughter Christine marry a Squamish nation man, Henry Jack.
One of their daughters, Amy Jack married famous actor Chief Dan George, before he was famous of course. They lived together 51 years bearing 9 children in total. All the descendants of Chief Dan George are therefore direct descendants of Navvy Jack Thomas. Well known Tsleil-Waututh Chief Leonard George, who fought to protect Coast Salish cultural heritage, was Navvy Jack’s great grandson, a proud legacy to leave us. Navvy Jack’s other daughter Emma also married a Squamish nation man and their descendants are also all across the North Shore.
Unlike so many colonial settlers who distanced themselves from the indigenous community, Navvy Jack joined with it and became part of their family. The legacy he leaves is far and wide yet the home where their family started has now been approved for demolition by West Vancouver Council. It is owned by the municipality.
Ignorant claims have been made by local complainers that the house is rotten. It is not. As a member of the Heritage Advisory Committee I was given access to it, and the bones are solid and dry. The substructure of the house that was built of clear timbers cut over 150 years ago are still there.
The roof is new and the insides though renovated many times over the years were well cared for. There is no truth to any suggestion that this house is rotted out and even staff are not saying that. They simply believe that there is not enough heritage value to the house and the Streamkeepers want it gone so they can build an artificial stream mouth in its place.
The Steamkeepers have a German resident donating the funds to build the artificial stream mouth but the Streamkeepers are insisting on removing the building now or “they’ll walk”. This project has now become conditional upon the immediate removal of this vital piece of our history .
That unfortunately is where we are at now. On July 20, 2020 West Vancouver Council voted to hold off on demolition to give a citizens group a chance to come up with an alternative and have given them a short deadline of September 14th to do this. However one Councilor warned that unless we can find a way to make it pay for itself, they don’t want to maintain it themselves.
Interestingly, a week earlier Council voted to increase density on a highrise that resulted in the developer paying West Vancouver $10 million dollars more into a Community Amenity fund as a community benefit. The money is available if they consider it a priority. Personally I think the Navvy Jack house should be a National Historic site. It is the oldest building on the North Shore and its history ties it to one of BC’s earliest colonial settlers, one who can be respected for his integration with the indigenous community.
Historic sites around the world do not pay for themselves. The community has to support them. West Vancouver has the money from selling density if it chooses to spend it that way. However, at this point, unless the community speaks up by emailing Mayor and Council with their views, this last building from West Vancouver’s beginnings will be demolished.
A West Vancouver citizen, Paul Hundal is deeply interested in heritage issues.