To preserve or pulverize? West Van Council weighs fate of Navvy Jack House, unique in the history (there’s little of it) of the Lower Mainland
By TREVOR LAUTENS
You’ve quite often heard, if your hearing is keen and you have the right sort of friends, the phrase “love of history.” Yes. Well, it’s like love itself, isn’t it? It’s not a rational undertaking.
And so we arrive, none too quickly if I say so myself, to the matter of the preservation or pulverization of District of West Vancouver-owned Navvy Jack House – so famous it can be known by its initials alone, like JFK or PET. Don’t know those references? You may be too young for what follows.
NJH, modern address 1768 Argyle, is said (by those who love history) to be not only the oldest building in West Vancouver but the oldest continuously occupied residence in the Lower Mainland, 148 years old and counting – unless it’s done in by West Vancouver Council, which will debate its future Monday, Oct. 5.
Town hall has kicked the issue down the political road for a while, starting from what looks like keeping it under wraps in case it became an issue at all. It has. Not exactly as momentous as the Cuban missile crisis, which John F. Kennedy faced, or Quebec’s unquiet revolution 50 years ago this month, which Pierre Elliott Trudeau faced down. But deserving of the dignity of small things.
Evidence that council didn’t want to fuss the matter is largely circumstantial. But West Van is so short of big-event history that some citizens are passionate about guarding what it has, historical passion being quite noisy when aroused: Town hall’s decades of neglect of the decaying, once-charming Klee Wyck buildings and gardens is an embarrassing example. Another is its recent legal victory in trampling the Brissenden sisters’ bequest of their land to the municipality for a park (what cost victory, what did taxpayers shell out for its lawyers, how much trust in such trusts has been eroded for WV citizens considering such bequests?).
So it may be no coincidence that West Vancouver Historical Society directors – Rod Day, Barbara Hunter, Gail McBride, Tom Wardell, Stephen Price, Lynda Roberts, Marilyn Rhodes and Laura Anderson (a former colleague of mine at the North Shore News where she was seniors issues columnist) – were in the dark about the long-speculated proposal to demolish Navvy Jack House until something like 48 hours before the actual agenda item first came to public light, and have since been up tight against the clock to make and then to update their case for preserving the building: The Navvy Jack House Citizen Group, under the umbrella of the WVHS, learned that council had belatedly put the issue on Monday’s agenda again only last Thursday, Oct. 1 – four days’ notice to the public.
Add this: The citizen group hasn’t the access or the resources of committees struck by council. So it had no input into the heavy pondering by staff shaping policy out of sight of most elected representatives who – whether municipal, provincial or federal, or in the White House or in the (not greatly different) royal courts of Henry VIII or Louis XIV – find any legislation nine-tenths of a fait accompli by the time it lands on their desk. Mark Panneton, the municipality’s director of legislative services, weighing all factors including of course cost and where the money would come from, recommended demolishing NJH. (With no hockey, no football, no baseball, there’s always the eternal political game of speculating: Who’s reading whose mind?)
Reading my own, not quite as glibly as it might appear, the cost factor of a ground-up renovation of NJH, likely well north of $2 million, runs into another, brutally basic question: How many West Vancouverites give a hoot or a toot about our (or maybe any) history?
Few, regrettably, I’d guess. Especially in this year when corona is more than the name of a Mexican beer, and lost jobs and slammed business doors trouble the land, it’s a hard sell.
I asked Coun. Nora Gambioli for her take – a nuanced, thoughtful one in this world of shades of fair opinion.
“In a very objective sense, we should not restore the house; it will be expensive, was not designed for public use, is on the waterfront which risks flooding, we don’t yet know decisively whether any/many original parts can be salvaged, and the public response was lukewarm when we surveyed residents last year,” she responded.
“On the subjective hand, it is a very important part of the heritage of our community; a unique history intertwined with our local indigenous neighbours, and the possibility that it could become a permanent public fixture that would explain this history, and be utilized without much cost to taxpayers (like a coffee shop), is even more compelling to me.”
Some time ago I asked Coun. Peter Lambur in off-handed conversation what he thought of NJH. In real life Lambur is an architectural planning and design consultant, and, this not being a proper media interview, my recall of his non-political answer was that of a professional fascinated by the rehabilitation challenges and what uses a reconstructed building could be put to. He made it sound like great fun. A sort of fun of creative accomplishment. What do I know.
And speaking of fun, there’s enough of it in the John “Navvy Jack” Thomas story to lift it from the dust of history for average citizens – maybe even persuade them that the restoration would be worth the cost. (“Navvy”, if you’re as unsure as I was, is an abbreviation of navigator, says the Oxford Dictionary, defining it as “a labourer employed in the construction of earth-works …” etc. Merriam-Webster cites the word as “chiefly British” and defines it simply as “an unskilled laborer”.)
Here’s droll fun: A newspaper story credits Navvy Jack’s rooster with a marine first. The sternwheeler Yosemite, carrying excursion passengers from Victoria, was shrouded in heavy fog on the morning of May 24, 1888, while approaching First Narrows and had to drop anchor. When the rooster began to crow, the ship’s captain took a bearing from the sound, raised anchor, sailed safely through the foggy narrows, and arrived in port on schedule. So Navvy Jack’s rooster was given credit as the first navigation aid in the area.
Navvy Jack was “a Welsh deserter from the Royal Navy,” Bruce Ramsey wrote in A Place of Excellence: A Chronicle of West Vancouver 1912-1987. He had businesses, including a gravel business. The historians don’t seem to have discovered anything about his personality or character. He was married to Slawia or Row-i-a, also called Magdeleine, granddaughter of Chief Kiepalano, also spelled Capilano, a bond with the aboriginal people of this area.
Not an auspiciously upstanding citizen, Thomas didn’t pay his taxes and left for, possibly skedaddled to, the Cariboo goldfields. His house, built in 1872 or 1873, was picked up in a tax sale. Land developer John Lawson, in old-fashioned-speak “Father of West Vancouver”, settled on the property.
That property is now owned by the municipality. The house’s last occupant under an agreement with West Van, Lloyd Williams, died in 2017. Navvy Jack’s bones, according to historian Ramsey (a notable character in his own right), lie in a miner’s cemetery in the now touristy town of Barkerville.
But of course the above barely touches on the NJH story. The research uncovered by the West Vancouver Historical Society and its allied Navvy Jack House Citizen Group is stunningly deep, detailed and interesting, tapping contemporary records and modern perspectives by writers including Hugh Johnston 20 years ago and more recently outstanding local historian Eve Lazarus. Credit gritty work by WVHS directors trying to update the preservation message to multitudes in that four-day span.
It would be enough if they convinced seven people. You know who they are.
The kicker, in the past parlance of the trade, over the headline of the above is stolen from a W.B. Yeats poem. Rookie Trevor Lautens began in the newspaper business 67 years ago this Friday. No celebration is planned. To widespread relief, this is one of his last pieces for Holland House Communications Ltd.