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Sea Island has many stories to see and share

By Don Fennell

Published 4:23 PDT, Fri October 22, 2021

Richmond Museum organizes self-guided walking tour of island that includes Burkeville

Though best known today as home to Canada’s second-busiest airport, Sea Island once had a very different distinction.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, the land was home to the Coast Salish First Nations. Not surprisingly given its location, salmon and other fish were food staples, with shellfish equally abundant as were a variety of berries.

Later, in the early days of settlement, the island’s flat delta landscape and closeness to the Gulf of Georgia made it ideal for farms and fish canneries.

Finally, the landscape provided an excellent location for an airport that spawned Vancouver International.

In Sea Island: The Aviation Story, anyone keen to explore and learn more about the island’s history is invited to take a self-guided historical walking tour presented by the Richmond Museum.

The tour’s suggested starting point, Larry Berg Flight Path Park, located in line with the end of the airport’s south runway, has long been a favourite place to watch planes, play, and even enjoy a picnic. It is named after the airport’s former president and chief executive officer who during his 20 years at the helm oversaw the construction of new runways, upgrading of terminals, and its connection to the Canada Line.

While American daredevil Charles K. Hamilton successfully engineered the first flight in Western Canada from Minoru Park to New Westminster and back in the early spring of 1910, the history of aviation in Richmond (which includes the neighbourhood of Sea Island) formally started in 1931.

During a year in which the Roaring Twenties must have seemed like a distant memory amid the dawn of the Dirty Thirties, the global financial crisis spiraled out of control. But reflecting the continuing growth of aviation during the period, a small, wood-frame administration building was completed on Sea Island beside a single runway that would serve 1,072 passengers. By 2018, YVR (as Vancouver International Airport is also known) was serving more than 25 million passengers annually.

As tumultuous as 1931 was, there were also some good times to celebrate. The golden age of cartoons was unfolding and Warner Brothers released the first Merrie Melodies film—Lady, Play Your Mandolin. Locally, aviation enthusiasts celebrated the opening of the Seabright Ice Cream Parlour on Sea Island.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw the frequent arrival and departure of new types of aircraft, on Sea Island, as yellow de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes became a familiar sight. Pilots at the Royal Canadian Air Force station prepared for service in Alaska during the war.

With the war raging in Europe, 328 houses were built on Sea Island to address the wartime housing shortage. With gasoline and rubber also in short supply, it was important to house aviation workers and their families close to the airport so as not to waste valuable resources on long commutes.

But the forming of the new community was not without controversy. Many Sea Island residents and farmers were forced to relocate when the federal government assumed control of the land.

Always a tight-knit community, Sea Island residents enthusiastically supported projects to enhance their neighbourhood including the creation of playgrounds, a church, a school and a community centre. Ernest Cooney’s barn was given new life as the island’s first community centre in what became known as the heart of newly-named Burkeville, named after Stanley Burke, president of Boeing Aircraft.

While it ultimately closed in 2019 due to a lack of students, the Sea Island school remains a familiar landmark. Opened in 1890 at the corner of McDonald and Grauer roads, on land donated by the McDonald family, it provided instruction for local children who were also expected to help out during harvest time and other busy periods on their farms. As a result, their attendance at the original one-room school (which closed in 1914) depended on the season. A new six-room school in the cottage-style building still standing was completed in 1947.

Much newer but equally appreciated additions to Sea Island include the British Columbia Institute of Technology Aerospace Campus, which opened in 2007 to provide training to various aircraft-related positions; and the Sea Island Fire Hall, which has also been operating since 2007.

Those interested in learning more following or during the walks are encouraged to download a free guide at richmondmuseum.ca/explore/publications.

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