COLUMN: From powerhouse to home

Proud remnant of the valley’s first transit system

Mark Rushton

In an age when steam ruled the rails, B.C. innovators took electricity to power transit systems, thanks primarily to the B.C. Electric Company’s 1903 development of the Buntzen power generation facility on Indian Arm.

The original decommissioned power station on the arm is still there, and can be explored by boaters, as I have done years ago.

While entrepreneurs began using electricity for urban transit start-ups in Vancouver and New Westminster, most of the ventures were a quick trip to bankruptcy.

Finally, B.C. Electric took up the challenge, creating the B.C. Electric Railway Company, and by 1906 it recognized the agricultural potential of Chilliwack, which at the time was serviced mainly by riverboat.

Thus, the BCER began construction of an electrified rail line in that year, building powerhouse substations along the way, to create the Interurban that linked all the little communities from Chilliwack through to New Westminster and Vancouver.

From its eastern terminus the route ran over mainly flat farmlands until it crossed the Vedder River near what is now Yarrow, when the railbed was raised much of the way to be above the vast shallow lake that is now Sumas Prairie.

However, along part of the right-of-way on the shoulder of Vedder Mountain, the BCER built its first substation, with another located on Clayburn Road just west of what is now the Mission Highway. Though time and space does not permit more detail, these very large concrete substations were constructed at various intervals along the line.

The Interurban was opened in 1910 and served the Fraser Valley’s rapidly growing agricultural industry for more than 40 years, providing rapid access to growing markets for produce, milk and all other related products, along with passenger service to “the city.”

By about 1925, Sumas Lake had been drained following construction of the Vedder Canal, and the lands of Sumas Prairie became yet another source of commodity for the BCER’s success.

However, the development of modern roadways, trucks and cars spelled an end to the electric rail line. Its service still exists as Surrey Rail Link reduced to freight only, pulled by diesels.

The powerhouse substations were stripped of their internal components, and either sold off or left as derelict. I remember the one on Clayburn Road, which stood until the late 1970s or early ’80s when it was demolished, replaced by a modern home.

Another apparently exists, in decrepit state in the Langley/Surrey area, though its continued presence I haven’t confirmed.

However, likely the first (or last) substation constructed in 1906 remains, nestled against Vedder Mountain at the very eastern end of Vye Road on Sumas Prairie. Its location is on the aptly named Powerhouse Road, though that is actually a vestige of the original and much older Old Yale (wagon) Road.

Today, the 1906 powerhouse is anything but ancient, other than its main structure.

What stands there today, thanks to someone who has turned history into a private home, is a veritable mansion, its preserved exterior painted in subtle shades of grey and beige, the original lettering – British Columbia Electric Railway Company – highlighted across the upper balustrade.

Photos of the transformation (interior and exterior) from a formerly humming and long since abandoned power centre is truly remarkable, and can be viewed online at http://www.lilypad.ca/abbotsford/39623-old-yale-road

And it can be yours for pocket change shy of $5 million.

markrushton@abbynews.com