First, a disclaimer: I have no evidence that the historic Britannia Shipyard on the Steveston waterfront in Richmond is actually haunted. There have been no reports of ghosts or rattling chains or undead fishermen that I know of. But, after checking out the site over the weekend, I have to say it’s creepy, in a good way – definite ghoul habitat.
Some background: The Britannia Shipyard is a national historic site and home to the oldest shipyard buildings in British Columbia, some of which date back to 1885. It consists of a series of spooky old barns and sheds erected on stilts along the Steveston waterfront. Some buildings have been meticulously restored by volunteers. Others are gradually crumbling into the Fraser River and off limits to visitors. Winding between the buildings is an old-fashioned wooden boardwalk. It’s free to go there and often eerily deserted.
Back in the day, this was salmon central. In fact, this year’s bumper crop of sockeye is nothing compared with the legendary runs from 1880-1900. More than 15 separate canneries operated in little old Steveston back then, and the area was bustling with fishermen, cannery workers and fish guts, which were unceremoniously chucked into the Fraser River.
Built along the river on rickety wooden stilts were massive canneries, where fresh fish were processed and preserved, as well as dorms for the workers, residences, shops and probably a few houses of ill repute. First Nations members were recruited to do the difficult canning work and they were later supplemented with Chinese men. Living conditions, needless to say, were harsh: cramped dormitories, crude sanitation, not pretty stuff.
By 1920 salmon stocks were largely depleted, and business shifted to building and repairing boats. This went on for about half-a-century, until the shipyards closed permanently in 1979, leaving a huge dead zone along prime Richmond waterfront.
OK, now back to the ghosts. Volunteers and staff at Britannia have done wonderful, creative and unintentionally creepy things with the sprawling site. Along one stretch of water, several old residences and bunkhouses have been meticulously restored to offer a glimpse into life at the old shipyard. If you visit, you’re free to wander in and out. Just a warning: It feels like the old inhabitants never left.
Peek into the men’s bunkhouse, for instance, and you’ll find a rough-hewn table strewn with antique bottles, an old oil lamp and even a half-eaten dinner. Hands of playing cards are laid out, as though the men were playing just a second ago but had to leave abruptly. Above their rickety beds is a notice board filled with yellowing postcards, love letters and a warning against posting “bawdy” pictures.
In another house, a reproduction of an old Victrola phonograph plays scratchy, old-time tunes from the early 1900s in an endless loop. In the kitchen, blackened pots still sit on a giant cast iron stove. There are no guides around. No signage like you’d expect in a museum. It’s pretty much an episode of the Twilight Zone: You step through a doorway and find yourself alone and a century or so in the past.
And scary things happen: Inside the house, I pushed an innocent-looking, unmarked button on the wall and a voice started speaking out of nowhere. It was an an ancient-sounding woman, describing knitting nets by hand for the fishermen to use. Picture that: this disembodied old-lady voice, the Victrola scratching away in the corner, all inside a deserted house on the swampy banks of the Fraser River. Now that’s Stephen King territory.