The Town of Mission City had an interesting beginning as a land promotion. The town's core commercial properties and residential streets were auctioned off at the "Great Land Sale" of 1891, with buyers brought in via the CPR mainline from Vancouver as well as from Eastern Canada. Soon afterwards, Harry Brown French, an American from New York, came to the city and founded the Mission Regional Chamber of Commerce on June 19, 1893. It was the first Board of Trade in B.C." Some of the early houses and commercial buildings were, in fact, specifically designed to be reminiscent of small towns in southern Ontario in order to encourage buyers. Hailed at the time as a new metropolis, the fledgling town's location at the junction of the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline with a northward extension of the Burlington Northern Railroad brought name suggestions that included East Vancouver and North Seattle. The name Mission City was chosen due to the site's proximity to the historic St. Mary's Mission of the Oblate order just east of town, which was founded in 1868 (now the Peckquaylis Indian Reserve).
At the time of founding, the swing-span Mission Railway Bridge opened in 1891 was the only crossing of the Fraser River in the Fraser Valley below the Alexandra Bridge, and all rail traffic between Vancouver and the United States was necessarily routed through Mission until the New Westminster Bridge at New Westminster was built in 1904. The rail bridge at Mission doubled duty as a one-way alternating vehicular bridge until 1973, when a long-promised new Mission Bridge was finally completed. The bridge's location is geographically important at the head of the tidal bore on the Fraser River, and its water level gauge is an important measure of the Fraser's annual and sometimes dangerously large spring freshet.
Mission City's original retail core was in the small area of lowland between the CPR mainline and the river. Following the great flood of 1894 a few years after the town's founding, the core was relocated just north of the rail line at the foot of the hillside rising above the rail junction. This small commercial strip, originally named Washington Avenue, later Main Street and since the 1980s called First Avenue, is only four or five blocks long and was one of the principal commercial centres of the Fraser Valley for many decades and had a lively retail trade and social life. Following the 1894 flood, abandoned buildings and lots in the old downtown were taken over by Chinese merchants and workers, creating a Chinatown which lasted until the 1920s.
The western part of the district, the Stave Valley, is largely rural and forested but its watercourse is home to what was the largest hydroelectric project in British Columbia until the Bridge River Power Project opened in 1961. It was built by the British Columbia Electric Railway (BCER) to provide power to the electric street railway and interurban system in Vancouver. The Stave Falls Power Co. operated a light-gauge railway for passenger and freight service up the lower canyon of the river to the dam at Stave Falls. During the construction of the Ruskin Dam (completed 1931) the railway was rebuilt at a higher elevation so as to skirt the new Hayward Lake reservoir. The rail line has long been discontinued, but the old grade and its trestles are now part of a recreation trail circling the reservoir.
Flanking the outraces of the powerhouse at Stave Falls there was once a fairly large community (300 houses), which was served by the railway via connections to the CPR line at Ruskin, although the (then very rough) Dewdney Trunk Road used the dam to cross the Stave River. Population in the Stave Falls area is now away from the dams, west along the Dewdney Trunk towards Maple Ridge, in a rural farm-and-wilderness area south of Rolley Lake Provincial Park.
Up against the Maple Ridge boundary near the waterfront on the west side of the Stave, and halfway between the dam and the mills at Ruskin, was a large drive-in theatre for many years. It is now a large trailer park, and the most populated of Ruskin's neighbourhoods.
The building of the Highway 1 freeway on the south side of the Fraser in the early 1960s brought huge population growth and large shopping malls to formerly rural Abbotsford, Matsqui, Sumas and Langley; as a result Mission lost its "anchor", the main Eaton's department store in the Valley, and the town's Main Street businesses lost much of their business to the new shopping malls a few minutes away across the river. This process was accelerated with the opening of the new bridge in the mid-1970s.
Despite a cohesive business community and new retail malls on the edges of the old core, Mission's retail community has never regained its former prominence in the Fraser Valley. Burgeoning "exurban" population growth connected with the rapid growth of the population of the Lower Mainland and encouraged by a new commuter rail line direct to downtown Vancouver, the West Coast Express, has reversed this trend. Outside of the core "urban" area, most of which had been the Town of Mission City, the former District of Mission was a collection of distinct rural communities, each with their own history and sometimes distinct ethnic flavour. Silverdale, 7 kilometres west of Mission on the east bank of the lower Stave River, was homesteaded in the 1880s by Italian immigrants (including the Gagliardi family); their descendents reside there to this day. Neighbouring Silverhill was founded by a Finnish Utopian sect who were superseded by Scandinavian and German settlers following a forest fire that virtually wiped out the Finns.
Steelhead, in the northern part of the district, was originally a weekend retreat for some of Vancouver's press community. Other localities such as Ferndale, Cedar Valley and Hatzic were farming communities of mixed origin, with Europeans and anglicized French-Canadians alongside the usual British-Scottish Canadian mix typical of much of the Fraser Valley. Throughout the Mission area before World War II, there was a large Japanese-Canadian population involved in berry farming, logging and milling and in the fishery on the river.
In 1954, Benedictine monks obtained land near Mission, where they set up their Westminster Abbey and Seminary of Christ the King. They have lived there ever since, running their own farm and teaching high school and college men at the seminary.
The berry industry, formerly the district's largest and most important, formed the heart of the town's annual summer party, the Strawberry Festival. The Strawberry Festival began in 1946, when it was suggested by the Board of Trade. But with the impacts on this industry (relocation of the Japanese during wartime and the devastating flood of 1948), the strawberry theme was abandoned. The town acquired the rights to the Western Canada championships of the Soap Box Derby, which were held annually in a specially built facility until 1973; the Derby has been revived in the new millennium.
Mission's other major industry was logging, and the town's several mills were noted for being the world's largest suppliers of red cedar shakes and shingles. The District of Mission has operated for many years its own tree farm, covering most of its northern and northwestern mountainous forests. This tree farm served as a model for silvicultural management on a larger scale throughout British Columbia as well as provided a unique income source for the municipality. From 1967 through the 1970s the Soap Box Derby shared Dominion Day with a large Loggers Sports event, one of the largest in British Columbia and important on the North American Loggers Sports Association circuit.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a large cluster of productive mills on the waterfront in Mission, for many years world capital of red cedar shake production (the mill at Whonnock outproduced the largest of the Mission mills, but Mission's city of mills was the largest overall producer). Nearby Eddy Match Co., between Mission and Hatzic, was the largest matchstick-making plant in the world until it closed in the 1960s; its only rival was in Hull, Quebec.
Adjoining it was the Empress Foods Co. cannery, the survivor of the struggles of the berry industry in the Central Fraser Valley, and dating from the days of Mission's supremacy as strawberry capital of the valley before the 1948 Fraser River flood wiped it out. In more recent times one of these buildings was for a while converted into the province's largest marijuana grow-op, in a scandal involving one of the town's wealthiest families.
Mission is noted as the home of a long-established professional dragstrip, Mission Raceway Park, which was moved in relatively recent times outside the dyking of the lower part of town to reduce noise in residential and commercial areas nearby.
In 1972 a large tract of land in central Mission's Ferndale area, flat upland at the top of the slope above downtown, was acquired by the federal government and developed into two large penal facilities. One is a minimum security facility, and the other is a medium security prison. The northern part of the district, and the wilds of the Stave River basin to the north of it, are home to a few wilderness work camps for young offenders and low-risk convicts; these camps have over recent decades participated in the ongoing clearing of vast forests of flooded-out trees from the inundated areas of Stave Lake, opening the lake to water recreation and public exploration.
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