by Rob Howatson
Fraser Street is one of Vancouver’s oldest, most storied roads and given its rich history, it is not surprising that the route evolved into the vibrant neighbourhood and successful business district of South Hill. The street began in 1875 as a muddy wagon road carved out of the thick forest that covered South Vancouver. Originally named North Arm Road, it linked two former First Nations’ trails that later became Kingsway and Southeast Marine Drive.
The north-south slash through the brush was the most direct route between the new farms on Lulu Island (Richmond) and the growing settlement of Gastown (Vancouver). When South Vancouver incorporated as a municipality in 1892, farms were already sprouting up along the road. A pair of bridges was built at the foot of North Arm Road in 1894 to cross the Fraser River in two hops. These spans helped secure Fraser Street’s logistical importance and South Van council knew that the right place to build their new city hall was at Fraser and 41st – the present day location of John Oliver Secondary School.
Shops and homes sprouted amid the orchards and dairy farms of the area, but the sharpest boost to development came in 1909 when Vancouver’s streetcar tracks were extended south on Fraser from 33rd Avenue. Suddenly the sleepy, rural neighbourhood was just a five-cent tram ride to a booming downtown that was just beginning to see automobiles.
The first South Hill residents of this trolley car era were Europeans, mostly from the British Isles. They swelled the ranks of the English colonial forces during the First and Second World Wars. Many of them are buried just off Fraser Street in Mountain View Cemetery. The cenotaph that honours the soldiers stands in South Memorial Park, but the original monument was near Fraser and 41st, and was the first Great War tribute erected in Canada.
Chinese immigrants first appeared in the area as farmers working fertile fields on the banks of the Fraser and in productive patches higher up the hill, such as the market gardens west of Mackenzie Elementary that bloomed into the 1950s.
Germans and Russian Mennonites fled war-ravaged Europe and settled in South Hill, where homes were cheap. They opened bakeries and book stores on Fraser Street, and built churches that shook from the singing of standing-room-only congregations. (No wonder John Oliver’s choir dominated the high school music circuit in the 1960s and 70s.)
Indo-Canadian businesses began to open on Fraser Street in the 1970s when immigrants from the sub-continent saw affordable homes on the city’s southern slopes and unionized jobs in the sawmills along the river.
Subsequent waves of immigration included families from Vietnam, Latin America, the Philippines and pretty much everywhere on the planet. South Hill continues to be a beacon to those looking for a better way of life.