A stroll down Railway as it used to be

Esther Darlington McDonald reflects on many of the colourful old buildings that are no more.

Looking up or down Railway Avenue today, we find many gaps between buildings. The wide street seems to have had too many of its teeth pulled over the past few decades, and is only a ghost of what it was in 1970. Ashcroft’s main street then was a progression of structures—some of them sound, some of them not so—but the string of wood and brick stores, cottages, sheds, and fences made for a full spectacle. The street—first paved in 1962—had just been repaved from end to end by the illustrious Highways Minister, Flying Phil Gaglardi, whose crew had asphalt left over from the paving of Highway One and used it up on Railway at the request of the then-Mayor of Ashcroft, Chris Hollis.

It’s hard to imagine the street, as it now is, as having been one of the busiest and most colourful thoroughfares in the whole Cariboo. Yes, we’re seeing more truck traffic rumbling by, including logging trucks barrelling across the bridge as if their lives depended on getting from one clear cut to another. But there are hours, even days, when a lone tumbleweed tumbling its melancholy way down the middle of Railway, diverted occasionally into one of the vacant lots by a vagrant gust of wind, makes the town look more like a scene in a spaghetti western. We expect to see Clint Eastwood, gimlet-eyed, dust-covered, the band on his cowboy had stained with sweat, trotting nonchalantly by, rifle in hand.

Of course, on days like that people stay home, and Railway seems a light year away. Who notices its gap-toothed reality then? That is why on Sundays we see most of the establishments along Railway closed.

Let’s begin at the north end of Railway. In 1970 a small cottage sat where the town’s second little red fire hall now sits. It seemed disenfranchised on that spit of land above the road leading to a string of cabins which stretched along the bench just above what’s now the parking lot of the River Inn. Yes, there were cabins there, rented out to people passing through or to crews surveying the highway; the River Inn did not arrive until the early 1980s.

The cottage at the top of Railway was a neat, well-kept residence with a picket fence, if memory serves, and I always wondered who lived there. Kitty-corner from the cottage, where the car wash stands, was a fence built of high boards and the start of a string of false-fronted shops, with small verandas above the entries. Those false-front shops began with Wing Chong Tai’s general store, which sold everything from soup to nails, fresh meat and vegetables to boots: you name it.

Across from Wing Chong Tai’s, where Safety Mart now is, was a stretch of more shops, with houses behind. This first block of Railway was Chinatown, stretching right to Bundus’s Blacksmith and Fabricating. I don’t think you can imagine the variety, colour, and texture of that section of Railway. Described in 1977 as “The finest western streetscape in Canada” by an official from Ottawa one fine summer’s day, that scene is gone, although a few of us will remember Mrs. Aie’s store, where we were able to buy ginger candy from her collection of glass jars full of candy. There was Wing Wo Lung, and Loy’s grocery store, and a dark brown shop where one brought their bottles.

Neither side of Railway on that block had room for vacant lots. It was filled with wood frame structures that sold one thing or another; and a few of us will recall the gardens behind the high board fences and the alleys between the shops, where a bear once found himself trapped. Some might even remember drinking a chocolate soda at the ice cream shop on Railway (but if there any such people around, they must be of an age). There was even a butcher shop, where the Credit Union parking lot is today.

Railway held several hardware stores, each of them specializing in something different from the others. One had fishing and hunting merchandise, for example; another sold outdoor clothing, boots, and rain gear; and yet another had building supplies, lumber, nails, and appliances. You could go from shop to shop and see something different all along Railway.

Further up the street there was Jay Ray’s mens’ clothing shop, specializing in fine quality garments and footwear that were as good as anything to be found in Kamloops. Fran Helland’s ladies’ ready-to-wear shop was nothing short of elegant in the quality of dresses, suits, and jewellery available. There was also Grant Sidwell’s jewellery and watch repair shop. How many people chose their wedding and engagement rings there?

On the block between 5th and 6th, where the garden centre is now, was a two-storey frame house where Ashcroft’s policeman, Joe Burr, once lived with his family. A high caragana hedge framed the yard. At the corner of 6th and Railway stands a beautifully maintained heritage building with two brick chimneys which was in turn the BX Express headquarters, the main office of the cannery, and the courthouse, and is now a private residence. Jack Elgy’s repair shop was a weather-darkened cottage near where the Bottle Depot (once the Purity Feeds store) is located.

The point of this article is that this quality of neighbourhood—cluttered, full of character, and unique to Ashcroft—is just history today. And it’s happening all across North America, as can be seen in now-abandoned country towns across the prairies. There is little left to take their place, as we seem to have substituted character and colour for the stark substance of utility.

No doubt the railway right of way had something to do with the elimination of some buildings on Railway Avenue. But whatever the reason for the changes that have left too much room for the tumbleweeds, and too much of a wind tunnel for the spring and fall gusts to swirl down the street, it is more than a little sad. Yes, change is inevitable. But too much change for Ashcroft has meant an emptier and emptier Railway Avenue.