Clements Drug Store and the R.D. Cumming General Store at the corner of Railway and 4th Street. Photo: Ashcroft Museum and Archives.

Golden Country: A stroll down Railway Avenue in 1906

A trip back in time, as we take in the sights and sounds of Ashcroft more than a century ago.

It’s difficult, now, to imagine the sights and sounds—and smells, in that age when horses provided the main form of transportation, the streets were made of dirt, and the CPR trains running through Ashcroft were powered by engines belching clouds of smoke and steam—of Railway Avenue between the mid-1880s and the beginning of World War I in 1914.

As we saw in the last installment in this series, Ashcroft was a bustling town once the Canadian Pacific station and depot were built in the 1880s. Its main street, Railway Avenue, was a bustling thoroughfare, crowded with shops and businesses of all types, stagecoaches rattling along, and a steady stream of freight wagons loading and unloading at the depot on the east side of the street. So let me take you on a stroll down Railway Avenue in May 1906, heading north, and see what we find.

As we begin in front of Foster’s General Store, between 5th and 4th Streets on what is now a mostly empty lot beside Nature’s Gifts, you’ll note that we’re walking on wooden sidewalks; the first ones on Railway were built in 1898. Foster’s is a large store, with a freight shed beside it, and was one of the first buildings on Railway, apparent in the oldest known photograph of the town taken between 1889 and 1892.

Foster’s sold just about anything anyone living in or around Ashcroft at the time could have needed, from groceries and bolts of cloth to tools and mining equipment. In 1897 an addition to the store was built to house a millinery and dressmaking department, doubtless to cater to the growing number of women who were living in the town, and in 1898 an icehouse was built adjacent to the store.

It was into Foster’s store, on July 14, 1890, that a man named Martin van Buren Rowland walked, wanting to buy a large store of supplies for a claim he said he was working up Scottie Creek way. He paid with a handful of gold nuggets, which he claimed he’d mined at Scottie Creek; but the truth was a good deal darker. Rowland had robbed the Cariboo stage, headed from Barkerville to Ashcroft; but before he could escape the province with his ill-gotten gains he was apprehended.

Foster’s store was purchased by a Chinese merchant before World War I and became J.J. Ting’s, under which name some people still living in Ashcroft probably remember it. It was destroyed by fire in 1976.

To the north of Foster’s store there is a wide laneway, which is now partially occupied by MLA Jackie Tegart’s office. It extended from Railway all the way through to Brink Street, and gave access to the Journal office, although today only the section behind the Journal and the Museum survives. When the Journal office was built in 1898, what is now the front of the office facing 4th Street was blocked from the road by two buildings (the space now contains a lawn and flowerbed), so the main entrance was at the east side of the building, and was accessed by the laneway.

Crossing the mouth of the laneway, we come to a small building housing the Customs Office, which was situated in Ashcroft because of the shipment of goods to and from the CPR depot across the street. Beside it, in the spot now occupied by NGN Sales (previously occupied by Peoples Drug Mart), is Clements Drug Store, which was founded in December 1895 by James Clements, who left his job at a Kamloops drug store to open his own shop in Ashcroft. It’s interesting to note that there was a drug store on this site for 118 years, until 2013, when Peoples (now I.D.A.) moved to its present location in the 200 block of Railway.

Clements’ store boasted a veritable cornucopia of delights; to the modern eye the shelves of bottles behind the counter, and the display cases full of hair brushes, perfumes, pomades, toiletries, shaving supplies, and powders look positively exotic. The store sold Kodak supplies and cameras (priced between $2 and $35), and also had a large stationery department, which sold ink and inkwells, pens, notebooks, desk ornaments such as clocks, and of course every kind of stationery anyone could have needed, from pre-stamped penny postcards to mourning stationery (with matching envelopes) edged in black.

All of this was lit up by that newfangled invention, electricity, for in 1899 Clements Drug Store and the shop next to it on the corner of Railway and 4th—where ReMax Realty stands now—were the first two buildings in Ashcroft to get electric light. The shop on the corner—which is the next one we pass—started life as Richardson and Stewart’s Ashcroft Trading Company, and was built at about the same time as the drug store.

In 1903—just three short years before our stroll—it was purchased by a thirty-three-year-old Glaswegian who had come to Canada in 1885 as a teenager. His name was Robert Dalziel Cumming, and he quickly made himself at home in Ashcroft. He renamed the establishment the R.D. Cumming General Store, and sold groceries, dry goods, confectionary, boots and shoes, clothing, ammunition, and more. Six years later, in 1912, he became editor of The Ashcroft Journal, and took up his office in the newspaper building around the corner.

On this warm May day in 1906 we see Cumming and Clements walking towards us, returning to their stores after a coffee break, possibly at the Cariboo House Restaurant or the Busy Bee Cafe. The bench outside Cummings’ store was a popular place for people to sit and take the morning sun, and we can see a grey-haired man, a stranger to us, sitting on the bench and bouncing R.D.’s four-year-old son Llew (short for Llewelyn) on his knee (Cummings’ wife Margaret is inside, minding the store).

Who is this grey-haired stranger? Find out in the next installment.

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