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RIVERVIEW STORIES: Farm cultivated Riverview
The iconic buildings, sweeping vistas and beautiful trees of the Riverview Hospital lands get all the attention. But across Lougheed Highway, down a country road lined with brambles, shrubs and tall grasses, another piece of Riverview history awaits the curious visitor.
Colony Farm Regional Park is an urban sanctuary where bats, herons and raptors co-mingle under a wide sky; walkers circumnavigate 8.5 km of trails; and community gardeners tend their plants as carefully as babies.
But a century ago, Colony Farm — likely named because it was a government operation, not a private enterprise and thus a colony farm — was a thriving farm operation that provided thousands of tonnes of produce, meat and milk to provincial institutions around the province, including the then bustling Essondale and, later, Riverview Hospital, which closed this summer.
The rich, alluvial soil generated over time by the confluence of the nearby Coquitlam and Fraser rivers provided the base for extensive farm operations that included a dairy, a cattle ranch and vegetable plots, all of which were cared for mostly by mental health patients.
At the turn of the century, when Colony Farm was developed, mental health authorities believed patients would benefit from “moral treatment,” which should include fresh air, healthy food, recreation and work. In those days, it wasn’t considered inhumane for patients to produce the food for their own table.
That view changed over time with the development of human rights legislation, but for nearly 80 years, Colony Farm provided food, milk and meat for thousands of staff and patients at Riverview.
Its start, however, coincides with another Tri-City historical development: the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Anna Tremere, who documents Colony Farm history for the Riverview Historical Society, writes that the original owners of the Colony Farm lands, and the forested area where Riverview Hospital was located, were men in England who were disappointed to learn the CPR terminus would be in Vancouver, not Port Moody. Thus, they were eager to sell off their holdings in exchange for 1,000 acres of virgin timber they could log for a profit.
Dr. G.H. Manchester believed the property would be ideal to replace existing mental health facilities that were getting overcrowded and so the government purchased the lands in 1904. By 1905, several acres were cleared at Colony Farm, which was easiest to level because it was flat, and temporary buildings were erected.
Diking and digging of ditches helped make the property relatively safe from floods and by the time West Lawn opened for 300 patients in 1913, some 450 acres of Colony Farm had been cleared. Farm Cottage and The Annex were soon built to house staff and patients, and intensive farming had begun.
“The farm was considered the province’s showpiece,” Tremere writes, “and people came worldwide to see the farm, cattle and prize-winning Clydesdale horses.”
There was a cannery that provided 22 tonnes of various fruits and vegetables; barns where 20 hogs were killed each week, and tonnes of beef, mutton, and butter were produced as well.
“Colony Farm was absolutely gorgeous,” noted Jenny Gardner Lenihan, who grew up on the farm where her dad worked, in the 1995 Colony Farm Land Use Study.
“The cattle were knee-deep in straw, the barns were immaculately kept, all the timbers and buildings were painted white and you could walk in your white shoes and not get dirty.”
Eventually, the farm lost its usefulness as the province’s bread-basket. A series of floods and deliberately set fires caused problems in the 1940s and ’50s, and changing attitudes made it questionable whether patients should be doing the work of provincial employees. In 1983, the farm ceased operations.
Today, there are few signs Colony Farm was once a thriving agricultural institution, although the adjacent Forensic Psychiatric Institution is a reminder the property is still used for people with mental health issues. Some original fencing remains from Riverview days, a cottage and bunkhouse for staff and workers remain, although they are boarded up and decaying, and the Colony Farm Community Gardens suggest the area is still useful for agricultural purposes.
But the future of Colony Farm is still taking shape and there is little likelihood it will ever be returned to its original state as a large agricultural enterprise. A proposal to establish an agricultural academy and encourage more intensive farming has been put on hold while it gets more scrutiny from groups, such as the Burke Mountain Naturalists, who were instrumental in getting Colony Farm established as a regional park.
Still, the area provides a tranquil break from the traffic-thronged Mary Hill Bypass on the south and the Lougheed Highway on the north and is worth a visit.
• The Tri-City News concludes its Riverview Stories summer series next week with a few remembrances from people in the community. If you have a memory or a comment about Riverview, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in the feature.
Colony Farm — a Timeline
1904 — Dr. G.H. Manchester recommends purchase of 1,000 acres in Coquitlam for development of mental health facilities.
1905 — Work commences to clear the land, temporary buildings erected on site formerly known as Cranberry Bog.
1906 — 17 acres of Colony farm cleared mostly by patients and several acres of bench land where Hospital for the Mind (later Essondale and Riverview Hospital) would be built.
1908 — Diking and ditching of approximately 450 acres of Colony Farm land.
1910 — 60 patients work on farm, described as “visually stunning.”
1913 — West Lawn opens for 300 patients; Colony Farm produces more than 700 tons of crops and 20,000 gallons of milk in a year, using mostly patient labour.
1920 — Two permanent dormitories are added to the growing complex at Colony Farm, providing 75 beds for patients working on the farm.
1921 — Coquitlam Dam breaks and Colony Farm flooded.
1946/’47 — Buildings set on fire, killing one staff member and farm animals.
1948 — Fraser River floods farmland, most of the crops are lost; 240 patients from Farm Cottage and Annex transferred to Essondale; staff and patients do extensive sandbagging.
1949 — Riverside built on Colony Farm for war veterans.
1964 — Decision to turn Riverside into a maximum-security building for prisoners, including those with criminal records associated with mental disorder.
1974 — Citizen Commission on Human Rights reviews practices of allowing patients to work on the farm; despite claims work considered therapeutic, significant changes are made to staffing.
1976 — Riverside Unit renamed the Forensic Psychiatric Institute.
1983 — Provincial government closes the farm, ideas surface about turning property into a race track or industrial site; groups raise alarm.
1995 — Colony Farm Land Use Plan developed with groups such as Burke Mountain Naturalists, Douglas College and FarmFolk/CityFolk.
1996 — Colony Farm dedicated as a regional park; grant of $20,000 received to establish a community garden.
1997 — New state-of-the art facilities open at the Forensic Psychiatric Institute.
1998 — Colony Farm Park Association forms.
2011 — Draft Colony Farm Regional Park Preliminary Sustainability Plan suggests intensifying agricultural use of the property but public engagement process put on hold.
– Sources: Anna Tremere and the Riverview Historical Society, Metro Vancouver Parks, Colony Farm Park Association, Colony Farm Land Use study