BCHF News Time Travels: Langley Heritage Society

Time Travels: Langley Heritage Society

Mark Forsythe travels through BC, and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation members.

Langley Heritage Society president Fred Pepin. Photo: Mark Forsythe

Time itself seems to have ground to a halt. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people and organizations to take stock, and imagine a path forward. Over the last two years, Time Travels has highlighted the exceptional work of British Columbia Historical Federation members in the Slocan, Similkameen, Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island. The column hopes to profile members in other regions of BC, but for now, I remain closer to home in Fort Langley.  

Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui, and Semiahmoo peoples have lived here for thousands of years. The Hudson’s Bay Company planted palisades for a fur trading post in 1827, and the Fort Langley area became the first pocket of Colonial settlement in the Lower Mainland. After the Fraser River gold rush ignited in 1858, the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed here as thousands of American miners jumped in the chase.

Nearby Derby was Governor James Douglas’s choice for the first Mainland capital, until Colonel Richard Moody and the Royal Engineers opted for higher ground across the river at New Westminster. If you paddle on the nearby Bedford Channel you can almost hear these voices echoing off the water. 

When my retirement from CBC Radio approached a few years ago, Langley Heritage Society president Fred Pepin invited me to join its board. It has an impressive record. Over the last 40 years, dozens of houses, barns, and churches have been spared the wrecker’s ball because of the society’s efforts.

Many buildings had been vandalized or faced demolition, and today they remain standing and highly useful. Successful conservation grew from a spirit of collaboration with municipal governments, businesses, parks authorities, educational institutions and dedicated volunteers.

Today, the the society maintains and manages nine buildings, each home to a caretaker tenant. (One outbuilding has been turned into a cat sanctuary.) The Society has crafted a remarkable legacy, one nail at a time, and it is the vision of those first volunteers that must be recognized.  

Trunk belonging to the first British war bride to arrive in Langley following the Second World War, Lois Bowling, on display at the CN Station. Mark Forsythe photo

The first project (with a local arts council) was restoration of Michaud House, home to the first Francophone family to settle on Langley Prairie. Others followed, including the Lamb/Stirling House and Harrower House at Murrayville in the mid-1990s.

Fred Pepin remembers the ripple effect it had in the neighbourhood, ”you could see the difference down the street, people started cleaning up their houses. In six months the street looked totally different…the impact was enormous.”

At nearby Milner, Judy Lamb-Richardson’s great-grandparents operated the Dixon dairy farm during the First World War era. Nine years ago the house and barn were restored in partnership with the Township of Langley, prompting this message from Judy: “I don’t know if whomever was involved had ever thought during the restoration process how much that act would mean to the generations coming after to have the opportunity to touch the hands of their ancestors. There are no words to tell you how much I appreciate this.”  

Fred Pepin led that restoration. The original stained-glass windows and various fixtures had been stolen from the house, and the barn was one windstorm away from collapsing. The two-year restoration earned an Award of Honour from Heritage BC.

Volunteerism is in Fred’s DNA. He has spearheaded restoration work in historic Milner, Murrayville, Langley Prairie, Sperling, Willoughby, Aldergrove, and Fort Langley for decades. Named a Freeman of the Municipality by the Township of Langley, he also received an Award of Merit from the BCHF. Now in his 80s, Fred still crawls beneath buildings to patch leaking pipes and volunteers with the BC Farm Museum and sits on Township’s Heritage Advisory Committee. He’s called “Mr. Heritage” for good reason. 

The society’s most-visited building is a gem — the 1915 Fort Langley CN Station restored by volunteers beginning in 1983. Built by Canadian Northern Railway, it is one of the last Class 3 stations standing; it is owned by the Township of Langley and operated by the Langley Heritage Society. For decades, Bays Blackhall was its biggest promoter and protector. She was also a feisty advocate for local heritage and landscape conservation, and the Society initiated a high-school scholarship in her honour following her death in 2017. 

The CN Station sits in the heart of the village and has become one of Fort Langley’s most frequented sites. It includes a 1920s wooden caboose (with a marvelous model railway) and a 1940s passenger car. Last summer a short dramatic production called Wheels of Time was launched in collaboration with the Creative Compass Society, a non-profit that mentors young people in the arts. It tells more of the CN Station story, and life in Fort Langley.

At the time of writing, the CN Station remains closed, but exciting work continues behind the scenes and out front in the historic gardens. Our station manager Helen Williams and her army of volunteers can hardly wait to show you. 

Heritage gardens at Fort Langley CN Station. Photo: Mark Forsythe

An evening stroll on the platform at the Fort Langley CN Station. Photo: Mark Forsythe

Cast from the Wheels of Time production performed on the platform at the CN Station. Photo: Mark Forsythe

For information and videos highlighting restored buildings visit: langleyheritage.ca. The CN Station is located at the corner of Mavis and Glover in Fort Langley.