An East Burnaby Neighbourhood in the 1950s and ’60s

When I grew in East Burnaby in the 1950s and ’60s, my immediate neighbourhood was the long block of East 15th Avenue between Cumberland and Wright Streets.  After all, I lived in the middle of the block, and our backyard was separated from the older houses on 16th Avenue by 18 feet of Bush known as The Lane Allowance.

Almost all of the land from that Lane Allowance to 13th Avenue, and the two long blocks from Cumberland to Newcombe Street, had been part of a farm owned by Mr. Schaub.  A Baby Boom begat a Building Boom, making it clear to Mr. Schaub and his sons that there was more money to be made building houses on his farmland than continuing to farm it, especially if they built the houses themselves.

The first few houses were built for some of their relatives who had young families of their own and were looking for a house that they could afford.  At the time, the beginning of the 1950s, a First Mortgage required a 50% Down Payment, so Mr. Schaub personally topped it up with a Second Mortgage, effectively cutting the Down Payment by at least half.  He quickly realized that this was just the incentive needed for Sales outside the family, my parents being one of the first.

Our block was the first to be built on the farmland.  The Wright Street-16th Avenue-Cumberland perimeter had been subdivided into residential lots in the 1920s, with many of the houses dating from that era.  That led to the odd layout of lots on the North side of 15th Avenue where we lived.

The back 18 feet of each lot on the North side of 15th Avenue was given to the Municipality of Burnaby as Lane Allowance, as well as 18 feet on the side of the lots behind the houses on Wright Street and Cumberland. The final layout of back lanes was in the shape of an “H”, though the entire “H” remained Bush in the early years. It was nearly 20 years before the final piece of lane, behind our house, was completed.

The Streets

There were wooden telephone poles on the South side of 15th Avenue that carried power and telephone lines. The only street lights were on the telephone poles at the end of the block, one by Wright Street and one by Cumberland. Telephone service was a party line shared with five other houses though, thankfully, you only heard the phone ring when it was a call for you. Though, even with the telephone hung up, you could hear clicks from other people dialing.

In the middle of the block, as we were, the street lights were far enough away that Astronomy was possible in both the front and back yards of our house.  But not far enough away to let us see the Milky Way.

Except for the main routes, the residential streets were initially gravel. During dry spells in the summer, a cloud of dust was created by every vehicle that passed. During wet spells, ducks would occasionally float in the water in the largest potholes.

Most main routes had sidewalks on each side of the street, but residential streets had open drainage ditches where the sidewalks would later be. A single pipe from each house fed water from all the downspouts connected to the eavestroughs.

Since sewers did not arrive until the mid-1960s, every house had its own septic tank buried in the backyard. To allow the microbes to do their job in the septic tank, soapy water from clothes and dish washing was diverted either to the ditch or to a wooden box that was also buried in the backyard, known as a soap box. For example, on the North side of 15th Avenue, everyone had a soap box, but the South side had a deeper ditch instead of a soap box.

Likewise, since most of the Lanes were built years after the houses that backed on to them, there was a driveway in the front to a garage or carport attached to the side of the house. The garage usually had an entrance door into the basement.

The Houses

A new house built at the beginning of the 1950s in this part of East Burnaby would be a wood-frame bungalow with concrete basement, unfinished.  Most were two bedrooms with a few three bedroom houses built for larger families, though many made due by building a bedroom or two in the basement as the children grew.

Two bedroom houses were built with the latest coal heating technology, known as Coal Stockers. A modern low voltage thermostat in the Living Room controlled an auger that fed chunks of coal into a forced air furnace with the same galvanized sheet metal floor ducting that is still used today. The Coal Room was a bedroom-sized area of the basement, walled off with a door to the rest of the basement and a window-sized opening to the garage or carport, where coal could be loaded once a month from a coal truck.

Three bedroom houses used a more modern furnace that burned fuel oil. A large fuel tank was installed underground in the back yard, with an opening on the ground for filling once a month from a fuel oil truck with a very long hose that reached from the driveway into the back yard.

All houses used Forced Air heating via an electric blower fan.  Electricity was also used for the water heater, lighting and the stove.  Natural gas did not arrive in our neighbourhood until about 1957.

The Schools

All these houses being built brought a lot of children into this part of East Burnaby, and a lot more children were born after the families moved there.  Despite Burnaby’s frenzy of building new elementary schools, and expanding existing ones, in East Burnaby in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was not fast enough or soon enough.

One of the early crunches came in September 1958, when Second Street Elementary School accepted 120 Grade 1 students.  But they only had three classrooms available.  40 students per class far exceeded their maximum class size of 32.

And it was a disaster.  Perhaps a half dozen of those 120 had ever seen the inside of a classroom before, as Kindergartens were privately run, and seen as an unnecessary expense to the predominantly Blue Collar fathers of East Burnaby families of the era.

School Board building plans caught up with enrollment in September 1959, with some of those Grade 1 students moving elsewhere, leaving Second Street with three classes of 32 students each for Grade 2.  It would be a few more years before The Portable became a popular solution, and Second Street got one to handling growing enrollment.

As well as installing a Portable, Second Street also changed the boundaries for attendance, just as they had done in 1959.  Only this time, it excluded my block, and my neighbour, two years younger, was attending Armstrong Elementary rather than Second Street.

In September 1964, the classroom space situation was even more severe at Second Street, but this time, they refused to accept the additional students.  This was the year that had been chosen by the Burnaby School Board to move Grade 7 from Junior High to Elementary schools, but Second Street did not have the space to allow last year’s class of Grade 6 students to stay for another year.  Having only opened the year before, Cariboo Hill Junior Secondary still had enough room to handle another year of Grade 7 students.

Armstrong Elementary offered to help, too.  In the areas where Armstrong already had younger students, including my block, Second Street Grade 6 graduates were given the choice of Cariboo or Armstrong.  I was the only one who chose another year of Elementary School for Grade 7 at Armstrong.

Finishing Grade 10 meant leaving Cariboo Hill until it added Grade 11 and 12 at the beginning of the 1970s.  Before that, Grade 11 meant finally having a choice of schools, rather than having it dictated by where the student lived.  The Burnaby School Board hosted annual forums for parents where Burnaby North, Burnaby Central and Burnaby South Senior Secondary Schools each explained what they had to offer students with specific interests.  Burnaby Central, for example, had the best equipped Electronics lab and offered a double Electronics course in Grade 12.

The 1960s began with the opening of the British Columbia Vocational School (BCVS), with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) opening a few years later, on adjacent land in Burnaby, and then Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain.  The decade ended with the opening of Douglas College in New Westminster.

The resultant glut of space for post-secondary students resulted in the entrance requirement for UBC dropping to 59% (Grade 11 and 12 marks) for the September 1969 school year, a record that still stands today.

The Bush

A Vacant Lot was nothing like the ones on television.  In East Burnaby, it was trees and heavy underbrush, though there always seemed to be paths to follow through the Bush, whether they were created by four legs or two.

As you moved East from our neighbourhood, it took even longer for the farmland and Bush to be developed into housing, roads and public buildings.  Especially North of Cariboo Hill School, which I watched being built a block East of Cumberland on 16th Avenue, originally as a Junior High School when it opened in September 1963.

Just behind the bus loop on the North East corner of 16th Avenue and Cumberland, there was land set aside for the expansion of George Derby, the veteran’s care facility at the bottom of Cumberland.  That undeveloped area was large enough, with enough varied terrain, to support major bush projects for generations of young teenagers deeper in the Bush during the day without disturbing the one or two hobo camps closer to the bus loop, which had a small wooden seating area that was covered, providing emergency shelter for hobos during a heavy rain.  It and the other Bush around the school provided an ideal area for students to smoke during the lunch hour.

There was a well-beaten path through Bush to the North East that led all the way down the hill to Cariboo Road, and students living in that area used it to get to and from school.  It was also a faster way to get from my neighbourhood to Cariboo Road on foot or even bicycle.

The only break in the Bush was at the foot of Coldicutt Street, with a farm to the North. I once met the girl who lived on that farm, one afternoon after school when she and I picked the same day to visit our former French teacher at Cariboo Hill.

Long after I left East 15th Avenue, 16 Avenue was continued through that Bush, all the way to Cariboo Road, which itself was re-routed after the large tracts of VA Land on Cariboo Road were combined with the old Interurban right of way and subdivided.  VA Land was awarded to Veterans after World War II.

My best friend for many years of school lamented on the lack of Bush for his kids to play in.  After UBC graduation, he had moved to Calgary and I ended up in Edmonton.

As kids, we did not differentiate between Lane Allowances, Vacant Lots and undeveloped Public Lands:  none of it was fenced off and it was all Bush to us.  Bush to play in, to live out our dreams of being early explorers and builders of great construction projects.  Or occasionally even ancient warriors of opposing bands of soldiers and settlers.