In 1904, the BC Government purchased 1,000 acres of land on the western bank of the Coquitlam River, at the confluence of the Fraser river, as the site for a new hospital for the mentally ill. Half of the land, located on Mount Coquitlam (the upward slope above the railway tracks) included excellent building sites and would become Essondale – later renamed Riverview Hospital.
The land located on the other side of the railway tracks was composed of rich alluvial soil. This would become Colony Farm. The Medical Superintendent, Dr. G.H. Manchester, had recommended the establishment of a hospital for the insane on the property. His plan was that the farm would provide work for patients and also support the hospital.
Between 1905 and 1910, over 180 hectares of this low lying flood plain were cleared, ditched and drained. Once the land was cleared, dikes were constructed, drainage tiles were installed and state of-the-art farm buildings were constructed.
Colony Farm officially opened in 1910. In 1918, the Farm was expanded with the purchase of the Wilson property on the east side of the Coquitlam River. With considerable support from the provincial government, Colony Farm would become one of the most successful farms in British Columbia’s history. The farm was an integral part of the hospital – providing both food and therapeutic occupation for patients.
By 1911, Colony Farm was thriving. At the Dominion Fair in Regina in July 1911, Colony Farm won more than 20 prizes, a tradition that would continue into the 1980s with multiple awards at the Pacific National Exhibition’s annual agricultural competitions.
By the 1920s, Colony Farm was recognized as one of the finest farming operations in Western Canada. The piggery, land, dairy herd and cannery produced most of the food for Essondale. The prize Holstein herd was the largest in BC. The cows were milked four times a day by hand; milkers formed the majority of the farm workforce.
Crops in the fields included grain, pumpkin, turnips, celery, onions, beets, rhubarb, lettuce and corn. Various vegetables as well as pears, peaches, apples and apricots were preserved in the cannery. The canners also produced different jams.
Fire at Colony Farm
Colony Farm remained a thriving farming operation into the 1940s. Farm work was seen as therapeutic; patients would work in the fields and help care for the animals. Several teams of Clydesdales were housed in the huge arena, along with teamsters and dairy men. Married men and their families lived in houses, and single men lived in bunks in the various buildings. Each day they gathered in the huge dining room for their meals.
The teams of Clydesdales were a particular point of pride, which made the fire of 1946 such a heartbreak. While Essondale had its own fire department with nine full-time employees and 20 volunteers, they were no match for a determined arsonist. In December of that year, one of the milkers who worked at Colony Farm set a series of fires. A number of buildings burned as a result of the arson, including the grand Clydesdale arena.
The farm ceased operations in 1983 and, in 1989, the Burke Mountain Naturalists initiated a public campaign to have the land protected. In 1996, Colony Farm was transferred by the Province to the Metro Vancouver to be managed as a regional park. Metro Vancouver manages the park in accordance with the Colony Farm Land Use Plan which designates specific areas for agriculture, wildlife and integrated management. The park protects a variety of ecosystem types including the largest old-field habitat in the North-East sector. These ecosystems provide habitat for a wide range of animals, including invertebrates, mammals, amphibians, fish, forest and grassland birds and birds or prey. During the winter months large numbers of Great Blue Herons, a species at risk, forage in the fields at Colony Farm. By late March, these herons initiate nesting in a heronry at the confluence of the Coquitlam and Fraser River, which has been protected as a Wildlife Management Area since 1994.
The park is a popular spot for nature photography, bird watching, walking, cycling and community gardening.
The Colony Farm Park Association works in partnership with Metro Vancouver to manage the park and offers a number of nature walks every spring. The Colony Farm Community Garden and an accessible trail system have been created and funds have been raised to construct a pedestrian bridge over the Coquitlam River.