By Caitlin Webster
British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.
In the pre-war years of the early 20th century, Canada saw unprecedented growth, both in its population and its federal infrastructure. As the population increased by 64 percent between 1900 and 1914, demand for expanded federal institutions grew as well, and the federal building inventory tripled in size.
Much of this growth was taking place in newly established towns such as Rossland, a mining town in southeastern British Columbia. Like many small towns in Canada, it received a substantially built post office in the early 1900s. Due to the great volume of construction across the country, many of these buildings shared common architectural elements. The 1903 Rossland Post Office followed this standard design, featuring a steeply pitched and truncated roof, round-arched openings, and gables with ornamental parapets.With the outbreak of the First World War, economic growth abruptly ended. As a result, many of these federal buildings acquired an unexpected prominence in small towns. Some buildings became city halls or other municipal buildings, while others, like the Rossland Post Office, retained their original purpose.
The federal buildings of this era were prominent due to the quality of their construction and the building materials chosen. In most instances, the Department of Public Works avoided the use of wood and instead chose iron, stone, brick and other sturdy materials. The goal of this approach was to protect federal assets against fire and other hazards, and to serve as an example of quality construction in their various communities.
Unfortunately, the use of such materials provided only partial protection for the Rossland Post Office. On March 1, 1929, what became known as the “Big Fire” swept through the town’s business district. The blaze destroyed all of the wood-frame buildings between the Bank of Montreal and the post office. Firefighters used dynamite on some structures in an attempt to create a firebreak, which unfortunately destroyed all of the post office windows and hastened the fire damage to the structure.
In the end, the Rossland Post Office lost its distinctive roof with ornate gables. However, the stone-and-brick construction enabled the restoration of the two remaining floors. The prominent structure still serves as the city’s post office, and it is now part of Rossland’s Official Heritage Register.
To learn more about the architectural styles of federal buildings, see Crown Assets: The Architecture of the Department of Public Works, 1867–1967, by Janet Wright, 1997 (OCLC 1017536309).
Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.