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The Peace Arch in 1913 – an idea germinated

October 27, 2014

Headlining the opening day of the Pacific Highway Association convention for 1913 was a speech by outgoing President James T Ronald. Judge Ronald introduced to his audience the proposal to build an arch on the Pacific Highway at the international border to commemorate 100 years of peace between the United States and Great Britain.

Peace Arch 1921 - Vancouver Archives photoThe peace arch was a concept that had first been brought forward some years previous by George A Ellsperman, sub-collector of Customs at Blaine Washington, who was credited by Judge JT Ronald as being the “father of the idea.”


“[Mr Ellsperman’s] idea, which has been converted into artistic design  by a landscape artist, is to have a great arch, with two poles upon which the flags of the two countries shall fly every day in the year, arch to [be] illuminated and to be a perpetual memorial of the fact that, although under different governments the interests of the whole people of the North Pacific are one.”


George Ellsperman, once owner of the San Juan Islander,  was appointed to the customs department in 1894, stationed at Blaine. In the United States such civil service appointments  were political, and he maintained his position through three decades and under seven Presidents, including an appointment from President Warren G Harding as Collector at Sumas.

Judge JT Ronald’s suggestion for the border memorial was for a humble structure, but the momentum of the notion called for something grander.  The proposal was seized upon with enthusiasm by the delegates and many ideas put forward from the floor.

A committee was established to make plans and complete the project in time for the Peace Centenary year of 1915 – the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on Christmas Eve, 1914, and ratified by Great Britain and the United States in February, 1915.

Among the members of the committee were Americans Samuel Hill and Frank Fretwell and Seattle architect A Warren Gould. Local representatives included Samuel Gintzburger of Vancouver, WJ Kerr of New Westminster and Frank McKenzie, MPP, in whose district the Arch would be built.

Premier McBride of British Columbia announced his support of the project and said his government would look favorably upon a request for funding.

Some considerable thought had gone into the idea of an commemorative archway prior to the announcement by Ronald. In a speech to Progress Club membership the following day, JJ Donovan spoke on “the initiation of the project to erect a border archway commemorative of the one hundredth year of peace between Great Britain and the United States."

James Joseph Donovan

JJ DonovanJJ Donovan of Bellingham was the Chief Engineer responsible for the completion of the New Westminster Southern Railway and had been present during the opening celebration of February 14, 1891 where the dominant theme of the day was international goodwill.

Noting the presence in British Columbian harbors of the naval vessels USS West Virginia and HMS New Zealand, Donovan was quoted as saying:

“that if the need ever arose he was sure the people of British Columbia and Washington would stand together to repel any common danger. . “  However,   “he felt that while they must have warships as custodians of the sea, and while they had to encourage young men to join the militia in defence of the land, yet too much money should not be spent on that. They should try to get at the other people’s point of view, and desire everywhere justice, fairness and peace.”

In 1915 at the Peace Centenary gathering on the Pacific Highway it was Donovan who moved the motion to complete the project.

Through his involvement with Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mills, Donavon played a part in the formation of one of the great international companies of the Pacific Northwest, forestry giant MacMillan-Bloedel.

The Peace Arch in Planning

Samuel Hill was elected President of the Pacific Highway Association with JT Ronald kept on in 1914 as Honorary President. Ronald also chaired the Peace Arch committee. Wasting no time, it was announced:

“Mr A Warren Gould, a Seattle architect and enthusiastic member of the Highway Association, will draw up several plans, from which the committee can choose the most suitable.”

Augustus Warren Gould had a prime example of his work on hand. He was the architect of the beautiful new Rogers Building at Granville and Pender,  a few blocks from the Progress Club quarters.

The resulting peace arch looks the same as the concept as first imagined by GA Ellsperman, some years prior to the convention of 1913.

The arch committee underwent some changes before the year 1913 was out.  Ellsperman of Blaine was invited to participate by Judge Ronald.  Sam Hill remained on the committee, besides serving as Pacific Highway President for the year, and JJ Donovan was another member.

The Peace Arch monument was adopted by Sam Hill as a personal project, and it was his energy and zeal that saw it through to completion. In doing so he unified several streams of historical significance and brought together an interesting cast of characters to lend weight and momentum to the task.

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