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Burr’s Columbia Hotel–First on the Block

February 6, 2015

The Columbia Hotel was built in 1861 by William Henry Burr, an Irishman who had purchased property at the first sale of lots at New Westminster in 1859. By profession, WH Burr was a school teacher at the Colonial School in Victoria.

The three-story hotel was built on Columbia Street on the eastern edge of a ravine. When grading the site, earth thrown into the ravine resulted in damage to the property of JT Scott on Lytton Square below.  The hotel was advertised to be just 90 yards from the steamboat landing.

Hugh Burr managed the Columbia on its opening in January 1862. 

By August the following year the Burrs wished to leave the business and offered it for rent as a going concern. Deas, Dawson & Company were the new proprietors, however, they did not stay long with the business and Hugh Burr resumed proprietorship until it was leased by the Collins Overland Telegraph company in February1865.

Telegraph Headquarters at the Columbia Hotel

This was to be the headquarters for the Western Union Telegraph Company’s Russian Extension. James Wallace Pitfield was the agent at New Westminster.  Just 24 years old, Pitfield,  a Canadian, was a close associate of Edmund Conway. He had been an operator in New Orleans during the civil war and since then a superintendent of construction

Columbia Hotel New Westminster 1865 Collins Overland Telegraph HQ

The engraving above is taken from Harper’s magazine of 1865, the Columbia Hotel signage having been replaced by that of the Collins Overland Telegraph Company, and the Stars & Stripes  flying proudly on the mast.  The telegraph extension project was abandoned when the Atlantic cable was successfully laid.  JW Pitfield resigned from Western Union in 1867, returning to the Maritimes where he worked for the Intercolonial Railway.  He died at Moncton NB in 1910.

Diverging interests

In 1867 Hugh Burr took up land at Seymour Creek on  the north shore of Burrard Inlet and established a dairy farm.

September 1870 -  WH Burr opening private boys schoolWH Burr remained owner of the Columbia Hotel while continuing his teaching career.

In 1870 Burr left the Colonial School to open a private boys school in Victoria.



At New Westminster Burr opened a general store in the hotel selling dry goods, crockery, groceries and other provisions. However, the running of a business on the side,  while headmaster of a private school proved too great a distraction for Burr, and in 1871 he advertised:

"To Capitalists! W.H.Burr, unable to attend to his professional duties and his store, offers his entire stock of goods very low, and the store at a reasonable rental."

In 1872 WH Burr was head teacher of the New Westminster Public school, until his appointment was terminated in August.

Burr bought land on the lower Fraser River, establishing a farm and putting down roots at Ladner that would last for generations.   (Burr properties are shown on the Google Map of Property Owners, 1880.)

Mrs Jennings

In November 1873, Mrs Annie Maria Jennings leased the Columbia hotel to run as a Boarding House. The Mainland Guardian welcomed her venture:

"Mrs Jennings is well known to many in this city, and we feel sure will make her new establishment popular; she well deserves patronage."

Annie Jennings, daughter of pioneer William Holmes, was a widow.  In 1877 she married Robert Johnson and together they ran the successful  hotel across the river at  Brownsville.  (In a recent post we described her rescue of her husband from the ice on Fraser River.)

1877 05 30 Pony Saloon W Nickels

Billy Nickels

William Nickels took over the hotel in 1877 and with a complete change of course opened the Pony Saloon, offering the "Choicest Wines, Spirits, English and Colonial Ales, Porter, Cigars, &c., &c."

Nickels died in 1881 but his Pony Saloon would later re-open under the proprietorship of James R Brennan.

Burr family matters

In 1882 a Ladner son of WH Burr  married a daughter of Hugh Burr of Burrard Inlet, uniting the families of these two former partners of the Columbia Hotel.

WH Burr suffered a personal loss in December 1884 with the passing of his wife Sarah. Burr was in the city on business at the time, and when news reached him by telegraph of the death of his wife he was unable to get down to Ladner due to ice in the river. Several days passed by. In a rather unsettling development, when it became possible  to transport Mrs Burr to the city for burial, "the peculiar condition of the body led to a hope that life might not yet be entirely extinct," and the funeral was postponed pending examination by a physician, who issued a death certificate. Mrs Sarah Burr was described as "a kind-hearted, good-natured, hospitable lady."

A lost property – The Arlington Hotel in flames

Another of  Burr’s properties  was the Arlington Hotel building in New Westminster, operated by proprietor Robert Campbell.

On January 15th,  1887 the Arlington caught fire, presenting "the most awful scene ever witnessed in the Royal City."

Persons rushing to the scene gazed in horror as  local building contractor Thomas McKay leapt from a third-floor veranda to his death, his body lying in flames on the sidewalk.

Rufus T Brown, a young man from Huntingdon, Quebec, also perished.

A third fatality was George Campbell of Sherbrooke, Quebec. Campbell was manager and a director of the upstart New Westminster Woolen Mills, of which James Punch of Brownsville was the major shareholder.

John J Owens was the hero of the day, rushing into the burning building and urging people to flee.

In the aftermath of the blaze,  the  local newspaper railed at the city government  for allowing hotels to be built without any means of escape.

A second marriage – loss of child

Later in the year, on  a trip back to the old country WH Burr remarried to Mary Elizabeth Pielow, known as Minnie. By now a grandparent, Burr was beginning a second family.

In 1891 these new parents suffered the loss of an infant daughter. The father was accused of   "hastening the death of his child."  Burr was charged with manslaughter, but the charges later were dropped.

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