After failing to strike it rich in the gold fields, “Navvy Jack” settled in Ambleside with Chief Kiepilano’s granddaughter and built what is now the Lower Mainland’s oldest continuously occupied house
You would never know unless someone told you.
There are no visible plaques or historical markers on this old house.
The outside finish, once pristinely white-washed with elaborate Victorian brackets, shows decades of wear.
But, although it’s difficult to tell, the Navvy Jack House is one of the North Shore’s most significant heritage houses, and has been owned by the District of West Vancouver since 1990.
Located at 1768 Argyle Ave. on the Seawall in Ambleside, it’s the oldest-known continuously occupied house in the Lower Mainland.
Pioneer John Thomas, known locally as “Navvy Jack,” built the house in 1868 after leaving Great Britain.
He originally planned to find fortune in the Cariboo gold fields, but instead ended up operating a ferry on Burrard Inlet and later established a gravel-hauling business on Capilano River.
It was then that he acquired 32 hectares of land along West Vancouver’s waterfront and, the following year, built the Navvy Jack House after marrying Rowia, the granddaughter of Chief Kiepilano.
In a black-and-white photo from the turn of the century (top left image), women wearing broad hats and cotton, floor-length dresses gather in front of the house to prepare for West Vancouver’s first church wedding.
Elizabeth Lawson, the daughter of the “Father of West Vancouver” John Lawson, is getting married on Dec. 31, 1914.
John Lawson bought the house, then standing proud with dark trim and turned-columns, at an auction after Navvy Jack fell on hard times in the early 1890s. Down on his luck, the house’s original owner returned to the gold fields and died shortly after.
Today the historical significance of the Navvy Jack House can be easy to miss.
Stucco replaces much of the wood trim, aluminum windows are installed and a glass-walled balcony is added to the steep roof line.
While many heritage homes on the North Shore are celebrated for their historical significance, proudly displaying plaques near the front steps, the Navvy Jack House’s significance is clearly understated.
The District of West Vancouver, which owns the house and is responsible for all upkeep, has put aside money in this year’s budget to replace the moss-covered roof.
But it isn’t clear how much the district has spent on maintaining the house since it was acquired in 1990.
When asked by The Outlook, the district said it owns several houses on Argyle Avenue and doesn’t keep separate records of expenses for repairs and maintenance.
The district further explained: Much of the work is done by municipal staff but time isn’t recorded for each project separately and, when an outside service is called in, the payment is recorded against general facility repair.
But still, a bit worse for the wear, the Navvy Jack House has thankfully managed to remain standing for nearly 130 years through extensive redevelopment of the waterfront.
With priceless oceanfront views, the house has been in the caring hands of Lloyd Williams, who has lived there for 46 years, including after the district bought the property in 1990.
Williams, who is in his 90s and has a lifetime-tenancy agreement with the district, would like to see the house kept standing after he no longer lives there.
“When we bought the house, my wife saw an old clipping of it and wanted to retain as much as possible,” Williams told The Outlook over the phone.
“Now that she has passed away, I’ve been thinking more about what should be done with the house.”
With some additions and upgrades, such as electrical and plumbing, the inside is in great shape and still has its historical charm, says Williams, whose parents used to take him for picnics on the property when he was young.
Concerned about the rapid changes happening in Ambleside, he wrote a letter to council last year asking them to think carefully about their next steps.
“The house has a lot of character, is recognized by the District for its heritage value and I would hope it would be retained in some way, other than an eatery of some kind.”
One option is transforming the Navvy Jack House into a nature centre, which would include the West Vancouver Streamkeeper Society and other stewardship groups.
A report on this possibility will likely go before council this year and Mayor Michael Smith has already shown his support, emphasizing the new use would help revitalize Ambleside.
“What could possibly be more exciting on the waterfront than a nature centre?” he asked council after reading Williams’ letter and hearing a presentation from the West Van Streamkeepers.
“The public spent a lot of money buying that land and what’s [on the Ambleside waterfront] now is far from ideal in my mind. We have some good art facilities, we have some Victory gardens and some crab grass patches, and that’s basically it.”
Rowia, granddaughter of Chief Kiepilano
Navvy Jack Thomas, a heavy-built man with dark curly hair and a moustache, settled in Ambleside after he finished operating an unscheduled ferry service on Burrard Inlet for workers of Pioneer Sawmill in Lower Lonsdale’s Moodyville neighbourhood. During the early 1860s, the bustling mill sent lumber to Australia, the earliest export of lumber from Burrard Inlet to a foreign port.
But Navvy Jack’s ferry service was short lived.
In 1867, Capt. VanBramer arrived with his small steamer, Sea Foam, to begin a scheduled service.
Always resourceful, Navvy Jack began hauling clean river-washed gravel from the mouth of Capilano River to towns developing around the inlet.
He soon settled down with his wife Rowia and had their first child, Christine Thelka Thomas. She passed away in 1960 at the home of Chief Dan George at the age of 84. Although the record isn’t clear, the couple is thought to have three daughters and two sons.
When Navvy Jack died suddenly while on an ill-fated gold discovery mission in Barkerville, his family moved onto the Squamish Nation Reserve with their relatives and the house was sold at auction.
It’s this First Nation’s history that Carolanne Reynolds, chair of Heritage West Vancouver, would like to keep alive.
“This history should be incorporated some way, it’s a very important part of the house and should be honoured,” she tells The Outlook, adding she is “overjoyed to see that the interior can be easily restored to its original type.”
In total, Navvy Jack and his wife have 10 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren — and counting.
Ensuring the iconic house survives the next century will be the work of the District of West Vancouver and heritage groups on the North Shore.
Peter Miller, president of the North Shore Heritage Preservation Society, said while there is a financial cost to maintain heritage homes, it’s vital to preserve them to protect our connection with the past.
“When we find an old photograph, map or painting… we can sometimes recognize the building in it because it is still there today. But as soon as you destroy that building you remove the connection to the past and it makes the photograph, painting or map meaningless,” he explains.
“All the memories that go with it are taken away.”
This is why the weathered Navvy Jack House, even with significant maintenance and repairs in order, is hailed as one of the Lower Mainland’s most remarkable heritage houses.
- With historical information from the West Vancouver Historical Society and West Vancouver Archives.