The story of John “Navvy Jack” Thomas
John Thomas was born in Wales near Cardiff. He came from a very well-off family, but when he was 18 years old he had a quarrel with his mother and he left for North America by hitching a ride on a British Navy vessel. He jumped ship when he arrived in Burrard Inlet. The association with the Navy gave him the nickname Navvy Jack.
Records show Jack involved in the Cariboo Gold Rush in the early 1860s as a freighter. He was about 30 years old when he was one of a group of five men who packed a piano on their backs from Quesnel to Barkerville. The piano had been shipped from France, up the Fraser River to Hope by sternwheeler, to Quesnel by wagon, and carried on the backs of men the rest of the way to Mary Nathan’s saloon. The piano is still in Barkerville.
West Vancouver businessman
Navvy Jack arrived in West Vancouver around 1866. He ran an on-demand ferry service with a 30-foot sloop, running passengers and freight between Moodyville, Hastings and New Brighton. If there were only one or two passengers he would use a rowboat. His ferry service was displaced by a small steamer, which ran a regularly scheduled service and connected to the new daily stagecoach over Douglas Road.
In 1867 he began hauling gravel from the mouth of the Capilano River to construction sites around the inlet. The sand and gravel mix he delivered is a major component in mixing concrete and is still called “Navvy Jack” in Vancouver’s building trade. He ran his gravel business from an office on the Vancouver waterfront and kept his sloop in Swy-Wee Lagoon. The lagoon was later known as Ambleside slough; in later years it was filled in to create the beach, but today’s duck pond is a remnant of the original slough.
Navvy Jack House
In 1872 John Thomas acquired the property where he would build his house in 1873. The property stretched from today’s Navvy Jack Point to 16th Street, from the waterfront inland to Haywood Avenue.
Reports indicate Navvy Jack’s house was complete when Albert Finney arrived in May 1874 to lay the foundation for the Point Atkinson Lighthouse. The house was described as a “neat white house, almost elegant for its time”. It was built with clear old-growth fir and cedar. The exterior was finished with a distinctive moulded cedar siding and the full-width porch across the front had lathe-turned posts with Victorian gingerbread ornamentation on the arches.
The house was the first permanent colonial residence in West Vancouver. Later, it would house the first post office, the first church service, and in it was conducted the first marriage ceremony.
Marriage and family
In the early 1870s Thomas married Row-i-a, granddaughter of old Chief Ki-ep-i-lano. They met when Row-i-a’s family was visiting from Musqueum Nation. Jack and Row-i-a had four children: Emma (1876), Christine (1878), Mary (1883) and Sampson (1888).
Navvy Jack’s children were educated by a governess. Their mother Row-i-a died in 1888 and the governess took over their care.
All of the Thomas children married and had children; Navvy Jack is an ancestor of many, many families in the Squamish, Musqueum and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
In 1891 the District of North Vancouver was created, and the municipality included the entire North Shore. The economic boom ended in 1892, followed by a financial crisis in 1893. 1893 also saw the first private subdivision when Navvy Jack sold the westerly 100 acres of his property to Edward Mahon, and another 20 acres to William Rhys-Jones. He kept 40 acres.
Word came that there was wealth to be had in the Cariboo goldmines, and at some point in the 1890s he travelled to Barkerville. He never came back to West Vancouver.
John Thomas died in Barkerville in 1897, likely of pneumonia. His gravestone still stands today.
The children’s governess took them to their mother’s family and the house appears to have gone to auction for unpaid taxes.
It was purchased by John Lawson in 1906.
Source: Family records of Evelyn May Findlay Lamont, great, great granddaughter of John Thomas, through his daughter Mary’s line. Summarized by the District of West Vancouver 2019, with permission of Evelyn May Findlay Lamont.
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