By ROB JOHNSON
By now you have likely heard that the Town of Ladysmith has been named Canada’s 2017 Great Street by the Canadian Institute of Planners in the 2017 Great Places in Canada Contest. This is an honour that any community would welcome. Historic First Avenue has shaped the character of Ladysmith. While we recognize the important role First Avenue plays, you may be unaware that it was part of the Island Highway up until the mid 1950s. Prior to 1902, the road between Nanaimo and Victoria was a wagon trail where Sixth Avenue is today.
The highway moved down to connect with First Avenue after James Dunsmuir’s plans for a new community included that it be located adjacent to his newly constructed coal shipping facility at Oyster Harbour. In 1900, Dunsmuir named his new town Ladysmith. Although his plans called for the commercial centre to be located in a town centre called the Market Square, it was First Avenue that would develop as the commercial core of the town. With the relining of the road between Nanaimo and Victoria along First Avenue, many building owners decided to relocate their businesses to capitalize on the traffic flow coming through town.
As the road improved, the public could more easily travel between Ladysmith and other locations on the Island without being restricted by the train schedule. Once the automobile became commonplace, the highway exploded with increased traffic running through Ladysmith. Soon there was a need to improve the dirt roads that ran through the Island. Ladysmith’s First Avenue was no exception. The road had to be leveled and spaces developed for parking cars, and the increased dirt and dust from traffic caused concern.
The City Council in 1925 were investigating the idea of paving or cementing traffic lanes along First Avenue, but nothing came of it. In 1927, the Town was arguing that 80 per cent of the traffic on First Avenue was not local traffic, but “island traffic,” and they wanted help to improve the street. In 1926, it was reported in the Chronicle that “it would be an amusing experiment to erect ‘toll’ gates — in the past, we (the City) have advocated that plowing up two blocks at each end of the Avenue to stop the Island Highway traffic, but a toll gate would do as well.” It goes on to read “anything to create a howl which would be sufficiently loud enough to reach the inner chambers of a government which decrees that never a solitary cent shall be sent by that august body upon First Avenue. … Furthermore, they decree the roads in the district shall not on any account be oiled, deviated or hard surfaced in any way.”
A paved First Avenue finally came into being in the early 1930s, and so did more traffic. It was easy to tell when the ferry came in at Nanaimo — about 30 minutes later you could see a sizable increase in the traffic on First Avenue, with the cars going down island. Although this large amount of traffic travelling along First Avenue was a benefit for many businesses, there were safety concerns for citizens of Ladysmith. The Provincial Government realized that they had to create a better Island Highway, to divert traffic from the downtown of many of the communities. In Ladysmith, that lead to moving the highway to its present site along the Esplanade in the mid 1950s. Once this was done, downtown was more of a people place even though it adversely affected many businesses.
Around 1965, after Kay Grouhel was elected Mayor, she and her Council started a public works project to beautify the downtown area. New sidewalks were installed, angle parking was laid and dogwood trees were planted along First Avenue and Dogwood Drive. Other Councils followed suit over the years. First Avenue started becoming the living room of the Community, with many street activities that could not have happened if it was still the Highway. In the 1970s, the economy of the town was depressed for a variety of reasons, one of them being a result of the relocation of the highway from First Avenue.
Then in the early 1980s, a group of businesses, and Council applied for grants to revitalize the downtown core. This lead to the revitalization of First Avenue in the downtown area. Building owners received grants that, along with their own money, improved the appearance of their buildings while agreeing to a special street improvement tax to help pay for the revitalization of the street. The Town spent money removing telephone and hydro poles and resurfaced and leveled the street. All this effort lead to the Town receiving the award for the Best Main Street for a community of under 10,000 in Canada in 1988.
Now that we had our street back and a downtown that had became truly the “living room“ of the community, the street became the centre of many activities, along with the start of “Festival of Lights” in 1987. Later, Mayor Rob Hutchins and his Council continued the revitalization process for the rest of First Avenue, from Buller Street north, when they secured grants to improve both the water and sewer lines in that area. The street has continued on its path to what we have today, a more people friendly street. As the jury, who bestowed the honour of naming First Avenue the Greatest Street in Canada said, “streetscape enhancements, heritage preservation, the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and the many unique and publicly accessible festivals and events held throughout the year, are key ingredients to First Avenue’s success as a Great Street.”