Chinese history museum amongst buildings destroyed by Lytton wildfire

Jul 3 2021, 3:10 am

The devastating wildfire that quickly swept through the BC interior village of Lytton on Wednesday also wiped out the Lytton Chinese History Museum, just over four years after it opened.

The museum took to their social media late Friday evening, stating that the museum building had “totally burned” down in the fire. Its vast physical collection of artifacts documenting early Chinese Canadians in BC has been destroyed.

All that remains of the museum are the building’s rock walls.

“We have been in contact with the Executive Director of the Lytton Chinese History Museum and can sadly confirm that the museum and its collections have been destroyed,” states a bulletin by BC Museum Association (BCMA).

Lorna Fandrich, whose family owns and operates the museum, also shared that her family lost their house located next to the museum.

lytton chinese history museum

Exterior of the destroyed Lytton Chinese History Museum and the foundations of the owner’s house. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

According to the museum’s website, the family acquired the vacant parcel of land at 145 Main Street in 1980. After the acquisition, they learned the site previously had a Chinese Joss House — a temple structure — built for the influx of thousands of Chinese people, many of whom were labourers in dangerous conditions building the railway in BC the 1880s.

The original building on the site served as a guest house, community meeting space, and a place of religion for early Chinese Canadians. This building, known as the Lytton Joss House, was constructed in 1881 and demolished in 1928, when a neighbouring property owner acquired the site.

Knowing the history of their property, the family envisioned turning the location into a place that would “honour and recognize the culture, sacrifices, and contributions of Chinese who came to Canada to mine for gold, work on the railroads, and become merchants.

lytton chinese history museum

Exterior of the Lytton Chinese History Museum before the wildfire. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

Fandrich began the museum project in 2014, the site was granted official heritage status in 2016 under Heritage BC’s Chinese Historic Places Recognition Project, and the simple, single-storey museum opened in May 2017 after a year-long construction process.

Over its short-lived physical history, the museum acquired a local privately-owned collection of 180 artifacts of the railway construction through the Fraser Canyon and the gold rush in BC, as well as the culture and practices of the Chinese workers, and the discrimination and hardships they faced.

For a wider reach beyond its physical location, a digital archive of over 1,600 items and photos was made available through the museum’s website. This is now all that remains of the museum’s work.

Less than two months ago, in early May, the Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian Historical Society awarded the museum with the 2021 Drs. Wallace B. & Madeline H. Chung Prize for Chinese Canadian Community Archiving.

Last year, the provincial government announced $10 million in funding towards the establishment of a Chinese Canadian museum with a main physical collection in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and hub-and-spoke model of satellite locations at points of historic interest, potentially including Lytton.

lytton chinese history museum

Sample artifacts at the Lytton Chinese History Museum. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

lytton chinese history museum

Sample artifacts at the Lytton Chinese History Museum. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

Not including the thousands of people living in the surrounding area’s First Nations’ communities, the village of Lytton had a population of about 250 people prior to the wildfire.

Lytton is at the confluence of the Fraser River and Thompson River, which made it an important location for First Nations people for food gathering and for explorers finding their way to the Pacific Ocean. Both the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways follow the river-carved valleys, and intersect at the village.

The community is roughly a three-hour drive from Vancouver on the Trans-Canada Highway, and the southern end of Highway 12 to Lillooet on Highway 99, about one hour north. Traffic through Lytton on Highway 1 declined after the Coquihalla Highway was completed in the 1980s, which shifted the interior’s transportation hub to Merritt.

At least two people died in this week’s wildfire, and an estimated 90% of the village has been destroyed. The devastation has displaced hundreds of people from their homes.

It is not immediately clear whether the Lytton Museum and Archives (LMA), located about three blocks away from Chinese museum, was also damaged. BCMA has also indicated it has yet to make contact with anyone at the LMA, “but given the extent of the damage to the community, there is a strong possibility that this building was also destroyed.”

lytton chinese history museum

Inside the Lytton Chinese History Museum. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

As of the time of writing, the wildfire that began on Wednesday and wiped out most of Lytton has exponentially grown to 6,400 hectares, according to BC Wildfire Service. That is roughly equivalent to the size of 16 Stanley Parks put together.

The wildfire broke out after Lytton repeatedly broke temperature records for three consecutive days, peaking with a new Canadian record of 49.6°C on Tuesday. This is also the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth on a latitude of 50° north.

With tinder dry conditions and lightning from heat-induced thunderstorms, the fire risk in BC is now extreme.

As of Friday evening, BC Wildfire Service’s online dashboard indicates there are 177 active wildfires across the province, with 76 discovered just over the past two days. This year to date, there have been a total of 611 wildfires, including 245 discovered over the past seven days.

lytton chinese history museum

Exterior of the Lytton Chinese History Museum before the wildfire. (Lytton Chinese History Museum)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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