Kayaks on Bowen Island
(Picture BC photo)

Bowen Island

Culture & History

Today, Bowen Island has a well-deserved reputation as a quiet, rural refuge for artists, writers and others wishing to escape the hubbub of the big city.

But the history of this island, just 25km/16mi northwest of Vancouver, isn't devoid of colourful happenings.

Early Bowen Island History

For centuries, Bowen Island was used as a summer outpost by the native Squamish Nation, who hunted for deer and fished for salmon here. It received its current name in 1860 from a British naval surveyor, George Richards. He decided to honour Rear Admiral James Bowen, who helped win a major sea victory over the French in 1794.

Pioneer William Davies built cottages and planted an apple orchard in Snug Cove. By the 1890s, Bowen Island had become a holiday cottage destination, while logging and fishing had emerged as local industries.

Bowen Island in the 20th Century

The next phase of expansion began when Captain John Cates made Bowen Island a stopover for his Terminal Steamship Company circa 1900. Cates bought land in Snug Cove and Deep Bay, and his ship Britannia brought in visitors who stayed at the new hotel, in tents or cottages.

Meanwhile, from 1909 to 1913, the 344ha/850ac base of the Western Explosives Company manufactured dynamite on the west side of Bowen Island with Japanese, Chinese and European workers. It relocated to Victoria during World War I.

Union Steamship Company

By the time the Union Steamship Company took over from Cates in the 1920s, Bowen Island was nicknamed the "Happy Isle" as a magnet for tourists and holidaymakers. As many as 5,000 visitors would travel by boat to Bowen Island on summer weekends, taking moonlight cruises, dancing at BC's biggest dance pavilion, and enjoying horseback riding, canoeing, and lawn bowling.

The island also began to attract artists and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. The Lieben writers' colony included a cabin that would host great Canadian authors such as Earle Birney, Margaret Laurence, and Malcolm Lowry over the years.

Bowen Island Commuters

When the Union Steamship Company ceased operation in the late 1950s, it left behind the picturesque marina that still welcomes visitors to Snug Cove. Regular car-ferry service to Bowen Island was implemented in 1958, making it possible to live on Bowen and commute to Vancouver, a pattern that persists to this day. A sleepy, friendly vibe would overtake the island in the decades to come, with many locals averse to proposed big real estate developments.

Bowen Island Today

Bowen Island was incorporated as a municipality on December 4, 1999. In the new millennium, there are plenty of ways to experience Bowen Island's colourful culture and history. Check out the 10 restored heritage cottages in Davies Orchard, stroll around the Union Steamship Marina, or choose accommodations in one of Bowen Island's cozy heritage B&Bs. Village Square and Artisan Square, both located near Snug Cove, teem with shops selling locally produced arts and crafts.

Another worthwhile option is visiting the Bowen Island Museum. Founded in 1996, the museum offers historical photos and archives, plus rotating exhibits on topics like the defunct Western Dynamite Company and Christmas on Bowen Island. The adjacent Bertie Higgins Logger's Cottage was built in 1948. It gives a snapshot of a logger's life with old saws, a kerosene stove, and a deer's head mounted on the wall. Call ahead for museum hours.

The Bowen Island Historians, the Bowen Island Heritage Preservation Association, and the Bowen Island Arts Council are among the local societies that are happy to educate visitors about island history. Check their websites for further information.