The Pen and Sapperton Days

Comments 7 by Rebecca Bollwitt

When I was little we would drive through New Westminster every Sunday and pass the big, intimidating and scary-looking Penitentiary. Its high walls up on the hill above Columbia street over looking the Fraser were dark grey and seemed to span for miles.

In 1878, the Government of Canada opened the British Columbia Penitentiary, the first federal penitentiary west of Manitoba. “BC Pen” or simply “the Pen” as it was known… It housed maximum security prisoners for the next 102 years, closing in 1980. [wiki]

I can’t remember the year the walls were torn down but all that is left today are the main gates and the centre building with a memorable blue roof.

The original centre block (reputedly haunted) of the Pen still stands and has been revamped into condominiums and a fancy restaurant, while the rest of the Pen’s grounds have been filled with newly-built townhouses and condominiums. [wiki]

I thought about The Pen recently when I visited with someone who lived in the condos on the hill, right atop the old grounds. Actually, when I got out of the car I snapped a picture as I had never been that close to the structure before. My mother has been to the Cafe many times and says it’s really lovely and the serving staff all wear little striped shirts to look like jailbirds.

The Pen

I also remember that The Keg Restaurants used to have an item on the menu called the “Billy Miner Pie”, maybe they still do, but my dad told me that Bill Miner was a prisoner who escaped from the B.C. Penitentiary and was responsible for the first train robbery in Canadian history.

The views from the hillside where gold rush convicts roamed are beautiful and if you are in the vicinity, can maneuver your way around all the cul-de-sacs and get over the heebie jeebies the entire place emits, then you should definitely try out The Pen Cafe and experience a bit of B.C. history up close.

On a side note, Sapperton Days are this weekend, another area of New West that is rich in history. John and I attended last year and that’s where I first met Fin *sigh*. More details about the weekend-long neighbourhood festival are available at

7 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. wynThursday, June 14th, 2007 — 12:54am PDT

    I have wondered and marveled at the density of the rows and rows of condos on that hill and the “castle” in the middle. In the very odd times I take the Skytrain around that edge of the route. Thanks for the enlightenment about it!

  2. GeneThursday, June 14th, 2007 — 12:50pm PDT

    Funny you should talk about this. When we were kids Dad drove us by the ‘Pen’ at the back of the institution. Sometimes you would see the inmates playing baseball with the gun towers around the field. Weird to think about that as reality when now you see the same thing in the movies.

  3. fotoeinsThursday, June 14th, 2007 — 7:28pm PDT

    Or forget us not Oakalla by Deer Lake?

  4. Miss604’s Vancouver Blog » Thursday Morning Link Fest: Island Girl EditionThursday, January 31st, 2008 — 7:50am PST

    […] about local history, here’s one about the old BC Penitentiary in New West – (here’s my take on it last year, including cute […]

  5. Tyler IngramThursday, January 31st, 2008 — 8:26am PST

    There is a pub in Maple Ridge along the river front that is called the Billy Miner pub 🙂

  6. Vancouver History: Tidbits and Park Notes » Vancouver Blog Miss 604Tuesday, May 6th, 2008 — 8:33am PDT

    […] a posse that captured notorious Bill Miner in 1906. Little did they know he would escape from the BC Penitentiary a year […]

  7. Leah AndersonMonday, May 24th, 2010 — 12:29am PDT

    it is convenient to live in a Condominium if you are in a big city but i like big lawns and backyard gardens.”*”

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