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When Eaton's Ruled Downtown Chilliwack

The phrase, “meet you in front of Eaton’s”, really meant something to Chilliwackians back in the day (and it still does to many). Starting in 1948, Eaton’s was Chilliwack’s urban anchor - the biggest retail establishment in the city, and the one that drew people (especially shoppers) downtown.

The iconic location of Eaton’s on Wellington Avenue that many recall so well was preceded by three other department store operations: G. R. Ashwell & Sons’ Department Store (1887-1923), Pride, Nash, and Co.,(1923-1926), and Spencer’s (1926-1948).

The G. R. Ashwell & Sons’ Department Store occupied the future Eaton’s site on Wellington Avenue from 1887 to 1923, when it was sold. This circa 1904 southeast-facing image captures the Ashwell store, rebuilt after an 1898 fire. At the time Ashwell’s Department Store was described as Canada’s largest rural department store. Note the signage at the top of the building’s façade denoting it as the “Ashwell Block”. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Museum and Archives Collection, Photo Number: 2008.020.0165)

Spencer’s occupied the future Eaton’s site on Wellington Avenue from 1926 to 1948, when it was purchased by Eaton’s. This circa 1946 Five Corners image, facing west along Wellington Avenue, captures Spencer’s Department Store on a busy shopping day in Chilliwack at a time when the combined City and Township population was approximately 15,000. (Image Credit: Facebook)

In 1951, after operating for three years in four adjacent, aging buildings on Wellington Avenue, Eaton’s took out a building permit for construction of a significantly larger and more modern home.

The structure would be built of reinforced concrete, with 172 feet of frontage on Wellington Avenue and a depth of 106 feet. Counting mezzanine space, the new store would comprise 42,000 square feet.

The new Eaton’s was built in two phases, thus allowing operations to continue as normal while construction was underway. Work was completed on April 24, 1952, marking the start of the golden age of shopping in downtown Chilliwack.

This 1951 southeast-facing image captures the Eaton’s operation on Wellington Avenue. At that time, the department store was based in four different adjacent and aging buildings, all evident in the photo. Soon after this shot was taken, construction commenced on the significantly larger and more modern Eaton’s home. The new department store was built in two phases, thus allowing operations to continue as normal while construction was underway. Phase One comprised the 100 feet east (to the left) of the dotted line indicated in the shot, followed by Phase Two that was completed April 24, 1952. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Progress Archives)

Many still recall that shopping downtown on a Friday night was relatively exciting for Chilliwackians, as the City’s core was alive with lights and sounds, Wellington Avenue was crowded, people were dressed up, and one would always run into someone they knew. And, invariably, the focus was Eaton’s.

This image, which ran in the Chilliwack Progress while construction progressed, presents an artist’s rendering of how the new Eaton’s building was expected to look when complete. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Progress Archives)

By the 1970s, the retail fabric of the Fraser Valley in general, and downtown Chilliwack in particular, was gradually changing - in Chilliwack’s case, for the worse. Privately, Eaton’s believed that Chilliwack was no longer a viable market and that its store was now considered “a poor design for modern department store merchandising”.

Thus, in shocking and inevitable news that would reverberate in the community for years to come, on November 4, 1976, Eaton’s announced it would be closing its Wellington Avenue store in Chilliwack effective January 22, 1977, resulting in the laying off or transferring of its 80 employees.

Two events were cited as the cause for the venerable chain’s demise in Chilliwack - the opening of the Cottonwood Corners shopping mall in 1974, and Seven Oaks Shopping Centre in Abbotsford in 1975.

The old Eaton’s store would remain vacant for the next four years until Chilliwack’s two existing bowling alleys, Park Lanes and Chilliwack Bowling Centre, decided to join forces and create one large recreational complex for the community called Chillibowl Lanes, which opened on September 4, 1981.

Today, Chillibowl Lanes, at 45916 Wellington Avenue, is still operating after 41 years as Chilliwack’s only downtown bowling alley, while its home, the once-dominant Eaton’s structure - now 70 years of age, is currently advertised for lease. This 2022 southwest-facing image captures the old Eaton’s building, and Wellington Avenue, in their current context. Note the “For Lease” sign on the façade of the structure. (Image Credit: Chilliwack History Perspectives Collection)

Eaton’s left an indelible mark on the community’s rich retail past. The store’s location, the broad range of goods it offered, the era in which it operated, and the smaller-town culture all combine to make it an unforgettable element of downtown Chilliwack’s storied history.


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