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The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths Makers Memories


by Ron Dowle


This is an extract from "The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories" by Ron Dowle, published by the Surrey Historical Society in 2008.


Semiahmoo Trail cover

Cover picture is Garry Watkins and son walking the Trail in 1977. The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories pulls back the curtain on a little–known piece of Surrey history. The Semiahmoo Trail was built 1873–74 and crossed Surrey from the Fraser River to the Canada–U.S. border. Author Ron Dowle has written a highly readable first–ever history of the Trail. The 68 page book includes previously unpublished material from pioneer writings, surveyor field books and historical plans and maps held archival collections in British Columbia and Whatcom County in Washington State. The book may be purchased from the Surrey Historical Society through John Bliss at:jhwb@shaw.ca or 778–294–1515


THE SEMIAHMOO TRAIL

The origins of the New Westminster to Semiahmoo Road have been obscured by a fog of mistaken beliefs and the story told by the few remaining papers is related here for the first time in its 135 year history. It was built as a Wagon Road and formerly ran across Surrey from the Fraser River to the US border, much as the King George Highway does today. Although the construction of the Road had already been given some consideration by the Provincial Government in Victoria it was correspondence from an unlikely source, which, in 1873, finally produced action. Information about the use made of the Road is sadly lacking and within 30 years of its construction, with the coming of the railways, it was falling into disuse.


The Semiahmoo Road was built in 1873–74 to link New Westminster with Semiahmoo; a settlement located at the 49th parallel in US territory where present day Blaine, Washington, now stands. The Road started on the south bank of the Fraser River from Brown's Landing, a wharf built by Ebenezer Brown, a prosperous wine and liquor merchant and a prominent New Westminster citizen. Today, at low tide the remains of wooden pilings can be seen in the Fraser River under the Skytrain Bridge, all that remain of Brown's once busy wharf. Browns' Landing developed into a thriving community which became known as Brownsville. Today it is known as South Westminster and the once respected name of Ebenezer Brown is little remembered.


Was there a pre–existing trail?

It is not clear when the romantic notion arose that the Semiahmoo Trail was originally an aboriginal trail to the Fraser River.... No references to the story have been found before the 1970s but it had certainly become a verbal legend by the late 1940s


Reasons behind the decision to build the Semiahmoo Trail

Pressures within British Columbia

On July 1st 1871 British Columbia entered Confederation with Canada as a Province. The agreement with British Columbia provided a very generous population estimate which was the basis for annual grants from the Federal Government. The Province was heavily indebted due to road construction during the Cariboo Gold Rush and other regional rushes. There was pent–up demand for many capital projects especially road construction to provide settlement access through many parts of the Province. One of the priority projects was a road from New Westminster to the border community of Semiahmoo (present Blaine, Washington). Courtesy of Jack Brown

Pressures outside of British Columbia

A letter from Mr Burns

The surprising event, which finally seems to have moved the Government to action, occurred on February 13, 1873 when the Mayor of New Westminster, James Cunningham, read out to the Municipal Council a letter from John E Burns, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Port Townsend in Washington Territory. Burns said that he was going to open a steam ship route for mail and goods from Port Townsend via various Gulf Islands to Whatcom and Semiahmoo. He expected that the service would commence within the next 90 days and asked the Mayor to open a road to Semiahmoo to facilitate trade and communication.


The Council appointed Councillors Ebenezer Brown, Charles G Major and R Dickinson as a three–man committee to consider Burns' proposal. They reported back favourably and the Mayor called a public meeting to ascertain the views of citizens. The well attended public meeting was held on March 1 and resolutions supporting the project were passed. A subscription list was opened and about $650 subscribed. Ebenezer Brown, the owner of the wharf at Browns Landing, headed the list with $200, a very handsome sum in those days.


No Government records concerning the decision to build the Semiahmoo Road have been found. An exception is an entry in the Executive Council minute book dated June 2, 1873 stating that $2,500 "over the vote for New Westminster" had been appropriated for the Semiahmoo Road. There is no record or copy of the Burns' letters in the BC Archives in Victoria or the New Westminster Museum and Archives though they are mentioned in the New Westminster Council minute book. There are also no copies in the Port Townsend Archives, Jefferson County, Washington. The texts are known only from their appearance in the Mainland Guardian.


The survey

On April 19 a brief item in the Mainland Guardian reported: "We are informed that George Turner, CE has instructions to proceed next week to lay out the line of the road". Sessional papers also record that George Turner on behalf of the Government and LF Bonson on behalf of the citizens of New Westminster located and surveyed the line of the Semiahmoo Road and that Bonson was subsequently appointed Superintendant of the District (presumably of Roads) at $100 per month and supervised the Semiahmoo Road contracts. They also record that Turner was paid $75 for the survey and $21 for the plan. The accounts of the Lands and Works Department state that he was out for 15 days and paid $5 per day.


Mapping the Road

The first map of the Semiahmoo Road, entitled "A Map of Part of the New Westminster District BC", was produced before much work had been done on the Road. It is held in the Victoria Office of the Land Title and Survey Authority. It shows the Semiahmoo Road labelled "Semiahmoo Waggon (sic) Road under Contract. Position approximate." The route of the Semiahmoo Road is clearly copied from the plan drawn for the construction of the Road; it shows all the imperfections of that plan. The probable date of the map is July or August 1873.


Map Section A–B

Original plan drawn by the surveyor George Turner


map of north sector B–C

Original plan drawn by the surveyor George Turner


Map Nicomekl to the Campbelll River

The first survey of South Surrey, 1874, showing the Semiahmoo Road route to the coast and the Campbell River


The List of contracts

List of contracts


Problems

When the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, Robert Beaven, signed the contracts for the construction of the Semiahmoo Road, it must have seemed a fairly modest project. More than 20 percent of the total cost of $5,537 had been contributed by the citizens of New Westminster. However, it was soon apparent that more work was needed on the Serpentine and Nicomekl bridges and on September 22, 1873, less than three months after signing the original contract, Beaven signed a new contract with John Kirkland for these bridges.


The bridges were not the only problem Beaven had to deal with. Section C–D of the Road, between the two rivers, an area appropriately known as Mud Bay Flats, had huge water problems and had to be rebuilt.


Map of Mud Bay Section C–D

Originall survey of South Surrey, 1874, showing the Semiahmoo Road crossing the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers.


The new contract for this section was signed with William J Brewer on May 14, 1874. It called for enormous drainage ditches on both sides of the Road. They were to be 20 feet apart, six feet across at the top, four feet deep and four feet across at the bottom. No traces of these ditches remain as they lie buried under King George Highway. The outsides of the roadway were to be walled with solid grass sod and the centre filling packed solid to receive the corduroy on top. The construction was in effect a causeway across the Mud Bay Flats.



Building the Road

The final cost of all contracts was $13,182 (road construction and bridges) to which must be added the cost of supervision and inspection and some items shown in the Sessional Papers but not included in the contracts, such as flood gates for the Serpentine River Bridge. The actual total must have been nearer $15,000 or about $280,000 in today's money.



Locating the Route across Surrey

In North Surrey parts of the original Road have been incorporated into Surrey's present road system. The first part of the Old Yale Road from the Fraser River at Brown's Landing follows the same route as the Semiahmoo Road. The two routes separate after about one and one–half miles. The original route is preserved in a pleasant suburban street, still called Semiahmoo Road, which runs as far as 99 Avenue. From there the Road is lost under highway and housing developments in Whalley and Newton and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Headquarters adjacent to Surrey City Hall. It re–emerges for a short distance as 144A Street and then disappears under the north lane of the King George Highway.



Reminiscences

Two reminiscences from members of the work crews who built the Semiahmoo Road have been found. One is from Lois Boblett (1844–1925) who, with her husband Ed, was the founder of the Boblett pioneer family in Blaine. She wrote:
"One year [1873] Ed and Charley, our boy, were going to Mud Bay, B.C., to work helping to build a corduroy road across the flats and the contractor wanted a cook so I hired out and went over to cook for the crew. There were twenty–five men and I cooked nearly all summer and got $45 a month. I felt quite rich when we got through and came home. We worked all that summer."


The other comes also from south of the 49th parallel and is from George McKinley: . . . "I was about fourteen years of age, and thinking I was pretty much a man, started knocking around for myself. My first job was with a crew slashing out a trail from Semiahmoo to New Westminster at $25 per month and board. That work took us all summer and fall, and since I had not yet learned to smoke or drink, I came back with ninety dollars in my pocket and feeling like a millionaire."


It seems that pay for the work crews was around one dollar per day with $1.50 for key workers line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.



Three routes through South Surrey and White Rock

At various times the Semiahmoo Road has followed three different routes through South Surrey and White Rock. The original 1873 route descended the bluff, somewhere near Maple Street, where the gradient is less severe. It carried on to the western end of the present Semiahmoo Park, and then along the coast to Semiahmoo (Blaine).


A second route was constructed ca 1907 when the Great Northern was building the railway along the coast through White Rock, using the Semiahmoo Road for the road bed. A new road, which became the present Beach Road, was built approximately parallel to the track and turned north to cross the Campbell River by a new bridge at the foot of Stayte Street. This bridge replaced the original bridge at the mouth of the Campbell River whose location was used by the railway. The present footbridge at the foot of Stayte Street was built for the visit of Pope John Paul in 1985; pilings from the older bridge can be seen beside it. Consequently the route of the Semiahmoo Road had to be changed. The new route to the foot of Stayte Street is shown on a 1910 map of Surrey.


The third route resulted from the construction of the Campbell River Lumber Company's Sawmill in 1913 which forced another change. The area of White Rock between Stayte Street and Maple Street was used for housing for sawmill workers and for storage buildings. The Semiahmoo Road again took second place and was relocated to join Stayte Street at its intersection with Buena Vista Avenue. This route is shown on the 1918 cadastral map of the SE 1/4 of Township 1 and also on a 1923 map of Surrey.


Three route through South Surrey

Modern map of South Surrey/White Rock showing the different routes taken by the Semiahmoo Road



Use and demise

The use and demise of the Semiahmoo Trail is another story. Little is known of the use of the Road during its 30 years of existence but maintenance in what was then often a waterlogged and soggy Surrey would not have been easy.


A stagecoach service did operate between New Westminster and Blaine in the 1880s and 1890s but it is not known exactly when the service commenced.


There is almost no information about the general use made of the Road. No contemporary photographs, letters or journals which describe travel along it have been found. One lady's reminiscence exists:


"...Once when a theatrical group arrived in New Westminster having evidently been told that they could get to Blaine, USA, by this route, they came to Elgin. Imagine their indignation when they were told that there was only a twice weekly stage. Its passengers were limited to eight or nine with the driver. All went well until they reached the Semiahmoo Trail south of Elgin. It had been raining and the corduroy was afloat, while the wet branches caressed their cheeks much to their annoyance. The horses were having difficulty finding their footing among the floating cordwood. The screams of the ladies broke the silence of the wilderness. It was a very tired group of players who presented themselves in Blaine thatnight...."


The account shows that as late as the 1890s the Semiahmoo Road was still the one lane, 12 feet wide, road constructed 20 years before.


Today it is hard to understand how a public road, in use for 30 years, and more in some parts, can have largely disappeared from view under housing and other developments without any formal decisions by Surrey Council and without any legal proceedings. What seems to have happened is that as the Road fell into disuse it simply became incorporated into neighbouring properties. The Council did not wish to be burdened with its maintenance and the narrow strip of land along which it ran was then of no value to anyone. The coming of the New Westminster Southern Railway in 1891, from New Westminster to Blaine, sealed the fate of the Semiahmoo Road and the Age of the Automobile completed the process.



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