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Surrey's Virgin Landscape

Surrey's Uplands and River Valleys

The landscape that Jose Maria Narvaez and George Vancouver saw from the adjoining bays, and which John Work described in his journal was a relatively flat–topped upland bordered and dissected by wide, flat–bottomed valleys.

A contour map of Surrey

Image source: Surrey Story Revised Edition 1992 Part I p11

The Uplands

The northern uplandis the largest and reaches its highest points along the western border with Delta, and along the Fraser River to the north. The high elevations are a series of domes shaped areas that average 300 feet. The steepest escarpments are along the Fraser River to the north and the Serpentine River in the south. The drainage from the uplands is to the south east by the Serpentine River, Bear Creek and Mahood Creek. The head waters of these water ways cut and form a gently rolling landscape in the eastern portions of this upland.

The eastern upland is the smallest and reaches elevations in excess of 250 feet. It extends along the border with Langley. The sides slope gently from the Clayton Uplands down to the Serpentine and Nicomekl River Valleys on the north, west and south slopes.

The southern upland lies between the Valley of the Nicomekl and Serpentine on the north and Semiahmoo Bay, Campbell River Valley on the south. It is broad, and gently undulating rising to a flat–topped ridge.

Three dome–shaped areas occur along the crest of the upland and attain elevations of 325, 250, and 375 feet. The slopes of these areas and the whole upland exhibit marked terraces, there being three prominent terrace levels at elevations of 130, 290, and 310 feet. Less well developed terraces lie between and below these elevations. Many of these can, however, only be observed in small local areas. Large kettle–like depressions occur along the crest of the upland. These are normally not over 3 to 5 acres in extent.
Ground–Water Resources of Surrey. Geologic Survey of Canada.

The upland between the Campbell River and the International Boundary is a flat–topped terraced surface 125 to 250 feet above sea level, and consists of out wash gravel and sand.

Forest Cover

The three uplands areas were densely forested with Douglas Fir and other conifers, with cedars predominating in the highland swamps found along the crest along with occasional patches of alder, red cedar and other deciduous trees.

The Valleys

The northern lowlands along the Fraser River are subject to spring floods and deposition of silt and debris during the freshette. This limited agricultural settlement until dikes were built.

The interior of Surrey was sculptured and is drained by the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers, and the Campbell River to the south. Along most of their courses the rivers meander across the floor of flat to very gently undulating valleys from 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 miles wide. These valleys are former embayments of the sea. The main valleys of the Nicomekl and Serpentine vary in elevation from about 5 to 30 feet above sea-level. The valley of the lower Campbell is from about 25 feet to 75 feet above sea–level.

The three rivers meandering through the lowlands were affected by tides for most of their length. Where periodic flooding occurred, from combinations of high runoff and high tides, mainly treeless or lightly wooded areas occurred which are now referred to as Hall's Prairie, Kensington Prairie, and Langley Prairie.

These were more open areas, with scattered groves of spruce and hemlock, intermixed with cedar, alder and birch. Grassy areas, usually fairly swampy, were intermixed with heavy underbrush of hard hack, willow, crab-apple, and a variety of shrubs and reeds.
Ground–Water Resources of Surrey. Geologic Survey of Canada.

Colonel Moody's Generalized Map of Surrey 1859

In 1858, near the start of the British Columbia, Fraser River Gold Rush, the British Colonial Secretary Lytton, assigned Colonel Richard Clement Moody as the Lieutenant Governor of B.C. He was in charge of a detachment of Royal Engineers. Their charge was " be pioneers in the work of civilization, in opening up the resources of the country, by the construction of roads and bridges, in laying the foundations of a future city or seaport, and in carrying out the numerous engineering works which in the earlier stages of colonization are so essential to the welfare and progress of the community."

In his early reconnaissance of the Lower Fraser Valley in 1859, Moody hand sketched a map of the lower Fraser, the uplands of Surrey, and potential routes to the Fraser River. This was the World's first view of the general configuration of the interior of Surrey.

Col. Moody's sketch map 1859

Colonel Moody's sketch map showed the uplands of north and south Surrey, the general direction of the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers, the general direction of the Fort Langley Trail, and the location of the International Boundary. The uplands at the fork of the north and south arms of the Fraser River would be chosen as BC's Capital New Westminster. This location would control access up the Fraser River to the Gold Fields.

Next Page: Pre–settlement trails in Surrey

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