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Life on the Fraser River

Photographs stand witness to the fact that the Fraser River courses through the history of New Westminster. The city's location on the Fraser has influenced the ebb and flow of its development.

The river played a major role in Colonel Moody's choice of this area, which he named "Queensborough", as the capital of the new colony. He felt the capital should be on the north side of the Fraser so there would be formidable natural barriers against invasion from the United States to the south. New Westminster's hillside location further increased its defenses.

New Westminster was easily accessible by large ships and was a short distance from Burrard Inlet, where goods could be received by sea. Over the years all manner of ships plied the Fraser, from sailing ships (some steam equipped), to paddle wheelers, tugboats, and freighters.

When the gold rush created a demand for mass transportation to the canyon mines of the Fraser Valley, steamboats fit the bill. New Westminster funnelled supplies upstream to the gold mines and later to workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway at Yale. One of the most famous steamboat captains was William Irving, whose house still stands in New Westminster. Using his steamboat "Onward" and later the "Reliance", Irving concentrated his business on runs between New Westminster and Yale.

People from the Fraser Valley needed a more efficient route to New Westminster in order to conduct business. Necessity being the mother of invention, in 1884 the "K de K", under the direction of Captain Grant, was the first ferry to go across the Fraser. The "K de K" was named in honour of Knevett de Knevett, a friend of Captain Grant. In 1889, the ferry "Surrey" replaced the "K de K". The "Surrey" could be seen leaving from Brownsville (part of Surrey), loaded with families, their wagons and produce, all bound for the New Westminster farmer's market. In 1904, the opening of the 1st Fraser River Bridge rendered the "Surrey" obsolete. Later would come the 1937 Pattullo Bridge.

The Fraser spawned industries. The fishing trade and salmon canneries flourished, lumber mills were located by the riverbanks for easy shipping, and shipbuilding thrived. Mercer Shipyards was an industry leader. During World War I, war vessels were built on Poplar Island for the Imperial Munitions Board.

Photographs of giant sturgeon caught in the river lead one to wonder where these once plentiful and magnificent creatures have gone. Terry Glavin in his book A Ghost in the Water includes a description of caught sturgeon which appeared in the Columbian newspaper of August 14, 1897: "Several very large ones have been caught in the Fraser, one over 1,800 lbs. being reported. The largest of which any authenticated record has been kept was one weighing 1,387 lbs."

The Fraser River Flood of 1948 dramatically underscored that the river destroys, as well as nurtures. The flood affected much of British Columbia. Alongside the army, Queensborough civilians conducted a heroic and successful dyke building effort, using one million sandbags to strengthen the levees.

The story of the Fraser flows on. New Westminster has undergone a major transformation over the years, from a primarily commercial/industrial centre, to a residential one. The waterfront development of Westminster Quay is a striking example of this rebirth.

The photographs presented here illustrate the strong bond between the Fraser River and the people who live by its banks.

- Wendy Turnbull



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Last modified July 2000 - Created July 2000

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