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Brownsville BC 1882 — Ice, high water and illuminations

April 23, 2011

Brownsville river crossing shocking calamity

The winter of early 1882 was one of the coldest in memory and the Fraser River once again froze over as far down as New Westminster, impassable to steamer traffic.  Once more the Upper Valley and the Interior were cut off from the coast.  Road travel was the only alternative, but at Brownsville the ice was broken and unreliable and crossing the river to the city extremely dangerous.

Fraser River frozen 1929

On February 1st, the Mainland Guardian reported "A Terrible Disaster."  The full report gives an picture of the harsh reality of life along the river.


"On Saturday afternoon last, [Jan 28, 1882] the greatest calamity ever known in this vicinity occurred, in which two respected citizens and two Indians lost their lives, by being caught in the ice while crossing from this city to Brownsville, the two former on their way to their respective homes at Sumass and Chilliwhack.
It appears that a number of residents of Sumass and Chilliwhack had been to this city as principals or witnesses in cases heard at the County Court on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday last, and they had decided, seeing no other way of reaching home, to cross the river to Brownsville and take the main road to their destinations.  Two boats or canoe loads had safely crossed, and Mr T Lewis, JP, of Sumass, and Mr Wm Gillanders, of Chilliwack, engaged a canoe to follow them.
They embarked some distance up the lower road, opposite to what appeared to be an open channel between the masses of ice.  They reached a little more than half way across the river, watched from both sides, when an agonizing cry was heard from the canoe;  one of the passengers was seen to spring on the ice,  which gave way with him;  the whole sank, and a minute afterwards the ice closed over the whole party, canoe and all, and they were seen no more.
It is impossible to picture the horror which seized on the spectators on both banks of the river; they ran to and fro in the vain hope that some of the unfortunate men might still come to the surface, but the. . . noise of the crashing ice was all that could be heard and its cold surface all that could be seen:  the masses of ice were so large and the current too swift to admit of escape.
The wife of one of the Indians was the first to see the danger, as she stood near the place whence her husband had steered his frail barque, and her cries and wailing were pitiful to hear, when the ice closed over the lost men.
Both Mr Lewis and Mr Gillanders are married and leave wives and children to mourn their sad and untimely death.
Mr Lewis is well known and respected by everyone in this district, and is deeply regretted.  He will be remembered by old Caribooites, having been in the mines for several years.  Mr Gillanders was an industrious and respected farmer at Chilliwhack, where a number of his relatives reside.
This dreadful accident has cast a gloom over our entire community."


Within a few days, the weather having moderated, the river was clear enough of ice for an attempt at recovering the bodies.  It is a tribute to the searcher’s skill and knowledge of the river currents that, with the aid of boats, lines and sturgeon hooks, the bodies of the two Indians and Mr William Gillanders of Chilliwack were recovered the first day, and that of Mr Thomas Lewis of Sumas (Abbotsford) the day after.

High water
The severe winter, combined with mild conditions and a heavy rainfall in the first week of June 1882, brought the Fraser River to its highest levels since the great flood year of 1876.   Sumas Prairie was inundated, and at Chilliwhack large portions of land were swept away by the current.

Ebenezer Brown, ever cognizant of the necessity of New Westminster continuing as a transportation hub for goods and people—as it had been since its formation—partnered with several other stockholders to form a railway that would connect the city with the national line to Burrard Inlet. The New Westminster and Port Moody Railway Co. was incorporated in April 1882.  A second line,  intended to connect the City with the United States was incorporated the following May, with Ebenezer Brown being the only stockholder common to both companies. The New Westminster Southern Railway would face stiff opposition in getting approval from the Parliament in Ottawa to establish a line that would draw business away from the Canadian Pacific Railway toward the United States.

Death of Robert Johnson

In July 1882 another prominent resident of Brownsville died.  Robert Johnson had been the proprietor of the Brownsville Hotel and the Brownsville Dairy Farm, and had served on the first Surrey council.  He was only 36 years of age.

"In the pursuit of his avocations he had exposed himself too much, during the time of the very high water, and paralysis of the brain supervened."

Annie Marie Johnson was a widow for the second time.  She would leave the business at Brownsville and take up a homestead down at Mud Bay.   Hired hand John Armstrong  would also be moving on, but would be ever linked to the family.  Armstrong had fallen in love with Elizabeth Annie, eldest daughter of Mrs Johnson.  They would be married the following year at Langley, by the Reverend Dunn, when young John Armstrong had risen from labourer to farmer, and his status elevated in  holding the office of “Reeve of Surrey.”


Elizabeth Annie Armstrong and John Armstrong - Surrey

John Armstrong and Eliza Annie Armstrong


New Era

After death of Robert Johnson,  the Brownsville  hotel lease from Ebenezer Brown was taken over by James Punch, a 39 year old native of Nova Scotia.  Punch had come out to British Columbia to work on telegraph construction for the Dominion government, including the new line from Brownsville to Ladner’s.

James Punch holds the honour,  along with neighbour Hannah Herring,  and John Armstrong, it seems, of having been counted twice in the 1881 Census of Canada.  Punch appeared in 1881 resident in Nova Scotia and present at Chilliwack/Sumas.  Hannah Herring and John Armstrong were counted in New Westminster City and at Brownsville.  Both had families on each side of the river.

A daughter, Mary Christina Punch was born at Brownsville in September 1883, shortly after James and Mary Punch took over the Hotel.

First Royal Visit  — Tsimlana’s treasured receipt

The new Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne, and his wife the Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, paid a much-anticipated visit to New Westminster at the end of September 1882.  The guns of the Seymour Artillery fired a Royal Salute and there was a reception of the kind only the Royal City could put on, with much public celebration.  Indian canoe races took place on the river.  The reporter from the Columbian describes the scene as the day drew to a close:

"In the evening there was a torch-light procession and an ‘illumination’ on the river.
The air was still. The water was smooth as glass, and on its surface glided gracefully a hundred canoes containing upwards of a thousand Indians, each bearing a lighted torch. There were a half a dozen steamers all ablaze with torches—suggestive of phantom ships on fire. On one of these was the Excelsior Brass Band; on another the bag-pipes, each sending forth its soul-stirring strains on the stillness of the night."


Torchlight Boat Festival on Fraser River opposite  New Westminster

Torchlight Boat Festival on Fraser River, New Westminster opposite Brownsville, Sketched by the Marquis of Lorne


It was an inspiring pageant, played out on the waters that early in the year had taken five men under the ice, and whose spring torrents had later swept away the livelihoods of many Valley farmers.

As was usual with all grand occasions in New Westminster, a gathering of Indians played a large role.  Present on the Saturday were 72 Chiefs, each of whom was presented to the His Excellency and the Princess, and among them was Tsimlana, the Muqueam Chief from the opposite shore of the Fraser.   The Columbian describes what happened.

"Zimlanoch, the old Chief, presented the Princess with a pair of blankets of Indian manufacture, made from the wool of the mountain sheep, and for which he asked Her Royal Highness to give him a receipt.  The Princess, with her usual good nature, retired for a moment and wrote the desired receipt, returning and handing it to the Chief, who carefully folded and pocketed the prized souvenir."

Twenty years before, the Reverend White had observed the diligence and skill of the women of Tsimlana’s household in weaving. Evidently this industry was still going strong.

Tsimlana’s request for a receipt puzzled more recent residents.  Such gestures were a holdover from earlier days, prior to the founding of the Colony.  Indians who performed a service for white men were often given papers of recommendation, which they prized very highly.  These would be kept intact for many years and brought out in order to show trustworthiness and indicate status. The notes could also serve another purpose, unknown to the bearer, warning of unreliability and treachery.

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