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Brownsville School

May 28, 2011

Brownsville School Site, Old Yale Road,  Surrey BC

Where lies now  a vacant lot on the Old Yale Road at 128 Street in Surrey BC, once stood the Brownsville School, 1891. The view is much the same as it was in those days, with the Yale Road winding darkly down the hillside, and a glimpse of Fraser River through the trees. But when the picturesque St Helen’s Church opposite—itself now 100 years old—was opened, the school was near the end of its tenure, closing in 1913.


Prior to 1906 rural schools were established by settler petition to the Provincial government for funding and were administered by a School Board of three trustees elected by the local residents. The first such district in Surrey was created July 28, 1882 and was called Surrey School District.  Its boundaries included all of the municipality from 88 Ave south to the international boundary and from 120 St (boundary with Delta)  east to 192nd St (boundary with Langley). When Mud Bay School District was formed on May 23, 1883, the Surrey School District was renamed Clover Valley School District and its boundaries contracted. Next to be carved out of the larger district was Hall’s Prairie School District, on January 9, 1885.

The railway boom at Brownsville — Brownsville School Established

At Brownsville on the south bank of the Fraser River, residents sent their children to school in the city of New Westminster opposite and did not petition for a local school until 1891 when, with the coming of the railway and improved ferry service, new subdivisions were marketed with the name “South Westminster,”  new hotels were built,  and the population swelled.

In February 1891 the Brownsville Post Office opened in the new store of John Beaton and William Pike.  Beaton was the first Postmaster and doubled as a Constable in the service of the Municipality.

John George, Robert Crossman, John Falk and Phil H Smith, the proprietors of South Westminster’s new hotels, each submitted applications for liquor licences.

Commercial interest was matched on the home-front by the organization of Brownsville School District.  A meeting of householders was held May 6, 1891 at John George’s hotel to elect three trustees and locate a site for a school.  The boundary lines of the new district were delineated:

“Starting at a point on Lot 1, Block 5 [N R2W], which is on the Fraser between Liverpool and the Fraser River Hatcheries [Bon Accord], thence due south to the southeast corner of Lot 36 B5N R2W, thence in a direct line west to the Fraser River, thence up the river to the point of commencement.”

Brownsville School District 1891

Brownsville School District 1891

MA McRae, a New Westminster tailor who resided at South Westminster  a half mile from the landing, was chairman of the first meeting. Nominees for trustees included John Beaton, William Pike,  John Douglas, James E Murphy, Tillman Herring, John W Stein, and Anton Klamatin.  Douglas, Stein and Beaton were elected the first Trustees of Brownsville School District.

John Douglas was homesteading the property on the Yale Road at present King George Boulevard, locally known as the “Douglas Ranch.”  John Stein, Justice of the Peace,  had the farm at the base of the Brownsville hill on the Yale Road, and John Beaton was a storekeeper, Postmaster and Constable at Brownsville.  (Pike was a partner with Beaton in the store, JE Murphy logged and farmed on the flats at Scott Road, Tillman Herring, a pioneer settler, was a fisherman, as was Klamatin, also a settler.)

School site chosen – schoolhouse built

A second school board meeting May 20th was presided over by JW Stein. Mr Michael Barry of Punch’s Hotel was secretary. Barry was an old Cariboo hand, with a family history there,  now bartending and  managing the hotel at Brownsville for busy owner James Punch.   Offers for a lot for a school were submitted by Jos Stirsky, a New Westminster jeweller;  and AJ McColl,  developer, and William Manson, gentleman farmer, both of whom had large real estate interests in the area; John Stein; and Peter Orford.  The site offered by Orford was accepted.

A school, on the standard plan for rural schools, was constructed under contract by George H Cobb on a one-acre lot up the hill on the Yale Road at 128 Street, donated by Peter Orford.

The one-room schoolhouse measured 30 feet wide by 38 feet long, and was completed thus:

“enclosed with rustic siding, lathed, plastered and hard finished; wainscoted all round over mortar coat; double flooring with deadening between; two cloak and hat rooms, fitted with hooks, &c; two separate entrances, map pulleys, blackboards of matched and glued cedar, all round the school room; patent transom lifters, &c; painted in two-coat work throughout; also fenced lots and erected outbuildings.”

Country School of British Columbia

The  model country schoolhouse  in British Columbia

The school property of one acre was assessed at a value of $250 and the value of the buildings $1,500.  This valuation of the buildings as far exceeding the value of the land was normal for the region, and would continue for most of the life of the school.

The first school trustees at Brownsville were  John Douglas, rancher, as Secretary; John George, hotel keeper; and John Beaton, store keeper and Postmaster.

First teacher and first class

Brownsville School opened in January 1892 with its first teacher Martha S Miller.  There were 10 boys and 10 girls, with an average daily attendance of 11 pupils. Miss Miller left at the end of June 1892 and later taught at Serpentine School until the end of 1894.

Ellen ListerFor the school year starting September 1892, the district engaged Miss Ellen Lister.  Trustees elected were John Douglas as Secretary, Adolphus Ferguson and Anton Klavenas, both farmers. There were 18 pupils enrolled, of whom three made the Provincial Roll of Honour List.
For Deportment, Caroline Quible.  For Regularity and Punctuality, William Gairns. For Proficiency, Lilian Punch.

Caroline was the daughter of John Quible, who homesteaded along the present King George Boulevard, the rough route of which from Yale Road south to the Townline (96th Ave) was known as Quible Road. William Gairns was the son of George Gairns, employed by the Great Northern Railroad.  Lilian Punch was a daughter of James Punch, Hotelkeeper and sometime Reeve of Surrey and Member of the Provincial Parliament.

Ellen Lister left Brownsville School in March 1894.  She later became a fixture in Burnaby schools. The new teacher for the remainder of the spring term 1894 was Miss Maud S Keay. There were 24 enrolled during the year, but the attendance remained steady at about 10 each day. Students who made the Roll of Honour this year were Charles Espeland (Deportment), Mary Punch (Regularity and Punctuality) and Caroline Quible (Proficiency).

The Hans Espeland family also lived up the hill,  and as with most homesteaders,  relied on fishing and lumbering for cash income.

The same three students made the Honour Rolls in 1894-1895 and the enrolment remained constant.

The long term of FO Canfield

FO_Canfield Miss Keay left at the end of January 1896 and the new teacher was Mr. Francis Orra Canfield.The Honour students for the year were Sydney Gairns, William Gairns, and Harold E Smith.

Pupils honoured at the end of 1897 were Sydney Gairns, Andrew Gairns, and Thomas Saunders. There had been only 17 enrolled this school year.

Francis Orra Canfield

Brownsville School Trustees for 1895-1896 and 1896-1897 were John Douglas, Jno W Stein, and Nils Sandell. Sandell was a Swedish settler who took up a section of land at 96 Ave and 128 Street, also known as Sandell Road.

George Gairns replaced Stein as trustee during 1897-1898. FO Canfield taught 23 pupils at Brownsville School.

In 1898-1899 John Douglas and George Gairns were joined by a new trustee, given as John R Edwards, but more likely was Joseph Rush Edwards. FO Canfield continued as teacher.
Douglas, Gairns and Edwards remained as trustees for 1899-1900. There were 29 pupils enrolled.

Teacher FO Canfield Brownsville School

Brownsville School Class with teacher FO Canfield

For 1900-1901 the trustees were George Gairns, J R Edwards and Hans Espeland.  Enrolment was 24 under Francis Canfield.

Rural Schools were inspected once a year. Brownsville School was visited on Jan 23, 1899. With an enrolment of 24, only 7 girls and 4 boys were present.  The classes were found “good,” the buildings “good,” and the grounds “poor.”

On February 8, 1900 the inspector recorded only 11 pupils at Brownsville, “the small attendance caused by bad weather.”

On November 18, 1901 the Provincial inspector found at Brownsville School:   “manual work poorly executed; want of accuracy in arithmetic; very fair results in other subjects.”

If that sounds mediocre, the school at Hall’s Prairie received an even harsher assessment:
“. . .pupils do not know how to think; little or no mental growth or intellectual development.”

Middle years and further growth

Francis Canfield left Brownsville School in 1902 and was replaced by FO Siprell for the remainder of the term.  Trustees were JC Hartie, J R Edwards and H Espeland. The Harties lived on the far east side of the district near Bon Accord.

For the school year 1902-1903 teachers at Brownsville school were James Beath and Mrs Addie Beath.  Trustees were JC Hartie, H Espeland, and James Murphy.
Teacher James Beath gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Teachers’ Institute at New Westminster in January 1903, entitled “Primary Arithmetic.”

“Brownsville–Inspected November 27, 1902,; present 9 pupils.  Very satisfactory work in all subjects.”

The school population was 25, with 6 children under 6 years of age.

Brownsville School was classed in 1903 as a “common school,” not “graded.”
Sidney B Peele took over the teaching post at Brownsville for the school year 1903-1904.  SB Peele was a graduate of the New Westminster High School and his progress since had attracted the attention of the Columbian newspaper.

“Sidney B Peele, a youth of a scientific cast of mind yet with a good deal of literary acumen, became a senior matriculant of the University of Toronto. Mr Peele is at present teaching in South Westminster, but he intends to take a course in science at McGill University.”

The school was inspected on Feb 18, 1904, with 14 pupils present that day. The provincial inspector also took note of the youthful Mr Peele.

“The teacher is young and inexperienced, but thoughtful and resourceful. The subjects are fairly well taught. The teacher attempts to do too much.”

For the year 1904-1905 Brownsville School Trustees were George Troughton, James E Murphy,  and P Henderson.
Miss Lila Leamy took over from SB Peele in the second term.
From the annual report:

“Brownsville–Inspected February 9th, 1905; enrolled, 21; present, 19.  There is some good material in the senior class. In the lower classes, however, the reading is lacking in expression, the lessons are not understood, and the classes are weak in language.”

The bridge over the Fraser River was opened in 1904, bringing more families into the district to settle.

Fraser River Bridge to Brownsville

Fraser River Bridge to Brownsville

Lila Leamy was teacher at Brownsville for the school year 1905-1906, with an enrolment of 30.  Trustees were JE Murphy, Charles Hole and A Buck.  James Murphy had the dairy farm down on Scott Road.  Chas Hole was also a farmer.  Aage Buck settled near the Yale Road and present King George Blvd where he became the first Postmaster above Brownsville, at Timberland Post Office, and later Dominion Fire Ranger.

This was the last elected school board for Brownsville School District.

In the  new Surrey School District

JE Murphy In 1906 Surrey became a Rural Municipal School District with five trustees elected to administer all the schools in the municipality.
James E Murphy of Brownsville was elected the first Chairman of Surrey School District.

James Edward Murphy

Teaching at Brownsville School from 1906 was Miss Gertrude D Ankers.
Miss Ankers was a graduate of the New Westminster High School, taken note of by the Columbian newspaper in 1903.

“Gertrude Ankers, a young lady of studious habits, who passed in all subjects of junior matriculation of Dalhousie University except Latin and geometry, is now taking the first year work of Toronto University.”

Enrolment for 1906-1907 was 38:  21 boys and 17 girls.
For 1907-1908 the number of pupils had increased to 57.
The school building was valued at $950 this year, the furniture $150, and the land just $100, still very cheap for an acre of property.

By 1908-1909 the number of pupils enrolled was up to  74.

Bathing tragedy claims five young women of Brownsville School

During summer holidays, on July 14, 1909, a terrible drowning accident claimed the lives of teacher Gertrude Ankers and four Brownsville girls. They had gone picnicking and bathing at Aliceville, a beach at the north end of North Road, where it reaches Burrard Inlet near Port Moody.  Along the beach they were wading into the water hand in hand when, to the horror of onlookers,  first one, then all in the line collapsed into a drop-off.

Signe Buck and Alfhild Paulsen, Fraser CemeteryGertrude Ankers was from a Sapperton family. Her epitaph reads: “Death came upon her, like an untimely frost, upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”

James E Murphy of the Surrey Dairy on Scott Road lost two daughters, Annie Murphy,18, and May Murphy, 14 years of age.

Also lost was Signe Buck, 15, daughter of Aage Buck (the former Postmaster at Timberland and a former Trustee of the Brownsville School) and the youngest of the group Alfhild Paulsen, 11,  daughter of Mr and Mrs SO Paulsen, Timberland, also Postmaster.

The grief in the communities on both sides of the Fraser was enveloping and hundreds attended funeral services.

Latter years – community progress – school closing

Miss Ankers was succeeded at Brownsville by Miss A Perry in 1909-1910.

Teaching at Brownsville School in 1910-1911 was Richard E Sisson.

St Helen’s Anglican church was opened across the Old Yale Road from the school in 1911, and the entire student body attended the ceremonies.

Miss Ancilla Stewart taught at Brownsville in 1911-1912.

For the school year 1912-1913 enrolment had increased to the extent a second teacher was hired, with Ancilla Stewart teaching Division One and Miss Christine Crebbins teaching Division Two with a total of 54 pupils attending.  They were to be the last teachers at Brownsville School.

Port Mann real estate advertisment 1911Land values in 1913 finally caught up with the value of the school buildings, with both assessed as worth $1,000. The British Columbia Electric Railway was now running through the district and not far upriver, Port Mann was being touted as a new city. It was to be the final year of Brownsville School.

Closed down – new school

Brownsville School did not open its doors after the summer break in 1913, for the first time since 1892. A new school was opened on Hjorth Road hill in 1913, called South Westminster School. Built by Robinson Bros. the new two-room school cost $6,480.  Similar schools were built at Hall’s Prairie and White Rock.
First teachers at South Westminster for 1913-1914 were Miss BM Cook, Div. 1,  and Miss GE Banford, Div. 2.  Initial enrolment was 51 pupils.

Where it was

Brownsville School stood at the top of the hill opposite St Helen’s Anglican Church and was occupied until the 1970’s as a private residence. It is now a vacant lot.   At the time the school was built, and even later when St Helen’s Church was built, the tall trees had been logged off the hillside and the views were more spectacular.  A beacon at the top of the church tower was visible from far down the river.  Still you can see Pattullo Bridge and the Fraser River from the site of the old Brownsville Schoolhouse.

How to get there

St Helens morning The location of the vacant school site and picturesque St Helen’s Church opposite—celebrating its 100th year in 2011—is at the junction of Old Yale Road, 128 Street and 108 Avenue.
The #73 transit bus turns at this corner on a route between Gateway Station and Surrey Central Station.

St Helen’s Church

Hill trail to Brownsville School Site 128 Street Surrey On foot, if you are hardy and adventurous and like to get a sense of what it was like walking to the school, it is worthwhile to trek up the steep trail on the road allowance of 128th Street from the bottom of the hill. It is an isolated walk and caution is advised. The destination is 20 to 30 minutes walk from Scott Station
Footpath to Brownsville School site

From the school site  you can catch the #73, or continue to walk up Old Yale (angle behind the gas station)  past Kwantlen Park.   The City Centre is about half an hour from the Brownsville Schoolhouse site.

Naturally, this route in reverse, walking from Surrey Central past the church and schoolhouse lot and down the hill to Scott Station, is much easier.

There is no sidewalk on Old Yale Road hill below the Church and school lot.

Brownsville School location on BingMap

Brownsville School District –  Surrey BC

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