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City Limits: A piece of Surrey in New Westminster

July 9, 2011

The strip of land

In 1888, in a most remarkable resolution,  Surrey Municipality ceded to the City of New Westminster a strip of land along the Fraser River at Brownsville which included the  landing wharf of the steam ferry K de K at the foot of the Yale Road. 

"this [Surrey] Council approves of the extension of the Limits of the City of New Westminster…believing that such extension will satisfactorily end the disputes heretofore existing between these municipalities with reference to the Ferry Licence held by them jointly… "

The strip of land ran from the east line of Lot 2 downriver to the west side of Lot 4, a length of just 30 chains (660 yards), and extended back from the river a distance of only 3 chains, or 66 yards.

Strip of Land Strip of Land
The strip of Surrey belonging to New Westminster, 1888-1927 The strip of land looking west down the Fraser River.


New Westminster and Surrey had been partners since 1883 in a Charter to run a ferry across the Fraser River.  Actual operation of the ferry, in accordance with a set schedule and scale of fares, was contracted out to Angus Grant, who built his own boat,  the K de K. While some disputes had arisen over the years,  none could be so serious as to provoke the drastic action of land transfer.

The rationale not stated in the joint resolutions was the necessity of New Westminster including within its boundaries the proposed railway terminus at Brownsville, with its connecting ferry link,  as a legal condition for the City investing in the venture.

Signing off on the resolution for Surrey were Brownsville’s own James Punch, Reeve of Surrey, and HT Thrift, Clerk of Municipal Council.

The resolutions as stated were a subterfuge to get the City out of a jam,  a fact acknowledged by parties on both sides in later years. 

Prompted to discuss the resolution four years later, in the summer of 1890–and only because he perceived New Westminster was reneging on the deal–HT Thrift carefully hinted at the real reason for the agreement.

"Westminster was in an apparently difficult position, certain propositions were made by the representatives of N.W., and accepted by the representatives of Surrey on the part of this Corporation, a bylaw was passed, also embodying the conditions of the contract within it.. ."

A Committee of the City of New Westminster looking into the agreement, stated the bald reality in a report, December 1890.

"The Committee find that the agreement was executed solely for the purpose of avoiding legal difficulties which then prevented the city from giving a bonus to the Southern Railway Company in which both municipalities were deeply interested."

The City of New Westminster had entered into a partnership with ex United States Senator Eugene Canfield to build and operate the New Westminster Southern Railway.  The railway would run from the shore opposite the City to the United States border.  The City proposed to pay a handsome bonus to Canfield even though the railway, without a bridge, would not terminate in the City of New Westminster. 

Eugene Canfield was a Senator from Illinois, but had been at Bellingham Bay in the 1870’s and returned there after retiring from politics to pursue development opportunities.

Also in 1888 and south of the border,  the Fairhaven and Southern Railroad was incorporated by Nelson Bennett, Canadian-born railway builder of Steven’s Pass fame, and a major developer of Tacoma and Fairhaven.   Bennett’s road would run from Fairhaven, WA to Blaine WA, meeting at the USA-Canada boundary the New Westminster line. 

The two had different styles of railway building. As Bennett was renowned for “straight railroading,” so Canfield favoured real estate dealing.

Canfield and Bennett were to meet once more in a dramatic showdown at New Westminster, before any train whistle ever echoed off the Brownsville Hill. 

With an international rail link on its doorstep, New Westminster saw itself becoming the junction point for traffic from the east via a shortline to the Canadian Pacific Railway, and from the south, via the ferry and the NWSR,  connecting to the FSR and the great US railroads.

There would follow many months of intrigue and bargaining in smoke-filled rooms before the railway agreement could be finalized.   A constant flow of railway magnates and builders with an interest in the connection filled the hotel rooms of the City on the Fraser. There were bigger fish to fry, with transcontinental routes and the fate of cities on Puget Sound hanging in the balance of negations for routes.  The Canadian Pacific Railway, warily eying the moves of the US railroads as cautiously as in a chess match,  would not stand idly on the sidelines, and was making plans to cut off a connection to Bellingham Bay via Mission and Sumas.

Surrey surrendered its property to New Westminster with some conditions, notably that the ferry would operate exclusively within the limits of this extension of the City of New Westminster, namely along the water frontage of Lot 2, Lot 3 and Lot 4, Group 2,  Brownsville.

New Westminster would also transfer its own affections from Canfield, who had laid down not a rail on the line, to Bennett who quickly pressed ahead with construction.

The strip of land remained a part of the City of New Westminster until in 1927, when, after persistent lobbying of the City and the Provincial government, Surrey regained the small section of its heritage on Fraser River. 

In recent years Surrey has developed a pretty park and viewpoint at Brownsville Bar, the prized fishing located at the eastern corner of this former part of New Westminster in Surrey.  The Brownsville rail line follows the approximate inland limit of the strip of ceded territory.

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