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Surrey’s finest hour

July 9, 2011

Two of the finest old buildings on Columbia Street in New Westminster owe their existence to the steam ferry Surrey.
During the great conflagration of  September 10,1898, when virtually the entire downtown was left a charred ruin, the two buildings were saved when Chief Carlisle of the Vancouver Fire Department, arriving ahead of his wagons and men,  seized an opportunity to limit the flames now touching the Burr Block and the adjoining Queen’s Hotel at the upper end of Columbia Street at 4th Street.

“Both were brick blocks and the Chief determined to cut the fire off at this point at all costs. Taking command of the firemen stationed there, he carried the hose to the top of the Burr Block, where three or four rooms were alight, and had just commenced to play on the flames when the water failed.
A messenger was at once sent off to Captain Card, of the river float Surrey, and he connected his pumps with the hose.  Chief Carlisle and his men again got to work and after a desperate fight, succeeded in cutting off the fire at the Burr Block, and so saved the Queen’s Hotel, the only residential hotel left standing in the city.”


New Westminster Fire of 1898 map of east limits

Queens Hotel 1887
Queen’s Hotel (1887)

New Westminster Fire of 1898, map of east limits —  Burr Block & Queen’s Hotel –

 New Westminster Archives map, annotated


Queens Hotel & Burr Block Sept 11, 1898 Queen's Hotel & Burr Block - New Westminster 2011
Queen’s Hotel & Burr Block – New Westminster Sept 11, 1898 Queen’s Hotel & Burr Block, New Westminster 2011


The boat that saved the day for the upper east end of the city was the river ferry Surrey, which led a rather unassuming existence, limited to transporting passengers and farm-wagons between the banks of South Westminster, Brownsville and New Westminster.

However, when the ferry was designed, in 1890, it was wisely decided to harness the power of its steam pumps to a turret water nozzle, capable of sending a cutting stream of water,   and on-board hydrants, capable of supplying high-pressure water to hoses.

The boat had been quickly rushed into action in 1891, even before going into regular service, and had twice put out hotel fires on the opposite side of the river, once saving South Westminster from being consumed, roadways and all.

The day had not started well for the Surrey, as that Saturday morning she had been unable to reach the wharf on the south side, owing to a sand-bar. Passengers and freight suffered the indignity of being towed over to the city on a scow.

The Surrey‘s time to shine would come later on, when the City was in greatest need. Two buildings still standing on Columbia Street  testify to her hour of glory.

The Surrey was modelled after the Stark Street Ferry in Portland, Oregon, with some local modifications to the design. She was a strong double-hulled catamaran with paddle wheel in the middle.


Ferry steamer Surrey fire boat
Steam ferry Surrey – fire boat


As well as being the only fire-boat in British Columbia, the Surrey functioned superbly as an ice-breaker.

Her crew were all trained as firefighters.

“Her powerful fire pumps, 18x19x12, are capable of throwing five large streams, besides the killing torrent from the monitor or turret nozzle.”

She was said to be able to blow the bricks off the top of buildings on Front Street.

“Moreover in the particular business for which she was designed she has been a success and an important source of civic revenue.”

At one stage this slow ferry made so much money it was suggested the fares should be lowered.

Some of the more famous master mariners of the Fraser had her command at one time or another, including M Terhune, WP Grant, R Purdy, W Rogers and J Card.


Ferry Steamer Surrey new After the fire of 1898, the ferry Surrey underwent a complete overall and refitting by the City of New Westminster.
Ferry Steamer Surrey after refit

Surrey continued to serve until the Fraser Bridge was opened in 1904, when she was decommissioned and put up for auction.  The Surrey left South Westminster on her last run to the City at 6:00 p.m., October 15, 1904.

The Surrey was purchased by North Vancouver for running across Burrard Inlet, but was found to be too slow on that route.  Taken out of service, she was beached at Lonsdale Gardens and ended her days there, on the North Shore, opposite the city of Vancouver.

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