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Generation Skipped — The Ankers Tragic Link

October 8, 2011

Since writing of the death of Brownsville schoolteacher Gertrude Ankers and four of her pupils in the drowning accident at Burrard Inlet in 1909, we have learned that when Miss Ankers was just a child her grandmother was found drowned in the Fraser River, with her grandfather missing and also presumed drowned.

From Wisconsin to British Columbia — Ankers family establishes at Sapperton

It was early 1890 when 39-year old John Ankers, arrived at New Westminster with his wife Martha, 29, and two young daughters, Jessie, 5, and Gertrude, 3 years of age. John Ankers was born in Denmark (Schleswig) and after emigrating to the United States worked in the construction of levees along the Missouri River. He had been living on his own since the age of sixteen. John Ankers was married to Martha, the American-born daughter of German immigrants (father believed to be Henry Trader)— in Wisconsin, in 1881.  First born daughter Jessie was born in Milwaukee in 1884 and her sister Gertrude Dolores was born March 6, 1887, also in Wisconsin.

On arrival in British Columbia, John Ankers straightaway found employment as a millwright at the new MacLaren – Ross lumber mill on Fraser River. The family resided in Sapperton above the river, “in Mr. McBride’s house.”


MacLaren & Ross Sawmill, Fraser River, 1891 “This mill, which has recently been put into working order, is one of the finest institutions of its kind on the Pacific Coast. Neither money, labor nor pains have been spared in fitting it up, and the consequence is its location, buildings and machinery are superb, huge and of the very best to be had.  When running, its capacity is over 200,000 feet per day, while between 300 to 400 men are employed at the mill and camps. “

MacLaren and Ross Sawmill,  Fraser River

Williams Directory, 1892

Grandparents missing — Ann Margaret Ankers found drowned in Fraser River

Soon after becoming established here, John Ankers’ parents came out from Shawano, Wisconsin to live with the family. John’s father was 80 years of age and in his dotage, while his mother was 67 and did not get along with her daughter-in-law. The parents were also said to be homesick for Danish speaking neighbours, and besides found the weather in these parts in the winter and spring of 1890 unexpectedly severe.  In January the Fraser River had frozen over at New Westminster.

On Wednesday April 9, 1890, the elderly Ankers went out and as suppertime passed, had not come home.

The Columbian newspaper of New Westminster, reported briefly on the missing old folks.

“Shortly after noon yesterday a young man named Ankers, a Dane or Swede, reported to Chief of Police Pearce that his father and mother had left their home at Sapperton on Wednesday evening and had not been heard of since.”

John and Martha Ankers had spent a sleepless night while John was out searching anxiously near and far for his parents—about Sapperton, up and down the river, and into the town.

Later the next day, according to the Inquest,

“Mrs Ann Margaret Ankers was found drowned and suffocated on the banks of the Fraser River a short distance from Ross and McLaren’s saw mill.”

George Steen, sawmill worker and a neighbor of the Ankers, had found the body washed up on shore about a quarter mile below the mill.

The death aroused considerable interest, not least because the elderly Ankers had been about town in the preceding days, telling shopkeepers Ewen and Eichoff among others, of their unhappy plight. The Daily News Advertiser ran a provocative headline on the disappearance—“Murder or Suicide?”

The elderly Mr Ankers was still missing when the inquest on his wife concluded. Looking through the effects of his mother and father, John and Martha Ankers discovered a hymnbook marked at a passage about death. Whether the elderly woman fell into the Fraser River by accident or intended suicide, it was impossible to say, and the Jurors at the inquest into the drowning of  Ann Margaret Ankers attached no blame.

Growing up in Sapperton

The McLaren & Ross mill ceased to operate after about a year and John Ankers found other employment.  He is said to have worked on the construction of the first water main from Port Coquitlam to New Westminster in 1895, and thereafter was pipeline inspector, hired on by the City waterworks department.

The family moved further down the road in Sapperton and eventually into the house at 219 East Columbia.


Ankers' House - Sapperton The house the Ankers family lived in  is now one of the oldest in New Westminster.

Ankers house at Sapperton, New Westminster (2011)


John Ankers was reported to be able to speak seven languages, and youngest daughter Gertrude Dolores Ankers, a graduate of New Westminster High School, was bright enough to be noticed 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.”

As noted in an earlier post, GD Ankers began teaching at Brownsville School in 1906.

The Aliceville calamity — Five together

It was during summer holidays, on July 14, 1909, that a terrible drowning accident claimed the lives of 22 year-old teacher Gertrude Ankers and four Brownsville girls. They had gone picnicking and bathing at Aliceville, a beach below Burnaby Mountain at the north end of North Road, where it reaches Burrard Inlet near Port Moody. It was a familiar locale for the Ankers girls, who grew up about four miles south at Sapperton.

Teacher Miss Ankers and the four pupils joined hands in a line along the beach and were wading into the water, side by side, when, to the horror of onlookers,  first one, then all in the line collapsed into a drop-off.

JE Murphy of South Westminster lost two daughters: Annie Murphy,18, and May Murphy, 14 years of age.
Also drowned were 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. (Timberland is now known as Surrey City Centre.)

Such a tragic outcome from an innocent summer outing stunned the communities of Sapperton, New Westminster and Brownsville.

The drowning took place almost due north of where Gertrude Ankers’ grandmother was discovered on another beach, on Fraser River, back in 1890 when Gertrude was four years old.

Lives after

Martha Ankers raised two daughters and a son at Sapperton and was active in social and charitable endeavours in her community. She died in June 1921. The Columbian reported that among those attending her funeral was Mayor Johnston of the city and members of council — “she was a woman of a quiet unassuming disposition and a kindly nature and her  passing deeply missed by a wide circle.”  Frank Plaskett, Rector of St Mary’s Sapperton conducted the service.

John Ankers rose in civic service to become the Superintendent of the Water Works for the City in 1915, where he remained employed until 1923.  He lived to the age of 81, passing away in 1932.


Ankers at rest - foreground - IOOF Cemetery - Sapperton
Ankers headstones - IOOF Cemetery - Sapperton

Gertrude Ankers headstone in the Oddfellows Cemetery, Sapperton (foreground above) lies above City Bank, Fraser River, not far from where her grandmother was found drowned. Parents John and Martha Ankers rest beside her, marked simply ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’


MacLaren & Ross - Sapperton - Aliceville Map shows location of Sapperton, the Ross and MacLaren saw  mill on Fraser River and Aliceville on Burrard Inlet.Clicking map will open BingMap website in new window.

Sapperton —  Maclaren – Ross Sawmill — Aliceville

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