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"Almost Perfect" – Paving the Pacific Highway, 1919 – 1920

December 14, 2011

The First Concrete Road on the Mainland of British Columbia

On July 3, 1919 JH King, Minister of Public Works, called for tenders to grade and pave the Pacific Highway for a distance of  3.27 miles (17,300 feet) from New Westminster Bridge to the South Port Mann Post Office, at the Yale Road junction.

This limited proposal was the first unit of a plan to pave the highway to the United States border. The contract was won by HP Peterson Construction Company. The following year a second unit of two and a half miles was contracted out to the MP Cotton Company. This would take the pavement from South Port Mann through the Green Timbers to the Johnston Road. From the Westminster Bridge, the first concrete-paved highway on  the mainland of British Columbia would stretch almost six miles.

Pacific Highway Road Sign

The Pacific Highway Road Sign at Johnston Road

Pacific Highway paving map

Pacific Highway Concrete Pavement 1920   –   on 2011 map

Pacific Highway Paving Unit 1 – The HP Peterson Construction Company

Hans Peter Peterson, 44,  was a German-born immigrant  who had worked previously on the construction of the power tunnel connecting Coquitlam Lake and Buntzen Lake.  His construction company, and a second Peterson concern, the Liverpool Canning Company, were headquartered in the Birks Building, at Granville and Georgia, downtown Vancouver.

With the contract being let so late in the season, it was August 7, 1920 before work could begin. Starting roadwork on the Brownsville flats, with autumn rains not far off, is the public works equivalent of a military march on Moscow with winter on the way. The road from the bridge crossed a peat bog, notorious for swallowing up any kind of road surface and subject to inundation by torrents of water pouring down from the uplands which, when coupled with high tide in the Fraser River, could quickly turn the flats into a lake.

Specifications called for the highway to be paved with concrete, 18 feet wide with a thickness of 7 1/2 inches at the center, to 6 inches at the edge.  On the sides of the road would be a gravel shoulder 4 feet wide, and outside that a ditch more than 6 feet deep.

On the hillside, which would be freshly graded, a concrete trough would carry off water on the upper side of the road, feeding into catch basins and emptying into the ditches below.

While improvements were made on the Pacific Highway, all traffic was diverted via the old route from the Bridge Road to the Old Yale Road.

Detour Routes during Pacific Highway Paving 1919 - 1920

Detour routes during Pacific Highway paving 1919 – 1920

Peterson had hoped to have the job completed by the end of October, but when that month passed, he set his sights on the first week of December. By the middle of November adverse weather conditions had set back the work to a degree that no concrete could be laid before next spring.

The annual report of the Minister of Public Works summarized work on the road project.

“The most important piece of work undertaken by the Department in this district was that in connection with hard-surfacing the Trans-Provincial Highway from New Westminster to South Port Mann Post-office, a distance of 3.27 miles.  At the close of 1919 the rough grading was practically completed.”

The reported noted the re-discovery of interesting geological strata across the northern Brownsville slope.

“The cutting from Station 56-76 exposed interesting materials, ranging from fine sand to coarse gravel; in one section the gravel overlaid a blue silty material of fine grain containing shells (possibly from the sea); none of this material was used in embankments directly under the pavement.”

News from 1892
“New Westminster, April 20.—On the hill at South Westminster, on Sunday, a large stone was broken by some boys, when it was found to be a mass of petrified mussels. Some splendid specimens were carried away, and a piece will be sent to the museum of a large provincial city in England.” British Colonist April 21, 1892

And they came across bog.

“As muskeg was encountered for a distance of approximately 600 feet, the peat was excavated for a depth of 3 feet and 22 feet wide; a heavy mattress was spread on the bottom of the excavation, upon which was laid cedar puncheon 6 inches thick and 20 feet long. The whole excavation was back-filled with selected material. The excavation was well-drained into side-ditches.”

Pacific Highway Paving – Unit 2 – The MP Cotton Company

In late spring of 1920, the contract for paving the second unit of the Pacific Highway was let to the Miles P Cotton Co.  This took up from the South Port Mann Post Office, the end of Peterson’s section, through the Green Timbers to the Johnston Road, about 2.5 miles.


Miles P Cotton Miles Penner Cotton was born in 1878.  A Civil Engineer, he spent 10 years with the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He had also been  supervisor of construction for the Victoria Vancouver and Eastern Railway.  The MP Cotton Company was  formed in 1909 and had extensive experience with concrete work locally: they paved the CPR freightyard  and built the North Vancouver Ferry wharf and the Little Mountain Reservoir.

M P Cotton

Illus. from British Columbians as We See ‘Em

On the second unit, slabs of concrete, 30 feet in length, could be laid at a rate of 10 a day. At the end of each day the last slab was marked with the MP Cotton Company stamp and the tally for the day.  Work progressed well under summer conditions and by July 23, 1400 feet of concrete had been laid by the Cotton Company on the second unit contract.

As late as July 1920, HP Peterson had laid no concrete on the first section of the Pacific Highway.  The engineers of the Public Works Department were well aware of the difficulties encountered in constructing this section of road and the Minister was patient.

Much of the workforce on Peterson’s contract was day-labour from employment bureaus and many men would leave after just one or two days on the job, unable to handle the mosquito pests and the difficult conditions.  About 50 men worked an eight-hour shift, with two shifts running each day. No doubt there was some political element to this kind of employment. Soldiers returning from active service in the First World War were facing challenges re-integrating into society.

Concrete Pavers at Work on the Pacific Highway – 1920

 Paving Pacific Highway 1920 - Peterson Hill

HP Peterson crew laying concrete on “Peterson Hill” 1920    Dep’t  of Public Works

“To see the gang at work is an education . . .
The mixer mixes the mass—some mixer it is, too–the concrete retainer runs along the conveyor to the identical spot where it is required, a brawny muscled giant pulls a lever, and down floods the concrete. It is smoothed and positioned by men with shovels, pounded by a sort of huge tamper worked by two men with plough handles at each end, finishing men smooth the surface with big cement workers’ trowels—and the concrete road grows under the eyes of the onlooker. A fascinating occupation, this up-to-date road making . . .”   
Report on the paving of the Pacific Highway through Green Timbers by the MP Cotton Co. of Vancouver in 1920. – British Columbian

Concrete Paving - Granville & Robson - Vancouver Concrete Paving -  Robson & Granville

Set in Concrete – Robson & Granville

Concrete paving at Robson and Granville St in 2010

Still up to date. Concrete paving operations do not appear to have changed much over 100 years.

As Peterson’s anniversary date came and went, it began to appear possible that once again no concrete would be laid before winter set in.

In late September 1920, the Ministry stepped in to relieve Peterson of the last 3/5 of a mile of his unit, from the corner of Hjorth Road (104 Ave) to the Post Office.

Peterson and the government crews both had to contend with a peat bog at the corner of Hjorth Road and the Pacific Highway.

Gravel and other material for the work was trucked in via Old Yale Road from Brownsville wharf or by a steep side road from local sites.

Federal 2.5 ton truck at gravel bunker  - BC Dept of Public Works -  1920

Federal 2 1/2 ton truck at gravel bunker  –  British Columbia Department of Public Works

By late October 1920, Peterson had completed paving to the Port Mann road (Grosvenor Road) and it was open to traffic. The short section past Hjorth Road (104 Ave) taken over by the government was still incomplete.

Cotton too had run into trouble after making rapid progress earlier in the season.  Heavy September rains turned the Green Timber ground into oozing mud with the result that equipment could not be moved.  A plank road was under construction to provide access to the work site.

Paving Pacific Highway 1920 - south of Fraser River Bridge

Paving the Pacific Highway – HP Peterson contract east of Westminster Bridge, 1920


Punting Peterson – The Election Campaign of 1920

In the fall of 1920 coverage of the progress of paving the Pacific Highway became skewed with a Provincial Election in the offing.  The British Columbian newspaper, staunch supporter of the Conservatives, took every opportunity to rake the Liberal Government of John Oliver for the delay in re-opening the highway. The newspaper ran a cheeky daily reminder–on the front page–counting out the days the since the highway was closed for construction by HP Peterson & Co. On October 26—“This is the 460th day”–a lead story reported on a “Highway Paving Bungle” and revealed that Peterson was being allowed a bonus on his contract, owing to the difficulties encountered on his section.

“Prepare for attack on ‘Green Timber'”
Even as paving progressed, the ominous threat of the destruction of the Green Timbers loomed large. The Columbian reported that rails were imbedded in the new concrete east of the Post Office, in preparation for a logging railway crossing by the King-Farris lumber company.

HP Peterson completed paving his stretch of the Pacific Highway from the Westminster Bridge to the Hjorth Road on November 10, 1920. However, the short 3/5 mile section to the south, taken over by the Public Works department, was still not finished.

Paving Pacific Highway 1920 - past the bog

Paving Pacific Highway — past the bog — 1920      BC Dep’t of Public Works

The last batch of concrete on the first two sections of the Pacific Highway was poured on November 24, 1920.  Allowing a month for the concrete to set properly, no traffic would be permitted for another 30 days.

Election Day in the Province of British Columbia was set for December 1st and although the paving was now completed, the Columbian allowed itself one last poke at the Liberal government.

“This is the 496th day —
Since the Pacific Highway out from New Westminster has been closed for the carrying out of the Peterson contract.  The concrete is laid, but the highway is not yet open to traffic, and farmers and business people are still compelled to use the almost impassable detours.  All due to the failure of the Oliver Government to handle public business in a businesslike way.”

Notwithstanding the opposition of the Columbian newspaper, the Liberals were returned to power in the election and Premier John Oliver was victorious in winning his own seat in the Delta riding–which included Surrey.  Oliver squeaked out a narrow victory over Frank J MacKenzie.

Paving the Trans-Provincial & Pacific Highway – The Difficulties Encountered

It is little wonder the Provincial Government allowed HP Peterson a bonus on his contract to pave the first section of concrete highway on the Mainland of British Columbia. The first part of the job, from the Westminster Bridge to the hill was likely the most trying to be found anywhere.  When Public Works took over the 3/5 mile section from Hjorth Road to the Old Yale Road, they experienced a sample of the kind of bog Peterson had encountered on the flats below. At the junction of Hjorth Road and the Highway — now King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue, the main downtown intersection in the Surrey City Center — they had to cross a peat bog, relatively small in size, but a considerable obstacle to road building.

loading truck at gravel pit - 1920

Loading truck at gravel pit, 1920   – British Columbia Department of Public Works


Official Opening of Pacific Highway pavement, December 23, 1920

The first section of concrete road on the Trans-Provincial and Pacific Highway was formally dedicated on December 23, 1920. A wet day with dull skies could not suppress the excitement of road enthusiasts who gathered in New Westminster.  A large cavalcade of about 150 automobiles started off from the Post Office on Columbia Street and proceeded to the Westminster Bridge. Arriving on the south side and passing under railway trestle, they made a turn to the left and rolled onto the start of the concrete road. Passing across the flats, along the section of Peterson’s contract and up the hill,  the cars sped along the straightaway past Hjorth Road  uninterrupted by sign or signal,  rounded the curve past the South Port Mann Post Office, and were soon gliding through the Green Timbers before reaching the end of the pavement. The parade had lasted just 15 minutes.
At the intersection of the Yale Road and Johnston Road, end of the concrete, the cars were parked and officials and guests–some arriving by auto over the rough road from Blaine, WA—gathered in front of a temporary stage.

Green Timbers Pacific Highway Joining the throng at the opening of the first pavement on the Pacific Highway in 1920 were some propagandists, constituting possibly the first public environmental demonstration in British Columbia. The protestors handed out leaflets decrying the pending destruction of the Green Timbers forest and agitating support for its preservation. Motion picture and still photographers captured the scene of the large crowd and congested mass of parked cars with the tall trees lining the highway visible in the background.

A great deal of good will was expressed in favour of the Green Timbers, already a tourist attraction to motorists from the United States. But with the best of intentions, no deal was ever put together to save the forest—those in power washing their hands of the responsibility. A future Minister of Public Works was quite frank about his role. When paving the Pacific Highway was finally completed to the border in 1923, DH Sutherland would say:
“I am in favour of building roads, but do not approve of buying scenery.”

The road was officially declared open by the Minister of Public Works for British Columbia, The Honourable James  Horace King, who had with him, by good fortune, his father Senator GC King of New Brunswick.  For, as Dr. King would point out to the assembly, this project, which had faced “almost insurmountable obstacles” in reaching completion this winter,  was not only the first paved link on the Pacific Highway which led to the United States and thence to Mexico, but also a start on the Trans-Provincial Highway, connecting British Columbia with Alberta, part of a grander project, a Trans-Canada Highway from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

Hon J H King Minister of Public Works, The Hon. James Horace King would later serve in the Parliament of Canada and become Speaker of the Senate.
James Horace King

Following Dr. King, a short speech was made by JW deB. Farris, Attorney General, who reminded the spectators of the importance of this road in serving the residents and commerce of the local region.  Mayor RH Gale of Vancouver spoke briefly, in favour of more roads.  JJ Johnston, Mayor of New Westminster, acknowledged the environmentalists in the crowd and spoke in favour of preserving the Green Timbers forest. AE Foreman, who as Chief Engineer had let the first contract to HP Peterson, and who was now President of the Canadian Good Roads Association, pointed out the difficulties faced by the contractors, but predicted that the road now finished would be the busiest in the Province.

Themes common to all the speakers were the difficulties  overcome in completing the road this winter —  politically mandatory justification for the delay and the costs —,  the significance of the road as a link in the great international and national highways, and the importance of the road in serving the needs of a large population of the Lower Mainland, for efficient business and ease of leisure travel.

Noticeably missing from all reports of the congratulations being handed out among the assembled politicians and highway promoters was any word of praise of the work of the contractors, MP Cotton and HP Peterson, and the government engineers, nor any acknowledgement of the many men who labored under the most trying conditions in building the road. That the fancy decorated autos could fly from New Westminster Post Office to the Johnston Road in just 15 minutes was  a compliment in itself.

Certainly Miles P Cotton was there at the end of his section of road, though not invited to stand on the platform with others less involved. Apparently absent on the day was Hans P Peterson, whose work was often alluded to — by speakers wryly and with humour, sourly by the Columbian — but whose name does not appear in news accounts as being present to share in the celebration.

Still from amid the honking of horns and the whooping, we have this rather oblivious enthusiasm of a Vancouver reporter:

“The awkward hill about a mile south of the bridge has been graded effectively and drivers who had not been over that section of the highway for the past 18 months marvelled at the ease with which they took this grade.”

The paving of the entire route Pacific Highway from the Westminster Bridge to the United States border was completed and formally opened on Labour Day, 1923.

Approaching Peterson Hill on Pacific Highway

Approaching Peterson Hill on the Pacific Highway    – Vancouver Archives


Pacific Highway at Old Yale Road

The Pacific Highway rounds the bend at Old Yale Road.   –  Vancouver Archives


Report of the Department of Public Works for 1920 – 1921

“During the past year the most important pieces of work undertaken by the Department in this district were in connection with hard-surfacing.
The Trans-Provincial Highway (Yale Road) from Westminster Bridge to Johnston Road, a distance of about 5.57 miles, was surfaced 18 feet wide with concrete pavement.
A great deal of difficulty was experienced owing to the unusually heavy rainfall during the early part of the fall. About three-fifths of a mile of the work was done by Provincial day-labour. Considerable difficulty was encountered in the preparation of the subgrade. In one stretch of about 150 feet long peat was encountered; this was excavated to a depth of 3 feet and 22 feet wide; a heavy brush mattress was spread on the bottom of the excavation, on which was laid cedar puncheon 6 inches thick and 20 feet long; the whole excavation was then back-filled with selected material after ample drainage into the side-ditches was provided for. At the other points, owing to the wet weather, the subgrade became muddy; this mud was carefully removed and the inequalities in the grade brought up by selected material. Particular attention was paid in protecting the green concrete slab from the effects of frost, heavy coating of straw providing adequate protection.
One might fill pages of the difficulties on the above work, arising from many causes. For instance, on the section of Peterson’s contract, which was constructed by day-labour, the Department faced the problem of transporting 200 ton per day of material over a side-road (the only means of access to the contract) having a grade of 15 per cent, and a surface consisting of mud 2 feet deep. This is mentioned merely as one of the difficulties encountered in the work. altogether, taking into consideration the adverse weather conditions, the roadway thus constructed is almost perfect.”                  

P. Philip, District Engineer

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