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Hugh McRoberts – the road home

September 21, 2012

On the first day of August 1864,  Hugh McRoberts,  pioneer settler of Sea Island at the mouth of the Fraser River, purchased  a section of land on the hillside above Brown’s Landing.  McRoberts had had enough of living downriver and since the marriage of his daughter had moved into the City of New Westminster.  The British Columbian  reported his venture under the heading “A New Milk Ranch.”

“We understand Mr. McRoberts has purchased an allotment on the South side of the Fraser, immediately opposite this city, containing an excellent grass range and has placed a number of milch cows upon it for the supply of this city with milk.”

McRoberts had bought Section 29, Block 5 North, Range 2 West,   a lot of  160 acres located above the flats, mostly on a wooded terrain not known for pasture, although some lay at the headwaters of the stream now known as Robson Creek.   (The section is now bounded by 100 Ave and 104 Ave and by 124 St and 128 St.)

Hugh McRoberts - 1864 - Lot 29   Brownsville Lots, 1880 on modern map

Brownville Lots, 1864


Brownville Lots, 1880 on modern map


It’s likely the purchase was more of an investment for McRoberts, who held on to the property. He established a  dairy farm on the west side of New Westminster,  where his cows roamed freely down past the swamp on Fraser River below the city.  Whereas it appears McRoberts never did reside in Brownsville, his story sheds further light on themes relevant to the history of this locality.

Richmond Farm

Hugh McRoberts had been a pioneer in Australia, California and gold-rush era British Columbia, exciting times. He made his first big stake here with a successful contract to build the section of the Fraser Canyon road from Chapman’s Bar to Boston Bar in 1861.   With his profits he purchased 1500 acres of surveyed country land on Sea Island, where he established “Richmond Farm,” from which the City of Richmond, BC got its name.

North Arm Road

In March of 1862 McRoberts applied to the government to build a road on the north arm of the Fraser River from New Westminster down to the gulf in order to serve settlers taking up land on Sea Island and across the river on the mainland, extending as far as the Musqueam village.

. There was an existing road built by William Ross the previous year, which led from Douglas Street (8th St) past the sawmill below the city, a distance of three miles. The sawmill established by Thomas Donahue in 1859 lay opposite Poplar Island, and McRoberts estimated another 6 miles would be required to bring it “opposite to Sea Island.” (Roughly the distance from Queensborough Bridge to Marpole.)
The road was put out to tender and McRoberts was awarded the contract.
  1862 North Arm Road Tenders Public Notice of tenders for construction of the North Arm Road, April 1862.

After the fashion of such roads of the day, the trail was cut following the lie of the land.
The meandering route, alternately described as a “trail,” a “bridle road” and a “waggon road,” evolved into what we know as Marine Drive from New Westminster to UBC.

North Arm Road 1876

The North Arm Road, New Westminster to Musqueam, in 1876.

As noted in previous posts,  early trails and roads could be built one season  and obliterated the next— by floods, windfalls or new growth.  

Or the next day. 

Here is Hugh McRoberts, hopping from foot to foot while his road was still in pristine condition:

New Westminster, 16th May 1864

To the Surveyor-General

Sir, I would beg leave to inform you that, that road for which I have the contract being a road from below the sawmill along the north arm of the Fraser to the Gulf of Georgia is now ready for final inspection and I would request that it be done immediately as fires are smouldering along side of the road and trees are in danger of falling over it.

I have the honor to be Your obt Servant,

Hugh McRoberts

While the initial contract called for just 10 miles to be opened up, the government surveyor sent to inspect the work approved a much longer road. 

"New Westminster
19th May 1864

I certify that I have examined the whole of the Trail constructed by Mr McRoberts from near the saw mill below New Westminster to "English Bay" a distance of about 17 miles & find that the Trail has recently been improved and is now dry & in good repair and throughout may be considered a fairish road. . .

W McColl"

The additional 7 miles would have taken the trail around Point Grey to the vicinity of Jericho.  A Vancouver pioneer told Vancouver archivist Major Mathews that Hugh McRoberts “got half of Sea Island for clearing a trail from Point Grey to New Westminster.’" 

Land Scrip  – Paper Value

The Government of British Columbia was from the beginning rich in land and poor in cash. Land Scrip was a voucher devised by the government to pay for contract work — mainly road-building — in lieu of cash.  Officially called a  "Certificate of Claim,"  scrip could be exchanged for land of the holder’s choice.

  land scrip - Certificate of Claim  

Form of scrip – “Certificate of Claim” – British Columbia Department of Lands and Works


Scrip could be also be sold on to a third party and it was often done to pay debts. However, there was a lot of initial confusion about Scrip and notable disputes arose when surveyed land was auctioned off opposite New Westminster in 1861.  Another controversy arose when the price of land was reduced, effectively devaluing Scrip in hands of those who had accepted it in good faith in return for work performed.  As seen in earlier posts, disputes involving scrip provoked a surfeit of bitter and nasty correspondence with the Government.

In 1864 Hugh McRoberts, having completed satisfactory contracts for the government,  found himself in possession of Scrip which was of little use to him, and his approach, while necessarily polite, was distinctively businesslike, and garnered a very businesslike response from the Governor.

"To His Excellency Frederick Seymour Governor of British Columbia
The prayer of your humble petitioner sheweth that he took a contract from the Government of this Colony in or about September 1862 to build a Road from the City of New Westminster along the North Arm of the Fraser River to the Gulf of Georgia the payment of which contract was to be made to your petitioner in Land Scrip for which at that time there was a good demand and a fair price given for it on account of numerous land sales made by the government. The road was completed and passed by the Government in November 1863. The last instalment of Scrip for the above mentioned road was paid to me in June 1864 when Land Scrip had depreciated in value to a considerable extent in fact there being no market for it. I have therefore a large amount of Land Scrip on hand for which I can find no market and for which I had to pay hard Cash in making the road. The want of the Cash is a great detriment to me as it prevents me going on with my improvements which is necessary in the success of any farming operations.
I would therefore humbly ask your Excellency if you see fit to allow me seventy-five cents (75c) on the acre for the Land Scrip which would relieve me and enable me to carry on the necessary pursuit, which I have entered into. 
Hoping that your Excellency will take into our favourable consideration my humble petition.
I have the honour to be your humble obt servant,
Hugh McRoberts"

AR Howse, who worked in the Lands department, did a napkin calculation of this "windfall" profit, and the response of the government was immediately favourable to McRoberts’ proposal.

"I am directed by the Governor to authorize you to purchase any scrip now held by Mr Hugh McRoberts at the rate of 75 cents on the dollar."

Owing to the continuing "depressed state of the Colony" in the 1860s,  McRoberts was unable to complete his payment on Section 29 at Brownsville until 1871.

McRoberts’ city farm

Hugh McRoberts lived a quiet but active life in for almost 20 years in New Westminster, where he also served on the city council and the hospital board.  His diary for 1883, which is in the Vancouver Archives, reveals that living on the edge of town,  McRoberts had  found an ideal mix of  urban and bucolic life.

His farm was small by district standards. On the other side of the river,  the New Westminster’s “first milkman,” Sam Herring, had passed away in 1879.  Robert Johnson  in 1880 was running 50 cows at Brownsville,  also supplying milk to the city.  

McRoberts’ cows each was  known by name, and one bull, who, remaining nameless,  appeared to do as he pleased: 

“The bull came home yesterday after an absence of four months.”

The cows supplied around a dozen gallons of milk each day to supply McRoberts’ 35 customers on his city milk route.  Between morning and evening milkings,   cows with the names  “Brighouse,”  “Sumass,”  “Brindale,” “Sexsmith,” “Teapot” and the others could wander as they liked down the hillside and along the flats below the city.  His notes of their comings and goings have a familial tone.

— “the cow Brighouse came home.”

—“fine growing day had a run after the two heifers down to Rose Hill found them near home.”

—“fine day cows rambling all over the country.”

—“old Polly calved.”

—“Susy the cow after the bull.”

—“Lillie came up to stop for a while.”

Alright—,  Lillie was a relative. 

McRoberts paid attention to the weather conditions, as befit his calling—“wet day ice all broke up in river”;   “awful slush and rain, bad walking, no church”  — to business matters – ‘Paid Blackie & Elliott $150.00 being balance of payment on lot 5 Block 23 in City of New Westminster”;  “paid Herring’s bill”  —  and he had time for matters of importance — “killed a calf our wedding day 38 years ago in 1845 15 April.”  (McRoberts second marriage, in Australia.) He had an eclectic interest in religion and attended services of various denominations.

Hugh McRoberts home at New Westminster - VanArchives   Hugh McRoberts home in New Westminster. He owned Lot 5 in Block 23, which was at the foot of Agnes at 10th Street, but this house may have been on another property. McRoberts’  first house  at Richmond was built in 1862 and he moved to New Westminster in 1864 where he resided almost 20 years.
Photo is at the Vancouver Archives.


Finer Pasture

On Tuesday, June 5, 1883 McRoberts noted in his diary the death of Ebenezer Brown:

“Wet day Mr Brown died suddenly at 1/2 past 4.”

And on Thursday, June 7:

“fine day attended the funeral of Mr Brown the largest for many years.”

Hugh McRoberts last entry in his diary was for Sunday, June 24, 1883 — "fine day went to hear Rev Mr Smith preach to the Free Masons a fine sermon.”

McRoberts  passed away  July 11, 1883, the Mainland Guardian noting:

“He was of a genial disposition, attaching to himself many friends and being most honorable in his dealings, he was greatly respected by our whole community.”

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