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Nils Christian Hjorth

December 4, 2012

Brownsville settler Nils Christian Hjorth was one of the first homesteaders in British Columbia’s two largest cities, Vancouver and Surrey, and on two of its smaller islands, East Thurlow Island and Read Island. A Norse seaman, Hjorth arrived in Burrard Inlet in 1883 and deciding to stay, left ship. In February of 1884 he made application to obtain a lot in the Granville townsite, Gastown. Within months dramatic changes ensued in the lower mainland, placing Hjorth’s lot in jeopardy, and opening up a brand new opportunity on the south side of the Fraser River at Brownsville. Staying only long enough to prove up his pre-emptions, by 1891 Hjorth had moved up the coast to the islands of the inside passage, where he resided until his death in 1936.

Nils Hjorth – Map of Homestead and Property Locations in British Columbia –
Hjorth homesteads map

Squatting at Granville

Ship’s mate Nils Hjorth was already 36 years old and unattached when he ducked his way into the dense bush just a whistle from the back of Gassy Jack’s old saloon on the shore of Burrard Inlet.  It was exciting times in this neighbourhood with a dozen or more men getting a foothold in the settlement in anticipation of the national railway reaching saltwater at the head of the Inlet.  Hjorth picked out an unclaimed lot, Lot 12 Block 3, on what is now Hastings Street, Vancouver.

“There was very dense brush, and very heavy logs laying over one another, four and five high, and very difficult to get in.”

“I went to work and made a trail in February, and then cleared a place to build a house to live in, and erected a house. I cleared land for a garden and fenced it and planted a sack of potatoes and a patch of onions.”

By the beginning of March, Hjorth had finished his house and began working under contract clearing land for others and building houses.

Hjorth made application to the government to secure his lot and in April received acknowledgement from JW Trutch.

Southern Attraction – Local Intelligence

In the meantime,  changes had been taking place around New Westminster, the chief city of the Lower Mainland, where great effort was being made to attract settlers to the surrounding district.

Henry T Thrift of Surrey, erstwhile town clerk and enthusiastic booster of settlement there, on April 23, 1883 wrote to the Columbian newspaper.

“Having had occasion to go in to New Westminster a few days since, I was agreeably surprised to find so many newcomers, enquiring for land, and the thought struck me, how necessary that the Government should establish an immigration and intelligence office in New Westminster, so that settlers coming in would have no difficulty in finding locations, or of getting work . . . We should like very much to see about 300 families settled on our wild lands in this Surrey of ours during the coming season.”

Surrey had already taken steps in its own interest, introducing an “intelligence office” motion in February. In March 1884, as NC Hjorth was building his house at Granville, a new public ferry went into operation from New Westminster to Brownsville, offering a cheap and reliable means to commute to the district opposite the city. The ferry K de K was the latest initiative of local government effort to attract settlers and the investment was beginning to pay off. Fresh claims were being taken up within miles of the Brownsville wharf, which took on a new importance as traffic multiplied.  By the end of April the municipal bureau had been established with none other that HT Thrift obtaining the appointment as Surrey Intelligence Officer.

1883-05-19--Surrey-lands_thumb5_thum “Notice to Immigrants.
The Municipality of Surrey offers great inducements to persons in search of a home.
We have good lands, both wild and improved, good roads, schools, churches and post office.
Our facilities for trade are excellent. We have good water communication with outside markets, and our climate is unrivalled. Plenty of Government land.
To Manufacturers and grist or saw mill men establishing themselves in this Municipality, the Municipal Council are offering liberal inducements. For further particulars apply personally to Henry T Thrift, C.M.C. Intelligence Officer.
Clover Valley, Surrey, B.C.”

Nils Hjorth stayed on at Granville until the 23rd of May when he seized on this new  opportunity.  Hjorth selected a section up the hill only a few miles from the ferry landing,  and registered his second land claim within a few months, at Section 24, Block 5 North, Range 2 West.

Sec. 24, B5N R2W

This 160-acre block is located from 140 Street to 144 Street, between 108 Avenue and 104 Avenue, a road that was known until the 1970’s as Hjorth Road.

Hjorth Road

104 Avenue, the old Hjorth road, is one of the main streets of Surrey, connecting Surrey City Centre with Guildford Centre. At its far eastern end the road begins on the Fraser River at Hjorth Landing, opposite Barnston Island, where now floats the ferry wharf. As the Fraser River makes its large bend around the north end of Surrey, Hjorth Road runs due west, passing near midpoint a park and a school named after it, followed by Invergarry Park on the old Hjorth homestead, crossing King George Boulevard and descending the steep hill towards Scott Road (120th St) at Brownsville, where by direct extension along Tannery Road the Fraser River is reached once again.

Hjorth appears in the 1884-1885 British Columbia Directory as “Hyorth, Nelson, farmer,” living at Brownsville. Such variations of his name would continue throughout his lifetime, although official records are consistent with spelling his name Nils Christian Hjorth.  In the 1887 Brownsville listing his surname appears as “Hygorth” and his occupation, perhaps reflecting his success in land development, is given as “Capitalist.”

Brownsville Section Map Hjorth’s section 24 in Block 5 North, Range 2 West, is shown on township map, left.
Neighbour John Douglas in section 27 (Surrey City Centre) supported Hjorth’s homestead application, as did James Punch, Hotel Keeper at Brown’s Landing.

Hjorth cleared and cultivated only 3/4 of an acre in his first two years here.  He was absent about half the time, logging and building houses at Vancouver.
By 1888 when he was living continuously in Surrey, he had about five acres under cultivation, including about a hundred fruit trees. He had a house 24 x 13 feet, surrounded by a split cedar picket fence, and a log house 24 x 36 feet, partly finished. There was also a small stable and hay shed,  a wood shed and chicken shed. About a third of a mile of rail-fencing kept in check a bull and penned  a couple of hogs and sixteen chickens.  A quarter mile of ditching provided drainage, and Hjorth had dug three wells.
It was not the best land for agriculture, but contained some 10 acres or more of  natural meadow, requiring minimal clearing, and that may have been the reason he chose this section.
Hjorth lived alone during his time in Surrey, but was assisted from time to time by a hired man.

Thrown off —  Granville squatters appeal

As Hjorth was working to establish his new homestead in the bush above Brownsville,  William Van Horne of the CPR arrived at Burrard Inlet and announced the railway had intentions to terminate at Coal Harbour, near Gastown where Hjorth’s lot was located.  The Province conceded to the railway a large area of real estate, including the townsite lot to which Hjorth as yet had no title.

Some established squatters were allowed to keep their lots, but Hjorth’s position was more precarious, having come lately to the site, and his claim was denied.

Fifteen recent lot-holders in the same predicament as  Hjorth disputed being cast out of  their households,  with sweat and blisters hacked  from the forest.  The coming of the railway also meant they stood to make a good profit on their lots, something they would not readily forego.

It would take three years and a special act of the BC Legislature before the claims of the Granville squatters were finally settled. By then the townsite had been renamed Vancouver.

The Successful Six  — This was how the Colonist newspaper described a fortunate half-dozen of the squatters whose claims the railway had decided to honour, before going to arbitration.  Nils Christian Hjorth, of Lot 12 in Block 3 was one of the lucky ones.  He got word of the victory in May 1888, four years after he had built his first rough house in the forest.

Surrey Patent

In May 1888, the same month his lot claim was accepted at Vancouver, Hjorth applied to complete ownership on his Surrey homestead. On December 31, 1888 he filed a sworn statement in support of his application. Supporting him with affidavits were James Punch, Hotel Keeper, Brown’s Landing and John Douglas, farmer, who occupied Section 27 B5N R2W, about a mile from Hjorth’s section 24.

Upon obtaining title to his homestead in May 1889, Nils Hjorth did not tarry long in Surrey.


To the islands  – 1 –   Shoal Bay, East Thurlow Island

The Census of 1891 records Nils Hjorth living up the coast, in the neighbourhood of logging camps.

Shoal Bay - Lot 156 - Hjorth Hjorth took his Vancouver and Surrey profits and applied them to a third homestead at Shoal Bay on Thurlow Island — 160 acres comprising Lot 156, Coast Range 1. It was an idyllic site, fronting a picturesque bay and ranging back into forested mountainsides. The island had rich mineral deposits and stands of timber. Nils C Hjorth - Shoal Bay - Thurlow Island

In 1894 he applied for  title to the property, though it was not granted until 1896. By this time Hjorth had established a general store and was the first appointed Postmaster at Shoal Bay. 1898 dir Shoal Bay - Hjorth

In 1897, as the result of a court settlement, at least a portion of Lot 156 was seized by the sheriff. However, the Cumberland newspaper listed Nils Christian Hjorth as owner of this lot, with taxes owing, as late as 1902.

Sometime sea captain, farmer,  Capitalist,  storekeeper, or working in lumber camps, Hjorth spent his time between Vancouver and the coast.   In 1900, at the age of 52 Nils,  giving his profession as Master Mariner,  married a 37 year-old Swedish widow, Alma Oberg at St James Church in Vancouver. By the time of the census of 1911, Hjorth did not have family with him.

To the Islands –  2 – Hjorth Bay, Read Island

In his latter years, from about 1906,  Hjorth farmed on Read Island.

Although the piece of property is not known at the time of writing this post, there is on the west side of the island, on Hoskyn Channel, a small bay, Hjorth Bay, apparently named after Nils Christian Hjorth, and perhaps it was near there he had established his fourth homestead in British Columbia. Hjorth Bay  topo mp

Final Move

Hjorth died at Campbell River on Vancouver Island on May 31, 1936 in his 88th year and is buried in the cemetery there, no known headstone.
According to vital records,  Nils Christian Hjorth, or Nils Kristian Hjorth, was born August 20, 1848 in Norway, the son of Cort Hjorth.  His wife whom he married in 1900 was Alma Oberg, (or Ulma Oberg) born January 9, 1863 in Sweden, the daughter of Godfrey Osterman.  Carl Gustave Osterman was a witness at her wedding in Vancouver.  She had a son from her earlier marriage, named Gustav A. Oberg, born in Sweden, December 6, 1891. Mrs Oberg and her son arrived in Canada in 1899.
A delightful headline in the Comox District Free Press announced Nils Hjorth’s last move.

Old Sea Captain Slips His Cable.
Campbell River, June 4 — Captain Nels Hjorth, Read Island, passed away at Lourdes hospital Sunday, in his eighty-sixth year.  The old Norse captain was a well-known and picturesqe figure on Read Island where he had mad his home since 1906. Funeral services were held Tuesday for interment in Campbell River cemetery, with R. J. Walker, Gowlland Harbor, deputizing for Rev. Alan Green. He leaves no relatives.
Trained to the sea, Captain Hjorth left his native Norway at an early age and susquently became Master on several sailing vessels which plied between Europe and Coal Harbor, Burrard Inlet, in the early ’80s. Subsequently he settled at Vancouver (then known as Gastown) but after a little while removed to the gold-mining area at Shoal Bay, Thurlow Island. Here he operated a general store for miners and loggers.
Later he became night-watchman on sailing vessels tied up at Vancouver, and in 1906 took up a pre-emption near Hoskin Inlet, Read Island, where he established a small ranch, and where, until a month ago, he lived.”

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