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In the fog at Brownsville – No right turn

December 8, 2012

One hundred years ago on Sunday,  December 8th, as a  dense fog hung over  the Lower Mainland, a car carrying three men and two boys drove down the Old Yale Road,  and missing the  right-turn onto the planked Bridge road, drove off the end of the Brownsville wharf into the Fraser River. Twelve year old Albert Clyde Creech of Vancouver could not escape the car and was drowned.

Weather Story – The Shipping News

Statistics record the temperature on December 8, 1912 reached a high of only 1.7 degrees, dipping down to – 2.2 overnight, but the raw data gives no clue as to the real “weather story” of that fateful day, told by the marine news:

“Shipping Delayed By Heavy Fog Bank — Umatilla Compelled to Drop Anchor in English Bay on Passing Point Grey —  Clear Weather in Gulf — Mountains to Northwest Shut out Wind, Causing Thickest Mist of Season.”

In a fog described by one Captain to be “thick as mush,” the venerable tug Senator, which once operated as the ferry from Hastings to Moodyville and Gastown, collided with a gravel-scow and was sunk in False Creek between the Granville and Cambie street bridges. tug Senator

Conditions varied during the day, with the mist sometimes rising with deceptive optimism before once again settling down, going nowhere.

A Sunday drive

A party of two hunters, H.B. Leuty and Percy Gifford,  had gone out to the delta to shoot ducks, and when M. J.Barr set out  from Vancouver to pick them up, conditions were clear enough on this Sunday morning that he took along his son Lyle and chum Clyde Creech for the drive to Ladner in his touring car.

Coming home in the early afternoon, their route would take them east to Scott Road, on the way to the New Westminster bridge crossing at Brownsville. They had not come far when they stopped to assist some people with a broken down car, and returned them to Ladner. a 1912 model auto - Tudhope

Setting out once again on the homeward journey, the fog had thickened and in the twilight it was a slow drive eastward.

The way down Old Yale Road

By the time the car made the left turn from Scott Road, north on old Yale road, darkness had set in and the visibility was poor.  They needed to be sure to find the plank road and make the right turn east to the bridge crossing a further half-mile upriver.  The railway bridge had been in operation 8 years at this date, and had an upper deck built for cars and pedestrians, which was reached by ascending a curved ramp from the Bridge road.

bridge ramp by Joe Plaskett - New Westminster Archives

Barr’s auto was equipped with large and bright headlights which proved ineffective in the dark and the fog. After proceeding some way, confused by time and distance,  Barr began to wonder if they had missed the turn-off to the Bridge road.   Leuty got out into and walked ahead with the car following a few feet behind.  The temperature in the mist was now near the freezing point.

Unaware – on and off  Brown’s wharf

When they reached a wooden surface Leuty got back into the car, confident they must be on  the plank road to the bridge. Mr Barr was not convinced, thinking they should by now have made a right-hand turn.

Unable to see more than a few feet past the windshield, they were driving blindly through the murk, unaware they were on the approach to the Brownsville wharf, with  a drop-off to the river lying ahead of them.

As they crept onward across the decking, the car struck a ramp , tumbled sideways over the edge of the wharf, and fell headlong into the river.

The car came to rest on the mud,  submerged in about 10 feet of water near the shore, and the occupants struggled to free themselves. Four got out, but young Clyde Creech was caught by some strapping on the hood, held underwater and unable to escape.  Barr dove again and again but could not find the boy.

The commotion echoing across the water attracted the attention of two fisherman living nearby.  They brought a launch and finding the  three men and one boy clinging to pilings, plucked them from the icy water.  The headlights of the car were still blazing brightly under the water when police arrived.

In mourning

Clyde was the son of Mr and Mrs R. A. Creech, of the Broughton Apartments at Comox and Broughton street in Vancouver. The father was away on business at the time of his son’s death.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, as families and community grieved the loss of the young lad, blame was attached to the unmarked approach to the wharf. There was no barrier at either end of the Brownsville wharf,  and the fishermen who rescued this party told them it was not the first time a car had gone over the edge.  A Vancouver newspaper condemned the spot:

“The road that leads to Brownsville wharf is a veritable deathtrap by night, and not only to the unwary motorist but also to the wary. . .”

Creech obit

Map & Notes

brownsville wharf & bridge road map link

The Bridge road, about a half-mile long and made of planking  raised on piles above the bog,  was built to connect the New Westminster Bridge with the main highway of the day, the Yale Road.  When the New Yale Road (Pacific Highway) was opened up along the route of the present King George Highway in July 1910, the Bridge Road continued to serve traffic heading west. A start was made in 1918 to replace the deteriorating plank road with sand fill and a gravel surface, completed 1919.  Today the South Fraser Perimeter highway follows the Bridge Road along this section east of Old Yale Road.

On the edge of Brown's wharf - from photo by Basil King Newspaper photos by Basil King and Craig Hodge show the Brownsville wharf was a popular place to fish until torn down in the 1970s when it was found to be too unsafe. Fishing on Brownsville wharf from photo by Craig Hodge
Ebenezer Brown constructed the first wharf at Brown’s Landing at his own expense.  A government wharf was built in 1881. Brownsville jetty A short jetty extends out over Fraser River where once stood the Brownsville wharf.

Brownsville mills beehive 1969
“This type of pollution must be stopped” read the headline in the Columbian newspaper.  At far left is the Brownsville wharf where Barr’s car plunged into Fraser River and in the center the Brownsville sawmill with a beehive burner. Such mills were common sights throughout British Columbia.

Long-time residents will remember the heavy fogs that used to be regular occurrences here. The Fraser River and the Inlet was populated with sawmills, with their distinctive beehive burners spewing out smoke day and night throughout the year. Slash burning was permitted in the fall, also the worst time of year for fogs, and most backyards had an old oil-barrel used as a household waste burner. People living along the river, from Brownsville down to Marpole could rarely see clearly to the other side due to the ever-present haze.  When conditions were right, a stifling fog would envelope the city, rendering even your own street a foreign and bewildering place.

Vociferous complaints about the haze from Brownsville mills rose to a clamour in the 1970’s also, and the beehive burners were phased out of operation.

The two fishermen who rescued Barr and his group from the river were named James Watson and Frank Pickerell.  Young Clyde Creech is not believed to be related to the lithographer Creech.

There is a mention of this incident, and many other interesting details about the New Westminster bridge in Barry Sanford’s book Royal Metal.

Environment Canada Weather Report for December 1912.  The heavy fog, of which there is no mention, occurred during a spell of dry and cold weather, usually indicating clear skies.

Weather Data December 1912
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