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The last great land rush

May 19, 2013

This was the scene at New Westminster one hundred years ago on May 19, 1913 as eager land-seekers lined up to obtain homestead entry to 40 acres of Dominion land.

1913-05-19 LIne-up of landseekers at Dominion Land Agency New Westminster
The land rush line-up – from Sixth Street looking up Clarkson. New Westminster Archives photo.

Following a year-long investigation of land claims by Samuel Maber,  Superintendent of the BC Lands Branch,   a newspaper advertisement had announced that the deadline for squatters to make entry claims would expire on this date, whereupon unclaimed government lands would be thrown open to first comers.
In the week leading up to the day of the land registration, set for Monday, May 19th, a queue began to form inside and outside the offices of the land agent in the Dominion Building at  the corner of Columbia and 6th Street. The assembly was disallowed by officials, prompting those early in line to order themselves into a committee and issue their own place-keeping numbers.  William Duffy Magee, the Dominion Land Agent at New Westminster cautioned the “campers”  that he could only recognize the order of people who formed the line on Monday morning at the time the office opened. Magee ran the office with assistant John A Lewis.
Public interest was unprecedented and Magee would later report:

“We ran out of our supply of forms, having made and issued about 2500 of them, and in order to meet the demand, I had to give a rush order to the Columbian, to print 500 forms on the night of the 15th. . .these forms were delivered in time for the opening of the office on the morning of the 16th, and were practically exhausted that evening….”

On the day advertised, entry to the land office was to be through an iron gate at the rear of the building, facing 6th Street.

The two hundred that had organized themselves marched to the office at the appointed hour only to find an equally long line had already formed there, and they had to take up position at the end.

After an initial scramble, the line settled into position, from the gate winding around the perimeter of the yard and up Clarkson, five-abreast. Police were on hand to keep order, including a mounted policeman on 6th Street.

The press of the crowd sorely tested a wrought-iron fence at the back of the federal property.  Counting those in the queue and spectators massed on 6th Street, upwards of 1,000 people were present.

1913-05-19 - Monday -New Westminster land rush - Columbian Big Crowd Attracted by Prospect of Free Land — Dominion Lands in Railway Belt Opened to Entry.”
The British Columbian, May 19th, 1913 featured a long story, but printed the photo backwards—as did the Vancouver Province.
1913-05-19 New Westminster land rush - Daily World page 1 Getting the picture right, The World, Vancouver, headlined the event “Woman First in New Westminster Land Rush – Police Form Landseekers in Line and Obviate Riot.”

Four women were permitted to go to the front of the line and were the first to be admitted.  One had to go and get her husband, necessary for signing, and she lost 120 places in line on her return.  Head of the line and first to enter the office was Mrs John Holt of Sapperton. Her husband presumably had been waiting in the crush of onlookers along 6th Street.

Mrs John Holt - 1st in line - 1913-05-19 Mrs John Holt of Sapperton,   first in line,  had been less than a year in the country. She chose 40 acres on the north hillside at Hazelmere, Surrey.
Her photo graced the front page of the Columbian.
1913-05-19 First entry - John Holt Left,  portion of the application of John Holt recorded by John A Lewis at New Westminster, May 19, 1913. The claim is for LS 11, Section 17, Township 7.

The procedure at the office was organized and efficient.  On hand from Calgary was the Inspector of Dominion Land Agencies, JW Martin.  He volunteered to man a small desk in the yard to hand out the numbers.   It was necessary for applicants to sign a record book in order to prevent scalping.  On reaching the wicket to select a lot, only the person who had lined up could make application.

In the aftermath, Magee gave Maber a summary of proceedings.

“The rush is over, and we are getting back into normal conditions. During the siege we registered and issued tickets to 735 applicants, and made 304 Homestead Entries, which has practically exhausted our portion of the earth. Everything went off smoothly. . .
This rush proved one thing and that is that the people are hungry for land, and will take Homesteads anywhere in the District and the area does not appear to be a factor in the case, they simply want land and will take anything from 20 acres up in any part of the Coast District.”

The final tally for the fiscal year would be 529 homestead entries.

After Martin’s return to his office in Calgary, he commended the work of the local land agency officials.

“I wrote the Commissioner a few days ago regarding the throwing open of the lands at New Westminster on the 19th instant, and I might state to you that of all the rushes I have had anything to do with in the West I have never experienced more satisfaction than I had at the New Westminster office. I feel satisfied that it is impossible for anyone to handle things more satisfactorily than did Messrs. Magee and Lewis. These officials deserve the highest praise for their efforts. The Police officials of the City also deserve credit for the manner in which they handled the crowd.
I would be very glad indeed if you could prevail upon the authorities to give Mr. Lewis a substantial increase in salary. Mr Magee, I understand, received his recently, for which I am very pleased. . .”

It was left to a Columbian reporter to praise the role of the office beyond the little iron gate.

“For months at a time it dreams along in the peaceful security of a first-floor-back. Around it hums the busy city. Real estate agents talk their throats out. Merchants and bankers and all the rest of the city may come and go, get rich and die or marry, . . . “

Meanwhile,  “the peaceful land office,”

“. . .slept heavily in an atmosphere surcharged with dust and the smell of ancient books and documents. But this morning the average citizen of New Westminster scarcely recognized the place. It was busy, important, bustling, delighting in its magnanimity to the patient crowd outside.”
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