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McCorvie & Bonson – Contractors

February 12, 2014

The first construction contract on the New Westminster Southern Railway was won by James Leamy in August 1888.  Leamy at once subcontracted out the first section of clearing the right of way from Brownsville six miles eastward along the Fraser River to the firm of McCorvie & Bonson.


LF BonsonLewis Francis Bonson (1831-1917) born in Scotland, was a pioneer of New Westminster. While with the Royal Engineers in 1859 he had struggled through dense forest to drive the stakes marking out the site of the government mint on Columbia Street.

After the corps disbanded in 1863 he was engaged in various businesses and construction projects. He completed the extension of Front street to the Camp road in 1865.   He partnered with another Scotsman, William Ross, and as Bonson & Ross they completed repairs on the Yale & Lytton Wagon Road in 1868.  He was for some years  engaged as a provincial road superintendent.Archibald McCorvie

Bonson also took over the liquor business and a hotel owned by Ebenezer Brown, after Brown’s death in 1883.

Archibald McCorvie (1847-1925)  was from Ontario and had been a trapper, prospector and miner in the Cariboo since 1877, specializing in construction. 

The photos are from the New Westminster Archives. Bonson is well-known, but this may be the only photo of McCorvie in existence, hopefully the correct one.


The first work force under McCorvie & Bonson was made up of Indians and the work of chopping and slashing the line  progressed rapidly.  By the middle of September 1888 the work was nearing completion.

"The Southern Railway — The other day our reporter, accompanied by Messrs McCorvie & Bonson, the contractors for the above line, made a tour of observation of their contract, and found that a long stretch of clearing had been done; and the underbrush, and logs piled in heaps ready to burn. There are some four or five camps scattered along the line, and each camp contains a large number of siwashes, who are bossed by white men who thoroughly understand the class of work being done. The contractors expect to have their contract finished by the end of the present month or the first week in October."

In October McCorvie & Bonson had completed their contract as far as the Dominion fish hatchery (Bon Accord).  Above the hatchery the newly surveyed line required extensive sections of cribwork which would be built by the firm of RE Lemon & Co.

McCorvie & Bonson had acquired another contract, on a different project further upriver, driving piles for the Matsqui dyke.

The same firm was active in the city of New Westminster bidding on bridge-building projects. In those days many streets were bridged across ravines.

When the push came in 1890 to get the New Westminster Southern Railway finished McCorvie & Bonson performed additional contracts for cribwork and bridgebuilding. 

In following the progress of the railway,  a March 1890 news report stated that the railway contractors had established a bridge-building camp at Port Kells and a clearing camp at the Nicomekl River. 

The City of New Westminster moved ahead with building a new ferry and issued plans for  wharves and buildings on both sides of the river.

"On the north, or city side the wharf will be 50 x 44 feet, the shed 50 x 23 feet and the waiting room 21 x 15 feet." 

This landing stood near the foot of 4th Street,  upstream from Lytton Square, partially replicated in recent developments along the waterfront. 

"The piles for the guides are to be tied together with planks and filled in with rock, and will have a strong ice breaking protection which will be set at an angle of 45 degrees to the line of the wharf downstream."

"On the south or Surrey side the wharf is to be constructed 66 x 60 feet and the shed and waiting room will be the same size as those on the city side." 

The shed appeared to mean a roof over the wharf.  This dock also benefited from piles forming a wedge-shaped guard against logs and ice floes.

The contracts for the ferry landings were awarded to LF Bonson.

In January 1891 the railway was almost complete for 85 miles from Sedro Washington to Liverpool BC but for the construction of a bridge 75 feet long over a creek on the Canadian side (likely the Campbell River.)

"the track was laid from both north and south up to the edge of a small creek, which remained to be bridged….Messrs McCorvie & Bonson, contractors for the bridge, had the piles driven, and on Monday commenced laying the timber. The structure was to be completed this afternoon, and the rails were at hand to be laid at the first possible moment."

The line of the route as finally chosen, travelling for miles through the boggy valleys of the Serpentine and Nicomekl rivers, proved an ongoing challenge, ballasting the line "turning out to be a more extensive job than was first anticipated."

"There are two ‘soft spots’ between Liverpool and Port Kells which swallow an immense quantity of ballast and yet seem impossible to fill. The line has been cross-tied at these spots to give the rails a better support. At several places on the worst patch of muskeg a twenty-five foot pole can be easily thrust straight down without finding bottom."

Not long after trains began running on this section, a depression in the road derailed a locomotive which then sank into the quagmire.

The job of filling a bog has been described in one railway textbook as similar to filling a lake, the volume of the fill below the surface equal to at least twice the volume of that in the embankment above. The proximity of the railway to the gravel deposits at Port Kells was a boon to construction.

"A large number of men find employment in the gravel pit at Port Kells and in the ballasting generally."

On more solid ground, the embankment was built in textbook fashion, with a layers of large rocks below covered by a layer of gravel, ties and tracks. 

(This was found to be the case at the banks shown illustrated when examined a few years ago.  A geologist was unable to state the origin of the large rocks comprising the base and they may have come from anywhere along the line, even from Whatcom, as construction trains had freedom to pass along the line on both sides of the border.)

Port Kells was a source of sand and gravel for projects at settlements along the Fraser River. "Steel gray" sand was wheeled directly onto steamers pushed up to the shore.

A report dated January 30, 1891 indicated that McCorvie & Bonson were wrapping up work.

"Mr Archibald McCorvie, contractor for bridges and cribwork on the Westminster Southern Railway, has returned to the city, having completed the last of his contracts yesterday.
The road, Mr McCorvie reports, is rapidly being got into first class order, and should be in a finished condition from end to end by the date of the official opening, about two weeks hence.
The bridges and cribbing are all of a most substantial order, and the class of work generally is of the best. Money has not been spared by the company in making a thorough good road of it, and the result of this will be that from the opening of the line a speed of 40 miles per hour can be safely inaugurated."

As the railway was nearing completion the construction firm of LF Bonson was putting the finishing touches on the South Westminster Ferry landing. 

The New Westminster Southern Railway was opened with the driving of the last spike on February 14, 1891. 

Even before regular service had begun, the decision was made to extend the railway terminus from Liverpool down to the landing place of the new public ferry at South Westminster. This extra couple of miles was built across established properties at Brownsville, including that of James Punch,  and a battle for compensation ensued involving several property owners.

There was some benefit from the road, in that it doubled as a dyke.

"The track is raised to a level of about 8 feet above high tide level. Aqueducts are built under the track at the plank roadway of about 12 inch square timbers with a 2×3 foot waterway.  . .  The railway embankment will from a strong breakwater against the freshets of the Fraser."

At South Westminster a station building was completed in October 1891, built by McCorvie & Bonson.  It stood on the opposite side of the tracks from the ferry wharf, about 100 feet inland and measured 70 x 50 feet. 

The ferry landing with shed roof is shown in the photo below, as it was ten years after completion by Bonson.  In foreground is a plank road.  The railway station building built by McCorvie & Bonson  may have been the vantage point for the photographer.  Across the river, at right, the ferry Surrey lies at the city-side landing built by Bonson & Co.

ferry landing at South Westminster

In the coming years LF Bonson divided his time between his construction business and his farm near Port Hammond.  He died in 1917, the second last of the Royal Engineers still residing at New Westminster.

Archie McCorvie ran a pile-driving business,  with much work done for canneries down the river, including construction of the wharf at the Port Guichon. Another project was building a new bridge on Carnarvon Street in New Westminster.

It was reported that Archie McCorvie lost his outfit in the devastating Laidlaw Cannery and Brunette Sawmill fire of 1895. 

In 1896 he was back at mining work in the interior.

"JH Russell has three men at work, under charge of Archie McCorvie, pushing a 100-foot tunnel through a gravel spur at his claim on Tranquille Creek."

McCorvie was reported to be prospecting on the Columbia River and along the North Thompson in the summer of 1896, in company with D Pridgeon and JMW McFarlane.

During his years in New Westminster, Archie McCorvie, a bachelor, resided at the Colonial Hotel, said to be the finest in the city.

In 1905, at the age of 58 McCorvie was married  to Martha Mary Lee, and the couple moved onto a  North Thompson River homestead. Archibald McCorvie died in 1925 and Martha Mary McCorvie lived until 1944.

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