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New Westminster Southern Railway Survey

February 12, 2014

Here are two photos of an abandoned railway grade, taken some years ago at the “cut-off” creek where the New Westminster Southern Railway left the bank of the Fraser River and began a southward curve on its run to the United States boundary.

NWSR old grade - cut off creek 2 NWSR old grade - cut off creek 1

From the CN tracks near the cut-off the old grade was distinguished in the bush by a line of tall poplars.
The gap in the grade was formerly bridged.  A  small un-named creek now passes through the gap and runs under the CNR tracks , flowing through a forest to reach the Fraser River.

Origins: The centre of the province

In January 1885, the editor of the Mainland Guardian fretted over Canadian Pacific Railway plans to run from Port Moody along the shore of Burrard Inlet to Coal Harbor,  bypassing New Westminster,  which considered itself the rightful terminus for the national railroad.


“Such a trick would isolate us forever. What we want is connection with Port Moody, and when we get the railway to Bellingham Bay, the circle will be complete, and we shall be the centre of the Province.”

A proposal had been made as early as 1882 to build a short-line from Port Moody to New Westminster, and in May 1883 the New Westminster Southern railway was incorporated to construct a railroad from Brownsville to the United States boundary line.
The only shareholder common to both these corporations was Ebenezer Brown.  However Brown died in June 1883 and attempts to organize the lines ran into stiff opposition from the CPR and failed to gain federal approval.

projected lines of railways 1884 Map at left shows projected railways radiating  from New Westminster.

Routes to the boundary were disallowed (1884).

A road for rails.

By 1887 the citizens of New Westminster had faced years of frustration in being frozen out of the railway excitement. They determined to find a way to get a line built to connect with the American railroads. The saving strategy came from an unlikely source — the municipality south of the river.
In October 1887 Surrey council passed a resolution stating that “we are unanimous in our desire for  a railway connection between New Westminster and the Boundary.”
Surrey opted to take advantage of powers granted under the provincial municipalities act, which permitted the designation of road allowances,and the placing of rails on such roads.
Naturally the municipality could not afford to build a railway. In 1890 it was reported that Surrey was a township of 600 registered voters and 1,000 horses.
The New Westminster Board of Trade had the pockets to pay for the survey of the road  and undertook to arrange the financing for construction.

Determining the route of the New Westminster Southern Railway

Albert James Hill was hired to determine the best line of road from Brownsville to the United States border.  An engineer with extensive railroading experience, during the construction of the CPR Hill was employed at the  government staff headquarters at Port Moody under JW Trutch.

Joseph William Trutch’s first work in British Columbia had been the survey of the Coast Meridian and the lots opposite New Westminster in 1859. He had been directed by RC Moody to lay out lots using the Block & Range system, directions for which had been provided to Moody by General James Tilton, the Surveyor-General of Washington Territory.  Tilton’s sons Edward G Tilton and Howard Tilton both came north with Andrew Onderdonk on CPR work.

On March 24, 1888 Surrey passed By-Law No. 50 — “A by-law to open certain roads”  —  this being the surveyed route of  a railway, although it is never mentioned as such.
The right-of-way was duly gazetted in April and it was not until May 12, 1888 that the New Westminster Southern Railway was incorporated.

As described in the Gazette the route closely resembles the road as it was built, but with a couple of differences.

From Brownsville the line kept to the riverbank past a series of deep ravines, until reaching the 6-mile point, from where the line gradually ascended on a side-hill cut, passed over the headland and descended in like manner to the Serpentine flats.
Towards the Kensington hill south of Clover Valley the line as described in the Gazette gets lost.
There is a gap in the survey, and a start of a branch toward Langley — this latter may have been due to uncertainty as to where the United States road would reach the border.
However the intention appeared to be to follow the line as it was eventually built and the road continues to the 49th parallel bordering Blaine, Washington.

In May, following incorporation of the railway, an agreement was signed with the American firm of Sheafe & Co to construct the road, which they intended would meet with one they would build from Bellingham Bay northward.
The line south of the border had been mooted to run far to the east before crossing into Canada, but once it was determined that Blaine should be the meeting place, the line north of the border could be finalized.
Narcisse Belleau GauvreauAJ Hill was appointed Chief Engineer of the railway and in August 1888 sent out a survey party headed by Narcisse Belleau Gauvreau, a former field surveyor on the CPR.
At the same time, a contract was let to James Leamy for clearing the first six miles of the road.
Surveys were ongoing even as work began.
NB Gauvreau completed his survey by the end of September, but it is not clear if the change in the bend of the road by Barnston Island was determined at this time.
A sketch map published by AJ Hill in 1889 shows the original shorter route from the 6-mile point on a more direct line to the Clover Valley road.1889 NWSR map 1889 - AJ Hill

An alteration was made to run the road further upriver,  rounding through property of the Henry Kells.  The railway company acquired property here and the Kells laid out a townsite.

This locality was the major source of gravel for the road — and it would require a lot of gravel to ballast the grade over the boggy flats between the Fraser River and the boundary.   Also found at Port Kells  were extensive deposits of “bog iron ore,”  or limonite. Whether this was useful in railway construction was not reported.

NWSR Google map link  - opens in new windowThe result of the shift in the line of the road is the distinctive bend which is still visible today.  It is at the cut-off creek opposite Barnston Island that the line leaves the bank of the Fraser River, departing from the line of the Canadian National Railway.

NWSR GoogleMap.

Hill severed his involvement with the NWSR at the end of July 1889.


Albert James Hill born 1836-04-07 Sydney, Nova Scotia; died 1918-11-26 New Westminster BC.

Narcisse Belleau Gauvreau born 1856-03-27, Quebec;  died 1933-12-29 North Vancouver BC.

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