Skip to content

Vanished from the Surrey ferry–The mysterious disappearance of John Wesley Pickard

November 21, 2014

On the 15th December 1891, John Wesley Pickard boarded the 6:30pm Surrey ferry at New Westminster,  homeward-bound with an armload of Christmas presents. He was never seen again.

Pickard’s Hill

John Wesley Pickard along with brothers Thomas Wellington Pickard and Elisha Pickard, sister Mary Pickard and mother Ann Pickard, were among the earliest land-owners and settlers in this district.

The Pickards settled on the uplands east of the Serpentine River in the late 1870s. According to the tax roll for the year 1880, the land holdings of the Pickard family comprised most of the sections on the upland between the Serpentine River and Langley on the New Westminster and Yale Wagon Road,  a locality now known as Clayton. 

  The Reverend Alexander Dunn, a Presbyterian preacher who served a wide area of the Fraser Valley, stated that when he first came to Langley in 1875 there was only one settler between Langley and Brown’s landing. However by 1880 the Pickards were well-established.
In writing his Memoirs, published in 1913, Dunn refers to the hill west of Langley prairie as "Pickard’s hill," a significant and lasting recognition of their presence.


"A few weeks ago on coming down Pickard’s hill, on my way to Aldergrove, riding in an automobile, and viewing Langley Prairie from that vantage point, I felt like one in a dream. ‘Can the Prairie which I now behold be the Prairie of long ago?’  In ’75 I could not have believed that I should live to see such a marvellous transformation of the familiar scene of that time."


Dunn was describing not the village of later decades, nor the urbanization we see today, rather the change from log houses and small acreages enclosed with snake fencing, to the "modern residences," of a hundred years ago, with  "large barns" surrounded by "extensive fields" of hay and grain, and "healthy-looking orchards."

Trans-Canada Highway hilltop view of Langley Prairie about 1940

The scene above is of Langley Prairie in the 1940’s, typical of the Fraser Valley countryside in the mid-20th century. A similar view could be obtained from the hill on Hall’s Prairie road, overlooking Clover Valley.

  Clicking the map image at right will open up a Google Map entitled “Pickard’s Hill.”

For a more complete list of settlers, see the previously published Map of Property Owners, 1880, which covers Surrey and parts of Langley and Delta.

  Pickard's Hill google map link

Clover Valley – The Shannon and Pickard families

John Pickard was elected to the first council of Surrey Municipality after its incorporation in 1880.  Thomas Shannon of Clover Valley was elected to the office of Warden (later called Reeve or Mayor).
In 1885 John Pickard moved from the uplands, claiming a homestead on the Nicomekl River, where he was a neighbor of the Shannon brothers.  Thomas Shannon, William Shannon and Joseph Shannon all owned property nearby, having moved down from earlier homesteads at Chilliwack.

In 1885 John Pickard married sixteen year-old Louisa Shannon, daughter of Thomas Shannon. By 1888 when he had proved up his homestead, John and Louisa Pickard had two children.

The coming of the railway

The years 1889 through 1891 brought great change to the peaceful Clover Valley with the construction of the New Westminster Southern Railway. The line of the railroad ran along the east boundary of Pickard’s place.

1891 06 10 Surrey Mills - Nicomekl Post Office mapDuring 1890 a construction camp was established on the neighboring property.  When the railway camp moved on,  the “Surrey Mills”  sawmill was located here by the Morton Brothers, across the road from Pickard’s place on the north bank of the Nicomekl.   A Post Office was proposed for this site  in June 1891.  Angus Morton was the first postmaster of Nicomekl Post Office, from January 1st, 1892.

A mile to the north, the  Shannon brothers and other property owners laid out a townsite in an effort to attract a railway station and property development. This was the beginning of Cloverdale.

The Investigation into the Disappearance of John Wesley Pickard

Ferry Surrey nearing landing at New WestminsterIt had been a cold and snowy December so far when John Pickard landed from the Surrey at New Westminster on the 10th.

It was known he would spend some days in the city taking care of business.

However, when Pickard failed to arrive home, the consternation of friends and the distress of his wife Louisa and three small children waiting at Clover Valley for his return was intense.

There were suggestions John Picard could have met with an accident, fallen overboard from the ferry, or slipped off the dock.

Walking the wharves or travelling by boat was always hazardous, with frequent reports of people slipping into the river. Some were rescued and some perished. Within weeks of John Pickard’s disappearance, Sid Roache had fallen off the ferry Surrey and suffered only a "cold bath," while Rufus Brown, fireman on the steamboat William Irving, fell overboard near Mission and "was drowned before assistance could be rendered." Only the year before, the famous sea Captain James L Dunn, Master of the clipper ship Titania, fell to his death from a dock on Front Street, New Westminster.

Notwithstanding the risks of travel, John Pickard’s family, friends and the police all believed he had "met with foul play."

At the end of December 1891 John Pickard’s brother Thomas Pickard was at New Westminster making inquiries and trying to stir up  the authorities to look into his disappearance.
The incident was investigated by Governor Moresby, and if there was anything to turn up,  William Moresby was the man to do it.
Piecing together the movements of John Pickard, from the time of his arrival at New Westminster, the key element appeared to be that Pickard was carrying a large amount of cash, 400 dollars or more—one report said $500—proceeds from a sale of property. 
Moresby determined that Pickard had left a Front Street hotel and been safely put aboard the Surrey ferry by a man named Marshall, just before the 6:30 P.M. sailing, and that was the last time Pickard was seen.

The first week of February, with still no word of Pickard’s whereabouts, and hope of finding him alive all but vanished, Governor Moresby and a crew spent two nights "secretly" scouring the river in a vain search for Pickard’s body.

In the meantime, hope at home had subsided into resignation. At the February meeting of Loyal Orange Lodge #1471, Surrey, a resolution was passed to request aid from the councils of Surrey and New Westminster to search for Pickard’s body. 

"That the Worshipful Master of this Lodge communicate with the Councils of New Westminster and Surrey, and request those bodes to bring before the Government the necessity for effectively dragging the river in an endeavor to recover the body of Bro. John Pickard."


HT Thrift wrote to the councils, which both responded that Mr Moresby had already dragged the river for three days without result.
Whether the mystery of this disappearance on the Fraser River ferry has ever been solved, we don’t know.
Records show that in the coming years, Pickard’s widow Louisa remarried to English immigrant James Brown, former butcher with Reichenbach’s in New Westminster, and rancher at Clover Valley. The family later moved Stateside.

Mrs Mary J Pickard, wife of Thomas Pickard,  was Postmaster of Nicomekl Post Office from 1901 until 1908, resigning after the death of her husband in October that year.

John Pickard’s son Elisha Pickard was proprietor of the Cloverdale Hotel at the turn of the century, before moving to the United States, as did many of the extended Pickard family.

Pickard’s farm at Nicomekl was leased by Major Robert Montague Hornby, the noted horseman and agriculturalist.


One of the names written on the Tax Roll is "John Wellington Pickard," and since reading the Pickard family history and seeing the correct names, we went back to the source and found it was written just so, apparently an error. There is also a "J W Pickard." It is likely both John W Pickard and Thomas W Pickard owned land there. The census of 1881 records that Ann Pickard was then living in the district with daughter Mary Ann Pickard and a third son, Elisha Pickard.

No comments yet


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s