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Desperate Deeds and Heroic Exploits-December 1879

January 25, 2015

The winter of 1879-1880 was perhaps the most extreme on record and remarkable for a series of dramatic events in British Columbia,  natural and man-made.

In December 1879 the Dominion government had on its payroll two Class 1 meteorologists in British Columbia, WH Bevis at Esquimalt, and Captain A Peele at New Westminster. The only Class 2 observer was G Hamilton at Stuart’s Lake. However, a network of Class 3 observers was scattered about the province. Among these were James Mackie at Langley, John Maclure at Matsqui, and John McCutcheon at Chilliwack. At Kamloops local government agent and constable John Ussher recorded the weather, tracking the bright starry nights of winter.

Murder and  music –  McLean gang on a rampage

In the first week of December John Ussher was called away from his tables to deal with the  more pressing matter of forming a posse to chase down some horse thieves who were marauding about the countryside, raising havoc with the ranchers.

1879 12 10 McLean gang reward posterOn December 8, 1879, Ussher,  blithely attempting an arrest armed only with the authority of the Crown,  was killed by the McLean brothers and Alex Hare.

Later in the day the outlaws came up to the cabin of rancher Thomas John Trapp.

An Englishman in the country just six years, TJ Trapp had demonstrated he had the grit to make it in the harsh back-country conditions of mining and packing. Trapp had also shown compassion to Metis and Indians facing starvation in winters past, sharing his stores and making a long trek to bring back fresh supplies.

Perhaps seeking a less arduous occupation, in 1875 Trapp drove a heard of sheep up the Yale Road from Brown’s landing to establish a ranch southeast of Kamloops. 

Huddled in  trusting procession, most of  Trapp’s flock was killed when a bridge at Sumas collapsed beneath them.

Trapp now faced a formidable challenge. A more desperate group of men barging into the cabin of a rancher could not be imagined.  Brandishing knives and pistols, they were looking for guns and ammunition, had already killed and were looking to start a war.

It would not have taken much to murder Trapp and his reputation is probably what saved him. Trapp advised them to head for the border, but the McLeans believed their fate was sealed and would have to fight it out. 

Remarkably, in leaving with Trapp’s firearms, the McLeans also carried off a "musical instrument."

The Lower Fraser: Stopped Up and Choked Off

Down at Brownsville it was a month of extreme fluctuations in temperature, with chilling winds from the northeast chased away by warm breezes blowing in off the gulf. Cold clear skies became overcast and snow fell.

Ice was closing off the Fraser river when the steamer Reliance ran up to Yale on the 15th of December.

A steady rain was falling at Brownsville and the Fraser River rose two feet.

On the 18th the balmy weather was banished by a cold wind that funelled through the Fraser Canyon and spilled out onto Matsqui prairie resulting in a drastic drop in temperature.

Coming down from Yale the steamers Reliance and Royal City were prevented by ice from proceeding further than Farr’s Landing, near Agassiz,where they tied up to await breakup. There they would remain, frozen in, for the next three months.

In a reprise of the trek of ‘58, passengers and crew left the vessels and took the only alternative, setting off on the long walk down the valley to Brown’s Landing. Among them were steamboat engineer Christopher Lee, and the Express carrier.

New Westminster temperatures dropped below freezing for several days and ice floes choked the Fraser.

At Brownsville three Chinese men were among those over-wintering in shacks. Having stopped up all cracks in the walls to keep out the cold wind, one of the three stole some charcoal from English’s cannery in an further effort to heat their cabin. The men fell asleep and in the morning they were dragged out of the cabin, foaming at the mouth and bleeding from the nose. Two survived; one man was dead.

In peril on the ice  – Heroic rescue by Annie Johnson

Brownsville Dairy -  Robert Johnson - 1910On Sunday, December 21, 1879 Brownsville dairyman Robert Johnson set out with a companion to row across the Fraser River with cans of milk for delivery at New Westminster. (An alternate version says Johnson was headed home.)  The temperature was around 10 F and ice floes were choking off a clear route to the city.

On this day his timing was poor: the tide had turned, and thick,  jagged sheets of ice began to slowly float upstream, on a collision course with the weight of the floes pressing downriver.

Not far from shore Johnson’s boat was pinched and crushed by the ice and as their craft sank, the two men made a desperate leap onto the ice. Their shouts attracted the attention of men onshore, but only a couple dared to venture a rescue. Their boat met a similar fate, and now two more were left clinging to the floating ice. None others would attempt to save them and the situation was critical.

Mrs Annie Johnson, summoned to the river bank by the commotion, wasted no time in taking action. With the help of a young lad she  launched a third boat and made toward the stranded men, even as they warned her to stay back.

As the story was related to HT Thrift, Robert tossed his wallet to his wife, fearing his imminent demise. Not to be deterred, Annie succeeded in getting the men safely ashore.

A newspaper headline above the story of her exploits read "Heroic Conduct."

This story made a profound impression on pioneer HT Thrift, evidently in awe of this woman who rescued her husband. Thrift  had only learned of it second-hand, yet included it in his Reminiscences.

We did not relate the  event on this blog before—when we wrote about the Brownsville Dairy and Hotel run by the Johnsons—because we could not verify the account.  Thrift told that it occurred a few months before he came to the district, and as that was in 1882, we did not look as far back as 1879,  and in other research missed the story.

Annie Johnson was a daughter of William Holmes, who Pre-empted Lot 1 on the North Road at the Brunette River.   We have read that one of Annie’s sisters was married to a brother of  William Gillanders of Chilliwack, who perished on the ice at Brownsville in 1882.

Only weeks after his rescue from the icy Fraser, Robert Johnson was elected to the first Surrey Municipal council. Johnson died in 1882, his death blamed on over-exertion during the Fraser River flood earlier that year.


Adolphus Peele recorded a temperature of 9 degrees F December 22, 1879. It was said to be coldest December to date. The grinding ice floes stabilized and Fraser River froze over between New Westminster and Brownsville.  The local newspapers reported this had never happened before in the month of December. (However the Engineers did record a prior occurrence on December 5, 1862.)

The McLean gang crosses over

On Christmas Day, 1879, shortly before noon, a party of men arrived at Brownsville. Word quickly spread through the city of New Westminster and a large crowd assembled on the opposite shore. It was the McLeans and Hare, being brought down from Kamloops in chains to face trial for murder.

Just hours after  their encounter with TJ Trapp, the gang had killed a second man, a sheep herder named Kelly. They later holed up in a cabin at Douglas Lake, were surrounded and gave themselves up.

In testifying  at their trial, TJ Trapp quoted Archie McLean as saying, "We can only die once."  However, from accounts of the harrowing journey they endured getting to New Westminster, Archie may more than once have changed his mind about that.

The prisoners were escorted down to Yale, from whence they embarked in canoes on Friday the 19th of December, just as weather took a turn for the worse.

Escorting the five prisoners were Special Constables Solomon Shuler,Frank Crotty and Joseph Burr, in charge.

Coming down the Fraser the party were hemmed in by ice and one of the canoes cut open. Already weakened from the cold, the shackled prisoners were forced to make their way on the ice, leaping across gaps of open water.

On Sunday they reached the steamers Royal City and Reliance, stranded at Farr’s and there stayed overnight.

In the morning, accompanied by a group of  passengers from the steamers, they crossed over the river to Camp Slough and made Chilliwack that evening, where they found accommodation at McKeever’s hotel.

On Tuesday, they advanced across frozen Sumas Lake, reaching York’s at Upper Sumas.

Wednesday’s journey brought them down to Innes’s at Langley, where they spent Christmas eve.

On Christmas Day they reached Brown’s Landing about 11 in the morning, where they mustered before once again  hazarding a crossing of the Fraser River.

The group now numbered about 40 in all, having been joined on the way down by a party that had been out repairing the telegraph lines.

About 3 in the afternoon the procession began making its way across the ice. The crowd of onlookers watched the shackled prisoners advance, some taking odds on their chances of making it.

The Mclean brothers and Alex Hare went on trial at New Westminster.

TJ Trapp was called to appear as a witness and came down from Kamloops to testify.

It was Trapp’s final winter as a rancher. Returning home, he found much of his stock had not survived the winter.

Trapp moved for good down to the lower mainland, where he went into business as a general merchant.

Thomas John TrappTJ Trapp played a leading role in the advancement of the city of New Westminster and lower Fraser Valley. When the New Westminster Board of Trade was incorporated in 1883, Ebenezer Brown was President and TJ Trapp, Secretary. Trapp was also Secretary of the New Westminster Southern Railway and had an interest in the development of the Liverpool townsite in 1891.

Trapp later built on Columbia Street one of the city’s landmark buildings.

Below, all things shiny and a star made of scissors – a TJ Trapp & Co Hardware Christmas window display, 1910.

TJ Trapp Christmas window display - 1910

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