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Benoist & Son – Pioneer Boat Builders of the Fraser

July 10, 2015

The earliest boat builder of the Fraser River whose address was Brownsville was the firm of Benoist & Son. This partnership made rowing boats of various dimensions and small powered craft.  The firm’s main works was located further upriver, opposite the west end of Barnston Island.  (Click to open Google Map for location.)

Benoist property on Fraser River

This leading firm was comprised of A.A. Benoist and his son A.S. Benoist. Their names vary according to the source and the surname was sometimes written as Benois and Benoit. However, we take the senior to be Alexander A. Benoist and the junior Alfred S. Benoist.

A.A. Benoist was born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1824. His father was born in Germany and his mother in the USA. He first came to British Columbia in the 1880’s and was engaged as a bridge-builder for the Canadian Pacific Railway. His wife was deceased. Son A.S. Benoist was born in Ontario in 1863. The two resided together in BC and remained single until death. From about 1888 onward they were engaged in boat-building and fishing.

1891 Brownsville directory showing Benoist boatbuildersThe pair first come to notice at Brownsville in the city directory for 1891. There were few names listed at Brownsville and only a few boatbuilders on the Lower Mainland.

What portion of their business was conducted at Brownville is not known, but it is apparent they purchased a small property on the south bank of the Fraser River, a few miles upstream at the entrance to Parsons Channel, and there located the boat works.

 

“Messrs Benoit & Son boat builders have completed their manufactory which has a capacity of 62×26 feet, at their ranch at Gille’s Land on south shore of the Fraser River where they are fully equipped for building skiffs, fish boats, etc.”

Central Creek near Fraser River - Surrey BendThe property, in the southeast quarter of Section 18 and the southwest quarter of Section 17, Township 9 ECM, was at an ancient village site at a slough, the mouth of what is now called Central Creek or Centre Creek at Surrey Bend.  (The first nations site is not named in the Sto:lo Atlas.)  The Benoist property straddled what would be the north end of 176 Street, if the road extended that far.

No doubt there were advantages to locating on a tidal creek — the Brunette River was also home to boat builders and shipyards — and a ready source of timbers stretched along the shore.

We have come across no other reference to “Gille’s Land.” There were two settlers at the Bend of the name of Gillis, and it is possible this was “Gillis’ Landing.”

In later directories the name Benoist appears in both Tynehead and Port Kells, as nearby settlements came to be known.

The large peat bog that lay back of the river at the bend was first known as the Tynehead Bog.

(See map of Lower Mainland bogs included in post about the South Port Mann Bog.)

Natural conditions at Surrey Bend are nearly identical to those existing at Brownsville prior to settlement, and a visit there is like a trip back in time. It takes as much imagination to envision the aboriginal canoe makers who worked here as it does a scarcely more modern factory capable of turning out a powered launch large enough to accommodate 20 persons.  Nowadays nature has largely reclaimed the area, with the exception of a drainage ditch and a sewer line passing through.

Benoist & Son’s first major contract was for the Brunette Saw Mill Company.

“A A Benois & Son, the Fraser River boat builders, who have a factory above the Hatcheries, have supplied the Brunette Saw Mills Company with three fine general purpose boats, 18 foot keel, and are about to commence the framework of a large launch which will have a twelve-horsepower engine and comfortable seating capacity for twenty passengers. When finished the launch will be a great accommodation for short excursions and for picnic parties, and will fill a long-felt want in the city.”

A more modest consignment was a recreational vessel for WH Boycott, employed as a “type writer,” or stenographer at a lumber mill.

“Bennoit & Sons, the boat builders of the Fraser, yesterday delivered a neat little rowing craft which they have just finished for Mr Boycotte, of the office staff of the B. C. M. & T. Company.”

This signalled the beginning of an era when the city folk of New Westminster took to the water for pursuits other than earning a living.

Ten years later the Benoists were still living on their Fraser River ranch. Alfred, the younger, 38, was employed on the north side of the river, working under Thomas Binnie at the Dominion Government stone quarry on the Pitt River.

Arriving home after a trip to town on November 15, 1901, Alfred discovered his father, now 76 years of age, was not in the house. The hearth had grown cold and two pots on the stove had boiled dry.

“Supposing from the presence of his father’s boots that he had not gone far, and missing the water pail, the son took a lantern and searched where it was customary to draw water from the creek. On the bank a slipper was found but the search had to be abandoned until daylight.”

In the morning Alf discovered the water pail on the bank, “and after searching the bottom of the creek with a pole, the body of the aged man was found.”

After burying his father, Alfred Benoist remained on the ranch. In later years he was better known as a fisherman and builder of fish boats. Benoist fished up the coast and in season returned to the Fraser. In 1910, in a discussion of prospects for the run of sockeye, Al Benoist was quoted as saying he “blames the traps” near Point Roberts for taking too many fish, wasting the catch, and decimating Fraser River salmon stocks.

In 1916 Benoist’s property consisting of one 12 acre parcel and one of 10.5 acres was forfeited for unpaid taxes. The following year Alfred Benoist bought back the 10.5 acres from the municipality.

1917 10 06 AS Benoist tax sale - Surrey Council minutes

When he got older, Benoist was admitted to Kensington House on Johnston Road, where he passed away in 1945 at the age of 82.

Alfred S. Benoist, the pioneer boatbuilder of the Fraser River, was interred at Surrey Centre cemetery.

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