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New Westminster a Salt-Water Port? — Another Engineering Marvel from Captain George H Cooper

In November 1890 Captain George H Cooper approached New Westminster City Council with plan “to make this port an open water harbor.” In the 19th century and into the 20th, the Fraser River was often frozen over between the city and Brownsville, cutting off trade and travel. Granted permission to speak,

Lulu Island Bridge - New Westminster BC

“Captain Cooper then came forward and by means of a diagram of the Fraser and Lulu Island explained his plans.
He suggested construction of flood gates on the new Lulu Island bridge so that at high tide the salt water would stay in the river opposite this city instead of flowing back again.”
Cooper also believed the salinity of Fraser at New Westminster would increase over time.
“The salt water from the gulf, flowing in up the North Arm, will be allowed easy ingress to the harbor through the valve gates; the harbor must then fill with the warm, briny water, and when the tide begins to ebb it will be prevented from going back by way of the North Arm and will be detained in the harbor, slowly escaping, if at all, by way of the South Arm.
In two of three tides the harbor will be made thoroughly salt, and the possibility of ice forming when the water is well impregnated is nil.”
view of Lulu Island bridge downstream sideThe escape of salt water down the South Arm — the main channel for shipping — would assist in preserving an ice-free corridor to the city from the Gulf of Georgia.
The floodgates would be built at the site of the new bridge between New Westminster and the up-stream end of Lulu Island, operating automatically by the pressure of the in-coming tide and river flow.
Sills on the river bed would be set low and not impede river traffic.
Captain Cooper was renowned for his engineering skill and his ability to challenge convention with imaginative and practical solutions.
His plans were received by Council with appreciation and courtesy: “The plans seem to be an ingenious work and reflect much upon Capt. Cooper.”
“The Mayor thought that this was a matter that must be given serious consideration. It could not be lightly dismissed as it was a subject of great import to the city.”
At the time Captain Cooper’s plan was brought forward, the new steamer to replace the ageing “K de K” ferry was being constructed with iron-clad double hulls, to serve as an ice-breaker. River transportation was critical to New Westminster and district.
The influence of the salt water at high-tide was so minimal and with the effect disappearing with the ebbing tide, that the Fraser River did freeze over periodically.
Anything that increased the competitiveness of New Westminster was a welcome suggestion. One alderman enthused
“The scheme is gigantic, and, if practicable, would revolutionize shipping on the Fraser altogether by knocking down the imaginary barriers regarding it, and showing to the world that Westminster’s harbor is even a safer port to enter than that of either Victoria or Vancouver.”
It was always the ambition of New Westminster to be a “sea-port town.”  At its inception, that meant a customs port, the destination of ships from distant lands, the main entrepot to the Colony of British Columbia and its center of trade. But Victoria would not relinquish its status, and soon Burrard Inlet inspired another rival city. Both salt-water ports, Victoria and Vancouver had a decided advantage.
Many thousands of years ago, the ocean waves did wash upon the highland where New Westminster was built. Cooper’s plan, had it been carried out, would have brought the sea to the shores of the Royal City once again.
The Science of a Salt-Water Incursion
Did it Cooper’s scheme have a chance and was it based on sound scientific reasoning?
Evidently, the Fraser River between New Westminster and Brownsville contains a measure of ocean water at high tide. The effect is called a “salt water incursion,” or “salinity intrusion.” With the incoming tide, sea water presses inward, wedge-like, in a layer beneath the fresh water of the river.
According to D.O. Hodgins in “Salinity Intrusion in the Fraser River, British Columbia, ”  the penetration of salty water extends as far as 36 km upriver, past Herring’s Point.
Hodgins noted that salt water fish species and crabs occasionally can be found here.
He also remarks that the deepening of the channel at the Sandheads would increase the presence of salt water opposite New Westminster, and over many tidal cycles the effect would be enhanced.
In these times, the Fraser River between New Westminster and Brownsville remains ice-free. However, there were many years after Cooper first put forward his plan, when the Fraser did freeze up, cutting off the city of New Westminster for many days or weeks at a time.
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